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Why Black Lives Matter Can’t be Co-opted

A good comrade recently sent this— to me without comment. I don’t know anything about the publication, except that the comrade pointed out that it’s a new online intervention. I assume it’s nominally left, but who can tell what that means anymore? Nor do I know anything about the author, El Jones, beyond what her little bio blurb tells us. But what struck me about the essay was that it really represented yet another step in the wrong direction. And it prompted me to write this comment because the core, increasingly tiresome, problem with arguments like this—i.e., that Black Lives Matter is in danger, apparently on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border, of corporate co-optation—is that BLM never was and never had the potential to be what people like this fantasized that it was.

There never was a coherent politics there; nor was there any objective reason to assume there could be—especially considering that it was always a wan replay of Black Power in its faith that a generic slogan and some, often Potemkin, street action could generate a mass movement, and with what agenda exactly? To be sure, BLM helped to focus public attention onto police brutality and killings of black people, but no broader left politics necessarily follows from that. And to the extent that BLM projects and insists on a race-reductionist account of that injustice, its critique does as much to obscure the systemic foundations of the police behavior as it does to illuminate the behavior itself. Moreover, BLM, and contemporary antiracist politics in general, was always ripe for articulation toward entrepreneurialism, etc., not least because the personalities most visibly associated with it were careerist race ventriloquists and corporate media operatives. Did you see Van Jones collapsing with tears of joy after Jeff Bezos gave him $100 million? Or Kimberlé Crenshaw’s declaration, in yet another attack on Sanders, that “every corporation worth its salt” had done more to support antiracist causes than the Democrats or the left? Or the movement entrepreneurialism of Garza, Tometi, and Cullors? DeRay Mckesson was touted as an “authentic” leader until his doing what comes naturally to a professional Racial Voice became so embarrassingly crude that those who position themselves as the College of Cardinals of racial authenticity felt the need to proclaim that he wasn’t. And I have no time for bullshit like “those weren’t the real leaders; you had to be deeply inside the movement to know about them”—a familiar narrative from the hip-hop wing of the culture industry—because as a basically Potemkin, aspirational trend, there were no others. And the “movement” itself branched into politics of representation with crap like “Oscars so white,” etc., etc.

Besides, co-optation never explains anything. It’s a storyline about naïve and/or bad people getting bought off by other bad people. I don’t know about El Jones in particular, but many of those talking like this now dismissed or denounced Cedric Johnson, Touré Reed, me and others who tried to point out the limits of this stuff from the beginning. And, if Jones is any indication, they still don’t get the point. We absolutely do not need to figure out how to make anti-racism anti-capitalist. We need—especially in this country where we’re a morning of oversleeping away from a fascist coup, most likely via domestic application of “lawfare,” which pretends to satisfy concerns with due process and constitutionalism,* after 2022—to figure out how to start trying to build a mass movement around appealing to the material needs of the broad working-class in order to combat the burgeoning, ever more dangerous right wing. (As I reflect on the story of Gen. Milley’s concern about a coup attempt, it feels all the more to me that his and his allies’ proposed response, mass resignations, also woefully misreads the nature of the threat: such a beau geste would only remove a field of obstacles for the plotters.)

And I definitely don’t mean a united front with neoliberal Dems. The Biden administration raises suspicions that its game plan is to piddle around and try to split the difference between the bold public interventions necessary to win voters away from demoralization and Trumpism and oversold gestures that fatten up public goods to be butchered by the private sector, e.g., Not only is that not what we want or need; it likely won’t be enough to provide an antidote to the toxic brew that the right has created out of the popular fears, anger, and frustration resultant from more than four decades of bipartisan attacks on the working class and on public goods. And, no, I’m not denying the existence or significance of racism in this mix. That’s a framework the right offers for people to make sense of their fears, suffering, etc. by attributing their source to a scapegoat. Our job, the number one job for a serious left at this point, is to propagate a different, more accurate and more useful framework. As a great union leader recently summed up the challenge: it’s for us to turn class rage into class consciousness.

I think it’s imperative as well that we accept and not waver from an understanding that there’s no splitting the difference between a) what’s called anti-racism, the fundamentally brokerage, petition politics of racial representation, which assumes as it has ever since Booker Washington, that the pertinent locus of political agency for advancing “black interests” is the ruling class, which is therefore antiracism’s natural ally, and which guarantees that antiracist politics is thus by definition a politics fully incorporated within neoliberalism, and b) an anti-capitalist politics centered on the broad working class. Those who at this point want to hang onto the fantasy that BLM is a radical force either want to save face or preserve a market share or career trajectory. They aren’t allies; they aren’t winnable. They’re class enemies.

And their practice has made that clear. One of the gems of street corner wisdom of my youth was, “as between Mr. Say and Mr. Do, Mr. Say’s not shit; Mr. Do’s the man.” BLM activists have consistently attacked the left since at least 2015 in the U.S., and most conspicuously they’ve taken aim at Bernie Sanders, just as have the neoliberal Democrats. And the form of the attack on Sanders in particular was the race hustler’s shakedown, both in 2016 and 2020, which is also consistent with the reactionary politics of racial representation. They’ve been antagonistic to working-class solidarity and to universalist social democracy, and they’ve always taken money from the bourgeoisie. And their counter-solidaristic political agendas—defund the police, the 1619 Project, elevation of challenging disparities over broadly redistributive initiatives, etc.—have only inflamed the reactionaries and done little or nothing concrete for us. The time is too perilous to indulge calls to treat this politics as something it is not.


*An undeniable penchant for Schadenfreude suggests that, if lawfare is good enough for the U.S. to use to topple governments in Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, it’s good enough for use here.

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