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: What Do “They” Represent?
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. To some extent, BLM has been a movement. 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.
In one moment, it can be about socio-economic equality and in the next we see some members involved in acts of violence. BLM can be seen as a loosely-coordinated, passe partout, movement, non-criminal even though there have been allegations of its involvement is violent acts. This is one of the inherent fault-lines of the BLM movement – part of its weakness 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 may be defiled, distorted and morphed into something more nefarious than intended.
What we observe is a movement able to gain strength by agitating against racial disunion in American society. This was demonstrated in its efforts to mobilize Black indignation toward a 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.
However, 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. It was claimed that BLM was 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, it would seem that the BLM movement had moved in two very different directions and may grow 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 may seem attractive to some, particularly because some of its rhetoric or violent acts by some members but still, it 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 lack of justice in society leading to violence, calls for serious concern. 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; 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.
The Future of the “Black Lives Matter” Movement
If BLM will be able to effect the change it seeks, it will have to confront its weaknesses. 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. 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.
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 narrative, which has brought about a 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. At the moment, it seemed to be working 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 was co-authored with Emeka Thaddues Njoku.
Emeka Thaddues Njoku holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. He is a 2020/2021 fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies/African Humanities Program. He was a fellow of the Social Science Research Council’s Next Generation Social Science in Africa program and the Brown International Advance Research Institutes, Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University, USA.