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Following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in 2013, Alicia Garza, Patricia Cullors, and Opal Tometi launched what would become a global movement centered around the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter.
Eight years later, the movement has some key accomplishments to its credit. Policies that attempt to hold police officers more accountable have been passed in state legislatures around the country; a number of city councils have reduced police budgets, removed police from schools, and made tactical rule changes to police departments in an effort to reduce instances of police brutality. These are meaningful victories that contribute to the goal of creating a society in which Black lives matter. These victories also align with the policy platforms created by the Movement for Black Lives.
Yet policy change is only one piece of a larger transformation that the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) is working towards.
As scholars like LaGina Gause and Alvin Tillery have argued, this movement is best understood as one of a number of new social movements in America. Such social movements primarily focus on broad societal and cultural change rather than specific policy gains. Indeed, the national and regional chapters of the formally organized Movement for Black Lives emphasize eradicating white supremacy, engaging in “cooperative economics,” and developing a more just society among other goals that are not primarily policy focused. In addition to the many policy changes precipitated by the movement, how can we evaluate the societal transformations caused so far by the broader Black Lives Matter movement?
In Deva Woodly’s Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements, she details the way that the Movement for Black Lives has started to develop and articulate a set of “ideas, policy proposals, and political infrastructure” to seize back the “grounds of politics.”
First, the movement has helped usher in a political environment in which much larger proportions of Americans, in particular white Democrats, are concerned about racism and believe that more work needs to be done to achieve racial equality. For example, according to an Economist/YouGov poll from June 2021, 71 percent of Americans, including 95 percent of Democrats, viewed racism as at least somewhat of a problem, and 62 percent of Americans believe that the police “operate in racist ways.” Moreover, majorities of Americans now agree that Black people experience discrimination, that Black people are treated worse by the police, and that Black people face employment discrimination.
Second, the movement has helped “unearth the submerged state” by making visible and legible the repressive and oppressive actions of the state, thereby influencing public understandings of how state power effects Black lives. Importantly, a YouGov poll conducted in August 2020 found that 60 percent of U.S. adults believed that systemic racism should be addressed by the 2020 presidential candidates.
Third, the movement is helping displace the colorblind narrative pervasive among many liberals by articulating why an understanding of anti-Blackness must be central to all efforts for equity. This is evidenced by the popularization of anti-racism and the broader understanding that, as Ibram X. Kendi states, it is not enough to be “not racist.” Rather, people need to actively work to create a racially just society.
In sum, the Black Lives Matter movement has helped shift the public consciousness such that people are more aware of racial inequality and systemic racism, and are more involved in the active efforts needed to achieve racial equality—just as Woodly argues in her book.
During this period of attacks on democratic institutions like voting rights, election administration, and a free press, combined with declines in political trust, civic knowledge, and beliefs that government can be responsive to the citizenry or that ordinary citizens can create positive change, it is more important than ever for the people to be reminded that democratic authority rests on their shoulders. BLM obviously energized a large subset of the public both because of powerful, sustained activism work through local chapters and related organizations, and through protests and other demonstrations. Indeed, the protests of 2020 were labeled the largest and broadest protests in U.S. history. Importantly, many of these people were protesting for the first time.
Precipitating such massive protests is impressive in and of itself, but even more important is the capacity to build sustainable organizational structures.
Unfortunately, it is unclear whether a meaningful number of people who attended protests during the summer of 2020 were brought into these organizational structures in a way that could sustain their activism. Congruently, there is often a disconnect between understanding the systemic nature of racism and other forms of oppression, and knowing what to do about it. Take, for example, the findings of Jennifer Chudy’s research on racial sympathy. She has found that there are many white Americans who are concerned about racial inequality, understand that it is a structural problem, and want to address the problem. However, when asked what actions should be taken, or what actions they themselves are taking, they tend to emphasize private actions like educating themselves and confronting individual acts of prejudice over actions that could change power structures through influencing political actors or institutions.
This is troubling because, while changing individual behaviors and gaining more knowledge are important, meaningful change can only occur if people are engaging in sustained work that disrupts the power structures that create and perpetuate a system in which Black lives do not matter.
How can BLM activists and other allied individuals and organizations capitalize on the outrage they are precipitating by bringing first-time protesters into the fold? Moreover, how can they help people who are concerned about racial inequality—motivated to do something about it and already thinking structurally—to also act structurally?
Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa offer one answer to this question in their new book, Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in Twenty-First Century America. They argue that grassroots action will be most powerfully sustained when the outrage felt by demonstrators is harnessed by organizations that develop relationships and equip people with the skills and knowledge they need to bring about the change they want to see.
In their analysis of successful grassroots organizations, the authors identified four congruent actions that helped organizations engage their constituencies and translate that engagement into achieving their strategic goals. Each organization first “grounded constituents in a constantly expanding network of relationships.” Organizational leaders then equipped constituents with the knowledge and skills to be independent strategists. Thirdly, constituencies were both persistent in their goals and flexible to changing realities. Finally, organizational leaders developed and cultivated bridges across identity groups. Developing these self-governance traits allowed each organization “to strategically exert power in dynamic political environments.”
The Movement for Black Lives has either already implemented these actions, or is well positioned to do so. A connected and expanding network of organizations and relationships already exists. The “leaderful” model of the movement allows for constituents to act independently, creating a growing group of local leaders who can independently wield power. The decentralized nature and “leaderful” structure can help maintain commitment to both localized and national goals, while also being adaptable to shifting political realities. Like other new social movements, the broader Black Lives Matter movement is grounded in newly concrete identities, especially ones that stress intersectionality. As such, the movement has very successfully bridged identities which, as Han, McKenna, and Oyakawa argue, broadens the strategic choices available to movement leaders.
In less than a decade, the Black Lives Matter movement has already made a transformative political, cultural, and societal impact.
Yet, the continued frequency of police killings, the protection of white individuals who perpetrate gun violence, and the ever-growing power of anti-Black sentiment in motivating right-wing politics, are just some of the signals that far more work needs to be done for Black lives to truly matter in our society.
By continuing to develop the organizational infrastructure of a decentralized, “leaderful” movement that emphasizes intersectionality, and by incorporating lessons from recent analyses of other successful grassroots organizing efforts, the Black Lives Matter movement can continue to seize back the grounds of politics and translate its massive people power into greater political power. Moreover, it is much more likely that constituents will not just think structurally but also act collectively to challenge oppressive power structures when enmeshed in a community of leaders committed to creating a society in which Black lives matter.
Click here to read an excerpt from Reckoning, courtesy of Deva Woodly and Oxford University Press.
Maneesh Arora is an assistant professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and an affiliate of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University. His research focuses on race and ethnicity politics, public opinion, campaigns and elections, and experimental and survey methodology.