Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, African American scholar, socialist and academic - she is assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University - offers a profoundly incisive and extensively researched study of US politics American racism and Black resistance in recent decades in her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.
Taylor's viewpoint is grounded in both socialist and anti-racist theory - and her analysis looks at both economic and cultural forces. Taylor's focus here is on the era from the civil rights movement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the similarities and differences between the two movements, and ultimately on "the potential for a much broader anticapitalist movement that looks to transform not only the police but the entire United States." However, she begins her analysis with an examination of America's history as a racist state, from the earliest foundation of a slave-based economy to the exclusion of Black Americans from the benefits of the New Deal. In particular, Taylor points to the effects that the cultural myth of "American exceptionalism" has had, particularly in the Cold War period, in suppressing any consideration of institutional and systemic injustice in American society, and the subsequent evolution of the idea of the "culture of poverty" as the reason for the existence of economic and social inequity in the supposedly freest and most economically mobile country in the world.
"The government and its proponents in the financial world were making a global claim that the United States was good to its Black population, and at the same time they were promoting capitalism and private enterprise as the highest expressions of freedom. American boosters sustained the fiction of the “culture of poverty” as the pretext for the persisting inequality between Blacks and the rest of the country. In some ways, this was even more important as the United States continued its quest to project itself as an economic and political empire. Cold War liberalism was a political framework that viewed American racial problems as existing outside of or unrelated to its political economy and, more importantly, as problems that could be fixed within the system itself by changing the laws and creating 'equal opportunity.' "
Taylor notes the beginnings of a wider understanding of racial inequity as a systemic issue - and one with material as well as cultural elements -during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, the extension of the welfare state under Johnson, and most significantly, in the multiple Black Liberation movements, and particularly The Black Panthers - that followed in the latter half of the 1960s.
"Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans drew even more radical conclusions about the nature of Black oppression in the United States as they were drawn directly into the radicalizing movement; hundreds of thousands more sympathized with the rebellions. The struggle broke through the isolation and confinement of life in segregated Black ghettos and upended the prevailing explanation that Blacks were responsible for the conditions in their neighborhoods. Mass struggle led to a political understanding of poverty in Black communities across the country. Black media captured stories of injustice as well as the various struggles to organize against it, feeding this process and knitting together a common Black view of Black oppression while simultaneously providing an alternative understanding for white people. A Harris poll taken in the summer of 1967, after major riots in Detroit and Newark, found 40 percent of whites believed that “the way Negroes have been treated in the slums and ghettos of big cities” and “the failure of white society to keep its promises to Negroes” were the leading causes of the rebellion. Many, including Martin Luther King Jr., began to connect Black oppression to a broader critique of capitalism."
Unfortunately, as Taylor demonstrates, this early materialist critique of the philosophies and methods of institutionalised racism faded in the 1970s as more conservative, 'personal responsibility' narratives take the central place in the debate on both racism and poverty, and the doctrine of 'colourblindness' emerged as a means of appearing non-racist while continuing to engage in administrative and economic practices that were inherently unjust to people of colour.
"Nixon’s turn to focusing on crime fit snugly with his broader use of colorblindness to champion his domestic policies. There was no need to invoke race in this campaign for law and order, but the consequences of the policies could not have been clearer. Crime was committed by bad people who made bad choices—it was not the product of an unequal social order that left Blacks and Puerto Ricans, in particular, isolated in urban enclaves with little access to good jobs, housing, or schools in a worsening economy. Instead, inequality left poor and working-class people of color to their own devices to advance in a society that had made next to no provisions for them to do so through legal or normative means. These kinds of constrained “choices” were made in white enclaves as well, but those were less surveilled and less likely to be criminalized by the police and the criminal justice system as a whole."
As the political climate in America became increasingly conservative in the years following Nixon - even among Democrats, but alarmingly so among Republicans - the twin narratives of colourblindness and the 'culture of poverty' became fixed as the foundations of public policy. Even among the middle class Blacks who increasingly gained access to positions of political and economic power, these narratives went unchallenged, while social and economic conditions worsened for poor blacks (and other people of colour). By the time that conditions were ripe for the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as Taylor notes in comparing the situation in 2014 immediately prior to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson to that preceding the emergence if the civil rights movement, "The main difference is that today, when poor or working-class Black people experience hardship, that hardship is likely being overseen by an African American in some position of authority. The development of the Black political establishment has not been a benign process. Many of these officials use their perches to articulate the worst stereotypes of Blacks in order to shift blame away from their own incompetence."
Taylor sees the betrayal of black communities by black politicians and elites as the inevitable outgrowth of a switch from grassroots resistance and critique of the political and economic power structure structures to a strategy based on electoral politics - one which, due to the nature of the political process in America left black politicians financially beholden to corporate money and conservative voting bloc brokers.
After examining political viewpoints surrounding the oppression of Black Americans, Taylor turns to an examination of racism and violence toward Blacks in criminal justice institutions.
At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans began their long transition from living largely in rural areas to living predominantly in urban ones. In that time, there have been many changes in Black life, politics, and culture, but the threat and reality of police surveillance, scrutiny, violence, and even murder has remained remarkably consistent. The daily harm caused by the mere presence of police in Black communities has been a consistent feature of Black urban history and, increasingly, Black suburban history. Police brutality has been a consistent badge of inferiority and second-class citizenship. When the police enforce the law inconsistently and become the agents of lawlessness and disorder, it serves as a tangible reminder of the incompleteness of formal equality. You cannot truly be free when the police are able to set upon you at will, for no particular reason at all. It is a constant reminder of the space between freedom and “unfreedom,” where the contested citizenship of African Americans is held."
She opens with a discussion of laws restricting black movement, employment and home rental/ownership after the Civil War, laws whose violation was punished by enforced labour on municipal projects - thus beginning the carceral-based slavery system that has replaced the plantation-based slavery system.
"The desperate need for labor seemed insatiable; it turned all Black people into potential suspects and justified surveillance and scrutiny. Convict leasing was lucrative for employers compared to slavery, since it involved lower overhead expenses. As one observer put it, “Before the war we owned the Negroes. If a man had a good nigger, he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” The police were the linchpin to this new arrangement."
Having set the scene, as it were, by delineating the history of the conditions - institutional racism and its consequences for the average black person, police brutality, the narrative of a 'culture of poverty' and the co-opting of the black elite - which could, given the necessary spark, bring about a new Black liberation movement, Taylor takes a close look at the Obama regime and its influence on perceptions of racism. She recalls the initial optimism of blacks and progressive whites at the election of a black man to the office of President:
"The excitement about Obama turned into postelection euphoria. That was certainly the feeling in Chicago on election night, when a cross-section of the city converged in Grant Park to hear the country’s first Black president-elect address the nation. It was a rare, almost strange scene to see a multiracial crowd gathered in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the United States. That was the power of Obama’s calls for hope and change. On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, 69 percent of Black respondents told CNN pollsters that Martin Luther King’s vision had been 'fulfilled.' In early 2011, asked whether they expected their children’s standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of Blacks chose “better,” compared with only 36 percent of whites. This was not just blind hope: it was the expectation that things would, in fact, be better. One researcher described the broader context: 'Certainly, the Obama presidency has fueled euphoria in black circles. But even before Obama came on the scene, optimism was building—most notably among a new generation of black achievers who refused to believe they would be stymied by the bigotry that bedeviled their parents. Obama’s election was, in effect, the final revelation—the long awaited sign that a new American age had arrived.' "Now we have a sense of future,' said Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson. 'All of a sudden you have a stake. That stake is extremely important. If you have a stake, now there’s risk—you realize the consequences of compromising an unknowable future.' Almost 75 percent of African Americans in the South said that Obama would help America rid itself of racial prejudice. Forbes ran an enthusiastic editorial opinion in December 2008 titled 'Racism in America Is Over.' "
Disillusionment with Obama's reticence on racial issues and acceptance of the 'culture of poverty narrative among Blacks helped to build a loose coalition between social justice activists and the economic justice activists of the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement.
"...Black Occupy activists organized “Occupy the Hood,” whose goal was to raise the profile of the Occupy movement in communities of color across the country and widen the range of people involved. Some “Occupy the Hood” organizers had also been involved in organizing against “stop-and-frisk.” Thus, not only did Occupy popularize economic and class inequality in the United States by demonstrating against corporate greed, fraud, and corruption throughout the finance industry, it also helped to make connections between those issues and racism. The public discussion over economic inequality rendered incoherent both Democratic and Republican politicians’ insistence on locating Black poverty in Black culture. While it obviously did not bury the arguments for culture and “personal responsibility,” Occupy helped to create the space for alternative explanations within mainstream politics, including seeing Black poverty and inequality as products of the system. The vicious attack and crackdown on the unarmed and peaceful Occupy encampments over the winter and into 2012 also provided a lesson about policing in the United States: the police were servants of the political establishment and the ruling elite. Not only were they racist, they were also shock troops for the status quo and bodyguards for the 1 percent."
Taylor pinpoints the killing of Trayvon Martin as the turning point that led to the coalescence of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Despite protests, demonstrations and attempts by Black and anti-racist activists to challenge the narrative, Martin was characterised as a dangerous criminal and his killer, George Zimmerman, as a victim.
"Out of despair over the verdict, community organizer Alicia Garza posted a simple hashtag on Facebook: “#blacklivesmatter.” It was a powerful rejoinder that spoke directly to the dehumanization and criminalization that made Martin seem suspicious in the first place and allowed the police to make no effort to find out to whom this boy belonged. It was a response to the oppression, inequality, and discrimination that devalue Black life every day. It was everything, in three simple words. Garza would go on, with fellow activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, to transform the slogan into an organization with the same name: #BlackLivesMatter. In a widely read essay on the meaning of the slogan and the hopes for their new organization, Garza described #BlackLivesMatter as 'an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.' "
While the death of Martin ad the acquittal of his killer marked the beginning of the BlackLivesMatter movement, Taylor identifies the crucial moment when that ignited mass resistance in the killing of Michael Brown:
"For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson—but also for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States. Perhaps it was the inhumanity of the police leaving Brown’s body to fester in the hot summer sun for four and a half hours after killing him, keeping his parents away at gunpoint and with dogs. “We was treated like we wasn’t parents, you know?” Mike Brown Sr., said. “That’s what I didn’t understand. They sicced dogs on us. They wouldn’t let us identify his body. They pulled guns on us.” Maybe it was the military hardware the police brandished when protests against Brown’s death arose. With tanks and machine guns and a never-ending supply of tear gas, rubber bullets, and swinging batons, the Ferguson police department declared war on Black residents and anyone who stood in solidarity with them."
As she recounts the growing response to the deaths of Brown and other black boys and men at the hands of police across the country, Taylor draws clear distinctions between the positions of the black 'older statesmen' such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who sought to defuse tensions and re-establish the legitimacy of the government in dealing with police violence and racism, and the younger generations of activists who sought immediate and direct action.
"The young people of Ferguson had great reverence and respect for the memory of the civil rights movement, but the reality is that its legacy meant little in their everyday lives. “I feel in my heart that they failed us,” Dontey Carter said of contemporary civil rights leaders. “They’re the reason things are like this now. They don’t represent us. That’s why we’re here for a new movement. And we have some warriors out here.” When Jesse Jackson Sr. arrived in Ferguson, he was confronted by a local activist, who said, “When you going to stop selling us out, Jesse? We don’t want you here in St. Louis!” Other activists did not go that far, but they did note that young Black people had been thrust into leadership on the ground in Ferguson because they were the ones under attack."
Taylor notes other differences between the BLM movement and the more established Black civil rights organisations - the prominence of women and LGBT people, its decentralised structure and use of social media, the flexibility of its tactics, its work in coalition building with labour and other movements, and the development of a "systemic analysis of policing.... that situated policing within a matrix of racism and inequality in the United States and beyond."
In the book's final chapter, Taylor discusses the ways in which radicalisation on political and economic issues - an analysis that links capitalism to the material conditions that Black and other marginalised people are faced - with is a necessary part of the struggle for Black liberation. She reminds us of the socialist perspectives adopted by 60s activists such as the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panthers, and traces the roots of black radicalism in the United States from the early days of the Communist Party in that country. Beginning with the words of Karl Marx on the relation between colonial exploitation, slavery, and capitalism, she outlines a radical understanding of the relation between the capitalist system and the oppression of black people, leading to the conclusion that only a restructuring of society which embraces economic as well as social justice can bring about the goal of black liberation.
"Racism in the United States has never been just about abusing Black and Brown people just for the sake of doing so. It has always been a means by which the most powerful white men in the country have justified their rule, made their money, and kept the rest of us at bay. To that end, racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. Can there be Black liberation in the United States as the country is currently constituted? No. Capitalism is contingent on the absence of freedom and liberation for Black people and anyone else who does not directly benefit from its economic disorder. That, of course, does not mean there is nothing to do and no struggle worth waging. Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty, hunger, and all of the ways in which oppression and exploitation express themselves is critical to people’s basic survival in this society. But it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize, and build movements and organizations. It is also how our confidence develops to counter the insistence that this society, as it is currently constructed, is the best that we can hope to achieve. People engaged in struggle learn to fight for more by fighting for and winning something. But the day-to-day struggles in which many people are engaged today must be connected to a much larger vision of what a different world could look like."