7 Ways #BlackLivesMatter Improves on the Civil Rights Movement

“This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”

Tef Poe was right.  In fact, it’s better.  Here are seven ways that Black Lives Matter (BLM) improves on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

1) Women to the Front

There were important female activists in the civil rights movements of the 1960’s – Fannie Lou Hamer, Amelia Boynton Robinson, and Mamie Till are just a few – but those standing out front were men.  Not only Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but also were their mentors, and lieutenants, an closest advisors were men.

By contrast, Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.   Two women, Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson, stormed Bernie Sanders’ podium last month.  Another woman, Tia Oso, carried out a similar action in July at the Netroots Nation conference.  When delegates from BLM met with  Hillary Clinton in August, Daunasia Yancey was the first to speak to her.

Women have not just gained parity within BLM, they are leaders at ever level of the movement.  There is no other major American organization – inside or outside of activism – that can claim such a record.

2) Queer Leaders

Not only was the civil rights movement of the 1960’s led by men, it was led by straight men.  Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin were the exceptions, not the rule.

The exact opposite is true of BLM.  Two of the three BLM cofounders – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors – identify as queer. DeRay McKesson, who  has become the mainstream media’s preferred BLM spokesperson, is gay.  All three founders of Ferguson-based collective Millennial Activists United are queer – and two of them are married to eachother!

3) The Radicalism of Love

Empowerment of women and LGBTQ people is only the beginning of the radically inclusive ethos of BLM, which explicitly seeks to right the injustices of past black movements.

Co-founder Alicia Garza writes:

“It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call[s] on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.  Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.  It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.”

Being inclusive is not only morally right, it is strategic. Inclusion means BLM has widened their base.  It means they are not putting up artificial barriers to talented and passionate people who can help their movement grow and succeed.  It means that they are powering their movement on collective love, a far more solid and durable motivator than the toxic intolerance that is motivating much of mainstream politics.

BLM was founded on the value of love.  The phrase itself was born within a post Garza made on Facebook, “a love note to black people.” It ended, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”  The Assata chant, which is often intoned at protests, also embodies this ethos of collective black love:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

5) Fuck Your Respectability Politics

Inclusion goes to the heart of BLM’s rejection of the respectability politics that were so critical to the rhetorics and aesthetics of the 1960’s civil rights movement.

800px-MLK_and_Malcolm_X_USNWR_cropped

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (1964)

We all  have those images of college students pristinely dressed in blazers, skirts, and heels, of both Martin and Malcolm in their plain black suits, white collared shirts, and skinny ties.  Their authority also came from formal religious affiliations, Dr. King with Christianity and Malcolm X with Islam.

In the most prominent criticism of BLM, civil rights activist Barbara Reynolds writes in The Washington Post that:

“The 1960s movement also had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church, as well. Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter…The demonstrations are peppered with… profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear. “

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DeRay McKesson & vest (2015)

While Reynolds is arguing for respectability politics because she found it effective, by arguing that sagging pants are inappropriate attire for a protest she is buying into white racism, the idea that black people must demonstrate their value by assimilating the respectability norms of the white bourgeoisie.

This is position is anathema to BLM.  According to co-founder Opal Tometi:

“[w]hen we say #blacklivesmatter – we mean all Black lives matter – regardless of gender or sexual orientation, immigration status, physical disability, income level, criminal record, etc.”

While both Martin and Malcolm’s signature outfit was a conservative suit, DeRay McKesson’s signature outfit is a blue vest so famous that is has its own Twitter account.   When BLM activists engage in actions – even when they meet with presidential candidates – They opt for a simple black t-shirt, often with the word “bulletproof” on it.

6) Social Media Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Black leaders of the 1960’s were constrained in their sartorial aesthetics by the fact that they could not engage in mass self-broadcast.  They needed to appeal to the prejudices of the white liberal bourgeois media in order to get coverage for their struggle.  They lacked the self-broadcast mechanisms of Twitter, Facebook, and cell phone video that have been so critical to BLM.

As an example, the photo above of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X was taken by Marion Trikosko of U.S. News & World Report magazine.  The photo of DeRay McKesson was taken by McKesson himself using his smartphone and was published via his own Twitter account, @deray, which has 228,000 followers.

BLM activists do not need to accommodate white prejudice to gain a wider audience for their ideas, and they are refusing to do so.

7) Leaderful Means Unbreakable

Finally – and most crucially – BLM improves on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s by being leaderful.  This means, according to Purvi Shah:

  • Being “high impact, low ego
  • Being “brilliant, humble and thoughtful”
  • Struggl[ing] with love,” despite internal and external stressors

It also means that while not everyone will be a leader, a leader in BLM could be anyone.  Though DeRay McKesson and the founders of BLM are visible, they do not control or dictate the actions of the BLM activists.  The 26 chapters of BLM are largely autonomous.

As outlined in The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman, flat and leaderful organizations are more adaptive and harder to defeat than hierarchical organizations with one leader at the top directing the movement and being a sole focus on media attention and public trust.  This is because any one leader is not critical to the operation of a leaderful organization.

Leaders who personify the movements they lead endanger themselves and their movements.  This is why the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were so catastrophic.  They were so loved, so revered, had such unparalleled capacity to push the movement’s goals, that when they were killed no one else was able to take their places.

Though BLM will hopefully never experience the assassinations of fifty years ago, their structure of leaderful decentralization makes them more resilient and harder to defeat.

Proving the Skeptics Wrong

In his influential 2010 work of cyber-pessimism, Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker compared the civil rights movement to contemporary digital activists and found contemporary activists wanting because of the supposed weak ties inherent to social media use.  He famously intoned that “the revolution will not be tweeted.”  History has proven him quite wrong.

BLM is innovating on the civil rights movement not only in the technology they use, but in their ethics, in their aesthetics, in the composition of their movement.  Theirs is not just a new civil rights movement, but a better one, stronger, more inclusive, more radical.  If you can’t get with it, get out of the way.

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Header Images (l to r): Julian Bond and SNCC’s Atlanta staff in 1963 (by Richard Avedon), Alicia Garza and fellow Oakland activists in 2015 (Kristin Little)

Body Images: King and X (Wikipedia), Deray McKesson (@deray)

#WhiteNonsense: Is Black Lives Matter Racist?

Note: With 38K views and 10K shares and growing, “Sensible Responses to White Nonsense” hit a nerve. There is clearly a need by white people to challenge their peers on racist opinions that are (quite frankly) ridiculous. “Sensible Responses” is a smorgasbord of nonsense and responses. Yet each individual piece of nonsense also deserves its own spotlight and clear talking points, beginning with this post.  My hope is to nourish a groundswell of white people fighting white nonsense. This is our fight. This is our power.

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White Nonsense:

 

Black Lives Matter is racist because they are “only concerning themselves with black victims of police violence”*

Your Response:

Short Answer:

 

  • No, they are not racist.
  • To support one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.
  • When you show support for one group, it is because that group is suffering some particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.
  • It is not because you oppose people who are not in that group.

Long Answer:

1) Racism has a variety of definitions.

There are a variety of ways of defining the word racism.  Some argue that “racism equals power.” According to this interpretation, black and other people of color can be biased or prejudiced, but they can’t be racist.  This is because, according to this interpretation, Racism = Bias based on skin color + Control over institutions that can do harm as a result of those biases.  So a black person can be biased, but they cannot be racist because they lack control over institutions to do harm to white people as a result of that bias.

However… this is not the most common definition.  The prevailing definition focuses exclusively on bias or individual treatment as a result of bias.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, defines racism as both “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race,” which anyone could do, and “the belief that some races of people are better than others,” which could also apply to a person of any skin color.

2) Fortunately, you can respond without choosing one.

Fortunately for logical argument, it is not necessary to resolve this definitional question to respond to the above criticism of Black Lives Matter.

3) To show support for one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.

As to the question of whether Black Lives Matter holds some form of racial bias because they care about black lives, I give a firm “no.”  When you show support for one group, it is because that group is suffering some particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.  It is not because you oppose people who are not in that group.

For example, if I am fighting for access to HIV treatment I am not inherently expressing bias towards people who are HIV-negative. If I am fighting for housing for homeless youth I am not inherently biased against adults with homes.  If I am fighting for animal welfare I am not inherently anti-human.  I am just expressing that these groups are experiencing a particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.  I am lifting them up because I support them, not because I oppose others.

4) This is true even if some black activists have (understandable) anti-white bias.

Even if some black activists do hold bias against white people (which, to be honest, I find quite understandable), fighting for the rights and welfare of black people is not in and of itself racist.  They are uplifting the cause of black people because black people are subject to a range of injustices within our society.

5) Being passionate about one particular cause isn’t bias, it’s what drives activism.

The causes we care about are tied to our experiences, our identities, and who we love.  Each of us must fight for the causes that move our hearts.  This isn’t bias.  This is the engine of activism, human rights, and human progress.

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* Denotes direct quote from a white person

original image: michaelhyatt.com

Sensible Responses to White Nonsense

Trigger Warning:  This post and the comments below it contain various expressions of racism paired with arguments against the logic contained within them.  These expressions (labeled “white nonsense” in the post) are nevertheless hurtful and offensive and readers should proceed with care.

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I recently decided to start responding to white critics of Black Lives Matter.

Black activists are busy.  They have a revolution to run and do not have time to be dealing with white nonsense.  But I do.  Below are some common critiques of Black Lives Matter, along with appropriate responses.

Remember, white allies, it’s better to call in than call out.   Calling in makes instances of white ignorance and insensitivity teaching moments, instead of fuck-you moments.  While fuck-you may feel good, calling white people in to being decent and empathic human beings is to everyone’s advantage.

BLM activists, if I get anything wrong, please let me know.

Critique 1: But the Violence!  (ie, misplaced outrage)

White NonsenseIs violence ever acceptable? Looting innocent business owners, firing shots at police, etc. in Ferguson. Carving the name of the cop who shot Brown on the skin of a pig, roasting it and then eating it’s head in front of the Ferguson Police Dept? Angry and rude is far from this level of violence that is being carried out.*

Reasoned Response: Which violence are we choosing to talk about? The cause for these protests is the shooting of unarmed black people, yet that is not the violence that seems to be most upsetting to you. Why do you think that is, [Meredith]?

White Nonsense: I am in no way in defense of the abuse of police power or the mistreatment of innocent blacks. But to fight violence with violence is not the answer. Innocent people are suffering from these protests. This is inexcusable and to make excuses for it is dangerous.*

Reasoned Response: [Brad] I know that the anger of oppressed people can be disconcerting and upsetting, whether it’s symbolic acts, words, or destruction of property. They are angry at the institutions that protect us and do not protect them and they are angry at us for supporting these institutions. The question is, which violence offends us more: the smashing of a police car or the murder of a black child? If the answer is the former, which it is for a lot of white people, then that needs to change. We need to shift our empathy and identification from the institutions of oppression to those who are oppressed.

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Want to talk to other white people fighting the good fight against racist nonsense?

Join the discussion

in the White Nonsense First Responders’ Open Thread

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Critique 2: Annoyance at Hearing About Oppression

White Nonsense: I think [race is] a bit of a potential third rail in American politics. Unfortunately, I think a lot of white voters get tired of hearing about it.*

Reasoned Response: [Tom], white voters get tired of hearing about racism? That is no doubt true, just as men get tired of hearing about sexism or the rich get tired of hearing about the struggles of the poor or non-veterans gets tired of hearing about PTSD. I certainly hope that’s not true of you. That’s also not the country I want to live in. Hearing about the pain of others is a cause for compassion, not annoyance.

Critique 3: You’re Hurting Your Cause! (ie, concern trolling)

White Nonsense: Those interruptions do nothing to stop people dying in the streets, they only give the movement a bad name.*

White Nonsense: Disruptions like this do a big disservice to a great cause.  Anything you’ll say in these minutes will be overshadowed by the fact that your hijacked the microphone.*

Reasoned Response: Well, let’s look at the evidence, [Kelsey].  If we’re talking about [the interruption of Bernie Sanders’ speech] then we can see that in the week following that action:

So I’d say that disruptive tactic did help their cause.  Remember that black lives > white feelings.  If you are arguing the reverse, ask yourself why.

Critique 4: But Black on Black Violence!

White Nonsense: But what about all the other young black murder victims? Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are black. And the overwhelming majority of those black people are killed by other black people. Where is the march for them? (source)

Reasoned Response: Regardless of harm members of a group do to each other, harms being done to that group by others still need to be addressed.  In the wise words of Cornel West (whom I once saw walking through an airport!), “we have to distinguish between state-sponsored violence and violence against black people owing to actions black people do to each other. Both are important, but they’re not the same thing.”

Diverting attention away from police using this argument is a classic derailment and lets abusive police officers off the hook.  Police officers with hair-trigger tempers who have no respect for the law are a danger to everyone, so diverting attention away from their bad acts harms all citizens.

Critique 5: #BlackLivesMatter is Itself Racist

White Nonsense: What about the argument that the Black Lives Matter movement is Racist in itself by only concerning themselves with black victims of police violence?*

Reasoned Response: There are a variety of ways of defining the word racism.  Some argue that “racism equals power.” According to this interpretation, black and other people of color can be biased or prejudiced, but they can’t be racist.  This is because, according to this interpretation, racism = bias based on skin color + control over institutions that can do harm as a result of those biases.  So a black person can be biased, but they cannot be racist because they lack control over institutions to do harm to white people as a result of that bias.

However… this is not the most common definition.  The prevailing definition focuses exclusively on bias or individual treatment as a result of bias.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, defines Racism as both “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race,” which anyone could do, and “the belief that some races of people are better than others,” which could also apply to a person of any skin color.

Fortunately for logical argument, it is not necessary to resolve this definitional question to respond to the above criticism of Black Lives Matter.  As to the question of whether Black Lives Matter holds some form of racial bias because they care about black lives, I give a firm “no.”  Even if some black activists do hold bias against white people (which, to be honest, I find quite understandable), fighting for the rights and welfare of black people is not in and of itself racist.

To show specific support for one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.   For example, if I am fighting for access to HIV treatment I am not inherently expressing bias towards people who are HIV-negative. If I am fighting for housing for homeless youth I am not inherently biased against adults with homes.  If I am fighting for animal welfare I am not inherently anti-human.

The causes we care about are tied to our experiences, our identities, and who we love.  Each of us must fight for the causes that move our hearts.  This isn’t bias.  This is the engine of human rights and human progress.

Critique 6: Racism Doesn’t Exist Because White People Suffer Too

White Nonsense: Being white doesn’t protect you from this class system, making it a blame game is absolutely racist. Being white doesn’t make you automatically rich, doesn’t protect your home, won’t promise you a job or a life.  It certainly won’t protect you from homelessness or poverty.

Reasoned Response: Identity is intersectional. This means that while some elements of our identity privilege us, others disadvantage us. For example, I am privileged by my whiteness, my middle class background, and being cisgendered, but I am also disadvantaged by being queer and being female.

To take your example, a person who is able-bodied has greater privilege than one who is not.  To accurately articulate that whiteness is being used to divide and disadvantage people who do not have this trait is not racist.  Ignoring this abuse is.

Black people are disadvantaged in our society, so are mentally ill people, so are poor people, so are transgender people…. We live in a very unequal society.

Critique 7: Not All Cops…

White Nonsense First Responder: Any advice on the “not all cops are bad” bullshit?

Reasoned Response: Like “not all white people” and “not all men,”  this line of criticism really doesn’t stand up to logic.  Can you imagine if the Catholic Church had given this response to the pedophile priest scandal?  What if the Vatican spokesperson had said, “Yes, some of our priests are pedophiles, but not all of them are.  In fact, most of our priest are not pedophiles.  For that reason, we see no need to act.  In fact, we don’t even understand what you are all so worried about.”  People would have been legitimately outraged.

If there is an abusive element in any institution of public trust or power, it needs to be dealt with.  Saying there are only a few abusers (whether this is true or not) does not change this fact.

to be continued….

* denotes direct quote from a white person

Critique 4: Added August 20th, thanks to Ryan Carson for suggesting.  Edits made thanks to suggestion from David.

Critique 5: Added August 20th in response to Toby, definition of racism expanded on August 21st based on feedback from Sam and Mike Crossley.

Critique 6: Added August 20th in response to Toby.

Critique 7: Added August 24th on the suggestion of Gypsy B.

[fake name]

image:michaelhyatt.com

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