February 25, 2015
Making Black Lives Matter
Nat Chioke Williams, Executive Director, Hill-Snowdon Foundation The tragic killing of an unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri gave a new energy and national platform to the issue of police brutality and excessive force in the Black community. Indeed, in the months surrounding Mike Brown’s killing, there was a wave of killings of unarmed Black men, boys and women by white police officers across the country including Ezell Ford in Los Angeles; John Crawford, Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson in Ohio; and Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in NY1. To date, only one of the police officers involved in these shootings has been indicted. This is not a new phenomenon, as black men, boys and women have been killed by law enforcement under suspicious or seemingly criminal circumstances for generations without prosecution or conviction. The recent release of the movie Selma is a timely reminder of the history of excessive force by police against the Black community and also the legacy of brutality, repression, disenfranchisement and unequal treatment of Black people codified into the law and institutional practice of this country. However, this time seems different. Under the banner of Black Lives Matter, a new social consciousness and mass action has arisen that has shocked the status quo out of its complacent and complicit comfort zone. The Black Lives Matter movement has allowed the country to approach having honest, clear and urgent dialogue on structural racism by punching holes in the cone of silence that typically suffocates meaningful dialogue on racism with a sea of deeply cynical memes like political correctness, reverse racism, and color blindness. The Black Lives Matter meme is powerful because it resonates so deeply across the spectrum of the Black community - from a 14 year old protestor in Ferguson, to a 93 year old grandmother in Georgia, to a trans woman in Los Angeles, to a fast food worker in Boston, to a returning citizen in Louisiana, to the President of the United States. It simply captures our enduring reality that even though we have made progress, on average Black lives still do not matter as much as White lives as a matter of institutional policy and social practice. At first blush, this may feel like a provocative statement. But the naked truth of our world is that although all lives matter, some lives matter more than others. In our world and in our country, the rich matter more than the poor; men matter more than women; citizens matter more than non-citizens; heterosexuals matter more than gays and lesbians; soldiers and police officers matter more than civilians; and yes White people matter more than Black people. The relative worth of different classes of people can be seen in how laws, institutional policies and practices are implemented differentially. For instance, the rich get preferential treatment in tax policy; men get paid more than women for the same work; same sex couples still have to fight for the right to marry and the associated legal protections; police tend not to get indicted for killing civilians, etc. Another example is the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court and the slew of voter suppression laws that were designed to have a disproportionately negative impact on the Black community. One of the most blatant and significant political enshrinements of Black lives mattering less than White lives is found in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, commonly known as the “three-fifths compromise” that defined the value or worth of those in bondage (largely enslaved Blacks) as only three fifths of free people (almost entirely White). Even after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the Union territories in 1864 and the 14th amendment specifically negated the three fifths compromise, there were countless laws, provisions, policies and practices in every jurisdiction of this country, including at the federal level, that established an enduring legacy that defined White lives as more precious than Black lives and that Black people deserved to be treated worse. So if we accept the basic fact of life that some lives do actually matter more in this society, then what determines a particular group’s social worth and as an extension, what will help make Black lives matter more? The answer to this question is complex and multi-layered, but when you boil it all down the answer is power. Those groups that have more political, institutional and economic power have greater social worth and matter more than those who have less power. By political power I mean the capacity to define and impact public policy and institutional practice and the ability to levy or exact a consequence for unwanted actions. Political power is exercised through strong and dynamic institutions and organizations; thus to have political power you need to have powerful institutions. It is important to note that I am not talking about an individual’s social worth (e.g., Oprah Winfrey or President Obama), but the disparate treatment of whole social groups as reflected in public policy, institutional practice and social regard. This is an important point because a common tactic of those opposed to Black social change is to highlight the achievements of the few to delegitimize the structural deprivations experienced by the Black community. Therefore, in order to make Black lives matter more, the Black community needs to build enough political and institutional power to significantly change both policy and public perception and to directly challenge and dismantle the structural racism that defines perpetual Black social, political, economic inequity. This would involve building and strengthening the institutional and organizational infrastructure necessary to effect broad social change; re-prioritizing the need for Black social change in American social discourse and public policy; engaging a broad base of the Black community and other allies around an aspirational vision and concrete demands for change; and developing a broad pipeline of local and national leaders, scholars, activists, organizers, advocates etc. that move this vision forward. The movie Selma reminds us of a time when the Black community built and wielded the institutional and political power necessary to effect broad scale social change to improve the lives and opportunities for the Black community. The movie was brilliant because it gave a dramatized blueprint of the strategies, tactics and infrastructure of the civil rights movement that were necessary to create historic social and political change to improve the lives of Black people in the US. That infrastructure included Black-led organizations like SCLC that helped craft and frame policy demands and a national agenda; Black-led organizations like SNCC that did deep grassroots organizing in local communities and provided a vehicle for student leadership; and Black-led organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense fund that moved forward legal advocacy in the courts. The infrastructure also included more moderate and more radical organizations that offered different visions for change that complemented the predominant vision. The tactics and strategies included a coordinated and strategic use of direct action and civil disobedience and strategic communications - in particular the use of television to dramatize and communicate the conditions of the Black community and to expand the reach of the issues and win over the hearts and minds of the public. There are several parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, but also some key distinctions. The brutality of the Alabama state troopers against peaceful protestors in Selma on Bloody Sunday 50 years ago is reminiscent of the excessive force exacted by the police against peaceful protestors in Ferguson, MO last year. The tactics of civil disobedience and sustained protests and marches used in the civil rights movement are much the same tactics adopted by the Black Lives Matter demonstrators/movement today. The use of media and social media to get the message out and win over hearts and minds is similar. However, I think one of the major structural differences between the Civil Rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, and most other contemporary efforts seeking broad scale social change in the Black community, is the relatively weak and diminished infrastructure for Black institutional and political power that exists today. For the most part, we have moved from a national movement during the Civil Rights era to localized campaigns that are forced to take ever-smaller cuts of larger issues affecting the Black community. We have moved from having a pro-active agenda for broad and sequential change to reactive and episodic moments of disruption and small wins. We still have a wealth of leaders at the local level, but our leaders on the national level tend to be spokespeople often without an accountable base of support in the community that they speak for. Our once strong and powerful national organizations and infrastructure have a greatly diminished influence on national and local policy. Our ability to frame and articulate the need for Black social change has literally been whitewashed with a litany of memes (e.g., reverse racism, criminalization of Black youth, post-racial, political correctness, etc.) in a successful effort to delegitimize the continuing need for Black social change in the hearts and minds of the public. Black arts and media that once provided social critique and analysis has become commodified and stripped of most of its political/critical substance. Although there are a number of organizations that organize and advocate for change in the Black community today, many of these organizations are severely under-resourced in terms of money and staff capacity. In particular, Black-led social change organizations seem to have had a hard time attracting sufficient funding to support their work. Relatedly, the number of Black led organizing and advocacy groups seems to be on the decline in the last few decades, thereby narrowing the pipeline of Black leaders. Finally, while there is a fair amount of work at the local level, and there are still national legacy/civil rights organizations, there aren’t many strong examples of coordinated national agendas and infrastructure for change in the Black community that have a mass following in the Black community. I may be giving an overly bleak and deficit oriented depiction of the current state of Black social change, because there is a wealth of really good organizations, leaders and campaigns throughout the country that are making a real difference in improving the quality of life for Black people. However, my point is that I would have hoped and expected that the infrastructure and power that the Black community developed during the Civil Rights movement would have expanded, innovated and grown stronger over the last 50 years; however it seems like it has actually shrunk, stagnated and diminished in strength and influence. And as this infrastructure and influence has diminished, so too has our ability to make Black lives matter. So the question then becomes, what has to happen in order to strengthen the infrastructure for Black institutional and political power to achieve broad social change in the Black community? This is a complex question for which I can at best offer an incomplete answer. But for me there are at least four broad initial bodies of work that should happen. We have to:
- Identify and assess the current state of the infrastructure for Black institutional and political power.
- Begin the process of envisioning a Black social change agenda for the 21st century.
- Commit to supporting Black leadership and the infrastructure for Black political and institutional power for social change.
- Create a social and political imperative for achieving meaningful and broad Black social change.
***This year we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It is important for the country to mark the anniversary of this historic milestone in the Black community’s struggle and legacy for equality and justice in America. However, we can do more than just commemorate this milestone, we can chart a new path and organize to build the political and institutional power we need to secure new milestones in the journey for Black freedom, justice and equity. We must answer the call to make Black lives matter more in every aspect of this society and for the Black community to have a greater opportunity to thrive as a whole. The Black Lives Matter movement has created space for meaningful dialogue and action and allowed an opening to assert the need to build a powerful Black infrastructure for change. This is a once in a generation moment, as the 50 years in between Selma and Ferguson should illustrate. We must seize on this moment and opportunity to build a lasting and powerful infrastructure for Black social change and to dismantle structural racism. If we do this, then we will make Black Lives Matter today, tomorrow and forevermore. 1 See this link for a description of 21 people of color and/or mentally ill people killed by police in 2014 - http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/12/12/3601771/people-police-killed-in-2014/.