The last word—
by the editors
To help us move forward after the disappointing U.S. 2016 elections, we would do well to consider the model for thinking and activism developed by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Along with its broader coalition, Movement For Black Lives—M4BL, #BlackLivesMatter is both a communications network and a platform setting out ways of thinking about and getting together to forge needed change. Groups working around the country toward these changes in the lives of black people have allied themselves in a coalition; their platform articulates a wide range of political struggle dealing not only with race, but with gender, disability, class, and U.S. imperialism. The Movement is multi-leveled, with an overall analysis and general set of concerns (articulated on the websites); following that, independent local chapters organize around specific issues and local exigencies.
The very assertion, Black Lives Matter, and the movement’s example of collective action, gathering in the streets to protest the murder of black people by police, indicates a framework for thinking, teaching, writing, and doing cultural work that we need when there is such a political divide in in the United States. First of all, the words themselves—Black Lives Matter—indicate how much we need to speak about U.S. history and social/legal institutions in a way that clearly demonstrates the extent to which race shapes everyone’s lives. In fact, many writers have taught us how race works and how it has shaped our country. [open endnotes in new window] But the recent elections now demonstrate how race’s foundational violence and cumulative effect in the United States are not understood or acknowledged by many white citizens. With this editorial, we are asking our readers to return to considering our national history of race so that we can readily articulate it to others. That is, all of us striving for an equitable society need to be able to make clear to others, probably over and over, how racial discrimination functions to shape people’s lives.
(The editors of Jump Cut are white U.S. citizens and are presenting this editorial with a focus on the United States. We understand that race and caste work themselves out in different ways in other countries. Significantly #BlackLivesMatter has spread internationally.)
Unpacking race as it is articulated in the dominant culture usually means dealing with code words: the criminal, the immigrant, the illegal alien, urban problems, the inner city, the ghetto, entitlement, the undeserving, welfare, drugs, panhandlers, and unfair advantages. We have to ask each time we hear them what functions these words serve and how they provide an outlet for certain kinds of tensions, at the same time they mask and elide an understanding of the root causes of what they refer to.
In historical terms, the United States and its capitalist economic system are built on a foundation of slavery and genocide of the native people. After slavery, in the Reconstruction era, many black men were arrested as vagrants and impressed into chain gangs, through which labor they rebuilt the South, constructing infrastructure and working in the fields. In addition, Jim Crow laws in the South put in place the social structure of segregation, which marked skin color as the reason for an inferior position, that is, established “color” as a reason for caste. As Cheryl Harris traces white supremacy’s U.S. history, whiteness became a property, both legally and psychologically; from slavery on it has been “the characteristic, the attribute, the property of free human beings.”
Southern racial violence and available blue collar jobs in the North led to the Great Migration of blacks to Northern cities for a good part of the 20th century. In the North, “urban problems” began to be associated with “black spaces,” since blacks were crowded into restricted, often rundown housing sites as a matter of economic necessity; they had limited opportunity to buy homes elsewhere because of real estate housing covenants, redlining and racialized lending practices. Later, with deindustrialization and the decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States over many years, especially as multinational corporations moved work abroad, unemployment among urban blacks declined drastically, especially for young black men. As George Lipsitz explains,
“Declining numbers of blue collar jobs, capital flight, discrimination by employers in the expanding retail sector of the economy, locating new businesses in suburban locations, residential segregation, and cutbacks in social programs and government employment .. all contributed to increased rates of minority unemployment.”
In many ways, whiteness has an economic value but it is not openly acknowledged or even understood. For example, a common explanation by young white professionals moving from the city as they start to raise children—“We’re looking for a place in a suburb with good schools”—is not usually considered in a conversation as a “racial” statement. That is because the speakers and probably the listeners experience whiteness from what Richard Dyer calls an “unmarked” positionality in which people define selfhood sans race. Few whites think of themselves or describe their life trajectory in terms of the role that their own race plays in their lives, their situation, their chances to succeed. Yet in the above scenario, all the terms—moving away from the city to live in a suburb; buying a house; shaping a child’s future; living near a good school—refer to institutions and locations shaped by racial history. Race influences buying and owning property, institutional lending policies, school funding and quality of education, and potential increase of family wealth—especially through investing in a home that regularly increases in value. For example, if blacks, too, have moved to the suburbs, they have often been targeted by lending institutions specifically with subprime loans and other onerous mortgage terms, so that the recession of 2008 saw their household worth fall by over half.
Race has a spatial dimension. Most visibly, the inner city in large urban areas is predominantly black. Public funds have been channeled away from there. Movie theaters and grocery supermarkets have long been closed there. Cab drivers often refuse to take passengers there. Houses are devalued there. The “inner city” location serves an enclosure, and in mainstream discourse it’s seen to harbor criminals, vagrants, the homeless, drug lords, and gangs. It’s the place for police to patrol, now with military-style armaments and policies of mass roundups of youth, using such tactics as stop and frisk. From day to day, the material reality of this location structures both the lives and minds of those who live there. And this lived reality teaches black people many societal structures often invisible to whites.
For example, communicating such insights by tracing the history of mass incarceration of young black men, a piercing new documentary directed by Ava Du Vernay, 13th, analyzes how the connotative association of black with criminal goes back to Reconstruction but now has led to more punitive laws and a more militarized police force that specifically target black neighborhoods. In particular, laws against drug possession and crack cocaine have swollen the U.S. prison population with a disproportional incarceration of blacks. Tragically but important in terms of resistance, we have seen an astonishing number of police killings of unarmed black people on the streets, sometimes captured by witnesses’ cell phones and posted with viral circulation on the Internet, and these have provoked large street protests and inspired the founding of #BlackLivesMatter.
#BlackLivesMatter began with a Twitter protest against the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin and expanded into organizing a Black Lives Matter bus ride to Ferguson MO to protest the police shooting of Michael Brown. Its original founders were queer black women Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, Opal Tometi, who maintain the original website. The movement that has evolved from that nucleus is a decentered, participatory, loosely-knit organization of local groups, some of whom have structured a broad platform of demands under the rubric of The Movement For Black Lives—M4BL. Such demands are found on both the BlackLivesMatter and the M4BL websites and are remarkable in their scope. For example, the BlackLivesMatter website ties together the need to consider and act upon the state’s responsibility for poverty and imprisonment, black women’s burden for sustaining children and family, relegation of undocumented immigrants to the shadows, fetishizing and disposing of queer and trans people, and squeezing black people with disabilities into “boxes of normality.” This a new kind of integrative, cross-platform political activism and theorizing. Angela Davis, long involved in the prison abolition movement, speaks to its effectiveness:
“When we discover what appears to be one relatively small and marginal aspect of the category [here, gender vis-à-vis race]—or what is struggling to enter the category so that it can basically bust up the category [here, trans vis-à-vis gender]—this process can illuminate so much more than simply looking at the normative dimensions of the category.” …
“I want to emphasize the importance of approaching both our theoretical explorations and our movement activism in ways that enlarge and expand and complicate and deepen our theories and practices of freedom.”
One of the ways that integrative cross-platform activism has grown is from theorizing by critical black, trans and disability scholars. An earlier-generation legal scholar and activist, Kimberle Crenshaw, developed the concept of intersectionality, now defined in the Oxford Dictionary in this way:
“the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”
The concept of intersectionality—especially as it adds to our understanding overlapping systems of discrimination—brings together different fields of academic inquiry and it aids us politically in building coalitions. In addition, contemporary environmental, trans, and disability scholars have added to this discussion the concept of biopolitics—that is, the way that the state targets or willfully neglects whole groups of people, diminishing their life chances and pushing them to live in substandard conditions. Politically, thinking in terms of biopolitics means that we need to evaluate our activist strategies, especially around racially inflected issues, in terms of an issue’s magnitude, considering its ramifications for the population as a whole. For example, if one were to shift political focus from the reproductive rights slogan, “a woman’s right to choose,” to the concept of reproductive justice, it would more accurately reflect the problems that women of color, and poor women around the world have with bearing children or not. As trans legal scholar Dean Spade writes,
“The reproductive justice movement illustrates how an intersectional critique of single-axis politics and its demands for legal rights leads to a focus on population-level systems that distribute harm and violence through gendered racialization processes. The reproductive justice movement’s critiques of white reproductive rights frameworks — particularly the [critique’s] assertion that reproductive justice for women of color requires interventions into criminalization, child welfare, environmental regulation, immigration, and other arenas of administrative violence — illustrate how intersectional critique and activism move away from individual rights and toward a focus on [the state’s] population control.”
In addition, the environmental crisis has led many authors to deal with pollution, climate change, loss of animal and plant diversity, and sea level rise in terms of the biopolitical effect of these planetary changes on the most vulnerable among us. In this way, hurricane Katrina’s devastating effect on New Orleans’ black population, abandoned by the government, gave us all a chilling glimpses into U.S. biopolitics, as do the ongoing threats against immigrants. What is notable is the degree to which the platform proposals of The Movement for Black Lives reflect this new kind of multifaceted and broad-ranging analysis as the basis for political organizing. We at Jump Cut have long advocated such broad-based radical politics and look forward to participating in new collective efforts toward social change.