The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption
Draped in Ghanaian kente cloth, a fabric popularized by Afrocentric nationalists during the late eighties, a dozen or so Congressional Democrats knelt in a moment of silence before unveiling their Justice in Policing legislation. Their actions came exactly two weeks to the date that George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, and after an unprecedented wave of protests that swept all fifty states, over 500 U.S. towns and cities, and scores of demonstrations of solidarity globally. Led by Karen Bass, Congressional Black Caucus chair, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the congress members embraced the language and tone of Black Lives Matter protests, with some lecturing on the “original sin” of slavery, and South Carolina congressman James Clyburn adding that Floyd’s death was “just a continuation” of a long and unbroken history of American racism. Even former presidential hopefuls, senators Kamala Harris and Corey Booker traded in their previous roles as tough-on-crime enforcers and adopted the histrionic rhetoric of popular anti-racism. This was perhaps the perfect valence to mount the center-right Democratic renewal, especially after a botched campaign to impeach Donald Trump, and the social-democratic left challenge of Bernie Sanders’ second bid for the party’s nomination. This moment has been a triumph for Black Lives Matter activists, but once the plumes of tear gas dissipate and compassion fatigue sets in, the real beneficiaries will likely be the neoliberal Democrats and the capitalist blocs they serve. Nearly all of the Democrat leadership who “took a knee” against racist policing, have openly opposed Medicare for All, free higher education, and the expansion of other public goods, but their technical reforms to reduce excessive force incidents and prosecute police for misconduct are the perfect way of displaying commitment to racial justice, while perpetuating the very pro-market logics and class relations that stress policing and mass incarceration were invented to protect.
Adolph Reed, Jr.’s “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence,” should be read again and often during this moment of resurgent Black Lives Matter sentiment, precisely because he so clearly names the limitations of anti-racism as a way of thinking about the problems of carceral power, and cautions against any left-progressive politics that separates racism from historical processes and political economy. As Reed notes, “antiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself.” Furthermore, antiracist politics is essentially “the left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines.” Of course, I can already hear some friends of mine, academic colleagues and activists alike, who will grumble and cry foul, quickly asserting the presence of this or that tendency that embodies the true radical spirit of Black Lives Matter. Others will likely point to the scale of recent protests as evidence of a new moment, a turning point that will yield massive substantive reforms. Like Occupy Wall Street protests before, however, Black Lives Matter is more of a sentiment than a fully formed political force. Let’s not forget that it was born as a hashtag, and while it has provided a powerful banner for longer-standing organizations and legislative campaigns working to reverse the social toll of carceral expansion, the liberal character of the hashtag should be more apparent now than ever.
We have all witnessed how readily different class layers have embraced the slogan over the last weeks. Some activists have seized upon the images of mass protests as evidence of a gathering political will, but the amorphous nature of Black Lives Matter, which Reed rightly compared to the Black Power slogan from decades earlier, and the facile expressions of unity in endless memes and viral videos of police-civilian line dances conceal substantive political differences among protestors and within broader U.S. publics. While a slim majority of Americans now believe police are more likely to use excessive force against blacks than other groups, millions more do not share the most militant calls to defund or dismantle police departments voiced by some activists.1 Most Americans are upset by police killings, but they also want more effective policing. Over the last five years, satisfaction with police has strengthened among all ethnic and racial groups, including African Americans (from 50% “at least somewhat satisfied” in 2015 to 72% now).
Black Lives Matter sentiment is essentially a militant expression of racial liberalism. Such expressions are not a threat but rather a bulwark to the neoliberal project that has obliterated the social wage, gutted public sector employment and worker pensions, undermined collective bargaining and union power, and rolled out an expansive carceral apparatus, all developments that have adversely affected black workers and communities. Sure, some activists are calling for defunding police departments and de-carceration, but as a popular slogan, Black Lives Matter is a cry for full recognition within the established terms of liberal democratic capitalism. And the ruling class agrees.
During the so-called Black Out Tuesday social media event, corporate giants like Walmart and Amazon widely condemned the killing of George Floyd and other policing excesses. Gestural anti-racism was already evident at Amazon, which flew the red, black and green black liberation flag over its Seattle headquarters this past February. The world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos even took the time to respond personally to customer upset that Amazon expressed sympathy with the George Floyd protestors. “‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter,” the Amazon CEO wrote, “I have a 20-year-old son, and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. It’s not something I worry about. Black parents can’t say the same.” Bezos also pledged $10 million in support of “social justice organizations,” i.e., the ACLU Foundation, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, the National Bar Association, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Urban League, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the United Negro College Fund, and Year Up. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music and Walmart each committed $100 million to similar organizations. The protests have provided a public relations windfall for Bezos and his ilk. Only weeks before George Floyd’s killing, Amazon, Instacart, GrubHub and other delivery-based firms, which became crucial for commodity circulation during the national shelter-in-place, faced mounting pressure from labor activists over their inadequate protections, low wages, lack of health benefits and other working conditions. Corporate anti-racism is the perfect egress from these labor conflicts. Black lives matter to the front office, as long as they don’t demand a living wage, personal protective equipment and quality health care.
Perhaps the most important point in Reed’s 2016 essay is his insistence that Black Lives Matter, and cognate notions like the New Jim Crow are empirically and analytically wrong and advance an equally wrong-headed set of solutions. He does not deny the fact of racial disparity in criminal justice but points us towards a deeper causation and the need for more fulsome political interventions. Racism alone cannot fully explain the expansive carceral power in our midst, which, as Reed notes, is “the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working-class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.” Most Americans have now rejected the worst instances of police abuse, but not the institution of policing, nor the consumer society it services. As we should know too well by now, white guilt and black outrage have limited political currency, and neither has ever been a sustainable basis for building the kind of popular and legislative majorities needed to actually contest entrenched power in any meaningful way.
The wave of mass protests that George Floyd’s death provoked is not reducible to Black Lives Matter, but was also a consequence of the broader pandemic and real hardship of the shelter-in-place order, which was necessary for public health, but without adequate sustained federal relief, has produced mass layoffs, food pantries hard pressed to keep up with unprecedented need, and broad anxiety among many Americans about their bleak employment prospects in the near future. The looting that broke out in many cities the weekend after Floyd’s murder were not like the ghetto rebellions of the sixties, 1992 Los Angeles, or even Ferguson and Baltimore in recent years. The looters were multiracial, intergenerational and targeted downtowns and central shopping districts like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, Manhattan’s Times Square and Chicago’s State Street and the Magnificent Mile. So far mainstream civil rights leaders, some Black Lives Matter activists, the corporate punditry and many Americans have frequently and loudly drawn a distinction between the righteousness of peaceful protestors and the “violence” and lawlessness of looters and rioters. That posture, like hyperbolic claims about the primacy of the color line, will continue to defer the kind of public goods that might actually help the most dispossessed of all races and ethnicities who are the most likely to be routinely surveilled, harassed, arrested, convicted, incarcerated and condemned as failures, the collateral damage of the American dream.