In what circumstances should we think of pop culture as political? What should we think of Selma’s Oscar snub, or Azealia Bank’s recent comments on reparations?

What is a social movement? How would we know it if it existed? How would we distinguish events that are “social movements” from events that are not?

In a short interview on James Peterson’s show The Remix, Adolph Reed suggests that neither #blacklivesmatter nor Occupy Wall Street qualify as social movements, and that the recent fascination with cultural politics represents a slide into idiocracy.

Listen. (fast forward to about the 7 minute mark)

I do think we place far too much weight on what he calls “manufactured controversy”. And while Reed focuses on Azealia Banks I’d place the Bill Cosby rape scandal, the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson controversies of last year, questions about JayZ’s refusal to participate in politics, questions about Beyonce’s feminism, the Selma Oscar snub, whether Idris Elba should be the next James Bond, whether Shonda Rhimes gets the respect she deserves from the New York Times, all in the same category. The stances we take on these issues come to displace a range of issues that are arguably more amenable to political action. Further, they come to stand IN for political action. Arguing about whether Bill Cosby raped more than 20 women (I think he did, and am surprised people think otherwise), or whether Ray Rice should have been suspended (he should have), in the form of tweets or status sharing or commenting, become equivalents to political participation even though the only participation they tend to generate is yet more intense sharing, commenting, and tweeting. Furthermore in as much as all of these debates center on the status of wealthy African Americans, they tend to reproduce inequality rather than contest it. Every moment we spend defending Cosby (or even someone worthy like Ava Duvernay), is taken away from people not so independently wealthy and/or prestigious (us). Reed brings up the culture industry for a reason. Huffington Post, Facebook, Gawker, Time-Warner, etc. all are part of a larger industry that makes money off of the clicks, comments, shares, likes, these controversies generate.

This isn’t to say that these controversies cannot generate political action. Nationwide hundreds of thousands of rapes have gone unsolved because of untested rape kits. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy found 11,000 of them in a Detroit warehouse several years ago and has been fighting to get the resources to test them. One could imagine how furor about Cosby could be used to make a (legitimate) claim that black women’s lives are largely ignored by the government (even when that government is largely run by black men and women), a claim that could lead to a massive effort to get the public resources required to test the rape kits and bring the rapists to justice.

But while an actress–Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order SVU fame–has stepped in to lend critical support to Worthy’s call, you’d find absolutely no connection between the various and sundry pieces critical of Cosby and rape culture, and this issue, which came to light around the same time the Cosby furor began. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first time you were made aware of this (or even the potential connection between the two events) is from this piece. And this is because web writing doesn’t really lend itself to the type of investigative reporting that we need to be informed about and then move on issues like this. It more often lends itself to the type of commentary spurred on by a viral video/tweet, which is how we even know about Cosby, Ray Rice, and Adrian Peterson in the first place.

I’d be dishonest if I suggested there were no political value in popular culture. But I think we garner far more from examining how popular culture and the industry that partially generates it reproduces the political status quo rather than contests it.


Here too, Adolph has a point, although a weaker one. It’s clear that both #blacklivesmatter and Occupy Wall Street were not simply responses to individual outrageous acts, but were (and are) the responses to a longer pattern of physical and economic brutality. And these responses generated novel forms of social organization and tactics in bringing attention to these issues.

But how do we define a social movement? Charles Tilly is helpful here:

A social movement is a sustained series of interactions between power holders and persons successfully claiming to speak on behalf of a constituency lacking formal representation, in the course of which those persons make publicly visible demands for changes in the distribution or exercise of power, and back those demands with public demonstrations of support.[foot]Tilly, C. (1984b) ‘Social Movements and National Politics’, in C. Bright and S. Harding (eds.), Statemaking and Social Movements (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press), 297–317.[/foot]

I want to focus on two passages. First:

…successfully claiming to speak.

This implies that the people who have brought the issue to light have somehow been granted the authority to speak on behalf of the people they are organizing for, by those people. But how do we know this?

Here’s where the second part comes in I think:

make publicly visible demands for changes in the distribution or exercise of power, and back those demands with public demonstrations of support.

And here’s the problem in both cases. While it is clear that large percentages of black people believe in reforming the police in order to reduce the number of unarmed black citizens they murder, and it is also clear that large percentages of people believe income inequality should be curtailed, it isn’t clear how these two beliefs translate policies or even alternative modes of organization that redistribute power. And the reason it hasn’t been made clear is because the people seeking to speak on behalf of the unspoken for haven’t made them clear. What people in the OWS case and what people in #blacklivesmatter appear to be operating on is the assumption that if they engage in enough disruptive actions, then the political change will take care of itself and a movement comprised of more people will then spontaneously generate–the “myth of the spark” that Adolph Reed brings up at about the 17 minute mark.

The best Patterson can do at this moment is to bring up the “generational divide” [foot]As an aside, can we figure out another term to use for people 30 and under? Chuck D., KRS-One, “Run” Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and countless other seminal hip-hop figures, are all old enough to be members of the American Association of Retired Persons. The term hip-hop generation is pretty much analytically useless as a way to distinguish these individuals from people born 30 years after them.[/foot], suggesting that people like Reed are out of touch and aren’t giving younger folk their props. Adolph’s response bears quoting in full:

I guess what I would say is that while getting old is not a lot of fun, being old confers some advantages and one of them is having been around the track enough times to be able to make some generalizations. And among the things that I’ve noticed is that for all of this kind of stuff, and this is like Occupy, this goes back to the Million Man March, all of this stuff, the principal defense is a call for what these actions and these lines of endeavor will produce. So you can’t really say anything to that except that well, it hasn’t happened yet. We’ve done this kind of thing before and it hasn’t produced the outcome that you insist this one is going to do. So the argument basically depends on a call for faith in things as yet unseen. So there’s not much you can say to that…

I wouldn’t place either Occupy Wall Street or #blacklivesmatter in the same category as the Million Man March. Whereas the Million Man March was a conservative reproduction of the neoliberal status quo, both OWS and #blacklivesmatter can and should be thought of as critical responses to the neoliberal turn. Further while the MMM was top-down, and ostensibly designed to place Minister Louis Farrakhan at the head of the “black leader table” neither OWS nor #blacklivesmatter are about that life. At all. Patterson isn’t wrong to criticize Reed on this point.

However Reed can be wrong on this while still being correct in general. I wouldn’t at this point, place either OWS or #blacklivesmatter in the same category as the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, the Labor Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, or a number of other movements that not only made visible demands for change that were supported by large groups of people, but actually accomplished those demands. And while I wouldn’t go too far with this–I don’t believe we need a “new” civil rights movement and I don’t want to be read as supporting such a notion–I do think that Reed’s critical approach is something the people directly involved in #blacklivesmatter should be more attentive to. Activists have already done the hard work required to bring people together to put their lives on the line. What we need are more actions designed to generate support for either specific policies (that are explicitly articulated), or for an alternative source of public power (that too, is explicitly articulated). The politics won’t take care of themselves. We have to take care of them.