Black Lives Revisited (part 1) by Sean Cardinalli
Black Lives Matter is arguably the most cohesive and impactful demonstration by black Americans demanding equal rights and protection under the law since the Civil Rights Movement. I was privileged to interview two esteemed academics, Dr. Milton Brown and Dr. Finnie Coleman, about the movement.
Dr. Milton Brown retired to Albuquerque after teaching at City University, New York, Pasadena City College, and Bellarmine University. He taught sociology and social history and his career looks at how systems work to perpetuate difference and serve to maintain what he calls the status quo or the “rational order.”
Dr. Finnie Coleman is the American literature studies director at the University of New Mexico. He is the former Africana studies director. He graduated from the University of Virginia and from Virginia Military Institute. He is a former army intelligence soldier and officer.
I gleaned so much information from these two gentlemen that the interview is divided in half over the next two weeks. That said, the following was edited for clarity and brevity.
What does Black Lives Matter mean to you? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read or hear about it?
Dr. Milton Brown: I think [the Black Lives Matter movement] is, at first blush, a continuation of the movements that have gone on throughout history in the struggle against racism and oppression. And I think it’s a good thing in that it motivates people to get involved, to think more critically about what’s taking place. It puts the issue on the table again so people can look at it. The problem is that it focuses on what I would consider the least effective potential areas. The police are the low-hanging fruit. They’re just the actors who carry out the will of the system. And if we don’t begin to address the system and the structures and the institutions that are in place, and begin to deconstruct them in a way that helps us really understand how they function, then we’ll never get at the real issue in my mind, which is “whiteness.”
“Whiteness” isn’t just about white people; whiteness comes out of a European American cultural worldview that puts at the heart of it, power and privilege, especially power and privilege directed initially toward a certain group of people, but now [directed toward] a certain way of thinking and being in the world. It’s easy to think of it in terms of white people, but it’s really about all people who adhere to that kind of thinking. And we demonstrate on a regular basis that, when we assimilate in this country, we assimilate, in my mind, to whiteness.
Dr. Finnie Coleman: Black Lives Matter, to me, is a continuation of the perennial search, within the black community and other communities, for social justice here in America, which goes back to the days of the Abolitionist Movement or black nationalism in the 19th century, through the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th Century, and up to now.
The question is, do we have another social movement or a moment of social reform? And my answer to that question is, we don’t know yet. Some of the anger and angst we see, the kind of visceral, knee-jerk responses that even mentioning the term “black lives matter” evokes, is symptomatic that we’re on the precipice of reform, but if Black Lives Matter is a harbinger of social reform as opposed to a social movement, social change, it’s going to be part of a broader movement marked by the Occupy Movement, the Tea Party, and Bernie Sanders’ supporters. That kind of fervor in American politics suggests we’re are on the cusp of social reform which our government has always been resistant to.
And the question I have is, have things like institutionalized racism become so entrenched in our society that they preclude social reform? So that’s the real question that’s in front of us. We’ve always had our youth out protesting against injustice, but this has a different tenor to it than we’ve seen in our lifetime. We’ve had many movements [such as Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa ideal]. But we’ve actually only had about four or five instances of social reform in American history [such as Abolitionism and the New Deal].
The “dog whistling” days of race politics are over. It’s a shrill alarm being sounded by overt racists with a clear political agenda these days. What leads us to this particular sociopolitical moment? What stands out along the contemporary American timeline which brought us the Black Lives Matter movement?
MB: First, there is a notion of “progress” that we all want to anoint as something special that’s happening in America, that demonstrates that we really do believe in our ideals. I look at this notion of social progress as “progress without gain.” We had progress after slavery, and then we had to get back the right to vote, and then get back the right to vote again. And now, we have movements all over this country from state legislatures trying again to prevent us from being able to vote! So what does “progress” mean in that light?
If you can’t hold onto anything you’ve made progress on, then you’ve not gained anything. We’re still where we were before. But what that has done, is allowed the dominant group, if we buy into it, to now say, “No, I’m not as white as I should be, because I’m not better off than those people we’ve always been against, who we’ve always held down, and so I need to have my voice heard so that I can be included as white, too, with benefits, with privilege, and with power.” This false notion of progress we’ve allowed ourselves to be coerced by, has created a place where now, those other voices can be heard and be merged with those who are more silent about [their entitlement] and cover it up with a smile and accommodating kinds of gestures.
Second, is that the election of Barack Obama created for us this real sense that we’re now in a post-racial society, which means we no longer “have to act” like we have something to overcome, and it’s caused a great backlash and room for people to really be who they are in a way that they’re not held accountable for it. Look what the media has done with Trump and the people who he’s galvanized. They talk about [Trump’s popularity] in economic terms. And they’ve given cover to the racism that is really the underbelly of it. And that’s how the system comes in, how the institutions operate, so that those who really want to take us back to the “real America,” are unfettered now and have legitimacy. They were not legitimate before. And tens of millions of people are going to vote with them. And I say, any person I know who votes for Trump has demeaned my humanity. I really want to know who they are.
FC: If you take a transhistorical view of the social justice movements in the United States, what you’d see is that, this movement is part of a broader movement often isolated from other nations because, until now, we haven’t had the capacity to know what was going on in real time in other places around the world. What we have, at this moment, is the intersection of technologies that allows that kind of communication and coordination, but also the history of these other movements to build upon. So [this activism] is a slow moving train but it still hits you with a great deal of force!
If you’re going to understand Black Lives Matter in a contemporary sense, you have to understand the technologies that brought Rodney King’s beating to the American public. Very much like during the Civil Rights Movement when television cameras went to the Deep South for the first time and you saw law-abiding black citizens, Sunday-dressed, being attacked by dogs and fire hoses. So people who could imagine that they never knew that was going on, couldn’t say that anymore. It was incontrovertible. So people who saw the Rodney King beating couldn’t just say, “Well, you know, maybe that happened or maybe it didn’t.” It couldn’t be denied. So what you have then is the presence of undeniable evidence of wrongdoing to buttress a longstanding argument that social justice is something that we need to pursue and must achieve in order for those social injustices to go away. There’s a circularity at work, where you have instances of social injustice that support the idea that we don’t have social justice; and the fact that we don’t have social justice leads us to the moments when we have these remarkable instances of injustice.
[Dr. Coleman then unfurled a history of what led to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which condensed, was: Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 and hip-hop, as a culture, as an activist movement, was born, but became characterized by a diffusion of leadership, which is the same today for Black Lives Matter; there’s no single voice or face to the movement. It’s a maturation of earlier charismatic movements led by black leaders who could be undermined. Though Black Lives Matter was birthed with Trayvon Martin’s murder and fomented with the Ferguson protests following Michael Brown’s killers’ exoneration, it was also deeply influenced by the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia, even before Tahrir Square in Egypt. That short epoch’s strategies and techniques were emulated by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which again, used technology to bring people together in different places to organize and coordinate their efforts.]
When you get to Michael Brown’s killing two years after Trayvon, something snaps and people start to do things like go to political rallies, chain themselves together across freeways. You start to see activism that’s decentralized and militant, in the sense that they’re not just protesting the act itself but we’re seeing a diffused effort combined with a social gathering in Ferguson where people actually came and forced social change. That was unprecedented. [Since Ferguson,] we’re beyond the point where we can simply ask for social change, demonstrate for social change, riot for social change. We have to actually force social change. So how do you do that? You spread that message out; different people take up the mantel; activists work on their own, independently of any kind of central organizing principle.
I call what’s going on at this point in American time the “new nadir” after Rayford Logan’s coinage of the post-Reconstruction Era leading all the way to the spark of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Because to me, there’s a desperation and wantonness in the actions of the powers-that-be. There’s state-supported and -sanctioned violence, which reminds me of the Klan. How do you characterize the animosity of today? And is it a surprise to you? Or was this all inevitable?
MB: We’re in a place now, where, if we focus on the cops, who are bad enough and deserve to be focused on, that’s not going to move us toward resolving the problems of cops killing young black men and women. Because they have no power [intrinsically]; they only have power over us. They’re doing what America wants them to do. If America didn’t want them to do that, they would stop them. America doesn’t want them to do that to young white kids, so they don’t do it. America doesn’t want them to arrest young white kids for drugs, so they don’t do it. They do if they’re poor, but they don’t do it if they’re middle class or upper middle class. There are all kinds of permutations—class, race, gender, sexual orientation—all of these things are important and need to be addressed, but they divert us from the real issue [behind it all, which is] that whiteness is at play here.
I like to say that one can’t be moral and white no matter what race you belong to. So, if you hold onto your whiteness, you cannot be moral. And if you’re not moral, you cannot begin to respect the human dignity of others, which [then] would lead us to look at what prevents us from respecting the human dignity of others. And that then moves us toward notions of justice and freedom and equality. [These notions] really rest in the recognition and acceptance and extolling the human dignity of others and you can’t do that if you’re [epistemologically] white. And that’s a difficult thing to talk about.
Some of the benefit of Black Lives Matter is that it keeps the issue [of social justice] in the public eye and so over time, we begin to hear people say, “Man, we’ve gone through all this and we’re worse off today!” And so ultimately, people can begin to realize that the things we’re doing aren’t really making a difference. And so, maybe we’re not looking at this the right way. Maybe there’s another way to look at this. [In some ways,] Black Lives Matter can’t be successful because it’s already been redefined, say via “All Lives Matter,” which minimizes Black Lives Matter and makes the movement less effective in terms of getting its message out. It’s now looked at as a fringe movement rather than a movement central to this notion of overcoming oppression.
It’s inevitable where we are. But that doesn’t mean that [society] is going to do something different now and really work to bring about change, but that this [conflict] will continue to happen and continue to happen.
FC: [Talking about the inevitability of today] is where it’s important to have a transhistorical view of things. While that [sense of surprise] may hold true in our moment, it doesn’t hold true historically. What you find is that this [state-sanctioned] rage, this anger has been there from the very beginning. We had a period where black men and women were lynched two or three times a week! So that hatred has always been hatred below the surface.
I’ve taught for years, that if you think we’re beyond race riots in this country, you’re foolish. The only thing that has protected us from more vicious race rioting is that we’ve integrated neighborhoods. You have to go back to Bacon’s Rebellion to understand these dynamics. The sad thing is, so few of us actually know our history, and I don’t mean just African American history, I mean American history, because if we knew that history, none of this would be surprising. The surprise to me is just a register of our ignorance.
That’s why Black Lives Matter seems as if it’s new. But you can’t imagine it to be new if you know anything about what happened in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s.