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Although I haven’t performed the “for real for real” type of analysis to definitively show that a shift has occurred, it’s worth comparing. Here’s the commencement address he delivered at Morehouse College in May 2013. [foot]Transcript here.[/foot]
Tuesday July 15 (the same day Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was released)[foot]I noted on Facebook that there are three books I’ve read over the past few years that deserve all the accolades they’ve received–Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, Joe Soss, Sanford Schram, and Richard Fording’s Disciplining the Poor and now Coates’ book.[/foot] he delivered a powerful speech to the NAACP detailing the pernicious effects of the prison industrial complex–the most powerful speech on the issue a president has ever delivered. Below, the speech.[foot]Transcript here.[/foot]
The next day, the show aired.
As I noted in the interview we don’t hear any of the “no excuses” rhetoric when he’s talking about reforming prisons. No sense that prisoners are in jail because they didn’t keep their pants up, no sense that prisoners are in jail because they made excuses instead of doing hard work.
David Greene probably selected me for a couple of reasons. The first is that I was one of the few folk of color to routinely appear on NPR, through my work on News and Notes and then Tell Me More. But secondly he interviewed me on the same subject in March 2012.
The President is undoubtedly constrained. The institution of the presidency was designed to be constrained, by the legislative branch, and by the judicial branch. And he’s [foot]Perhaps “he” until this next election.[/foot] constrained by his desire for re-election, and then even in his second term by his desire to see his party keep the office. These constraints are very real. But these constraints didn’t prevent him from pardoning/commuting the sentences of unfairly imprisoned citizens. These constraints didn’t cause him to spend a significant portion of his time castigating black audiences.[It’s really worth listening to the speech he gave Morehouse graduates in These constraints DID prevent him from promoting an urban new deal that could’ve radically altered the life chances of black men and women. But those constraints didn’t cause him to come up with My Brother’s Keeper. He made choices. Problematic ones.
In the end this President will likely go down in history as one of the greatest presidents of the modern era.
But he had a very very low bar.
P.S. Written more for the historical record than anything else. Later Friday evening I got a chance to perform onstage with George Clinton. (Yes. That Clinton.) I’m sure there’s video somewhere–I don’t have it. To make a long story short, Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” is my fraternity’s unofficial anthem, and we’ve kind of adopted him. He saw one of my fraternity brothers and I performing in the audience and he called us onstage. What I’ve tried to do over the past several years is show folk–particularly but not exclusively black folk–that there’s a way to be productive, to be critical, that doesn’t require embracing the bankrupt trappings of “seriousness”. We all have to do more to get free from the constraints preventing us from doing the work while we live the life.]]>
To Whom It May Concern:
My name is Lester Spence. I am currently an Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. I entered the University of Michigan as part of the first post-BAM III/UCAR freshman class in the summer of 1987. I matriculated from the University of Michigan in 2001 having received not only my bachelor’s degree (in 1991) but my PhD as well. For almost 15 years I was not only a student on Michigan’s campus, I was deeply involved in the lives of black students. As an undergrad I was on the executive board of my dorm’s minority student association, the Black Greek Association, the Black Student Union, and then one of the founders of the Association of Multicultural Scientists. In honor of the work I performed for the University of Michigan I received the African American Alumni Council’s Ten Under Ten award. Since leaving the University, I’ve received awards for my scholarship (my 2011 book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics received the W.E.B. DuBois Distinguished Book Award), for my teaching (in 2009 I was awarded Johns Hopkins’ Excellence in Teaching Award), and for my work in Baltimore (Urbanite Magazine named me one of their Changemakers in 2012).
I wrote the bio above to provide context for my letter of support for Mary Stewart.
As someone intimately involved in black student social life and in black student political life for almost 15 years, I routinely dealt with administrators and staff persons tasked to work with black students, from high-level administrators to day-to-day staff persons. Although a number of these individuals had and continue to have the best interests of black students at heart, of those individuals still at the University of Michigan there is only one other person I hold in as much esteem as I do Mary Stewart.
When I attended the University of Michigan, black student organizations relied on parties for organizational income. Because the local bar community was closed to black students (we could attend them but were very rarely allowed to host parties in them) and we didn’t have the resources to purchase real estate, we had only a few campus options. We could use the Trotter House, we could use the Michigan Union, or we could use the North Campus Commons. We preferred the Union because it had a big enough capacity and because it was centrally accessible.
Because Mary was in charge of scheduling, she became our point person. However, in the process she became much more than that. She was our historian—she knew our alumni members in many instances better than we did and could put us in touch with them long before Internet usage became common. She was our cheerleader—presenting us with income generating opportunities in the Union when no one else would. She became our counselor—helping us work through issues when we had no one else to turn to.
And when we fought to make the university more representative, she became our advocate.
Being on the other side of the university now as a tenured professor, I have a much keener understanding of the ways the university works, and a much keener understanding of the role non-tenured faculty, administrators, and staff-persons play. And I have even more of an appreciation for Mary, because while Mary was only supposed to do one thing—schedule rooms for students—she ended up providing so much more in time, affection, patience, and love. Further, in her role as an advocate, she possibly put her job in jeopardy because, unlike tenured professors, she serves solely at the behest of her supervisors.
Because I was so deeply involved in the university, I can still come on campus years later, and see people I know.
But because Mary Stewart means so much to me, and so much to Michigan’s community of color, she’s the first person I see when I return. The pictures she has on her wall? Don’t begin to state how important she is to us. Over the last twenty years we are now doctors, lawyers, professors, executives, political operatives, presidents, professional athletes, and more.
And we all owe at least part of our success to Mary Stewart. She is irreplaceable.
In honor of her retirement and her service, a group of Michigan Men put together a scholarship for black students in her name, and created a short video for her (i’m somewhere in the middle). She’s been (deservedly) feted by a range of news outlets in the Ann Arbor and Detroit area. Those pieces come close to doing her justice. But I felt it important to articulate the politics that made her work necessary, and the political choices she made, often in fear of her job. There are others at Michigan like her–Elizabeth James at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies stands out. But she really is irreplaceable.]]>
At approximately 12:30pm a letter was distributed suggesting that the Bloods, Crips, the Black Guerrilla Family, and the Nation of Islam had gotten together to declare war on the Baltimore City Police Department. The BCPD declared the letter a legitimate threat.
Sometime after that, a meme was distributed suggesting Baltimore school kids engage in a “purge”. The concept of the “purge” was taken from a movie with the same name, depicting a dystopian scenario in which for a short period all rules are suspended.
At 3pm police appeared in full riot gear at Mondawmin Mall. Mondawmin is a major transportation hub for the city and for the city’s school children–because Baltimore Public Schools don’t have their own bus service kids use the city bus, Metro, and Light Rail to get home.
The police decided to prevent kids from accessing the buses they use to get home, confining them to the Mondawmin area.
The steps the police took to protect themselves, exacerbated an already tense environment. Certainly preventing high school age children–who are already prone to take risks, already prone to believe themselves invulnerable, and already prone to being harassed by police officers–created the conditions in which a riot was more likely to occur.]]>
Reading it a day after I talked about black popular culture in my second semester Black Politics class, I’m reminded of the early 2001 furor over then Harvard President Larry Summers’ critique of West when West was at Harvard [foot]Summers argued that West should spend much more time on real scholarship and less time on the lecture circuit and non-academic projects like the 2001 spoken word project Sketches of My Culture. West left for Princeton soon after the dispute.[/foot], and much more recent discussions over whether Beyonce was a feminist, whether a New York Times article on Shonda Rhimes was racist, and whether Ava Duvernay should’ve received an Oscar for her movie Selma. Some might argue that I shouldn’t be so reminded. This is much more politically motivated than the others and should be read not just as an attack on West but as an attack on the anti-Obama tendency (such as it exists) among black intellectuals in general.
I don’t believe this piece was politically motivated. There are politics to consider–it isn’t a coincidence that one of the co-editors responsible for the piece used to work on The Melissa Harris-Perry Show, and of course there’s Dyson’s own political history with West to consider. But the politics at play here are not the politics of Obama’s War Room.
However, let’s say that it was. Would the stakes increase if Dyson’s piece weren’t written against West as much as written against the anti-Obama tendency (again, such as it exists)?
In the early nineties, when Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, Skip Gates, and Houston Baker became so well-known outside of the academy that the term “black public intellectual” was coined to describe them, Adolph Reed penned two insightful critiques of West and the black public intellectual phenomenon in general. The first (“What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?”) is here, written twenty years ago this month. The second (part of a broader discussion about the first piece) appeared in New Politics Vol 5, Issue 4.
Reed made a few claims.
He argued that scholars like West, Dyson, hooks, and Robin Kelley, were responsible for reproducing a deeply problematic conception of politics that in effect, found politics not only in “real politics” (that is, in voting, in running for office, in political movements, in legislative activity) but also in everyday life and popular culture. For Reed this was both empirically and politically problematic. It was empirically problematic in as much as it placed very very different activities (fast food workers spitting on food, labor unions attempting to organize those same workers) under the same broad general category. It was politically problematic because their conception of politics made the work of political organizing–work was mundane, painstaking, hard, and in some instances, dangerous–so much harder.
Second, he argued that West, Dyson, and hooks, were neither scholars nor activists, but were playing at both. One of the unique dynamics of this moment was that their increased access to public audiences enabled them to shuffle between them and their more academic audiences, enabling them to front like activists when they were around academics, and front like academics when they were in the broader public. This enabled them to basically dodge the fairly hard requirements of being a card-carrying scholar on the one hand, and being a card-carry organizer/activists on the other. Certainly we’ve seen both West and Dyson do this over the past two decades.
Third he argued that their work on black life was not only flat but often times deeply conservative. In Race Matters for instance, Cornel West argued that the most pressing problem black people faced was neither institutional racism nor structural economic dislocation, but rather black nihilism–a term that, when unpacked, functions a lot like the concept of a uniquely black “culture of poverty” in that it places the fault and burden of the black contemporary condition squarely on the shoulders of black folk. Because intellectuals like West were not only phenotypically black but embodied a certain type of black performance, these claims were far easier for them to make, particularly to the white audiences they generally spoke to.
People critiqued Reed’s piece for being acerbic, mean-spirited, and wrong on the facts. But even with the rise of something like #blacklivesmatter I think that over the past several decades we have lost our grip on the function of politics, the number of real political organizers in cities like Baltimore are dwindling, and the progeny of the first generation of black public intellectuals haven’t significantly contributed to our understanding of our contemporary condition, even as some of them claim to engage in politics (often looking to West as a mentor). Reed may have been an ass. But that ass was right.
Indeed reading Reed’s piece brings home to me how little something like Dyson’s attack on West should matter in the grand scheme of things. When West and Tavis Smiley were more prominent I used to routinely defend their attacks on Obama from my friends. I did so more to defend the idea that Obama should be critiqued than to defend West and Smiley per se.
While I applaud some of West’s activity (his support of Steven Salaita for instance), I think Reed’s critique is even more applicable today than it was twenty years ago. West’s understanding of what politics is, of how politics functions, of when, where, and how we should politically resist, is woefully inadequate, and his understanding pretty much dominates our contemporary intellectual landscape. While some might point to his participation in the #blacklivesmatter movement as positive proof of West’s relevancy, I see it as negative proof. Here are the most important facts about Ferguson:
Focusing on this last fact, it’s important to note that the reason black citizens don’t turn out is not because they are apathetic and aren’t registered. They are, as evidenced by their (enthusiastic) turnout for Obama. The reason black citizens don’t turn out is because Ferguson local elections are held during off-years–that is, they aren’t held the same year as presidential elections. This institutional rule dampens turnout in general, and in this case reinforces white political rule.
But this didn’t have to be the case this time around. That is to say that while Ferguson’s off-elections rule usually dampened turnout across the board, given that black people were already registered to vote, and massive energy was directed at Ferguson through #blacklivesmatter, it didn’t have to do so this time. Indeed because Ferguson was relatively small–meaning that running for office there probably didn’t require significant cash or labor–the entire city’s governing structure could drastically shift.
On April 7, Ferguson held elections for three seats–two contested by African Americans, one contested by a white Michael Brown supporter. The two seats ended up going to African Americans, but the white Brown supporter lost (to the former mayor responsible for the controversial “I Love Ferguson” counter-movement).
This suggests that at least some of the energy of #blacklivesmatter was directed to transforming local politics. But not enough. And while it’s unfair to suggest that West had something to do with this, it is fair to suggest that the idea that local politics matters, that mundane political organizing matters, might not be dead in black communities if black public intellectuals like West and Dyson hadn’t helped to kill it off.
So even if we were to think that Dyson’s piece was primarily inspired by West’s politics, I think we’d be better off focusing our energies elsewhere. Let The New Republic get its clicks from some other population. But particularly given the fact that Dyson’s piece is not primarily driven by politics I’m even more firm in my suggestion that we leave the dispute between Dyson and West to Dyson, West, and others who routinely speak for four or five figure checks, and that those of us with the capacity to do so, help to rebuild a more robust politics within black communities. As Reed suggests:
In a perverse revision of the old norm of labor solidarity, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” now it’s the black (haute) bourgeoisie that suffers injustice on behalf of the black masses. It’s prominent black individuals’ interests and aspirations that are asserted—under the flag of positive images, role models, equivalent vulnerability to racism, and other such class-inflected bullshit—as crucial concerns for the race as a whole.
The sooner we move away from the tendency of defending the relatively powerful black professional managerial class no matter what they suggest their politics are the better.]]>
This week I sent the final draft for Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics to Punctum Press. The book represents an attempt to examine the neoliberalisation of black politics in black churches, predominantly black cities, and in urban education policy. While there have been books written on neoliberalism before, as well as books on black politics, this is to my knowledge the first book written for a broad audience that tackles both. I thought I’d take time to deal with the inspiration for the work, as well as my interest in Punctum as opposed to a traditional academic press or a standard trade press.
I think of Knocking the Hustle as a response to two books, and two general tendencies. The books are Race Matters by Cornel West and A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey. Both were written in response to crisis–in West’s case the Rodney King verdict (and subsequent rebellions), in Harvery’s case the Iraq incursion. Both were written for broad audiences. Both were relatively brief.
I had significant problems with West’s book. I didn’t (and still don’t) believe the biggest problem black people face is “black nihilism” nor do I believe the best solution to the problems black people face is “the love ethic”. Furthermore while I am critical of black elites, I think West’s habit of putting forth some courageous leader/intellectual/political figure as a standard that we all fall far too short of is more the result of an overly romantic approach to history rather than a careful reading of it.
I had fewer problems with Harvey’s book. Indeed I think it’s probably one of the best short books on neoliberalism on the market. However it’s as if race and racism doesn’t exist. I find this astounding because I believe the record is pretty clear that in the United States and other nations the neoliberal turn doesn’t occur without racism.
The two intellectual tendencies Race Matters and A Brief History of Neoliberalism represent–an approach to politics that doesn’t take either politics or political economy seriously, and an approach to neoliberalism that doesn’t really take racism seriously–are rife at a moment when we clearly need a different approach.
I probably could’ve published this book with a standard academic press, or with a standard trade press, but I decided I did not want to do so.
In part because of the political economy of publishing. In some ways the nature of publishing is changing underneath our feet–while I was probably one of the first black folk to have my own website (within two years of Race Matters’ publication I had a University of Michigan hosted website I think), I couldn’t have possibly imagined that writing something in a space like this could potentially reach over a thousand readers. However at the same time the publishing world, just like the rest of mass media, is dominated by only a few corporations.
What does that mean for the type of work we do?
It means we have to be more attentive to these dynamics when we make decisions about publication, as publishing with radical presses increases the potential audiences these presses have, increases the resources they have.
It also means that we should think a bit about digital rights management and the possibilities different DRM models present us. Speculative fiction writers like Corey Doctorow and Warren Ellis have seen the writing on the wall so to speak, and have written works that are freely distributed online.
Card-carrying academics with tenure like myself who tend to write books, have to find ways to get our ideas out that don’t solely rely on academic presses and the institutions connected to them, because they tend to be hostage to some of the same forces driving the consolidation of the mass media. And also to create more space for intellectual production that isn’t tied as much to professional advancement.
So I published with Punctum books. They are going to publish a regular book (which should be out early Fall 2015). But they’re also going to release an electronic version that’ll be free or close to it. I might be the first black intellectual to attempt something like this, and I’m not sure how it’ll work out. But I believe in the folks at Punctum, and I really want the ideas to travel.
3. Are you done with standard academic books?
No. I believe the process of peer review helps hone arguments and develop them in a way other forms do not. And I believe that books published in academic presses tend to be better because they go through a harder sifting process. My next two books–Live and Let Die (a book about black biopolitics) and Off to Battle (a book about Detroit) will likely be published by standard academic presses.
4. When’s it officially coming out?
I still have to look at the galleys, but I’m thinking something in mid-Fall.
5. Will there be a book tour?
I know I’ll be giving a book talk at two Baltimore spots that have been very important to me–the Enoch Pratt Library and Red Emma’s. I imagine I’ll be giving talks at other places up and down the East Coast. If you’re interested, reach out.
6. Where does the cover come from?
As with the cover for Stare in the Darkness I shot it, on July 28, 2010 as part of my 2010 365 project (I think the cover for Stare was shot on February 1 of that same year). I gave this and two other pictures to Punctum and this was the one they chose.]]>
When the Baltimore City Paper asked me for a 2015 resolution that would make the city better, I took that idea and expanded on it.
Over the past several decades we’ve become obsessed with metrics. How do we know how well our public schools are doing? Average test scores. How do we compare colleges to one another? Average SAT scores. How did some people know the Orioles were doomed against the Royals before they even took the field? Wins Above Replacement. How do we know how effective the police are at doing their job? Crime stats. How do we know Baltimore has a democracy problem? Local turnout rates.
We now routinely use metrics of one sort or another to measure everything from worker productivity to school quality to how often the 22 bus should run.
But there are institutions where we don’t use them enough. Take the police. We know how many people the Baltimore City Police Department employs (about 4,000). We know how many crimes are committed within a given neighborhood down to a quarter of a mile. Through investigative reporting we know how much money they’ve paid out in police brutality cases (approximately $6 million).
The rest here.]]>
The constructive program ahead must include a vigorous attempt to improve the Negro’s personal standards. It must be reiterated that the standards of the Negro as a group lag behind not because of an inherent inferiority, but because of the fact that segregation does exist….Yet Negroes must be honest enough to admit that our standards do often fall short….Our crime rate is far too high. Our level of cleanliness is frequently far too low. Too often those of us in the middle class live above our means, spend money on nonessentials and frivolities, and fail to give to serious causes, organizations, and educational institutions that so desperately need funds. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 489[/foot]
Even if I’d pulled the entire passage, in which King places most of the blame for this reality on racism, it isn’t hard to imagine someone like a Clarence Thomas or perhaps Thomas Sowell or even a mid-career Glenn Loury making this argument. According to this argument, black personal responsibility should trump any supposed structural reality.
For scholars like Cornel West and Eddie Glaude, focused as they are on the power of the black church the most important King is arguably the Christian King.
Only God is able. It is faith in him that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism. Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why be afraid? God is able. Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, or the waywardness of a child? Why despair? God is able to give you the power to endure that which cannot be changed. Is someone here anxious because of bad health? Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 508[/foot]
Of course we can’t talk about King’s politics without talking about his support for integration.
The word segregation represents a system that is prohibitive; it denies the Negro equal access to schools, parks, restaurants, libraries, and the like. Desegregation is eliminative and negative, for it simply removes these legal and social prohibitions. Integration is creative, and is therefore more profound and far-reaching than desegregation. Integration is the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes into the total range of human activities. Integration is genuine intergroup, interpersonal doing. Desegregation then, rightly, is only a short-range goal. Integration is the ultimate goal of our national community. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 118[/foot]
However post-1965 we see evidence of King’s support for black nationalism in the form of black power as well.
…Black Power, in its broad and positive meaning, is a call to lack people to amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals. No one can deny that the Negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power. Indeed, one of the great problems that the Negro confronts is his lack of power. From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his life and destiny, he has been subject to the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure. The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The problem of transforming the ghetto is, therefore, a problem of power–a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 577[/foot]
Now the integration/nationalism dichotomy is only one ideological axis of concern. Put another way, it’s possible to be a black integrationist communist, just as it is possible to be a black nationalist socialist. It’s pretty easy to take King’s latter ideas on the economy to cement his status as a radical.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say: “This is not just.” It will look across the oceans and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically damaged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.[foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. pp. 630, 631[/foot]
This exercise is far from systematic. But going through his speeches, essays, interviews, and books one can find at least five different tendencies. But the tendency scholars, activists, pundits, politicians, and regular everyday folk, tend to focus on says a lot more about them than it does about him. More specifically we can pretty much predict the King one tends to focus on by his/her personal politics.
With that said, which one stands out to me?
If I had to choose between one of the Kings above, I’d choose the radical King. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that King never, as far as I’m aware of, expressed a desire that his fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha) be integrated. But I think there’s a King no one’s really wrestled with. The institutional King.
…corrective legislation requires organization to bring it to life. Laws only declare rights; they do not deliver them. The oppressed must take hold of laws and transform them into effective mandates. Hence the absence of powerful organization has limited the degree of application and the extent of practical success.
We made easy gains and we built the kind of organizations that expect easy victories, and rest upon them. It may seem curious to speak of easy victories when some have suffered and sacrificed so much. Yet in candor and self-criticism it is necessary to acknowledge that the torturous job of organizing solidly and simultaneously in thousands of places was not a feature of our work. This is as true for the older civil rights organizations as for the newer ones…
Many civil rights organizations were born as specialists in agitation and dramatic projects; they attracted massive sympathy and support; but they did not assemble and unify the support for new stages of struggle. The effect on their allies reflected their basic practices. Support waxed and waned, and people became conditioned to action in crises but inaction from day to day. We unconsciously patterned a crisis policy and program, and summoned support not for daily commitment but for explosive events alone. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 612[/foot]
Now I think there are very real problems with focusing on an individual like King to the exclusion of people like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Amzie Moore, and Claudette Colvin (not to mention northern activists like Grace and James Boggs, and Albert Cleage). But to the extent we peel one King off, is this one we needed to really examine.]]>
And then this happened by Lester Spence on Mixcloud]]>
The more pessimistic approach is rooted in the fact more than one American Dream exists. And they mostly wither when placed against reality.
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.