Black Lives Matter art and signs during the 2020 Juneteenth Celebration on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. Image credit: Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress
First, my thanks to all the commenters for their engagement with my work. I wrote this book to help us understand what I see as the profound contributions this social movement has made to both the theorization of social change, and its actualization, through important tactical innovations.
One of the most important things that I hope the book offers is the transgression of dichotomies that do not serve to illuminate the work of social change as it actually takes place in the world. The Black Lives Matter movement is not a “new social movement” that focuses on cultural transformation while eschewing policy intervention, nor is it fashioned after “old style,” “traditional” social movements that attempt to move policy while deemphasizing the need for deep changes in public understandings of the problems facing polities and their solutions. This movement works in both cultural and policy spaces. The world as it is requires applying creative pressure at multiple sites, if the movement is to transform the existing structures of power and privilege in ways that lessen suffering and restrain domination. Dismantling of white supremacy, racial capitalism, and heteropatriarchy only underlines the necessity for diverse modes of creating political energy, both through the pressure of protest, and the persuasive power of concrete policy proposals.
Here is the thing, I am not a purist. I am not taking sides in the dividing lines that characterized social movements studies in the late twentieth century. All movements that are effective must work to change public meanings and transform sensibilities while they dream up and push forward policy that helps to persuade people that other worlds are politically possible.
This is what pragmatism means in its political manifestations. And this is what the Black Lives Matter movement has done and continues to do.
The ways that this feat has been accomplished is the subject of the book—one that is based on observation, interviews, and evidence collected over more than five years. What I advance is not only an account of what movement has done but also what it offers us for understanding politics and political possibility in the twenty-first century. Politics consists of not only protest and institutional encounters but also meaning-making and culture change. This should be a part of our basic understanding of social movements at this point.
Sidney Tarrow argues that the institutional encounters of the Movement for Black Lives are the most important part of what movement organizations do. Though I do provide the most comprehensive list of defeated racist prosecutors, reform or progressive ones that have replaced them, and bail actions that exists to date in an appendix that Professor Tarrow seems to have overlooked, I do not agree.
This difference of opinion regarding emphasis stems from a thought expressed here by Tarrow, but that I think is widely shared and therefore requires careful address: that is, that there are natural constituencies to be mobilized and we should simply set about that mobilization based on the self-evident interests that folks deemed to have similar positionality share.
In this specific instance, the notion is that a Black-brown political coalition is the obvious next step in racial justice organizing because white people are too recalcitrant and committed to the violence of a fictitious racial innocence to be reached. What is posited here is a fallacy that has long colonized the common sense of some on the Left.
So let me state something plainly: there is no way to achieve multiracial democracy without addressing white supremacy directly and dismantling the doxa that causes it to make sense. What is required to move forward is a surcease of focusing on blame or redemption arcs for white people individually or as a group and concentration on the eradication of whiteness as an unjust political category.
That must be done through a campaign of political and social education and collective meaning-making. There is simply no interest group politics workaround for this daunting task. We may wish that there were, because it allows those of us who are not philosophers to think about institutional strategies while eschewing the necessity of shifting public meanings; but that is simply not the case.
As the work of Joe Lowndes, Christina Beltran, Ian Haney Lopez, Heather McGee, and others have shown—demography is not destiny—Black-brown coalitions, while highly beneficial, like any successful coalitional politics do not simply fall into place because these groups share “objective” interests any more than working class people fall into unions because it would “objectively” serve their material interests to do so. That is not how politics works.
People do not have self-evident interests that they are compelled to respond to in politics. Let me say that again so that you hear me: people do not have self-evident interests that they are compelled to respond to in politics. Basing our notions of what ought to come next in struggles for racial, economic, and gender justice on that idea will inevitably lead to grief. What democratic education should do and what social movements must do is to help people connect the dots between the problems that they are experiencing in their own lives, their values, and possible and desirable solutions. This is a political process that takes place over time and is certainly still ongoing in this case, as Maneesh Arora points out in his helpful commentary.
As such, it must be said that the twentieth-century political coalitions that formed along racial lines are not the only possible formations but were historically contingent—indeed, we see new attempts at what Christina Beltran calls “multicultural whiteness” happening all the time. Trump and the Republican party upped their share of votes among Black and Hispanic men in 2020, in part, because what they organized around was a performance of unapologetically nativist hyper-masculinity. Call this the Proud Boys model—an offer of the pleasures of violent patriarchal authoritarianism to men of all colors, which a surprising number took up, despite analyst’s valuation of what their “objective” interests might be.
Here are the things that we know actually condition and compel people’s political responses: 1) cultural contexts in which certain definitions of problems and certain proffered solutions have come to be regarded as commonsense; 2) institutional arrangements that reinforce or contraindicate those common understandings; 3) barriers, prohibition, coercion, and retaliation; 4) and political ideologies and activities they are socialized and/or organized into (or out of). That’s it.
White supremacy’s reign as a dominant ideology has been so long and its impacts so vicious and broad, people have come to believe that it is made of something other than ideas and the institutions and systems that make them manifest. What will make its dismantling possible are the same things—new ideas and the power to transform institutions and systems so that new social, political, and economic arrangements can come into practice. Such changes are not small, are not easy, and, if successful would define a new epoch.
And that’s exactly the point. We are at the beginning of a new century, and we are as alive in the world, as clever and as flawed, as adept, fallible, and subject to the power of the institutions we have built as any generation that has come before.
We are therefore also as capable of creating a new baseline for what it means to live in society as were those in any epoch past. The ages of kings and church control and serfdom and chattel slavery also seemed interminable. They were not. Nor is the world modernity made. The question is only what comes next, and the answer is not assured—for better or worse.
Organizing, specifically organizing around principles and ideas that help people make sense of the world as it is in a way that speaks to their experience and helps them to imagine a future that they would like to inhabit, is the difference that makes a difference in politics.
I offer radical Black feminist pragmatism as a basis in ideas for the Third American Reconstruction that is the best alternative to the anti-democratic, white supremacist, authoritarian capture of the United States. And it is an offer to all comers. Part of what I’m arguing is that the political philosophy of the movement is based in Black feminist political thought, but it is not niche. It is a political philosophy around which a world could and in my view should be built. This is the reason I spend so much time talking about the margin-to-center politics of care. A topic that—curiously—none of the reviewers engage.
My book is not focused on institutional and other party politics because movement spaces during most of their existence have not been focused on those things. My analysis is not focused on those who wish to “burn it all down” because such perspectives don’t take up the bulk of movement space. What does take up the majority of movement time and space is the talking through of ideas about what constitutes freedom and how to make more Black people free and the simultaneous design and execution of tactics toward that goal. That gives rise to a variety of organizations and tactics that span the gamut from get out the vote operations to anarchic squatting/occupation campaigns that result in housing for Black mothers in unjustly unaffordable cities like Los Angeles to yes, burning the police precinct in Minnesota that employed the murderers of George Floyd and Philando Castile before him.
All these tactics can be necessary in their political time. The dismantling of white supremacy, racial capitalism, and patriarchy will require pressure from as many directions as possible. No one way is THE way. There are now and will always be debates about what the right tactics are, and different strategies will become predominant in different phases, as Christopher Paul Harris points out in his clarifying periodization of the movement thus far.
The fact that there will and must be change over time is why the flexible structure of movement is so important (and so pragmatic). The Black Lives Matter movement does not reproduce the organization-less decentralization of some “new social movements,” nor is it characterized by the consensus-bound horizonal decision-making bodies of Occupy. It instead has a rhizomic structure that has many organizational nodes, each autonomous, but all connected.
This doesn’t mean that the movement is a conflict-free space. As Harris notes, there is plenty of conflict. Large organizations have seen some of their chapters break with them. Some of the mothers of the dead have objected to the use of their children’s names in protests and organizational fundraising when they have seen little or no material benefit. These conflicts are emotionally draining and disheartening for those involved who have been pouring themselves into movement for the near decade of its existence; they do warrant the kind of purposeful meditation that Harris suggests.
However, as an observer, it should be noted that these developments are not devastating. Indeed, the movement response to these conflicts is cause for hope. Just as Harris does in his review, people involved in movement are asking, with care and commitment: “What’s next?”
What is not happening is the disappearance of organizations and organizers who are fundamentally committed to and mobilized by the defense of Black lives.
When chapters break from large national organizations they rarely disappear. Nor do they completely lose communicative contact with others in movement. Most often they eschew electoral politics to focus on No New Jails campaigns. They become less interested national campaigns and more interested in housing locally or Black maternal care and support. They become disillusioned with the first wave of organization leaders, most of whom have stepped down and ceded ground to new leadership and turn their attention to the work of becoming leaders themselves.
But nearly every part of movement that has existed remains a resource for whatever comes next. Very few people, either those inside the movement or outside observers, seem to understand how vivifying and resilience-making this characteristic of the Black Lives movement ecosystem is, nor how rare it is in the history of social movements.
Because of the politics of care and the principles of healing justice that are practiced in movement, even when people are extremely angry, or when a particular organizational space becomes toxic, there is a very strong intra-movement culture that discourages total exile and isolation. This is important for not only ethical reasons, but also because it leaves a way back to cooperative politics when and if a political opportunity presents itself. This characteristic of movement spaces is essentially what allowed the massive coordination that enabled the 2020 uprising. It was not that all organizations were in perfect comity with leadership and each other before that moment. It was instead that all agreed on the necessity of coordinated action and, being Black feminist pragmatists, simply undertook what needed to be done.
This is why the political philosophy of the movement, radical Black feminist pragmatism, is critically important.
Harris is correct that the philosophy does not rely on canonical white thinkers for its substance and exists outside the boundaries of disciplinal thought. The genealogies of Black feminist pragmatism could be built without reference to John Dewey or Iris Marion Young, two thinkers on whom I rely, and there are those, like V. Denise James who are doing that exemplary work. I am not defending territory or offering a last word—I learn as I go.
But it is also must be said that I do not think putting Black feminism in conversation with any other mode of thought diminishes its power or usefulness, and I am not afraid that the Western canon contains within it ideas that could eclipse the importance of Black feminist thought’s unique and necessary contributions.
To conclude, what is happening in this current phase of movement is the proliferation of organizations that have different focuses and prefer different tactics, but that are not isolated from one another, and are not unwilling to work together, because they share an underlying political philosophy, built around these principles:
1) Black lives—all Black lives—matter; 2) intergeneration struggle is ongoing and must honor the sacrifices made by ancestors and expect to be accountable to those to come; 3) diagnosing and undoing oppression requires that we attend to the places they intersect (both on the body and within institutions); 4) the work of the movement must be from the margin to center; 5) the only way forward is care for ourselves, our communities, and the institutions and systems we build.
These principles are broadly shared and disagreements on which tactics are most in service to them is what animates the bulk of conflict in movement. However, because the movement has a rhizomic structure, such disagreements within and between organizations do not cause the apparatus to collapse—rather these fractures merely cause it to change.
This movement is organized first and foremost around the love of Black people—not appeals to liberal values or a demand for equal rights or a fidelity to certain tactics—but also around the love of all marginalized peoples as human beings who matter and deserve to thrive regardless of any socioeconomic marks of disapproval, deviance, or disposability. Ensuring the freedom of those long beleaguered by the systemic relations that oppress us all is the best and perhaps the only way forward.
As Octavia Butler writes, change is inevitable. What matters now is whether we can shape the changes that will come in ways that preserve us, enable us to build power, and inspire us to continue to struggle together.
Click here to read an excerpt from Reckoning, courtesy of Deva Woodly and Oxford University Press.
Deva Woodly is an associate professor of politics at The New School.