Here some selections from “Chapter 4: Political Movements in Struggle” and “Chapter 5: Antiracism Now” of Antiracism: An Introduction by Alex Zamalin, published in March 2019. Antiracism is an accessible introduction to the political theory of black American antiracism, through a study of the major figures, texts, and political movements across US history. Zamalin argues that antiracism is a powerful tradition that is crucial for energizing American democracy.
Chapter 4: Political Movements in Struggle
From the earliest slave rebellions to the contemporary struggle for black equality with the Movement for Black Lives, antiracist movements have been a recurrent presence in US history, mobilizing and inspiring waves of popular energy necessary to confront racism. Their tactics and strategies extracted gains from the political system. Political, social, cultural, and economic conditions shaped their development. But they pushed against what counted as politics, what was acceptable, and what was just. Massive white resistance derailed their aspirations but never entirely and not for too long. Crises forced them to reconsolidate but also provided opportunities for reassessment and renewal.
Antiracist movements answer relevant questions today. What kind of action is politically effective? How should movements organize against political power? What kinds of appeals should they make to citizens? How should they push their agenda? How should they respond to success and failure? How should they balance the goals of resistance and disruption with that of coalition building?
Antiracism in the Post-Civil-Rights Era
Not all antiracist energy was lost after the 1960s. Much of it took a new form. The black public sphere, which had earlier circulated through historically black colleges and black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and journals such as Crisis, became active through curriculums across college campuses from the 1980s onward. (50) The creation of this new antiracist culture and civil sphere was made possible through King’s mainstreaming of justice talk. But it was much more influenced by late 1960s black radicalism. Antiracist academics coming of age then tried to revive what seemed lost in the prior decades. The first black studies program was founded at San Francisco State University in 1968, but by the 1980s, many were in existence in universities across the US. Black studies emphasized the teaching of black history, marginalized black voices, and counterpatriotic narratives that challenged consensus narratives of American history. Black studies for “Afrocentrists” such as Molefi Kete Asante became a way to challenge Eurocentrism (which privileged the philosophy and values of western European peoples) and the modern political ideas it engendered. For Afrocentrists, embodied thinking drawn from the African experience and philosophy and culture were prioritized over western European universality, social consciousness over individualism, and historicity over the inevitability of progress. (51)
A new generation of black feminists and queer activists also had a profound effect on women’s and gender studies academic departments. What was hailed as an intellectual breakthrough in both the women’s and black liberation movements, the Combahee River Collective statement in 1974, written by black lesbian activists who met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, argued that political action required understanding and responding to the interlocking nature of oppression on the basis of sex, class, gender, and race that many women of color faced. As the collective put it, “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.” (52) Black feminists transformed lived experience into a source of theory, they used black women’s voices to disrupt male-saturated fields of thinking, and they linked gender to racism and capitalism in explaining US patriarchy. (53) In the words of bell hooks, “The struggle to end racism and the struggle to end sexism are naturally intertwined. . . . To make them separate [is] to deny a basic truth of our existence, that race and sex are both immutable aspects of human identity.” (54) For black feminists, to think in interconnected ways required undoing false binaries and hierarchies of oppression. Doing this had the benefit of seeing affinities of solidarity and exclusion. As Audre Lorde powerfully put it, “Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.” (55) Antiracism also extended into the legal profession, when a group of radical lawyer-scholars associated with the critical race theory (CRT) movement in the late 1970s sought to educate a generation of lawyers about the persistence of racism throughout the US legal and criminal justice system. CRT scholars helped students understand that the post-civil-rights dismantling of racial equality in the courts continued a long history in which material economic interests and political elite calculations were placed above concerns for racial equality. The legal profession’s teaching of case law through abstract precedents and arguments was challenged. Narratives, stories, and experiences of black people were put in their place. Now students could begin to understand the formative historical role that law played in defining citizenship. CRT challenged the legal doctrine of “color blindness” by rendering its underlying presupposition false. Embedded naturalized white supremacy through the political system and in the deeply held, even if unconscious, assumptions of some juries, judges, and courts ensured that race would continue to play a role in administering justice. (56)
The Movement for Black Lives
Obama’s presence in the public—like Douglass’s, the NAACP’s, and King’s before him—created space for antiracist movements to form. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was only nascent at the end of Obama’s first term in 2012, after the killing in Florida of the young black teen Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watchman, and only reached national prominence in the middle of his second term in 2014, after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But BLM became a political force by the end of Obama’s administration in 2016. Crucially, Obama never renounced the movement: he granted it legitimacy through his willingness to say publicly that if he had a son, he could easily look like Trayvon and by inviting BLM activists to a forum on policing at the White House.
But there was only so much legitimacy Obama could grant. The white backlash arguments against BLM followed a long history of reaction. In ways that were identical to what the civil rights movement faced, detractors claimed that BLM was antiwhite, that it prioritized the protection of black lives over white lives, that it demonized police officers, that it was uncivil and shrill in its arguments and unclear in its political demands. But BLM continued and synthesized historical antiracist tactics. What at first was a social media hashtag on Twitter, #BlackLivesMatter—developed by three queer women activists of color, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi—has since become a confederation of activists and organizations under the umbrella the Movement for Black Lives (MBL). At first, BLM activists protested in streets to reconfigure the meaning of democratic commitment in the hearts and minds of onlookers. Just as early slave revolts and civil rights actions defined protest as consistent with the aspiration of liberty, exemplary civic love was the justification given by BLM activists standing together before SWAT teams and a militarized police force in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s killing and in Baltimore as a response to the twenty-five-year-old black man Freddie Gray’s spine being dislocated while going for a “rough ride” under police custody in 2015.
Over the past several years, MBL organization has become more crucial to its strategy. It has embodied what Rustin once called the shift “from protest to politics.” (59) Its initial placards and social media postings have now developed into an organization with a set of political demands defended by a coterie of young activists running for elected office. This antiracist work is especially important given that there has been a youth deficit in antiracist leadership, which has been generally wedded to a vision of democratic centrism that speaks the language of corporate America and legal equality rather than socioeconomic freedom. MBL has also followed SNCC’s example of retaining the direct democratic energy of both young men and women and has internalized black feminism’s intersectional thinking. MBL has done this while seizing the black radical call for economic equality and the Panthers’ assault on police brutality. For this reason, appeals to shared interests with workers, women, Latinos, and Muslims have been invoked in the movement more than patriotic claims about liberal US national identity.
All this should hearten antiracists, but it is too soon to tell what political achievements MBL will realize, especially as it confronts a Trump presidency that is intent on using time-honored tactics of state-led repression—a recently exposed internal FBI report has warned of what the administration perceives as the threat of “Black Identity Extremism.” As the leaked report states, “The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence.”60 Nonetheless, antiracist history reveals that transformation takes time, even when it occurs. The antilynching movement never had any concrete political gains; radical labor activists had some, but they were uneven; and the civil rights movement took nine years from its inception to achieve a major legislative victory. But how should antiracist movements, such as MBL, confront this moment now, when the hope that glimmered so brightly with Obama’s election seems all but lost?
Antiracist political history provides hope in dark times. Action is difficult, but it works—however slowly and unevenly. A less racist future has always seemed like a dream. But movements acted with the conviction and foresight that it was not a dream—with an imagination about what the future might be, even if it had not arrived yet. Violence, repression, and backlash were always present, but so was opportunity. Solidarities eroded, goals changed, leaders died, and movements disintegrated. But violence sometimes receded, and antiracist laws were eventually passed too. Repression became distracted, and new strategies were forged. Growing solidarity sometimes defeated backlash, and new coalitions were born. Moral and patriotic appeals sometimes moved white majorities to become antiracists, while shared-interest arguments broke down racial barriers. Reversals and failure were both guaranteed. The march was sometimes excruciating and frightening. But antiracists moved forward, always, despite the treacherous terrain and with an eye toward the future.
Chapter 5: Antiracism Now
Antiracist thought and action is especially important now. White nationalists have been emboldened by Trump’s presidency. Racial inequality remains disproportionate. Vulnerability is widespread, and democracy is under attack. Our moment needs citizens who defend racial justice, denounce white supremacy, and agitate for policies that achieve structural transformation. But what would this look like? What kinds of argument and politics would it entail?
Every antiracist must make his or her own political choices. (1) No singular vision can be generalized across the tradition, but shared themes exist. Antiracist thought is less of an ideology and more of a sensibility. It is defined by historical consciousness and attentiveness to social structure and political choices informed by power. Antiracist political thought is defined by a commitment to freedom, equality, and dignity. And antiracist political movements provide a blueprint for future action. The antiracist political tradition can help diminish contemporary racial inequality and energize freedom struggles across the world.
Antiracist Structural Thinking
Understanding racism’s structural historical legacies dismantles contemporary postracialism. (14) Two of the most prominent postracial arguments are usually posed as the following rhetorical questions: Slavery and Jim Crow are long gone, but why are black people still complaining? And, other immigrants (white ethnics from eastern Europe) came to the country with less resources than some black people have but have attained more wealth, so why do many black people refuse to take personal responsibility for their condition?
To these assertions, the antiracist would make two main claims. The first is that better laws aimed at nondiscrimination in the workplace are only part of the solution to years of accumulated socioeconomic disparity. What is necessary too (but missing from the public conversation) is redistributive programs that bring black citizens to an equal level to white citizens with respect to wealth, income, employment opportunity, housing, health outcomes, and educational achievement. The second is that white immigrants have had white skin and could assimilate as white. White skin granted them the ability to move to different neighborhoods, drop their ethnic-sounding surnames, and apply for good-paying jobs, without the stigmas associated with black skin. Black people, however, have always had black skin, on which they never could cash in on the open market to enrich themselves. (15)
Structural thinking about white supremacy also undermines racist interpretations of black life. Diminished opportunity and a lack of good-paying jobs, rather than “black laziness,” explain black poverty. (16) Widespread gun access, promoted through the US gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), rather than the black cultural support of violence, explains the devastatingly high homicide rates in some black neighborhoods, in which gang membership is usually about a sense of belonging in lieu of well-funded cultural centers and thriving community spaces. (17) Inadequate state funding for deeply segregated predominantly black public schools, rather than black disinterest in learning, explains the educational achievement gap. (18) Homophobia and antiblack racism, not black sexual deviance, helps explain the disproportionate rate at which queer black people are subject to violence and trans women of color, in particular, are murdered. (19) Racism compounded with misogyny, lack of protection under the law, and unjust working environments—and not black women’s inherent strength—explain why black women are affected by and continue to experience sexual violence (which is often dismissed) at higher rates than other women. (20)
From an antiracist perspective, it is thus equally necessary to see black rebellion (whether in Los Angeles, Detroit, or Newark in the 1960s or in some cities today) as a response to structural constraints such as poverty, police brutality, and mass incarceration rather than a reflection of cultural pathology. (21) Without question, it is possible to scrutinize, either on moral terms or on the basis of political efficacy, the violent activities of some antiracists—for instance, rioters in Ferguson after the Michael Brown killing in 2014 or in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s spine was dislocated in police custody in 2015. But for antiracists, this cannot be the exclusive response. This is because black rebellion is a manifestation of what Cornel West has called the problem of “nihilism in black America,” the hopelessness facilitated by living amid massive inequality and deprivation within an apathetic white society. (22) The solution is not to put more people in jail but to create enlivening, life-affirming socioeconomic structures through which that nihilism could be countered. (23)
The Lived Experience of Racism
Antiracist awareness of racism’s existentially diminishing and morally devaluing effects refocuses discussions about racial equality away from racial reconciliation to immediate political change. Highly publicized attempts at talking about race are certainly valuable symbolically for dramatizing that racism still matters. For instance, consider Obama’s “beer summit” in 2009, in which he presided over a discussion between a distinguished African American Harvard University professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and a white police officer, who arrested Gates for trying to “break into” his own home. Or consider ongoing discussions about the meaning of race on campus, conversations that push students to uncover hidden assumptions and unacknowledged privileges. But from an antiracist perspective, these conversations can have unintended consequences when they become about “racial healing.” This is because they moralize political problems and individualize collective problems, obscuring a more fundamental point: racism is not something to simply be eliminated in white or black people’s minds but is an existential threat that determines not only blacks’ self-perception and political freedom but their survival.
Antiracism allows us to see the dangerous distortions of racism. Black schoolchildren in the US are often not assumed to be just children having bad days but become threats that need to be disproportionately suspended, expelled, or thrown to the ground in classrooms across the country. Many black men are seen as clear and present dangers. Trayvon Martin, for example, is viewed as a dangerous intruder in a neighborhood in which he cannot possibly live, rather than a young black teen terrified, confused, and unsettled as he nervously holds a bag of Skittles while being followed by a neighborhood watchman simply for wearing a “suspicious” hoodie in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. The police officer Darren Wilson thinks he sees a hyperviolent “demon” when he shoots and kills an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, in 2014. (24) Philando Castile is not presumed to be a worker at a Montessori school in Minnesota in possession of a legal firearm but a trigger-happy, dreadlocked black man, ready to shoot anyone in his presence, so a Minneapolis officer shoots him in his car in 2016. Eric Garner is not seen as a black father selling loose cigarettes to earn money on a street in which he is both well known and well respected. Instead, he is seen as too unruly, before he is strangled for “resisting arrest” in 2014.
Similarly, Sandra Bland, a twenty-eight-year-old black woman, is perceived to be too unrepentant after a traffic violation in Texas in 2015 after she is arrested. After being found hanged in jail three days later, she is depicted as too emotionally weak, rather than debilitated by her experience of racism. Glenda Gilmore, a black mother whose two children drown during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 because a white man refuses her shelter, seems much too imposing to be let in. Renisha McBride is not imagined to be a young woman in search of help but to be an immediate danger, before she is shot at point-blank range when she arrives at night at a white neighbor’s doorstep in 2013 just outside Detroit, Michigan. (25)
What, then, is to be done? Antiracist political theory supplies political solutions to contemporary racial inequality. The antiracist idea of freedom as self-determination means that black people should be able to walk the streets without the threat of violence. Achieving this would require serious substantive changes. Gone would be the lack of legal accountability for police officers who kill unarmed black men at radically unequal rates; “stop and frisk” laws that place black public space under constant police surveillance; “stand your ground” laws that allow citizens to shoot first and ask questions later; and death-row executions that disproportionately affect black people. Body cameras could provide a check on police power, and community oversight boards could provide a check on democratically unaccountable police departments.
But this would only be the beginning.
Read the Introduction for this book here.
50. For this history, see H. Baker, Betrayal.
51. Afrocentric thought was controversial—like earlier forms of black cultural nationalism that promised black spiritual rebirth through connecting to a forgotten, pre-slave African past. But it nonetheless tried to unsettle expectations about black identity and thought. See Asante, Afrocentricity.
52. Combahee River Collective, “Black Feminist Statement,” 214.
53. See Mary Helen Washington’s Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860–1960, which recovered the unique tradition of black women’s voices and lives; Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought; and Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class, which described the formative role of gender, race, and capitalism in reproducing racial patriarchy in the United States and fracturing the women’s movement.
54. hooks, Ain’t I a Woman?, 13.
55. Lorde, “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression,” 220.
56. See Bell, Voices at the Bottom of the Well; and Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory.
57. For an account of Obama, see Kloppenberg, Reading Obama; and King and Smith, Still a House Divided.
58. D’Souza, Roots of Obama’s Rage, 2, 6.
59. Rustin, “From Protest to Politics.”
1. Transposing arguments from the past onto the present carries the risk of oversimplification. Further complicating the matter is that antiracist arguments were always animated in defense of specific political visions and policy goals. The antiracist communist wanted an abolition of capitalism, the socialist better worker control in the workplace, the liberal more political rights, the feminist less patriarchy, the cosmopolitan more human rights, and the antiwar activist peace. Nonetheless, historical ideas can enliven the present, as Sheldon Wolin has famously argued in Politics and Vision.
14. For a history of the way white backlash has been integral to impeding black American freedom, see Anderson, White Rage. For the critique of “postracialism,” see I. Perry, More Beautiful and More Terrible. For an interpretation of how postracialism is a myth, despite the election of the first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008, see Tesler and Sears, Obama’s Race. For federal food-assistance programs, distributed by race (white people make up 40 percent of recipients, whereas black people make up 25 percent, for fiscal year 2015), see United States Department of Agriculture, “Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs.”
15. See Jacobsen, Roots Too; and Hattam, In the Shadow of Race.
16. See Wilson, When Work Disappears; and Shelby, Dark Ghettos.
17. See Moskowitz, How to Kill a City; and Venkatesh, Gang Leader for a Day.
18. Lewis and Diamond, Despite the Best Intentions; and Massey and Denton, American Apartheid.
19. See Human Rights Campaign, “Violence against the Transgender Community in 2018.”
20. See Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality; and Hancock, Intersectionality.
21. For a recent text that tries to understand the sources and meaning of race rebellions, especially in the 1960s, see Levy, Great Uprising.
22. See West, Race Matters, chap. 1.
23. This is a general argument of contemporary prison abolitionists who stress the need to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and to demilitarize black public spaces and communities. For this argument, see A. Davis, “Meaning of Freedom”; and James, New Abolitionists.
24. See Bouie, “Michael Brown Wasn’t a Superhuman Demon.”
25. For an excellent account of the pervasive anti-blackness in American culture and society see Sharpe, In the Wake.