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On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a middle-aged Black man, died in police custody on a Minneapolis street corner. Almost immediately, a bystander’s video began to circulate online, showing a middle-aged white man, Officer Derek Chauvin, holding his knee on Floyd’s neck as he gasped for breath. Outrage over the video, which appeared to show a police officer murdering a helpless Black man, quickly ignited what was probably the largest outpouring of mass protest in American history. Thousands of white and Black citizens from coast to coast took to the streets, often under the banner of the decentralized social movement Black Lives Matter (BLM), founded in 2013, that is dedicated to protesting all forms of violence against Black people.
At the same time, outraged citizens demanded a broader “reckoning,” demanding that sports teams abolish racist mascots and that cities remove statues memorializing famous American slaveholders and their defenders, from presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee.
Deva Woodly’s timely new study takes its title from that fraught moment: and it implicitly raises the question of whether the protests of 2020 in fact represented a “racial reckoning” for the future of American politics—or instead a passing moment of racial affirmation.
Her book contains three main parts: a first section laying out what she sees as the philosophical underpinnings of the movement; a second on what she sees as the organizational template of the movement; and a third on the movement’s complex encounters with institutional politics. Professor Woodly gives the most attention to the first facet, somewhat less to the second, and even less to the third—which I would argue is the most important part of the story.
Let me begin by also noting what Woodly’s book isn’t. It isn’t a history of the Black Lives Matter movement; apart from a few revealing interviews with major figures in the movement, it doesn’t tell us much about its contours or relate it to the vast cycle of contentious American politics that began with the Tea Party movement on the Right and the Occupy movement on the Left—not to mention the “Resistance” against Donald Trump. (I did not even find the term “The Resistance” anywhere in the book.) None of these things are part of Woodly’s aim.
What she does do is explore three partially related topics.
Woodly starts by laying out at some length what she sees as the main philosophical and theoretical currents informing the movement she has studied, which she presents sympathetically as a promising fusion of pragmatism in the spirit of John Dewey; strategic nonviolence in the style of Martin Luther King Jr.; and uncompromising direct action such as advocated for by Malcolm X. I am no philosopher, but I was impressed by the range of ideas that Woodly covers in this part of her book. But I wondered just how widely diffused these philosophical currents are in the movement she wants to understand. I also wondered how these currents have productively combined.
In the second part of her study, Woodly offers a rapid tour d’horizon of what she sees as the organizational instinct (to call it a “model” would be too narrow) that lies behind the movement’s varied expressions. Like many contemporary progressive thinkers, she sees it as combining horizontalism, decentralization, and an emphasis on socialization through popular learning. But here again, it is not entirely clear whether she is proposing an organizational template that she personally favors, or simply describing what she finds in the movement. In this context, Woodly favorably contrasts the BLM template with the “charismatic” leadership patterns she finds in other, more conventional movement organizations. (Her argument here is reminiscent of the critique made by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early sixties of Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to the civil rights movement.)
But two things should be made clear: first, these days, it is only on the Right that “charismatic leadership” is considered a viable organizational model—as epitomized by the “Make America Great Again” movement organized around Donald J. Trump. But if one is talking about the American Left, a fairer comparison to the Black Lives Matter template is the competing demand for structured parties and coalitions that hold leaders accountable through internal representative democratic institutions. Such political organizations have all sorts of problems, but they certainly struggle to combine accountable leadership with mass participation.
Second, Woodly seems unaware of a vast literature on movement organization—starting with Robert Michels and his warnings about an “iron law of oligarchy.” Even more pertinent are the feminist warnings by Jo Freeman and others about the “tyranny of structurelessness.”
Decentralization was one of the curses of the New Left, inherited by the early women’s movement; horizontalism with its endless assemblies struck the death knell for the Occupy movement; and popular socialization can soon lead to boredom or resentment as the most articulate activists de facto come to control the movement’s direction.
The final part of Woodly’s book offers a brief account of the encounter of the Black Lives Matter movement with politics. Since this is the facet of the world of social movements to which I have given most of my attention in my recent study of Movements and Parties, I was disappointed at what seemed like a cursory examination of what I see as one of the most unusual and promising facets of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black Lives Matter was not born in the streets, even if it sometimes moved there following the police murder of Michael Brown in 2014, and again after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. But the movement, after these intense episodes of protest and direct action has not stayed in the streets—and this is probably its most important innovation as a social movement. In the words of movement scholars Sidney M. Milkis and Daniel J. Tichenor, Black Lives Matter has been a “formative movement”—as potent in fighting oppressive bail rules and defeating racist prosecutors as it is in demanding rights in public demonstrations.
Woodly is no believer of radical purism, and she surveys these institutional forays of the movement sympathetically. She also points to a factor that is often forgotten—that the shift of part of the white electorate to favor Black rights began before the explosive appearance of this movement in 2020 on America’s public stage.
But Woodly is, if anything, more optimistic about interracial comity than I think the facts on the ground allow. For every movement towards racial justice in American history, there has been an often violent and usually more powerful counter-movement. This is what occurred in the wake of Reconstruction, when a coalition of Democratic Party officials and white thugs in capes and hoods destroyed the rights that African Americans had won after the Civil War. It also occurred in the wake of the civil rights movement of the sixties, when a coalition of small government conservatives, anti-tax supporters of private academies, and outright racists came together in a New Right coalition to challenge and eventually insert itself in the Republican Party.
Woodly is well aware of the emergence of the New Right in the seventies and eighties, and of its capacity to resist what Obama called “the arc of history” but what she never asks is, “Where does that white counter-movement stand today?” I fear that her enthusiasm for the Black Lives Matter movement may have left her unrealistically optimistic about the prospects for racial justice. This is especially true since Donald J. Trump has added unabashed white supremacists to the anti-tax, small government coalition that he inherited.
The final factor that I missed in Woodly’s book is the prospect for a Black-Brown coalition. It was, after all, a coalition of racists, small government conservatives, anti-tax militants, and ethnic nationalists who brought Trump to power. So what kind of coalition must the Left forge in order to defeat Trumpism and whatever comes after it?
The current conservative campaign against the alleged teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools reveals both the intellectual dishonesty and the tactical shrewdness of the Right today. It shows how coalitional politics works on the Right: choose a controversial issue, amplify it, frame it so that it will attract nominally conservative voting groups (in this case, suburban white parents), and blame it on politicians who have nothing to do with it.
To its credit, the Left has seldom engaged in such coalition-building demagogy. But it is time for the newly-politicized Black intelligentsia to turn from racial affirmation to interracial coalition building. An exploration of how Black Lives Matter might respond by helping to lead a campaign for Black-Brown cooperation would have made a satisfying coda to this stimulating study.
Despite its lacunae, Professor Deva Woodly’s Reckoning is essential reading—and an important first step in the scholarly understanding of the most important Black-based social movement of the new century.
Click here to read an excerpt from Reckoning, courtesy of Deva Woodly and Oxford University Press.
Sidney Tarrow is the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement (Oxford, 2018), and the author, most recently, of Movements and Parties: Critical Connections in American Political Development.