LARB presents an excerpt from Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter, written by Tehama Lopez Bunyasi and Candis Watts Smith, out today from New York University Press.
On the Matter of Black Lives
LET’S IMAGINE a street lined with high-rise buildings. One of them is burning. What do you do? All of the buildings matter, but the one on fire matters most at that moment. The thing is, if you don’t put out the fire in the burning building, you risk all of the surrounding buildings burning down as well. This is the message of the Black Lives Matter movement: Black lives are under attack, and we all ought to galvanize a sense of urgency to address the direct, structural, and cultural violence that Black people face. It’s not only the right thing to do, but the fate of the entire neighborhood depends on it. We, as a society, cannot say we are all free and equal until those who are at the bottom of various domains of our society — political, economic, social — are also free and equal.
The Allure of the Almost There
The call for racial equality cannot be quelled because the concessions made in the post–Civil Rights era have not adequately addressed the compounding inequities of the past, nor have they inoculated our society from contemporary mechanisms that produce new inequities. There are vestiges of older racialized social systems that continue to keep people of color and poor whites at a profound disadvantage. The logic of vagrancy laws, alongside the erosion of the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable search and seizure), informs policing practices today; one can still be arrested and jailed for being out in public while not actively working or lacking the intent or ability to spend money. Depending on how someone appears, police may investigate the immigration status of a person already stopped, detained, or arrested if they suspect (for any reason) that individual is an undocumented immigrant (see Arizona v. United States ) or a gang member in the company of other gang members (through the use of gang injunctions). In both instances, the practices are deemed constitutional if the police use race as one but not the sole reason for suspicion (see United States v. Brignoni-Ponce ). As in the days of Reconstruction, those who are under the custody of the state as prisoners can still be forced to labor for private interests. (Remember the season of Orange Is the New Black in which Piper and several other prisoners made expensive panties for very little pay? That is a real thing.) The Supreme Court has served as an obstacle to the elimination of racial disparity and injustice in other ways. The court’s decision in Washington v. Davis (1976) established that, in order to succeed, plaintiffs bringing constitutional challenges to facially neutral government actions with disparate racial effects must prove that the challenged action is purposefully discriminatory. This requirement operates as a substantial burden on minority plaintiffs.
Though we often romanticize the Supreme Court, it is hardly a progressive institution. For instance, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973; 5–4 decision), the court held that the financing of public schools using local property taxes does not violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, in essence ruling that it is permissible to discriminate in education on the basis of wealth and poverty, even if the disparities between poor schools and wealthy schools more deeply entrench racial segregation. Milliken v. Bradley (1974; also a 5–4 decision) drew a constitutional line between intentional, explicit discrimination (de jure segregation) and the machinations of growing suburbs, school boundary making, city planning, and tax structures that facilitate white flight and the resegregation of schools (de facto segregation), embedding racial inequality even further by treating white-flight-enabling politics as somehow racially agnostic.
We see the overturning of signature Civil Rights–era legislation, thus providing new opportunities for inequity to flourish. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court struck down section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited certain districts with a history of racialized voter suppression (including many Southern states as well as counties in several states across the country) from changing their election laws without authorization from the attorney general or a three-judge panel in the US District Court for Washington, DC, verifying that they did not have the intent or outcome of negatively impacting the right to vote on the basis of race. The immediate implication of this decision is that voter-suppression tactics, such as voter ID laws and reducing early voting periods, proliferated across many of the previously covered states. Structural racism is a central focus of this book, but we would be remiss to ignore that in addition to the crisis of excessive force employed by police on Black people and the accompanying trend that those who kill Black people are infrequently brought to justice.
Black people are far and away the most targeted group of single-bias hate crimes in the country. Though the trend of hate crimes against Black people has largely declined over the past two decades (save the period’s sharpest spike over a one-year time span that occurred during Donald Trump’s first year as president), the lives of Black folks are incredibly vulnerable to both state-initiated and citizen-induced violence.
In addition to grappling with remains of the past and working to hold on to the progress that activists have made through arduous struggle, there are new balls of wax, issues that did not emerge in the past because social and historical context did not produce the social-political question of constitutionality and social justice. For example, although people have had same-sex sex throughout human history, a social identity as gay, lesbian, or transgender did not emerge until rather recently. In the wake of the modern Civil Rights movement, the civil rights of gays, lesbians, and eventually transgender Americans gained their own but related platform. During the Obama administration, we witnessed important advancements in the civil rights of these groups, but many significant forms of legal discrimination still exist. People of color who also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or transgender thus face multiple axes of oppression. As a point of evidence, the average murder rate for all Americans between ages 15 and 34 is about one in 12,000, but for Black transgender women, it is one in 2,600.
There is also a political fight being made at the time of this writing over the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), of DREAMers (people who were born in other countries and brought to the United States as children by their undocumented parents), and of children who have been separated at the border from their parents by US Customs and Border Protection. To be sure, if we look at the intersection of anti-Black animus and current immigration policy, we find that Black undocumented immigrants make up a disproportionate number of those who are deported from the United States.
How far, then, are we from attaining what previous generations of Black freedom fighters aimed to accomplish? Just over a decade ago, in 2007, Barack Obama asserted that the civil rights generation “took us 90 percent of the way there,” as if the remaining 10 percent is “not a fundamental, woven-into-our-institutions racism requiring policy and institutional transformation but a remnant racism.” This kind of narrative is where the historian Jeanne Theoharis locates the allure of the almost-there.
Note on Being Labeled “Radical” and “Un-American”
Many people in the past who agitated mainstream society and challenged political institutions with the primary objective of fulfilling the rights of the US Constitution and achieving the necessary conditions for all people to have what they need to stay alive and make a living were called “radicals.” By calling them radicals, defenders of the status quo framed egalitarians as “out of place” and “out of line.” During the early to mid-20th century, for example, many whites claimed that the idea of racial equality was fundamentally un-American. By framing the redistribution of resources to the poor and marginalized as anticapitalist and conflating capitalism with patriotism, white supremacists argued that the integration of white and nonwhite bodies in public space and the integration of white and nonwhite tax dollars for public goods was a usurpation of the American way. This nefarious narrative ignored and disregarded two indisputable facets of our American heritage: a long tradition of antiracist resistance in our country and a rich, “homegrown” socialist and communist politics. (If you have ever enjoyed a two-day weekend or a 40-hour work week, you have socialist and communist activists to thank.) With this legacy in mind, egalitarians were radical, but only if we think of radicalism as “the imagination and will to think and act outside of the bounds of what is normally acceptable.”
Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) once attributed the following quote to George Bernard Shaw: “all criticism is an autobiography.” That is, how one judges others says a lot about who one thinks one is oneself. Like critique, the history we construct reflects a great deal about what we value or disapprove of in our past, and it reveals what it is that we are willing and unwilling to reckon with in the present day. Today, we commemorate the key leaders, strategists, and foot soldiers from the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights movement — people who were once stigmatized as dangerous and even criminal. We consecrate (and at times co-opt, yet again) nonviolent, civilly disobedient Black people in children’s books, public school curricula, Hollywood motion pictures, political speeches from both major parties, postage stamps, and a federal holiday. But we must keep in mind that what is omitted from state-authorized history books is a function of power.
The superficial way that Americans tend to celebrate Black freedom fighters from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks does a disservice to us all because it distorts and dilutes the grander vision that these people had in mind — a society where Black people have the authority to protect their lives and where Black lives, and thereby all lives, matter. The congratulatory stories we tell ourselves treat the existence of the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movement as an emblem of the American people’s freedom-fighting spirit rather than as an emblem of the deeply ingrained racism that these folks sought freedom from. The stories we tell ourselves are ones that highlight the reluctant concessions of US lawmakers, rather than the remaining structural barriers against which radical activists fought. The stories we tell ourselves make us feel that we are making progress. In other words, we focus on measuring how far the arc of the moral universe has bent but not how long the arc is or how tight the grip of historical inequity. This is a history of vanity. For a better today and even better tomorrow, we must be vigilant of overcongratulations. Don’t let your love of country lull you into complacence. Staying woke — calling out injustice, advocating for the vulnerable, and working against the forces of anti-Black racism — is patriotic.
Candis Watts Smith is associate professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University. She received her PhD from Duke University. Her Twitter handle is @ProfCandis.