Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “From #blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation” (2016) – It’s been a while since I’ve read a “current events” book (nonfiction about contemporary issues that isn’t reporting) not about the far right. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a comer in the left public-intellectual world, who reliably produces sharp analysis and clear writing on politics, especially touching on race, and has been the recipient of that badge of honor for activist intellectuals, the Fox News freakout.
In this short, highly readable book, Taylor frames the Black Lives Matter movement as a renewal of a black liberation struggle that has gone on at least since Reconstruction. She depicts these movements as both a continuation and a critique of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The latter made critical advances in securing citizenship rights for black Americans, especially in situations where formal color-blindness was an improvement, such as voting rights or public accommodations. But forces that tried to tackle the nexus between racism and capitalism were savagely repressed by the government and failed to make much headway. This left the system that oppressed black Americans (and, to one extent or another, most Americans) intact, with a somewhat more diverse ruling class than had existed previously.
Taylor puts a lot of emphasis on civil rights (and, to a lesser extent, black power) heroes attempting to adapt to the system, and being co-opted by it, to the point of becoming impediments to the new movements as they arose with a spate of highly-publicized police/vigilante murders of black people in the 2010s. The new movement is considerably less leader-driven than previous iterations of the black freedom struggle, largely being mobilized and publicized online and organized via consensus by local coalitions, with women and gender-nonbinary people playing many of the major roles. Taylor cites this decentralization along with the willingness on the part of the emerging movement to criticize the relationship between police brutality, racism, economic injustice and the logic of our system more broadly as signs that the movement has the potential to meaningfully answer the crises we face.
Taylor isn’t naively optimistic, giving due credit to the magnitude of the challenges, the liabilities of decentralized, social-media-driven organizing, and the possibilities of co-optation. If I have a criticism, it would be that I would have liked to have seen more specifics about how these challenges might be overcome, and what this loose, inchoate assemblage turning into a movement that can sustain a long-term challenge to power might look like. Since Taylor wrote this book, at least a few journalistic pieces have come out detailing that internal difficulties between Black Lives Matter groups, the way decentralization leads to a sort of centrifugal force making unified action impossible. On top of this, one sees the same ideological fault lines and personality conflicts between leadership you see in any movement, and that social media might accelerate and make harsher.
It’s good to have hope, both because there’s reason to believe in it for these movements and because gloom seldom helps anything. But I think it could have been interesting to look into the internal dynamics some and see how they work or could be improved. That said, this is a shorter work that introduces the issues and a frame for understanding them, and does well at that. ****’