12 August 2015

(Why) black lives matter (, and why it’s not a new movement)

In Dallas, Texas, on the 17th of August, 1891, the founding meeting of the Texas People’s Party convened. A radical-left party that stressed farmers’ cooperatives; organised labour-farmer collaboration; soft money policy; a progressive, graduated income tax; and the establishment of a postal banking system, the People’s Party posed a major national challenge both to the plutocratic Republican Party and to the white-supremacist Democratic Party. The People’s Party had very close ties to the (then-waning) Knights of Labor, among whom at this convention was a coloured man by the name of Melvin Wade.

Melvin Wade was receptive to the idea of a third party. But he did not accept the pat answers to his questions that came from so many of the white radicals in the new People’s Party leadership, including William Lamb. ‘I would like to know,’ he pressed Lamb, ‘what you mean by considering the coloured man’s claims in contradistinction to the claims of any other citizen of the United States?’

Lamb answered him coolly, ‘The chair disclaims drawing distinctions. I have been asked who was entitled to work in the organisation. The committee will proclaim the answer to the world.’ Another veteran radical, Sam Evans, added, ‘Every coloured citizen in these United States has the same privileges that any white citizen has, and that is what is meant.’

Understandably, Mr. Wade was unimpressed. ‘When it comes down to the practice, such is not the fact. If we are equal, why does not the sheriff summon Negroes on juries? And why hang up the sign, “Negro”, in passenger cars? I want to tell my people what the People’s Party is going to do. I want to tell them if it is going to work a black horse and a white horse in the same field.’i

The Black Lives Matter movement is not a new one. Well, that should probably be qualified: this expression of it is new, and it does indeed tackle the timely issues of mass incarceration and police brutality, and how these problems disproportionately fall on black shoulders – but these issues are in fact mere variations on a theme, a theme that has been long playing in the background of American history since colonial times. The above conversation, which was relayed in Lawrence Goodwyn’s masterful book on American populism, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, went to show that the problems of physical survival that faced blacks have for a very long time had added another dimension, an asymmetry, to the problems that poor whites and poor blacks faced together. Dr. Goodwyn puts it thus:

The political problem facing Southern blacks was enormously complex, even though it contained few genuinely palatable options. The economic imperatives were quite real—blacks suffered as much from the ravages of the crop lien and the furnishing merchant as white farmers—and more. The black man, too, wanted to find a way to finance his own crop without putting his economic life in the hands of the Man… He, too, wanted a more flexible currency, higher commodity prices, an end to discriminatory freight rates, and all the rest of the Populist goals. But in an era of transcendent white prejudice, the curbing of the “vicious corporate monopoly” did not carry for black farmers the ring of salvation it had for white agrarians… The rare black farmer with enough capital to stay out of the clutches of the furnishing merchant knew quite well that he was just as vulnerable to the whims of Southern justice, just as unprotected against lynch law, as the most downtrodden tenant farmer. In this fundamental sense, economic improvement gave him not the slightest guarantee of protection.

Now, substitute ‘the for-profit prison system’ for ‘the whims of Southern justice’, and ‘deadly police force’ for ‘lynch law’, and sadly, you have an apt description of the asymmetries in political life now faced by most black people today. And not just in the South but also in places like Seattle. Like his fellow white leftists William Lamb and Sam Evans nearly 125 years ago, Bernie Sanders has, for the most part, been adamant that a lot of these problems have economic root causes, and that these economic root causes affect black and white people alike. Now this is as true now as it was when the Populist Party made the same claims 125 years ago. It is analytically true that the legacy of white supremacism in America stems from a deliberate strategy of class warfare on the part of the white elites back in the 1660’s. But from the perspective of any black man or woman who has to live it, it is only partially true, and it is on the partiality of this truth that the Black Lives Matter movement is now demanding, like Melvin Wade did then, some kind of clarification.

Because the burdens of deadly police brutalityii, of mass incarcerationiii and of abortioniv fall so disproportionately upon black shoulders, a merely economic and analytical answer simply will not do. We cannot be satisfied with a glib, Marxistic explanation that relegates racial issues to the superstructure. The problems and life choices (or lack thereof) that poor blacks and poor whites facev are indeed remarkably similar, and the callousness and cluelessness with which both are treated by American elitesvi is as disheartening now as it was in 1891. But on top of this, there are real threats to survival that poor black men in particular face, that poor white men face to a much less significant degree (though, make no mistake, they do still face those threatsvii), which cannot be accounted for in the first analysis by economic interest alone.

So yes, it needs to be said that Black Lives Matter. And we should not object to it being said, even at Bernie Sanders rallies. One hundred twenty-five years ago or three hundred and fifty years ago—whatever the figure, the asymmetries in treatment, to the point of life-and-death, have gone on far too long. The issues of mass incarceration, of police militarisation and of the destruction of unborn black children, even if they are all symptoms of economic inequality, their impact is demonstrably not evenly distributed among the races by class. And as such, all of them need to be talked about specifically, rather than being treated as economic symptoms per se.

i Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic promise: the populist moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
ii Chang, Lulu. ‘Do police shoot black men more often? Statistics say yes, absolutely’, Bustle, 28 August 2014.
iii Sakala, Leah. ‘Breaking down mass incarceration in the 2010 census: state-by-state incarceration rates by race / ethnicity’, Prison Policy Initiative, 28 May 2014.
iv Dutton, Zoe. ‘Abortion’s racial gap’, The Atlantic, 22 September 2014.
v Tirado, Linda. ‘Why poor people stay poor’, Slate, 5 December 2014.
vi Davidson, Lawrence. ‘Blaming the poor for poverty’, Consortium News, 1 November 2013.
vii Imam, Jareen. ‘South Carolina officer shoots unarmed white teen during pot bust’, CNN.com, 10 August 2015.

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