Solidarity With Black Lives: On Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s ‘From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation’

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We live in tumultuous and changing times. Old certainties, old ways of thinking and acting no longer pertain. From the information revolution, to the shattering of the global economy in 2008, to Occupy Wall Street, the election of the US’s first Black president, and now to Trump, we are in the midst of the emergence of an unknown and disconcerting new reality.

A byproduct of this tumult is the contest between competing ideas of what the future will look like. Will it look like the past? With lynch mobs, state repression, white hoods, and segregated public and private facilities? Or will it build on the battles of the past that strove to create and realize a more egalitarian society?

From the beginning, Latinx Spaces has been on the side of the latter. We aim to open up and expand the liberatory spaces that emerge at the intersections of hitherto oppressed social groups, among them Latinxs. Accordingly, it is important to recognize that the terms we employ in these projects are not discrete categories. Black lives are part of the fabric of Latin America and Latinxs across the globe. Therefore, it is a strike against our Afro-Latinx communities, our project and what we stand for when a like-minded liberatory voice is silenced. 

This is the case with Princeton Professor of African American Studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who has recently cancelled her upcoming public lectures in Seattle and San Diego for concerns of her safety. After giving a seminal and loudly applauded speech at Hampshire College’s recent commencement, which can and should be viewed online, Fox News ran a dog-whistle hit piece deriding Taylor’s speech as an “anti-POTUS tirade.” The result? Taylor has received over fifty emails containing numerous threats to her life, promises of lynching, and insults like  “nigger,” “bitch,” “cunt,” “dyke,” “she-male,” and “coon.”

Accordingly, it is as a gesture of solidarity between peoples of color that we offer the following appreciative review of Taylor’s most recent book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and encourage our communities to purchase and read the book. We believe that Taylor’s book not only speaks to matters concerning Black communities, but indeed issues that affect all peoples of color ultimately.

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is an elegantly composed, rigorously researched diagram of a particularly significant set of problems immanent to the US, and an orientation toward addressing them.

The book is a flood, in a couple of senses—it is both overwhelming and rejuvenating. The sheer scale of injustice it outlines is staggering, as it lays out the crushing weight of history, especially when you try to tackle a lot  at once. But flooding isn’t purely destructive, and neither is the book. In river deltas, periodic flooding rejuvenates the soil, makes life possible, and opens the way forward through the seasons. For example, the flooding of the Rio Grande was a necessary prerequisite to the heavily irrigation dependent crop culture of Texas. The US agricultural industry has for centuries knitted together exploitation of Black slaves, dispossession of Native Americans, and the dual dispossession/exploitation of Mexican peoples. This combination of destruction and fertility sutured the environmental and economic, in a way that would prove instructive for the rest of Texas history. Its positive environmental reality acted as a beacon for white settlers bent on expropriation, the literal destruction/rejuvenation of the biosphere mirroring the cycles of destruction and creation humans enacted in the same space.

In an inversion of the bloody destruction wrought on bountiful land by white settlers, Taylor’s exposition enacts a fertile ground from tragedy, acting metonymically as the eb of the flood of history. It shows us the receding waters, and orients our thinking towards the fertile ground laid out by this history of struggle. It opens up a liberating weave of politics, one where the depraved history of the United States can be seized upon, mobilized, and eventually overcome.

The work has two major moments, an expository deluge and revelatory recession. The first three-fourths elaborate upon the violent history and present Black Americans endure, while the last fourth elaborates a thoroughly historical take on the way forward. At every point, the utility and poignancy of the information presented is readily evident and contextualized. The movement of the work is roughly chronological, which helps the reader feel as though they have enough of a background to understand her argument at every point.

 Photo by Louis Boyle. Courtesy of The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives

Photo by Louis Boyle. Courtesy of The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives

The Deluge

Taylor begins with broad cultural claims rooted in material analysis, jolting ahistorical narratives on the transcendence of racism out of their stupor. She points out that our ideological construction of the American Dream “transforms material causes into subjective causes,” so that the white wealthy overclass can continue their “pursuit of cheap and easily manipulated labor [which] certainly did not end with slavery” and perpetuate “deep-seated ideas concerning the inferiority of Blacks...with fervor.”

By believing that, in the United States, a Black person can obtain property and wealth with nothing but elbow grease, the dominant narrative forces us to ignore the overwhelming structural inertia of poverty and immiseration, abdicate responsibility for racialized asymmetry in opportunity, and ignore the brutal and very contemporary reality of active, intentional racism which the United States was founded upon. These phenomena are the direct, traceable result of the legacy of slavery and the necessity for the US to exploit Black labor in order to remain the global imperial powerhouse it is today. Taylor’s claims are consistently underwritten by a rigorous focus on the physicality and materiality of the interests that uncritically perpetuate their harm. When Social Security was first instituted, for instance, it initially prevented professions primarily worked by Black Americans from collecting benefits, constructing white people’s safety net on the labor of the Black population. Additionally, in defense of JIm Crow era property segregation (and the wealth that went along with it), “thousands of whites joined mobs to terrorize African Americans who attempted to move into white areas” in Detroit and Chicago alone. As both of these examples demonstrate, in response to any changes that may benefit Black people or decrease white people’s share of prosperity, even if the changes largely illusory, there is an obvious, historical reality that incentivizes and props up racism in addition to the more obvious interpersonal forms of ethnic prejudice.

Color Blind Politics

From a culture materially invested in the fiction of Black inferiority, she shifts topics to colorblindness. In order to accomplish the move, she segues from the legacy of slavery, which roots the material basis for racism in American society, to mid-century politicized struggles against it. Whereas the United States’ deep-seated ideas on the cultural inferiority of Black people did their work and made profits for the owning class for decades, in the middle of the 20th century “the racial common sense underwriting the ‘culture of poverty’ had been severely compromised by the Black movement and its demands for full citizenship and an end to racial discrimination.”

The civil rights movement, various citywide riots, and groups like the Black Panther Party made it increasingly impossible for liberals or conservatives to subjectivize and obscure the results of American domestic policy. Additionally, these groups explicitly problematized the subjectification of the results of racism, with people like the Black Panthers and Malcolm X making the case that “the economic problems of Black America could not be understood without taking account of racism. Blacks were underemployed, unemployed, poorly housed, and poorly schooled because they were Black.” A structural, institutional problem, not one of individual choices. The focus on this section is particularly useful because it shows how movements on the ground undergirded the reality of anti-racist change. In order for institutional shifts to happen, the reality of power needed to be understood and acted upon collectively. The people that formed the body being governed, and specifically those that were foreclosed from efficacy, at every stage in history were the ones leading changes to combat oppression. Contemporary discourse largely ignores this historical moment, but in the 60s, there were “violent and furious explosions of Black rage in American cities [which] punctuated every summer.” As a result, “the triumphalism of the American dream withered with each convulsion.”

Due to the success of such movements, the powers that be needed a new way to code their racism so that their electoral strategies could succeed. Taylor sketches the development and movement of the euphemization and obscuring of racial stigmata through Johnson and Nixon most prominently, and lays bare the fact that by using “barely coded language” to focus on “the poorest of Blacks,” politicians could avoid “culpability for the conditions of [disproportionately Black] cities,” leaving “no explanation for those conditions rather than the people living there.” By laying out the development of racially coded language and thoroughly locating the racist effects of the policies of racists, the book becomes an invaluable resource for debunking racist myths and evasions. For instance, in response to militant Black workplace dynamism such as the 1970 postal worker strike, Nixon aimed to shift the debate and “narrow the definition of racism to the intentions of individual actors while countering the idea of institutional racism by focusing on ‘freedom of choice.’” We can see how this has played out. To this day, when people who have not suffered first- or second-hand from institutional racism are confronted by its reality, their gut reaction is that different choices could have been made. While this point is always vacuous and unhelpful at best, it is revealed by the Nixon administration that it is also always an active dismissal of history and the effects of racism. For instance, when Nixon talked about the right of wealthy white property owners to “protect and maintain their property values by limiting the incursion of the poor into their communities,” he is obviously and strategically downplaying “the ways in which historic patterns of housing discrimination--which had only legally ended three years prior to this statement--shaped the contemporary metropolitan geography.”

Again at every stage, the dismissal or race as a factor affecting economic distribution and the lived reality of Black Americans is enacted in order to specifically benefit the institution of white wealth.

“Representation on its own is not enough to bring about liberation; the tiny sliver of the population that can theoretically have access to the ways and means of American political life is all too easy to bring into the incentive system that enables the smooth reproduction of the racist status quo. In order to become a career politician, there are sacrifices one has to make, a game to be played, and without a substantial, active bottom-up pressure from empowered working class and marginalized peoples, those sacrifices pile up with very little hope of making things better or changing the logic.”    

Through Nixon’s tenure, the militant and visceral threat presented by Black Power movements and worker organizing served to buttress what limited social welfare programs there were, and Nixon’s desires were largely frustrated. However, history is dynamic, and the white upper class sorely desired to profit more and more explicitly from the destitution of anyone not them. They sought a way to mitigate or diminish the ability of Black political organizations to rhetorically sway majorities in the US, and the repression of Black leaders throughout American history continued to be a sore point which was easy to leverage for political gain. Additionally, as the dominant class in the US began to realize, class operates in at least partial autonomy from race. Reagan and Nixon together were able to perfect the rhetorically frustrating “colorblind” mode of politics, and when US politicians realized how colorblindness and class could work together, that a Black upper class could just as easily be brought into “complete complicity with and absorption into the worst, most corrupt aspects of American politics,” a complicity which was “the price of admission into the ranks of the political establishment,” they switched tactics.

In order to address the politically persuasive reality that white America had systematically prevented Black people from having power over their own destiny since the end of Reconstruction (at best), a Black political elite that “has no fundamental political differences with the status quo in the United States insofar as it does not directly impede their ability to participate freely in the nation’s governing business institutions” was encouraged to obtain positions of power. Accordingly, we now see the rise of Black mayors, professionals, judges—even a president.

With their rise, many thought that racism would be demonstrably harmed. However, Taylor here indicates a fairly frustrating reality: representation on its own is not enough to bring about liberation; the tiny sliver of the population that can theoretically have access to the ways and means of American political life is all too easy to bring into the incentive system that enables the smooth reproduction of the racist status quo. In order to become a career politician, there are sacrifices one has to make, a game to be played, and without a substantial, active bottom-up pressure from empowered working class and marginalized peoples, those sacrifices pile up with very little hope of making things better or changing the logic. As Taylor points out, this logic is the “price of admission.” It is not a fluke of individuals, but the smooth co-optive functioning of the system we live in. Whenever progress, in a real sense, has been made, it has “always been propelled by the strength of the movements of the mass of ordinary Black people.”

These most suffocating aspects of Black oppression in the United States then go on to create further reorientations of a racist order. When brutal and obvious oppression is halted by movements, the structural necessity of oppressive institutions remains. So, those invested in oppression have to try and shift what popular pressure is aiming at, or find a way to diffuse activities currently directed towards destroying racism. From slavery to segregation, from segregation to the New Jim Crow, and now the dashed hopes of the Obama presidency. At every stage, the material necessity of racism is clear to the white ruling class, and they are frustratingly aware of the ways that their brutality becomes obvious to people in a politically efficacious way. Because they can, and because they must to exist, they shift and flee in fear.

 Courtesy of Bart Everson

Courtesy of Bart Everson

The Politics of ‘Criminality’

One instance of the shift in rhetoric from the perspective of power is the shift from subjectivizing Black oppression by stereotypes around laziness or intellect to the focus on criminality as an irremovable, irredeemable stain that is by default applied to Black people. By speaking about criminality as something that sticks with a person for their whole life and removes them from the body of people we should care about, the carceral system can then operate in all the same ways that old explicitly racist systems used to, as long as the legal system makes sure to disproportionately lock up Black people, which it does. Taylor’s account of the prison industrial complex is well worth going through for its detailed ledger of a reality that is frustratingly discounted by vast swaths of white people. Particularly interesting is the fact that “there is no ‘golden age’ of policing to which elected officials can point,” and that “the police function primarily as agents of social control in a society that is fundamentally unequal.”

People engaged in the struggle against police brutality, and incarceration in general, frequently point to the racist origins of police as a reason to oppose them. This has never been a great rhetorical strategy, as basically every institution of American life has extremely racist origins (Planned Parenthood being the most prominent example), but we still need to operate within them and selectively choose elements to live with, support over other alternatives, or generally act upon in the process of building power for movements that could challenge structures as a whole.

However, in Taylor’s account, the lack of a “golden age” strengthens this argument considerably. If there was, in fact, never a middle time that police were good, they are not good now, and they were founded as slave catchers and labor camp-fillers, there is “little reason for optimism that American police can truly be reformed.” The police in America were founded (though not exclusively) as slave patrols. They then shifted into enforcers of racially coded laws surrounding vagrancy or not being under the employ of a white person. When the struggle for Black liberation made that impossible, convict leasing and the private prison industry were born. Again, at every stage and today, the material interests of white supremacy are served by Black oppression, and criminality, linked (often explicitly) to Blackness, continues to serve the purpose of “securing a stable workforce,” and is “consciously invoked to rationalize the debased [and exploited] status of Blacks.” The police are, accordingly, one of the most poignant examples of Audre Lorde’s master’s tools that cannot dismantle his house. While other institutions may have had varying histories, played complex parts, or operating in possibly multifaceted ways, Taylor does an excellent job of showing that the modern incarnation of the police is a logical consequence of its history, not an exception to an idyll or bump in an otherwise glamorous (or even neutral) road.

Obama as Symptom

Knitting together the carceral state and the failure of the Black political class, the Obama presidency points negatively, by showing what doesn’t work, to the way forward for our movements. If the presidency, the most powerful office in the United States, cannot bring racial justice, why invest our hopes and dreams in electoral politics? When, in response to the death of Trayvon Martin, Obama enjoined “quiet, individual soul searching,” when Obama talked about “absentee Black fathers” and “never mentions the disparity in arrests and sentencing that is responsible,” it demonstrates, in Taylor’s account, that “the Black political establishment, led by President Barack Obama...is not capable of the most basic task: keeping Black children alive.” For Taylor, and for us, “the young people would have to do it themselves.”

 Photo by Fibonacci Blue

Photo by Fibonacci Blue

The Revelatory Recession

Racism has shifted forms, but our lives are still defined by systemic racism. Fortunately, after the flood, after we’ve been crushed by the despondence of history, the waters recede, and we can begin the monumental task of wringing out hope from the soaking earth. This is where the form of politics for Taylor, and where the intersections with latinx politics specifically, come to the fore.

#BlackLivesMatter
The police murder of Mike Brown was, for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, “an event that captures people’s experiences and draws them out from their isolation into a collective force with the power to transform social conditions.” For Taylor, this is the form of effective political action. Instead of a focus on electoral politics or a Great (inevitably) Man, which for her reached the culmination of its possible benefit in the election of Obama, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has focused on the mobilization of masses. Instead of trying to concretize into a single individual, or operating in traditional ways and forms, the movement has tried to forge its own ways of making change.

Accordingly, activists and leaders, frequently women and queer, have developed interesting new ways of engaging with power. Many protests were fomented through social media, instead of traditional party or non-profit style mobilizing. In the beginning of the shift from isolated movements into broader and more enduring organization, “Twitter and other social media platforms were successful in organizing large and influential protests.” These protests were not focused on isolated issues, but actively attempted to “generalize from police violence to the ways that public funding for the police comes at the expense of other public institutions,” and make other connections to broader, structurally focused politics. In this regard, they were fairly successful. If we look at the way people speak about Blackness in America today versus even four years ago, it is obvious that America has shifted to a more honest engagement with its past, even if part of the consequence of this shift has been more honest racism from racists like Trump and his ilk.

“Significant for Latinx politics, Taylor points to ‘building networks and alliances with Latinos in opposition to attacks on immigrant rights,’ amongst other issues and strata of society. Without solidarity amongst oppressed groups, it is difficult to construct the majority necessary for broad structural change.”

However, as Taylor points out, the decentralized nature of organizing during this time was largely dependent on the same type of “events” that led to its conception in the first place. When there was not a fairly proximate cause to organize around, it became difficult to “move from protest to movement.” While there have been discrete, historically significant successes, the fact remains that focusing on mobilizing in relation to very immediate and obvious examples of oppression will inevitably force a co-option and shift, not a liberating reorganization. Without a broader, more structural network or organization, the task at hand is next to impossible.

Significant for Latinx politics, Taylor also argues that the challenge of the movement outlined above, the transition from demands for freedom organized around proximate causes, must “have a real plan for building and developing solidarity among the oppressed.” She specifically points to “building networks and alliances with Latinos in opposition to attacks on immigrant rights,” amongst other issues and strata of society. Without solidarity amongst oppressed groups, it is difficult to construct the majority necessary for broad structural change. By realizing that the multitude of oppressions that the US is built upon “are connected...and how those connections should form the basis of solidarity, not a celebration of our lives on the margins,” we can buck the classic divide and conquer strategy the white ruling class has used to preserve its power for centuries.

This is where Taylor moves to her most explicit account of her own political stance, and how that impacts her analysis throughout the book. Specifically, we must move towards an “understanding of the origins and nature of Black oppression and racism more generally,” and one that enables a “Black liberation [which] is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.” For Taylor, the seed of this idea is contained in the fact that “there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty,” but that “these are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. There are 400 billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty.”

If this sounds like socialism, it’s because it is. In this last section, Taylor espouses a precise and intricate version of a Marxist critique of political economy, something that is hardly unprecedented. In the 60s and 70s, “nonwhite, formerly colonized people around the world hailed socialism (defined in many ways) almost universally as the means for achieving their freedom,” and “anti-capitalism filtered into every aspect of Black life.” This stands in sharp contrast to the fact that today it seems like a strange common sense that socialism has very little to offer the struggle for Black liberation.

As Taylor demonstrated throughout the work, white supremacy has concrete benefits for economic elites. Those benefits confer power, and an ability to disproportionately shape reality in a way that allows for the reproduction of asymmetric relations of domination. This forms a feedback loop that is difficult to deal with, especially if we are not honest about the motor of its growth. Accordingly, economic analysis, and particularly socialism, makes a lot of sense as a theoretical lens for fighting racism. As economics is a pivot point for many elements of the structural oppression of Black people in the United States, we need to be prepared to act on economic levers just as readily as explicitly racialized ones.

However, it is true that today the revolutionary left is largely white and tiny. In pushing through this fact towards an actionable reality, Taylor refuses to definitively tie together correlation and causation. Instead, she makes the case for a historical account, rather than a cross-section that ignores how we got where we are. Instead of being due to a racism intrinsic to saying that obscene wealth is a problem, she looks through the history of violent repression and the complicated, messy life of communism and socialism in the US. She points out that, “At the height of McCarthyism, socialists and communists were so identified with the antiracist movement that antiracist organizing was automatically assumed to be the work of communists,” and were accordingly dealt with in an urgently violent manner. The FBI targeted anti-racist groups, killing leaders and the rank and file, while organizations like the Pinkertons or the National Guard were brought in to deal with labor unrest, particularly when it seemed to cross racial lines. At every stage, a white supremacy that was “necessary to maximize productivity and profitability” was enacted “to manipulate racial fears as a means of maintaining class rule.”

Additionally, at various times in its history, the US Communist Party, and other left groups, have in fact decided to focus on class at the expense of race. This is not due to anything intrinsic to socialism, which, despite institutional mistakes, has consistently throughout history fought tooth and nail against racism. All of these factors combined to form a difficult to overcome incentive structure. While “White workers have always followed the lead of Black workers,” it is nevertheless the case that “many were indeed resentful, perceiving that Blacks were getting too much at the expense of White families.” While this is fundamentally incorrect, it points to the reality of a situation that made organizing in a meaningfully empowering way pretty difficult. Groups that worked together were uniquely targeted; the largest and most influential groups made mistakes and did not ground themselves in particular historical situations; and there was a racist ideological hegemony. Accordingly, the left has been slowly whittled down.

So, where does that leave us? Perhaps, here:

“Can there be a Black liberation in the United States as the country is currently constituted? No. Capitalism is contingent on the absence of freedom and liberation for Black people and anyone else who does not directly benefit from its economic disorder. That, of course, does not mean there is nothing to do and no struggle worth waging.”

Accordingly, we should be focused on the intersections of Latinx, Black, and economic political action. We need to stay sharp for when disabled people, queer people, indigenous people speak up, tell us to listen, and reveal another weak joint in our shared domination. We need to realize our strengths and our power. It is well worth noting that during the last Day Without an Immigrant, a full quarter of students did not attend school, and a huge swath of businesses did not operate. People that had never before, or only rarely, acted on political goals took concerted, collective action. That is a staggering fact, and speaks to the power and presence of Latinx politics specifically. Additionally, sanctuary networks, groups pressuring the police, anti-gentrification efforts, and countless other organizations are having real, if limited, success. However, these efforts are, painfully, viscerally, not yet enough. Without a rigorous, transformative intersectionality that acknowledges the reality of class, the un-salvageability of the police, and the raw necessity of working together, we will remain fractured and unable to sustain the shift that the initial struggles of the #BlackLivesMatter movement initiated.

This book forces awareness of the deluge that is the history of the United States. It also, however, reveals the fertility that deluge leaves in its wake. If we learn from the past, if we see what the power has tried to destroy, and we focus on creating new structures from its successes and learning from its failures, we can be the force the world needs. With focus, clarity, and organization, the oppressed majority that the white ruling class has fucked over for centuries can seize what it, what we, deserve. It’s easy to be distressed. It’s hard to marshal that distress. It’s even harder when centuries of wealth and power are arrayed against you. But power gets cocky, and we know the real stakes. We know how to hurt it, it’s just a matter of building the weapons.

Cover Image: “Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter” by Johnny Silvercloud licensed under CC By 2.0