Exploding the post-racial myth

Just over a year ago, the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a movement that thrust the epidemic of racist police brutality into national consciousness. The impact of this movement and the confidence it has raised for thousands of ordinary people to fight back, is palpable—from the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina to the mass antiracist mobilization at the University of Missouri that spread to campuses across the country, to the small (but no less significant) number of indictments of police officers who, in normal times, would face no consequences.

Yet, in this same year, over 1,000 people—a disproportionate number of whom were Black—were killed by police. The Black Lives Matter movement has allowed us to say their names and launched an unequivocal indictment of the racism that pervades American society, even as a Black man occupies the highest office in the country. Yet, the question of what it will take to stop the mounting police killings of Black people and hold state-sanctioned violence to account remains the central challenge for a new generation of activists.

In this sense, Taylor’s book could not have arrived at a better time. The book sets out to explain the seeming paradox of why a movement that has cast light on pervasive police killings and the overall devaluation of Black life in the United States coincides with the first Black presidency—a moment which was meant to mark the pinnacle of the nation’s triumph over racism and the dawn of a “post-racial” era. In responding to this question, Taylor not only provides a comprehensive analysis of the conditions that gave rise to the movement, but also demonstrates how it fits into the historical trajectory of the fight for Black liberation. She offers critical insights about the nature of racism in the United States and shows why explaining its persistence requires an analysis of both race and class, while also pointing to the lessons of past struggle.

In addition, Taylor makes compelling arguments about the new challenges and questions of strategy that this latest phase of struggle has raised for anyone interested in what it will take to make Black lives matter in a society that so pervasively and ruthlessly insists they do not. Thus, her book proves indispensable not only for its illuminating analysis of the conditions that inform racism and resistance in the present, but as an essential tool for those determined to shape a different future.

Rather than marking the high point of racial equality that many believed Obama’s presidency would entail, Taylor contends that this period has been closer to what Malcolm X described as an “American nightmare.” While this particular chapter of Black struggle is precipitated by widespread instances of police brutality and the near impossibility for Black people to get any justice from the legal system, racist policing represents only the tip of the iceberg in how racism operates in the so-called colorblind era. Despite the end of overt discrimination with the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, the rise of unprecedented Black political power has not translated to gains for the majority of Black people. Instead, dramatic racial disparities persist, exemplified by daily instances of police brutality, higher levels of poverty, and a lower standard of living for Black Americans by every measure from health to wealth.

The dominant explanation for these conditions has been the narrative of a culture of poverty, which Taylor characterizes as the latest attempt to cast Black inequality as an aberration in a society where there are no longer explicit racial barriers to Black advancement. These explanations have never been intended to elucidate reality; instead, they serve the ideological function of bolstering America’s claim to be a land of freedom and opportunity while masking the actual history of genocide, slavery, and exploitation on which this country was founded.

Taylor argues that racism must be understood as institutional rather than individual, writing, “Institutional racism, or structural racism, can be defined as the policies, programs, and practices of public and private institutions that result in greater rates of poverty, dispossession, criminalization, illness, and ultimately mortality of African Americans. Most importantly, it is the outcome that matters, not the intentions of the individuals involved.”

While racism has indeed been essential to American society from the start, it grew not out of blind hatred for Black people but served, on the one hand, to rationalize the presence of Black inequality in a nation founded on the myth of freedom, democracy, and opportunity for all; and on the other to justify the pursuit of enormous profits through the slave trade and the labor of slaves. This point is essential not only to understanding the rise of racism, but to explaining its persistence after the abolition of slavery due to the continued need for a cheap, controllable workforce. Taylor challenges the notion “that race operates or acts on its own, with only a tangential relationship to other processes taking place within our society.” Racism is not an aberrational atrocity in an otherwise equal and just society, but is central to obscuring the greater inequality that exists within the United States as a whole.

Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that the ideas that bolster anti-Black racism have remained static or impervious to challenge. Taylor offers a corrective to the traditional emphasis historians have placed on the backlash narrative (which stresses the success of the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy”) obscures the extent to which the civil rights and Black power movements had not merely undermined, but made completely unacceptable overt appeals to racism and dehumanizing rhetoric about Blacks.* Rather, the strategy of colorblindness was necessary precisely because of the degree to which Black rebellion had succeeded in challenging racist ideas. Taylor credits the struggle against racism with creating openings for advancing alternative systemic explanations for Black poverty that “pointed to structural inequality and affirmed the demand for positive or affirmative action on the part of the state to cure the impoverished conditions brought on by centuries of discrimination.”

Moreover, as Taylor notes, the backlash “was intended not only to discipline rebelling African Americans but to reestablish order in a society where demonstrations, illegal strikes, riots, and rebellion had become legitimate means of registering complaints against the state and forcing reforms from hostile political forces, including those of ordinary working-class white people.”

Having won the abolition of Jim Crow, many civil rights activists radicalized around the persistence of racism even with the achievement of formal legal equality, they began to advance the need for a more fundamental transformation of American society and advocated economic solutions as central to the project of Black liberation. More threatening still was the example set to other movements, “from the antiwar movement to the struggle for women’s liberation,” which made the Black struggle “a conduit for questioning American democracy and capitalism.” Taylor explains that this radicalization, along with the impact of widespread urban uprisings against racist conditions in the North, was not confined to the streets; it spilled over into workplaces and threatened to impact the economy as well. The high point of this struggle was an illegal wildcat strike of over 200,000 postal workers in which Black and white workers walked on the same picket lines, with Black workers bringing the lessons and militancy of the civil rights struggle to the shop floor.

Despite the undeniable role of racism in legitimizing the backlash, along with the conscious effort to criminalize Black people as a pretext for ramping up policing and the prison system, Taylor argues that these instances of multiracial solidarity challenge the notion that whites were politically monolithic. Moreover, the backlash launched by the business class to suppress these movements “would affect not only Blacks but everyone who benefited from the expansion of social welfare.” With the end of the post-World War II economic boom and the launching of a neoliberal offensive against the entire working class, ideological attacks in the form of law and order rhetoric and the massive repression against the Black movement at the vanguard of this radicalization were informed not only by racism, but by “efforts to rehabilitate the system itself.”

Taylor’s analysis of the conditions that led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement points to both the continuities it shares with these past movements and the new dynamics of racism in the neoliberal era. The book thoroughly investigates the rise and professionalization of modern policing and its function in the age of austerity. Taylor situates the policies of routine surveillance, harassment, and brutality that are endemic to policing in Black communities within the larger context of disinvestment from and attacks on the social services and welfare reforms that had been won through the 1960s and 1970s uprisings. Despite the fact that police departments around the country rack up billions of dollars in brutality settlements, they continue to receive funding and resources (along with the impunity to “kill like no other law enforcement agencies in the so-called First World”) at the expense of jobs and social programs to combat poverty and inequality. Contrary to the notion that policing has simply gotten off track, Taylor argues that the police are, in fact, doing their job as “agents of social control in a society that is fundamentally unequal.” The history of US racism has meant that African Americans “have been historically overrepresented” among the ranks of the poor and working classes and are more likely to be its targets. In fact, this remains true “even as police forces across the country have become more diverse and reflective of the communities they patrol.” Ultimately, Taylor argues, there has never been a “’golden age’ of policing” in which racism was absent from the equation. Instead, policing has long been the linchpin in maintaining class inequality, as well as the focal point for social explosions, because it exemplifies “the worst end of the ‘double-standard’ of justice.”

While we could not have predicted that the death of Michael Brown would be the breaking point for renewed national resistance, there were many earlier events, from Hurricane Katrina to the killing of Trayvon Martin, that had helped to produce a generalized picture of racist violence and new organizations to combat it. The fact that the National Guard and the full force of the state were brought down against the residents of Ferguson further exposed “the brutal realities of Black life,” but their resistance in the face of this resonated well beyond the city and inspired a newfound militancy to confront what was actually a national problem.

Importantly, Taylor describes how the clash between the so-called old guard civil rights figures and the new generation of activists not only belied political differences, but laid bare the limitations of strategies predicated on cross-class racial solidarity. In the chapter “Black Faces in High Places,” Taylor notes how these limitations were most starkly exposed in Baltimore, where unlike in Ferguson, a majority of the political establishment is Black: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.” Taylor examines the roots of the strategy of Black inclusion within the political establishment, initially embraced by revolutionaries and elites alike.

Rather than advancing the struggle, Taylor contends that the turn from grassroots struggle in the streets to electoral politics and, in particular, “entering the democratic party” had a conservatizing impact on the movement overall. Contrary to the notion that race trumps class, when it comes to issues of policing, privatization, and poverty that impact the majority of African Americans, Taylor argues that the opposite has been true: “Black elected officials obscure their actions under a cloak of imagined racial solidarity, while ignoring their role as arbiters of political power who willingly operate in a political terrain designed to exploit and oppress African Americans and other working-class people.” At issue is not a moral failing on the part of Black politicians, but that “complicity is the price of admission into the ranks of the political establishment.” This “dramatizes how class differences can lead to different political strategies in the fight for Black liberation.”

Perhaps the most unique asset of the book is its appraisal of the state of the Black Lives Matter movement, and of the questions of strategy the movement must answer if it is to advance. Having validated the power of protest to accomplish more in a year than decades of waiting on politicians to act, #BLM activists have also had a profound impact on the consciousness of Americans (including whites) and have articulated the scope of the problem as going beyond police brutality, putting forward an intersectional approach to racial and economic justice.

In discussing the transition “from protest to movement,” Taylor puts forward several arguments on the need for greater organization and coordination as necessary to push further cracks in the police state and “withstand opposition and attempts to infiltrate, subvert, and destroy what has been built.” This point feels especially relevant in the context of this year’s election season, where Democratic Party candidates vie for the ear of prominent movement figures, and rhetorical attacks and surveillance of the movement are already underway. Further, she makes several points on movement strategy, such as the need for financial and political independence; the importance of reforms in raising people’s confidence to fight for more radical change; and the necessity of extending the movement to include labor, where there is the greatest social power to “shut it down” until demands are met.

Yet, in order to win this struggle, Taylor argues that it is not enough to define the problem; the movement must pose an alternative. The question of how to get to a society in which “Black Lives Matter” must be informed by an understanding of the “origins and nature of oppression more generally,” including the unequal nature of US society as a whole. In the context of levels of inequality not seen since the Great Depression, the police violence and poverty faced by Black communities cannot be addressed without taking on the priorities of capitalism; as Taylor puts it, “The struggle for Black Liberation...is not an abstract idea molded in isolation from the wider phenomenon of economic exploitation and inequality that pervades all of American society; it is intimately bound up with them.” Contrary to the charge that socialism is marginal to the struggle for racial justice, Taylor points to the long line of leaders and organizations within the Black freedom movement that concluded it would take no less than the demise of capitalism to realize Black liberation. Accordingly, because of the centrality of racism to maintaining class rule, socialists have always seen the struggle against racism as essential to the fight against capitalism.

Taylor elucidates why Marxism remains a critical tool for explaining the persistence of racial inequality and the means for its abolition. Marxists argue that the oppression of one group of workers disarms the entire class against its real enemies, who have everything to gain from our disunity. The point, Taylor insists, is not to ignore the significant disparities between Blacks and whites, but to note that “when we only compare the average incomes of working-class Blacks and whites, we miss the much more dramatic disparity between the wealthiest and everyone else.” Far from glossing over the significance of racism or putting its abolition off to some distant future, Marxists recognize that “when the Black movement goes into motion, it throws the entire mythology of the United States. . . into chaos.”

At the same time, Taylor argues, the divergent class interests that exist within the Black community and the relation of the Black struggle to broader social questions impose limits on what this struggle can achieve if it remains isolated. Although racism has meant that Black people suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police, “The pervasive character of law-and-order politics means that whites get caught up in its web as well.” The point is not to undermine the particular brutality of racism, but to point to the “objective basis” that exists for solidarity among all working-class people who are similarly (if not equally) subject to police terror and economic injustice. Thus, Taylor argues that the hope for transforming US society lies not only in the struggle for Black liberation and its power to expose the lies America tells about itself, but in winning wider layers of working-class people of all races to recognize their own stake in the fight to end racism—not merely as sympathetic allies, but because “the fate and future of all working people are linked.” “In that sense,” she writes, “Black Liberation is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.”

Taylor does us an immense service in putting these arguments on the table, which offer both a forceful indictment of racism today and the profoundly hopeful assertion that it is possible for racism to be broken down. This rich history and analysis deserves to be taken up by everyone in the movement, putting us on firmer ground to tackle the question implied in the title of what it will take to get from a society in which it must be insisted that Black Lives Matter to one in which Black liberation is a reality.

* The “Southern strategy” refers to the Nixon administration’s efforts to appeal covertly to racist sentiments and uniting whites behind the Republican party and measures to undo the gains of the civil rights era.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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