I wrote the article that follows three years ago. Since it first appeared in the American Prospect, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has generated the largest protest movement in American history.
What has changed? And what hasn’t?
It remains true that the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) is ill-defined. It has rough edges and uncertain boundaries.
But we can now say this: A vast number of the demonstrations that took place in more than 4,000 cities and towns after the murder of George Floyd on May 25 identified with #BlackLivesMatter. The website using that tag was founded on the heels of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag after a jury, in 2013, acquitted the killer of the unarmed Trayvon Martin. The first item in BLM’s statement of purpose reads as follows:
We are expansive. We are a collective of liberators who believe in an inclusive and spacious movement. We also believe that in order to win and bring as many people with us along the way, we must move beyond the narrow nationalism that is all too prevalent in Black communities. We must ensure we are building a movement that brings all of us to the front.
At this writing, #BlackLivesMatter claims 14 chapters in the United States and three in Canada. Its website offers much information about Covid-19. It urges voter registration and other election-specific activity:
BLM’s #WhatMatters2020 is a campaign aimed to maximize the impact of the BLM movement by galvanizing BLM supporters and allies to the polls in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election to build collective power and ensure candidates are held accountable for the issues that systematically and disproportionately impact Black and under-served communities across the nation.
Meanwhile, M4BL, an umbrella organization claiming to represent “over 50 Black-led organizations,” launched in 2014. It’s explicitly “abolitionist,” believing “that prisons, police and all other institutions that inflict violence on Black people must be abolished and replaced by institutions that value and affirm the flourishing of Black lives.” It “believe[s] in centering the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people.” It’s “anti-capitalist.” It sounds, at times, an academic note, damning, for example, “cisheteropatriarchy.” With a policy agenda launched in 2016, it still offers “a comprehensive and visionary policy agenda for the post-Ferguson Black liberation movement.”
What are the concrete effects of all this? Since the launch of BLM, a number of local police forces have been reformed. That these reforms have been inadequate is obvious from the recent spate of police killing unarmed Black people. The officer who choked the breath out of George Floyd had not only been rigorously trained, he was himself a training officer. It is also true that whereas Barack Obama’s Justice Department issued 14 consent decrees to control police violence, Trump’s Justice Department has issued none. Still, many states (including New York) have already passed significant reforms. Proposals to “defund” police — i.e., redirect many public safety responsibilities from armed agents to specialists in social services and the de-escalation of conflicts — are winning official approval in some major cities.
As for public opinion, the most recent surveys show an extraordinary spike in support for #BLM despite outbreaks of looting and arson and an administration that heralds backlash. The New York Times reports that during the first two weeks of widespread protest,
support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years . . . By a 28-point margin, [the online survey research firm] Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.
As of June 10, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that
57% of U.S. adults hold either a very favorable or somewhat favorable view of Black Lives Matter . . . The 57% is a dramatic increase from when the same survey found only 27% of people supported Black Lives Matter back in 2016.
The political goals of the Movement for Black Lives remain radical. But the context has changed: because this time, it seems there may be — at last — a majority of white Americans who agree that Black Lives Matter.
— Todd Gitlin, July 6, 2020
For more than four centuries, African Americans have been subjected to “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” in the words of an incendiary 18th-century document more often cited than read, the Declaration of Independence. From this long train have followed myriad efforts not only to cry Stop! but to slow and derail it. At various junctures in American history, the cries vary, but the spirit of the protest is constant: Equal rights. But the train rolls on.
After George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of young Trayvon Martin in Florida, the hashtag erupted in 2013: #BlackLivesMatter. After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” mushroomed — a name for the rolling current of feeling that can be called a movement, focused on a specific “abuse and usurpation”: the killing of unarmed black men by police.
Partisans and detractors agreed that there was a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” The phrase rapidly migrated off-screen. “It helped transfer a longing into a movement,” in the words of Demos President Heather McGhee. “It opened up an entirely new level of discourse. It was more than anything an extraordinary call to consciousness-raising.” The slogan was chanted at rallies, imprinted on T-shirts, applauded, denounced. It’s a thing, as we say nowadays. But it’s a blurred thing. Movements are hard to put one’s finger on, especially in the internet age, when offices and meetings are virtual, websites come and go, and imprinting T-shirts is easy. Journalists sometimes throw up their hands in confusion.
Like all movements, BLM is imprecisely defined. It’s messy. Movements are like clouds; they have rough edges and uncertain boundaries. Their floating terms mean one thing to some people and something else to others. They move. They exist not as legal entities or organizations but in people’s moods and vocabulary, and it’s hard to sort out who speaks for whom and what’s real on the ground. People act in the name of the movement and in the process make it — for a time, in a place — real. Many actions are constructive; some are not. In the public mind, they tend to blend together.
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the three women who put out the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, speak of an “organization” and credit it with 40 chapters, though officers are unnamed. They maintain a website that lists sweeping “principles” (“We are working to (re)build the Black liberation movement”). They also call their website a forum.
After the killing of Michael Brown, another BLM activist, DeRay Mckesson, swept into the spotlight, ran for mayor of Baltimore (garnering only 2.6 percent of the Democratic primary vote), and in 2015 helped form Campaign Zero, which lists ten proposals intended to reduce police violence: ending broken windows policing, encouraging community oversight, limiting the use of force, independent investigation and prosecution, community representation, filming the police, training, ending for-profit policing, demilitarization, and fair police union contracts.
There’s a penumbra of such associated projects. “One place the movement is now going is recognizing the importance of electoral power,” McGhee says. For example, Blackpac.com supports candidates and registers voters, declaring: “We don’t just show up in communities a few weeks before an election to ask for their votes. We listen and learn year-round, and we lift up the voices of Black voters and demonstrate their power.”
Meanwhile, the website for the Movement for Black Lives claims support from more than 50 organizations, and devotes many thousands of words to demands in the areas of criminal justice, reparations, investment, community control, and political power — and along the way, condemns Israel for “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”
What is happening on the ground is hard to pinpoint; movements are written in water. Who, after all, “belongs” to a “network”? But essentially, BLM is a spirit with a logic, as self-contradictory as that may sound. Movements are not only logical — sometimes what they affirm is left deliberately ambiguous in order to enfold allies — but their logic deserves to be made explicit. Contrary to what white racists and police like to say, the spirit of “Black Lives Matter” does not mean “Only Black Lives Matter.” (When women got the right to vote, did men lose it?) Nor should BLM be understood as “identity politics,” although there may be some supporters — black nationalists — who intend or half-intend it that way, to mean “Only Black Lives Matter.” To affirm that black lives matter is to affirm that they matter because they are lives. Implicitly, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the message is: If you didn’t think black lives also matter, you were wrong. The idea is the defense of human rights, equal rights for all people, some of whom happen to be black. It’s the third term in a syllogism that goes like this:
1. All lives matter.
2. Black lives are lives.
3. Black lives matter.
In other words, the spirit of “Black Lives Matter” begins with a human universal (1), from which a specific deduction is made with an eye to the fact (2) that those who are black have been subjected, over a long span of history, to deprivation, exploitation, and persecution. I don’t have to be black to think that black lives matter, any more than I need to be Jewish to think that Jewish lives matter, or Palestinian to think that Palestinian lives matter. “Black Lives Matter” does not herald or affirm the virtues or vices of any particular social identity.
Achievements and Limits
Despite the crude racism inflamed by Trump and many of his supporters, can we point to progress elsewhere? According to the Campaign Zero website, “at least 100 laws have been enacted in the past three years to address police violence,” “new legislation has been enacted in 40 states since 2014,” and “ten states (CA, CO, CT, IL, LA, MD, OR, UT, TX, WA) have enacted legislation addressing three or more Campaign Zero policy categories.” For one thing, bail reform has become a live issue. In NBC News’ Jon Schuppe’s summary, “Across the country, reformers are chipping away at money bail, arguing that it discriminates against the poor, ruins innocent people’s lives, fuels mass incarceration and contributes to wrongful convictions.”
This much in three years is a solid beginning.
So is the widespread distribution of police body cameras. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, as of August 2016, 43 of 68 major city police departments had the equipment. But when a cop fatally killed a tourist in Minneapolis in July, the camera wasn’t turned on. Equipment is something but it isn’t everything. Footage is not always made public. Still, the age of the viral video shot by passersby is upon us and will not be rolled back. There is clearly vastly more media coverage of racist incidents.
From 2009 on, the Obama-Holder Justice Department Civil Rights Division opened 25 investigations and enforced 14 reform agreements (“consent decrees”), improving police practices. One success is Los Angeles, where a consent decree had to be kept in place for 12 years. The federal judge who finally lifted it in 2013 wrote in 2009: “When the decree was entered , LAPD was a troubled department whose reputation had been severely damaged by a series of crises. In 2008, as noted by the monitor, ‘LAPD has become the national and international policing standard for activities that range from audits to handling of the mentally ill to many aspects of training to risk assessment of police officers and more.’” The L.A. reforms would have been unimaginable without the widespread video of the merciless beating of Rodney King in 1992. In a cell-phone culture, brutality is out in the open.
That’s some of the good news. Among the bad news is that, in April, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions put up roadblocks. He delayed the Baltimore decree, brought on at the behest of the police commissioner himself after the death of Freddie Gray in a police van, and ordered more than a dozen other orders reviewed, including those in Ferguson, Newark, and New Orleans. Even without Sessions’s help, Chicago still drags its feet. Police forces everywhere circle their wagons to protect a toxic culture.
The overall theme — to use an old term — is equal life-chances. These include, but are not limited to, the right to equal job opportunities; equal access to education, housing, and health care; equal treatment in the criminal justice system; and the right not to be humiliated by public agencies. The role of government policy in establishing and reinforcing unequal housing (and therefore unequal wealth) has recently been painfully, painstakingly, and irrefutably underscored by Richard Rothstein in his much-lauded book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Here I will concentrate on criminal justice matters.
Capital punishment looms large in any picture of unequal justice. Bryan Stevenson writes:
African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the national population, but nearly 42 percent of those currently on death row and 34 percent of those executed since 1976. In 96 percent of states where researchers have examined the relationship between race and the death penalty, results reveal a pattern of discrimination based on the race of the victim, the race of the defendant, or both.
False imprisonments, as in the notorious case of the Central Park 5, spotlight some of the dreadful inequities. But criminal injustice isn’t just a matter of life-and-death statistics. It entails the systematic humiliation of an entire community. Inequities in the criminal justice system are legion, including incarceration rates (both before and after trial), rates of murders prosecuted and unprosecuted, bail requirements, the availability of competent lawyers, the requirement imposed on the arrested to miss work to show up for court appearances, and so on ad nauseam. An open-eyed visit to Riker’s Island — I had the displeasure twice in 2014 — demonstrates in ways too many to be itemized here how the entire system of scrutiny inflicted on visitors, let alone prisoners, amounts to a gauntlet of humiliations directed not just at relations and friends but at an entire community — not just the prisoners but their families, and the families of those on parole or probation.
The reform campaign furthered by Michelle Alexander’s bestselling book The New Jim Crow, accelerated by DNA-based findings showing that many innocents have been put to death and imprisoned for long terms — funded by the libertarian-right Koch brothers as well as by liberals — has brought many wrongs to light. Momentum toward reform may be stalled momentarily under the Trump regime, but the campaign has, as the saying goes, changed the discourse. Again, Campaign Zero’s roster of legislative reforms is impressive.
But to take one measure of what has not changed in the recent reform wave, consider the important question of marijuana possession. Between 2002 and 2015, whites ages 18 to 25 used marijuana at higher rates than blacks, who in turn used marijuana at higher rates than Latinos. But even in relatively liberal New York City, even as the number of marijuana arrests fluctuated wildly between 1987 and 2016, under five different mayors the percentage of marijuana arrests among those 16 and older has run four to six times as high for blacks and Latinos combined (averaging over 80 percent) as for whites (averaging 15 percent). Marijuana possession is obviously a minor crime, or violation, but a major opening for criminal injustice, accounting for the largest numbers of arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations in the city.
Between 1997 and 2012, as Loren Siegel and Queens College sociologist Harry Levine have written, 77 percent of those arrests were “made in the NYPD districts where the majority of the residents are Black and Latino (half the city’s neighborhood precincts). . . . In the last 10 years, Blacks constituted about 25% of New York’s residents, but 54% of the people arrested for marijuana possession. . . . [Non-Hispanic Whites] made up about 35% of the city’s population but about 11% of the people arrested.” Finally, Levine and Siegel note, “most people arrested were not smoking marijuana. Usually they just carried a bit of it in a pocket.” Suspicion of marijuana possession was a pretext for a search. It was this that led to the scandal of “stop and frisk.” But even after stop-and-frisk ended in New York under federal court order, racial discrepancies remained. From 2014 to 2016, the 51 percent of New Yorkers who were black and Latino accounted for 86 percent of all marijuana arrests (a total of 52,730).
There are areas of improvement, and they are not to be trivialized. Some police and courts today are color-blind. Outright brutality is under greater scrutiny than before the 1960s, and is probably less common. In many cities, and likely because of the Black Lives Matter movement, not only are body cameras issued but there are cameras in police cars and video cameras in interrogation. But the growth of police forces since the early 1990s, as felonies declined, enabled police commanders to deploy more cops in neighborhoods of color in search of petty offenses to beef up their reputations.
Take New York City’s district attorneys’ recent announcement that they plan to “scrap” 644,000 at least ten-year-old warrants for offenses like public drinking and sitting on a park bench in a housing project playground just after sundown. Unnoted in the fanfare, as Harry Levine points out, were the nearly one million arrest warrants still outstanding — an average of about one for every eight New Yorkers — which are surely not racially neutral, though this cannot be known for sure because the police don’t release statistics on warrants, including their geographical distribution. Moreover, many dismissed warrants likely applied to people who moved, died, or were incarcerated. It’s not even possible to know just how many arrests are made on the basis of warrants. The opacity of the criminal justice system cannot be overstated. The varieties of unequal justice are many, intricate, and meshed together in obscurity. Measures of success and failure for the reform movement are accordingly blurred.
Given the haze of results, many people turn to public opinion for clues as to how the movement is doing and where it might go from here.
The Bogey of Public Opinion
Does Black Lives Matter matter, and to whom, and in what way? Blacks number about one-eighth of Americans, and all anti-racist campaigns rest on the participation of sympathetic whites and others. At this moment, BLM is the best-known of the many anti-racist currents. It’s for this reason that the opposition is so fervid and rancid — why, for example, right-wing Facebook pages went viral with the fraudulent claim that BLM activists blocked Hurricane Harvey relief, and why the president of Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police denounced BLM activists as “a pack of rabid animals” and “racist hate groups determined to instigate violence.” (The same gentleman last year condoned the Nazi insignia on the arm of one of his officers — “not a big deal,” he said.) All sides fight for public opinion in their own ways.
One complication is that Black Lives Matter, the entity or entities, is not identical to black lives matter, the sentiment. Not everything done in the name of Black Lives Matter serves the larger goal of increasing the share and influence of Americans, of all races, who believe that black lives do matter. Black Lives Matter organizations have every right to define their own commitments, but everyone who cares about black lives has the right to an opinion as to how the goal can be realized.
Amid the swirl of public opinion, polls are commissioned and publicized. But polling “beliefs” is a slippery business, and numbers cannot be taken at face value. In what sense do people “believe” what they tell pollsters they “believe”? What if they’ve never thought about the question before the pollster asked? What if slight changes in wording elicit different results? Moreover, surveys are snapshots at a given moment in time.
So it is not altogether astonishing that two surveys this summer produced diametrically opposed answers to the question of what Americans think of Black Lives Matter and the larger issue of respect for the lives of blacks. Not everyone who dislikes BLM disrespects blacks. But the discrepancy between the two polls is astonishing enough to cause us to wonder what’s going on.
In July, the Harvard-Harris survey asked registered voters, “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Black Lives Matter protests and protesters?” Forty-three percent, three out of seven, said “favorable”; 57 percent, “unfavorable.” Of whites, 35 percent had a favorable opinion; of blacks, 83 percent.
Unsurprisingly, the cleavage of attitudes was not only racial but partisan. Of Republicans, 21 percent had a favorable view of BLM; of those who voted for Donald Trump, 18 percent; of Democrats, 65 percent (and 66 percent of those who voted for Hillary Clinton). Of blacks, 85 percent said that police are “too quick to shoot African-Americans”; of whites, only 45 percent. Of blacks, 84 percent thought the police are, “in general,” “too quick to use force,” as opposed to “typically only use force when necessary”; of whites, 49 percent. The differences were stark.
They were equally stark with respect to criminal justice in general. Among blacks, 85 percent said the criminal justice system was “biased against African Americans and other minorities,” while 60 percent of white voters thought it “basically treats people of all races and ethnicities about the same.”
But another poll, taken by Pew a month later — sampling adults, not just registered voters — found something dramatically different. According to Pew, 55 percent “say they either strongly support or somewhat support the Black Lives Matter movement, while 34% oppose the movement.” Pew’s BLM opponents number 34 percent compared with Harvard-Harris’s 57 percent. Pew’s figures for Democrats and Republicans are similar to Harvard-Harris’s. So are their figures for race — black support at 82 percent compared with white support at 52 percent. But strangely, the aggregate numbers are well-nigh reversed. Intuitively, it would seem highly unlikely that the differences in the sample — registered voters versus all adults — could account for the difference, especially when it shows up in the aggregate numbers but not the party and racial breakdowns.
Meanwhile, at a time when Trump supporters tell us that America is sick and tired of being lectured about racism, either because it’s no longer a problem, or because whites are the true victims, Pew finds evidence to the contrary.
Since 2015, the increase in perceptions of racism as a big problem has been almost entirely among Democrats, making an already wide partisan gap in these attitudes even larger. Overall, 58% of Americans say racism is a “big problem in our society,” while 29% say it is “somewhat of a problem.” Just 12% say racism in the U.S. is a small problem or not a problem. . . . Two years ago, 50% of the public viewed racism as a major problem for society, and in 2011 just 28% did so.
Pew notes that these numbers fluctuate. The 58 percent who today say racism is a “big problem” is close to the percentage that said so in 1996 (53–54 percent). Yet the percentage who said it was a “big problem” fell dramatically in 2009, 2010, and 2011 — i.e., during the presidency of Barack Obama — which suggests the slipperiness of what people mean by “racism,” since the fact that Obama was twice elected president suggests something about the falling of one racial barrier but nothing about others.
Without digging deep into the weeds of the surveys’ respective methods, it’s impossible to say any more about the discrepancy. But it should temper any tendency we might have to think that opposition to BLM is either firm or unchangeable. Public opinion changes, often radically, over time. Changes in law often precede changes in public opinion, also radically.
Opposition does not by itself annihilate reform efforts. All the intangibles of politics play their parts in determining which laws are passed and how, if at all, they are executed. So all the efforts to pursue racial equality are interwoven, and the fate of Black Lives Matter is the fate of the whole effort to continue the civil rights movement into the 21st century.
The Unending Civil Rights Movement
Many today do not understand — or refuse to understand — how unpopular the movement was in its heyday. The history has been rewritten to serve the popular lore that the nation as a whole, or almost a whole, swerved toward justice in the 1960s. Heroes overcame. Dreams would no longer be deferred. Redemption rose up in the land. But then it becomes interesting to see just how popular the movement was. And the answer, pretty uniformly, is that it wasn’t. During the height of the movement, America as a whole was not clamoring for its triumph.
In September 1960, for example, on the eve of the Kennedy-Nixon election, a national poll asked, “In which direction do you believe the next administration should go on the question of civil rights for Negroes?” Fifty-eight percent of the public chose the middle option: “Proceed slowly until we have worked out the problems resulting from laws already passed.” Only 14 percent answered, “Keep on pressing for further civil rights legislation.” This poll of the entire nation was conducted four years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and five years before the Voting Rights Act. In 1960, only one in seven Americans thought either of those necessary.
In May 1961, Gallup asked a national sample, “Do you approve or disapprove of what the Freedom Riders are doing?” (What they were doing was having interracial groups take interstate buses through the South. Many were dragged off and beaten. One bus was incinerated.) Sixty-one percent disapproved, to 22 percent who approved. Gallup also asked, “Do you think ‘sit-ins’ at lunch counters, ‘freedom buses’ [a term of Gallup’s own coinage, but never mind] and other demonstrations by Negroes [they weren’t only by Negroes, but never mind] will hurt or help the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the south?” “Hurt” outnumbered “help” a bit more than 2 to 1 (57 percent to 28 percent).
Was Martin Luther King Jr. always a secular saint? In August 1963, Gallup asked a national sample of Americans if they had heard of the impending August 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Remarkably, 71 percent said they had heard of it. How did they view it? Only 23 percent said favorably. Sixty percent were unfavorable, either for general reasons, or because they thought it would lead to violence or that it wouldn’t accomplish anything. A year later, almost three-quarters said that having made progress, blacks should stop demonstrating.
In 1966, when the Harris Poll asked whites whether King was helping or hurting the civil rights cause, 36 percent said he was helping; half said he was hurting. Neither in 1963 nor in 1966 would many Americans have supposed that someday sound bites from his “I Have a Dream” speech would become canonical — or deserve to. White attitudes changed — not as a precondition to the reform process but in no small part as a consequence. As institutions changed, they accelerated changes in public opinion. A feedback loop ensued. Institutional changes changed attitudes — and at the same time generated backlash. Politicians moved accordingly. The process was not easy and it was not costless. The martyrs were many. Attitudes changed because the nonviolent, defiantly interracial civil rights movement produced morally compelling theater. From the Greensboro, North Carolina, and Nashville sit-ins of 1960, to the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963 and the Selma march of 1965, they took, and held, the moral high ground. King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality performed their ingenious melodramas, casting white supremacists as the villains, engraving deep into the national mind a stark, essentially biblical watershed.
In 1969, 74 percent of Americans thought that marching, picketing, and demonstrations were bad for the civil rights cause. Nonetheless, even if the means were unpopular, the ends were eventually affirmed — not only in principle, but often in practice. Laws changed, practices changed, and attitudes changed. Rearguard resistance did not cease, but for more than a decade it did not prevail. Changing white attitudes did not throw open the gates to paradise, but in many dimensions, the lives of African Americans became more livable. This is no small thing, even amid backlash. Most dramatic of all, consider this: In 1958, 4 percent of Americans told Gallup that they approved of marriage between blacks and whites. In 2013, that number was 87 percent.
It’s crucial to understand that the great achievements for African American rights took place during the civil rights era — 1955–1966. That is when the legal benchmarks were laid down, when public accommodations and labor markets were desegregated, and voting rights enshrined and accomplished. Racist terrorism declined dramatically. The payoff was symbolic and substantive all at once. It transformed American politics — and also incomes. As Randall Kennedy wrote in the Prospect, “The legislation that arose from the Civil Rights Movement made a huge economic difference.” And it gradually shifted public opinion.
Where did the civil rights model of institutional change break down? In 1966, on the heels of the Voting Rights Act and the Watts riot-rebellion, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference tried to move the movement northward by targeting housing discrimination in Chicago. In white, working-class southwest side Marquette Park, they were met with bricks, bottles, and rocks. “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South,” King told reporters, “but I can say that I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” Bringing hate into the open had worked in Birmingham (1963) and Selma (1965), but in Chicago it accomplished next to nothing. A “summit meeting” with Chicago housing officials and bankers announced an agreement, but a year later King announced that the authorities had reneged.
The civil rights movement stumbled on, weakened and demoralized, sometimes victorious in local politics, but increasingly the energies of young activists were devoted to black nationalism and the insinuating ambiguities of Black Power. The new icons were Stokely Carmichael (in his no longer integrationist phase), H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver. Nonviolence waned. The cutting-edge goal was now revolution of one sort or another. As backlash gained in America, so did the movement summon up gaudy talk about international revolution. Whereas in the Deep South the movement had long been protected by quiet deployments of defensive weaponry by groups like the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Panther Party moved armed self-defense front and center. Like many groups, it had a boilerplate program, but the program was not what distinguished it. Its chants were to “pick up the gun” and “Free Huey, or the sky’s the limit,” not to win fair housing and jobs. Armed self-defense was its calling card — its brand. Sometimes, indeed, offense masqueraded as self-defense. The Panthers were lionized on the white left, but they were crushed.
Contrary to folk beliefs that thrive on many campuses today, the relative improvements in the lives of African Americans were not the product of the Black Power tendencies that followed the high era of civil rights. Neither black nationalists nor the Black Panther Party accomplished them. Neither did black rebellions, more widely known as riots, in hundreds of cities. (In fact, according to research by economists William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo, black-owned property values declined after the riots, in proportion to the severity of the riots, and still had not recovered by 1980.)
That history teaches contemporary lessons about how to respect the outrage black Americans feel while redoubling the quest for broad and viable coalitions. The contrast between the era of civil rights and the era of Black Power has been strikingly made by Randall Kennedy:
After magnificently challenging racism in the most dangerous precincts of the Deep South, Stokely Carmichael and his colleagues in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) succumbed to the impatience, stupidity, and hubris that gave rise to the Black Power slogan, which mischievously vexed the movement from 1966 onward. Nothing in the history of the civil rights era is more doleful than SNCC’s descent. It began as an organization open to anyone committed to challenging racism through defiant, dignified, peaceful protest. It ended as a clique of narrow-minded, blacker-than-thou ideologues who, having gotten rid of all the white members, proceeded to turn on one another.
Many of today’s militants, including antifa activists, hold to a mystique of the Black Panther Party’s achievements. But what Kennedy writes of the Panthers is true:
Its founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, rightly perceived police misconduct to be a major problem in black neighborhoods and aggressively sought to address mistreatment, by policing the police. Unfortunately, the Panthers discredited themselves with obnoxious rhetoric (“Off the pigs!”) and a hankering for association with third-world dictatorships (Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro). The Panthers also naïvely underestimated their enemies, dabbling with provocative gestures that gave police — local, state, and federal — all of the cover needed to rationalize a brutal campaign of repression.
About the civil rights movement proper, the nonviolent movement that prevailed through coalitions, Kennedy is also right:
The Civil Rights Movement is one of the most inspiring examples of mass dissent in world history. . . . The limitations of its achievements are evident. . . . [A] substantial gap continues to separate blacks and whites. Narrowing [the] gaps is a daunting enterprise. We can, however, take heart from what our forebears were able to achieve.
The Continuing Struggle to Respect Black Lives
Today, inspired by the Trump regime, white racists strut their assault rifles, their Confederate and swastika flags. Rollbacks mount. During this past summer alone, Trump inflamed the most retrograde elements among the police, urging them not to be “too nice” to suspects, and reversed an Obama executive order to again open the spigots through which surplus military equipment pours into the hands of police. Police departments can now acquire Army surplus bayonets as well as tanks free of charge. Black lives continue not to matter. And so it is not surprising that black activists and their allies are perplexed about how to proceed, and that some black writers go full-acerbity, exercising their bitterness talents to answer the question “How to Respond to White Folks Who Ask How They Can ‘Help.’” Meanwhile, right-wingers blame Black Lives Matter for “fostering the white identity movement.” In their jaundiced view, “white identity” is not backlash against the Obama presidency, it is imitative nationalism. At The Daily Caller, David Benkof considers whether “white identity is the result not of rejecting the worldview of Black Lives Matter, but of embracing it — and extending it to its logical conclusion?”
The fact remains that the black proportion of the American population changed relatively little between 1950 (10 percent) and 2010 (12.6 percent). A Black Lives Matter movement in a majority-black nation, like South Africa, would have different problems.
The states and cities are the main places where American institutions decide whether black lives matter. There are 17 American cities with populations of at least 200,000 where the black population numbers more than half, and an additional six where the black population runs between 40 percent and 50 percent. Of the ten largest, five (as of 2010) had black populations of at least 25 percent. In none of the ten largest is the black population a majority, nor — at current turnout rates — is the electorate. But these are also the cities to which immigrants and anti-racist millennials have flocked, making it possible to assemble progressive, multiracial coalitions. In such cities, black nationalism is not only unnecessary for reform, it would be counterproductive. Also, as Heather McGhee points out, BLM lacks infrastructure in the black church. The only way to win electoral majorities is with coalition politics. The same goes for implementing laws and regulations against the vast, opaque, irresponsible fortresses of power that run the criminal justice system with impunity.
There is no guarantee, no straightforward map for making black lives matter in practice — for changing institutions, practices, laws, regulations. Police are adroit with stalls and workarounds. They practice the dark arts of circumventing democratic controls. When the demonstrations stop and the headlines swerve away, crowd-pleasing reform gestures and formalities of public regulation cave in the face of police departments’ inertia. If any sections of government deserve the title “deep state” in America, they are the police.
Yet for all the grotesquerie that rises up under the banner “Make America Great Again,” we may someday surprise ourselves to discover that we have been launched into a revived Reconstruction. Perhaps we will discover that the new Jim Crow is a prologue not to a font of notional healing but to new civil rights advances; that the recrudescence of murderous racism is a passing — even a perversely necessary — phase in the movement toward Langston Hughes’s America, “the land that never has been yet — and yet must be.“ Perhaps, when we try to grasp where we stand in the long arc of the moral universe, we will find we stand at the beginning of the middle; that the civil rights era of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., CORE, and SNCC was not a high-water mark; that the road they traveled, the road of supple, nonviolent, cross-racial coalitions, is not easy but it is the only road in town.
Todd Gitlin, the author of 16 books, including The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, teaches journalism, sociology, communications, and American studies at Columbia University.
Used with permission. © The American Prospect, Prospect.org, 2017. All rights reserved.