Americans and scholars such as Patricia Williams see racial oppression nearly everywhere evident in American society. Questions of who is responsible have been ongoing for decades even despite claims by Shelby Steele, for example, about institutionalized racism in America being a thing of the past. In recent years waves of increased violence with intolerance pitted against intolerance has grown and materialized as the “Black Lives Matter” (what we refer to hereafter as “BLM”) movement – a phrase that emerged in July 2013.
Black Lives Matter: A fluid Organization
What is the BLM movement for or against? If it is a reactionary group, an uprising, it is fair to ask what this is an uprising against. BLM is dangerous predominantly because it is a movement without a clearly defined cause and therefore a movement capable of serving as a vehicle for anything put into it at a particular moment in time. From its inception the movement was related to the international movement known as Occupy, which seeks to end social and economic inequality around the world – strikingly divergent from the infamous character of BLM today, or one instantiation of it.
BLM is not a terrorist organization, nor is it not a criminal movement despite such references having recurrently been made. It would be apt to claim, however, that BLM is a group, a syndicate confronting racism and oppression by running the gamut of doing so through violent means. BLM has radically departed from what it was and what it was intended to be not too long ago.
In one moment it can be about socio-economic equality and in the next it can be about supporting discriminate acts of violence under the banner of really anything even shallowly justificatory. BLM is a non-coordinated, passe partout, movement, which is not-criminal, but potentially dangerous because of its volatile and mutating nature. This is one of the inherent fault-lines of the BLM movement – part of its flawed nature and the strongest trait that risks the future of BLM and most of its socio-political potential. It has also been successfully able to proliferate an ideology, which can be repeatedly defiled, distorting and morphing into something more nefarious than intended.
What we observe is a movement able to can gain strength easily by stoking racial disunion in American society. At least one crude incarnation of BLM and its division of American society demonstrated effort to monopolize and mobilize Black indignation toward a perceived lack of justice emanating from a society of White privilege. On December 13, 2014, the Millions March took place in New York City – efforts of a coalition of organizations on that day eventually have led to a social storm.
A week after the march, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley sought revenge for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by killing two on-duty New York City police officers named Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. Both were killed while sitting in their patrol car. Brinsley then shot himself. BLM was seen as the broader perpetrator for having cultivated an atmosphere of hostility and physical aggression toward law enforcement officers. Controversy surrounding the movement subsequently focused on the perceived inability of it to proactively but passively influence America’s social architecture. In a sense, the BLM movement had moved in two very different directions and had grown out of control.
Civil Rights and Black Equality Debate: Unfinished Business
Recently, Adjunct Professor Douglas Muir at the University of Virginia’s Engineering School likened BLM to the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) movement and was consequently forced to accept a leave of absence. The idea of BLM representing the antithesis of the KKK is attractive particularly because some of its rhetoric relating to the KKK’s. In a sense, it resembles a reverse and misaligned version of the KKK unable to delineate between inequality and inequity in American society but still, it is simply not the Black version of “the Klan.”
The radical edges of BLM should serve as a wake-up call for multicultural societies like the US. Feelings of intensive animosity being vindicated by a perceived, albeit superficial, lack of justice in society leading to violent acts. When we consider the various factors fuelling BLM, one question presenting itself is in what ways has a skin-tone mind-set been reinforced in American society?
Because infants are not born racist, hostile, or violent, or harboring resentment toward one person or another due to his or her class or socio-economic status, those feelings have not only been picked-up somewhere, they have been learned, they have been taught. At some point in our lives we have to be told how to see those differences, which can be diffused unintentionally even through anti-racism campaigns.
BLM is unique but also rather ordinary at the same time. It can easily be set apart from the civil rights movement of the US but concurrently should not be excluded from America’s long history of the fight for civil rights and Black equality. BLM communicates a continuous need in American society for Blacks and non-Blacks alike to ask what the specific mechanisms are placing people in their respective positions, how positions of power are formed, and what factors hold people down or lift them up, how positions are inherited and why people accept specific roles.
Many of those mechanisms stare us directly in the face, but we have been acculturated to look past them, dismiss them, or simply accept them as the status quo. However, to claim state-sanctioned violence is anything but a mere symptom of societal structuring and such power mechanisms would be egregiously remiss. Violence toward Blacks or non-Whites is not the mechanism holding anyone down; it is not the containment factor. If anything, one might point to fear as the mechanism, which has the power to hold people down until it lifts them up to do good or perpetrate insidious acts.
The Future of the “Black Lives Matter” Movement
If BLM is to remain legitimate and able to effect the change it seeks, it will have to confront many of its self-made demons. Marches calling for the death of White people, White police officers, the murder of White and Latino law enforcement personnel, and referencing martyrdom when members of the movement kill, are some of its most prominent. BLM’s self-made constraints are also evident in its name, which departs glaringly from the value that all lives matter.
Many of America’s historical structures were inherently racist, and reinforced each other to perpetuate a system still in existence today. The question is which structures are still in place and how can they be disentangled from those failing to contribute to movements like BLM. In a sense, BLM can be seen as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement and its unfinished business. Distilled, BLM perpetuates some of the same structures it seeks to remove, or even creating new ones.
What many within BLM seemingly perceive as the remedy to the structuration problem is simultaneously a danger to those seen as the one strengthening the structures or even just benefitting from them. In this sense, the solution then serves as a dangerous symbol.
Perhaps one of its steepest challenges in the future will be moving away from the milieu it has created thought which Black children will be forced to live. BLM has quickly created a distorted narrative, which has brought about a nasty backlash effect. The movement has become a 21st century narrative of racialized citizenship, contributing to the redefinition of racial boundaries and exclusion across the US. It works against efforts to assimilate from both sides (if we are to view US racial society dichotomously), deconsolidating many decades of effort to build Black identity in a positive light.
*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Emeka T. Njoku.
Emeka T. Njoku holds an MA in Political Science from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria where he is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science. He is a Fellow at the Institute of French Research in Africa, and was a Fellow of the Social Science Research Council in New York. Email: [email protected]