August 10, 2021 Courtney Napier

The True Impact of Collective Action

Last summer saw a wave of protest that sought systemic changes and confrontations with the country’s racist past. Did anything change? Is our trajectory still the same? Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor looks around and finds some halting progress – no perfect union, to be sure, but one filled with both promise and peril.

Did Last Summer’s Black Lives Matter Protests Change Anything?
By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

On June 1st last year, a week after George Floyd was murdered, more than three hundred fires blazed across Philadelphia, according to police. In the previous days, there had been reports of two hundred commercial burglaries—otherwise known as looting—and more than a hundred and fifty acts of vandalism. Four hundred people had been arrested, and the National Guard was on the way. By that Saturday, June 6th, tens of thousands of people clogged the streets of downtown, demanding justice, proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. For eight consecutive nights, the city was choked with tear gas, ruled by curfews. It wasn’t yet summer, but Philadelphia was on fire.

The intensity and the duration of the protests indicated that the problems went much deeper than the lynching of a Black man in Minneapolis. Beyond the issue of racist police violence, Philadelphia has the largest portion of its population living in poverty of any major city in the United States. Not coincidentally, it also has one of the largest Black populations of major American cities. Bitterness rising out of neglect and indifference to poverty, drug addiction, and housing insecurity in poor and working-class Black neighborhoods came back to haunt the political and economic élite.

Mayor Jim Kenney, an unremarkable career politician, was forced to make unprecedented pledges to address the issues of racism, police brutality, and inequality in the “city of brotherly love.” By June 4th, Kenney had established a new commission, called Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation, to “advance public safety and racial equity,” representing “a formal commitment to enact a long-lasting reform agenda.” In its mission statement, the commission declared that “racism in America and Philadelphia is both systemic and institutionalized, with far-reaching effects on political engagement, economic opportunities, health outcomes, and overall life chances for Black and Brown communities. These communities have experienced racial inequalities over generations, which have contributed to structural violence and pervasive poverty in the city.”

A year later, the Kenney administration released a report assessing Pathways’ impact on the city. Kenney said, “We believe we are well on our way to learning from our past, taking accountability for our mistakes and driving change that will make our government and our city stronger for all Philadelphians.” But the “change” was so paltry that it was an affront to the traumas that it claimed to address. A police-reform subcommittee was led by the city’s police commissioner, the aptly named Danielle Outlaw, who spent months barely hanging on to her job after it was revealed that she had championed the use of tear gas against nonviolent protesters who were trapped on a highway cutting through downtown Philadelphia. The reform package included a ban on the use of tear gas at demonstrations and a prohibition against “kneeling on a person’s neck, face, or head.” It sidestepped the key demands of the B.L.M. protests—namely, the redistribution of resources away from police and toward other public agencies that are better equipped to change patterns of violence and crime.

As a tool to undo systemic racism, economic reform, too, was a dead end. The smallest of the subcommittees, called Inclusive Economy, was filled with a hodgepodge of local officials, a developer, and Black businessmen. Beneath soaring rhetoric about “inspiring collaborative efforts,” Philadelphia distributed a measly thirteen million dollars in grants and loans to two thousand business owners. Only sixty-six per cent went to minority business owners—a category that included anyone who is not a white man. It’s not clear how much of that funding went to Black business owners, and it’s also not clear how financing Black business owners relates to ending poverty and discrimination against Black poor and working-class people. Not all Black people have the same interests, even if they have the same skin color.

Philadelphia is not very different from the rest of the United States—caught between a recognition that racism is rooted in unfair and unequal conditions, created within public and private sectors, and reproduced over time and place, and a reluctance to take drastic action to cure it. Democrats on the federal and local levels have mastered the language of racial contrition, lamenting the conditions that nourish inequality, while doing the bare minimum to change them.

True to their sensibilities, elected officials quickly tugged the low-hanging fruit of symbolic transformation. In Philadelphia, Kenney’s office raced to take down a statue of the notorious police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo, as if to demonstrate that the city was moving away from its history of racism and police brutality. Across the South, officials resumed the removal of the racist iconography of the Confederacy. Even Nascar prohibited displays of the Confederate flag, which had been so prominent at its races, as a concession to the B.L.M. movement and the protests of its only Black driver, Bubba Wallace. Removing these artifacts is only an initial step in addressing the longstanding and substantively more consequential effects of systemic racism. But the rejection of racist symbols, including those commemorating the Confederacy, was an acute response to the fact that they had become important tools for the white-supremacist fringe of the Republican Party, full of contemporary as well as historical meaning. From Dylann Roof’s display of the Confederate flag before he massacred nine African Americans in Charleston to the Unite the Right rally in defense of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, these were symbols of white supremacy as a feature of American life.

The Juneteenth holiday was, too, in some ways, a product of political expediency. Democrats locked in debate over the importance of the filibuster and the size and scope of the Biden Administration’s signature infrastructure legislation could unite in fast-tracking the creation of a federal holiday. Even Republicans, who were leading a scorched-earth backlash against last summer’s racial awakening, could concede that there was no harm in recognizing the end of slavery. In fact, it could fit in with their rosy view of the United States as ever ascendant. As a result, there were some who expressed cynicism about the newfound interest in Juneteenth, at a time when there have been no major policy developments in response to last year’s protests. The Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham pointed out the hypocrisy of Republican senators who voted for the Juneteenth holiday while blocking other legislation of particular importance to African Americans. She wrote, “On crucial issues where Republican votes would really matter, [Mitch] McConnell offers nothing. But, hey, at least we got a new holiday, right?” Robert A. Brown, of Morehouse, put it this way, in an opinion piece for NPR: “There is a growing discontent in the African American community with symbolic gestures that are presented as progress without any accompanying economic or structural change.”

Both are correct, but we cannot only measure the impact or importance of last year’s protests in terms of the passage of reform legislation. First, sixty-nine per cent of African Americans supported making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Nearly half of Americans support adding its history to school curricula. Second, the creation of the Juneteenth National Independence Day is the closest that our society has come to acknowledging the legacy of slavery as a fact of American life. It is truly astounding that Juneteenth has become the first official recognition and celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, some hundred and fifty-six years after the end of the Civil War. The official failure to articulate the fact of slavery and its effects throughout the entire country—not only the South—have made it difficult to comprehend its most elemental consequences, including the degraded view of African Americans as inherently inferior to white people. It left the country ill-prepared to understand the grievous circumstances that Black Americans endured thereafter.

The retelling of the history of Black Americans with slavery as its anchor injects a historical materiality into our understanding of Black communities’ hardships. This development is deeply consequential. When the Black movement of the nineteen-sixties insisted that racial discrimination was the cause of the disproportionate poverty, housing insecurity, and unemployment in Black communities, it justified Black demands for specific public policies and programs as a remedy. Today, we are witnessing similar dynamics. Even when we are rightly cynical about corporate America’s denunciations of “systemic racism,” or when we question the intentions of elected officials who are quick to point out the existence of racism but slow to use their legislative powers to do something about it, we should recognize how much the conversation has changed. There is now widespread agreement that racism has been embedded in the public and private institutions that govern our lives and dictate our access to services, justifying the demands for specific actions to undo the harmful results.

According to Gallup, the number of Americans who agree that opportunities are equally good for Black and white people are at their lowest point since it began tracking the issue, in 1963. The perception of racial equality in the job market is at its lowest level in forty years. Although those figures have largely been driven down by cratering expectations of Black people, they also point to a changing awareness among white people of the difficulties encountered by African Americans. Even on crime, where conservatives believe that they can erode support for Democratic programs by blaming progressives for rising murder rates, the insistence of the B.L.M. movement that we link violence to social deprivation has for now changed public views. Nearly sixty per cent of Americans say that crime is an “extremely” or very serious problem in the country, and, although fifty-five per cent agree that more spending on police could lower the crime rate, seventy-five per cent believe that “increasing funding to build economic opportunities in poor communities” could also reduce violent crime. Sixty-five per cent think that using “social workers to defuse situations” could lower crime. These ideas are not easily categorized: they do not belong to particular camps, advocating particular things. When ideas are in flux, it means that people are open to change.

This is at least one of the reasons that Republicans are blaming critical race theory for dividing Americans. If those theorists are correct in their assertions that racism and discrimination have been structuring features of American public policy and private enterprise since the end of slavery, then the right’s premise—that those disparities are a manifestation of problems within Black families and Black communities—would cease to make sense. Demands for a welfare state, reparations, and a robust regime of anti-racist regulatory oversight as a corrective to those historical practices would be legitimized. Even the most moderate Republicans still believe in the U.S. as a place where color blindness and unimpeded social mobility allow anyone from anywhere to reach the heights of social acceptance and personal wealth. Critical race theory and other critiques of entrenched racism, as well as historical studies of slavery and the legal racism that replaced it, repudiate this version of the American Dream.

But Republicans are not only interested in debunking what they contend is the myth of “structural racism”; they are also seeking to undermine the possibility of solidarity between regular white people and their Black and brown peers. In some ways, it is the lack of solidarity between them that has the greatest potential to undermine an increasingly common view of the need for greater government, a redistribution of wealth and resources, and better housing and health care. Last fall, the number of Americans expressing a desire for the government to do more “to solve our country’s problems” had risen to fifty-four per cent, according to Gallup—again, the highest number since it began tracking the question, in 1992. Even seventy-one per cent of Republicans under forty-five said that they support increased public spending, even if it means raising taxes. The invented crisis of critical race theory is also intended to sow tension and suspicion among those who have an interest in solidarity and connection.

Nationally, Democrats have obviously become much more inclined to spend public money, in hopes of putting out the fires that ignited last summer. But their long-term plans, the essence of “structural” or “transformational” change, seem hazy at best. They have mastered the language of activists but have often used it without substance, as they battle among themselves about how much to change. In Philadelphia, that has meant lots of broken promises, from last year to this year. In Buffalo, New York, it has meant that India Walton, a democratic socialist, is in a standoff with the four-term sitting mayor, Byron Brown, who lost the Democratic Party primary to Walton in June. Despite raising only a fraction of Brown’s fund-raising total of half a million dollars, Walton won the primary by taking on racist and brutal policing, and by challenging gentrification and escalating rents across the city—conditions that resulted, in part, from Brown’s policies, which prioritized growth and development at the expense of poor and working-class residents, most of whom are Black. Brown has promised a write-in challenge and will have supporters with deep pockets, but Walton will be difficult to beat. It is hard to imagine that this seismic shock inside New York’s Democratic Party would have been possible without last summer’s revolt.

The level of protest from last summer was impossible to sustain, but it lifted the horizons of what could be demanded from elected officials and the private corporations that are at the center of this economy. The local battles are important because they dictate the conditions of most people’s daily lives, but the shaping of political narratives really happens on the national level. The start of the pandemic last spring and then the summer’s protests worked like the contrasting dye used in M.R.I. scans, highlighting all of the imperfections in the internal structures of the United States. But awareness alone has never been enough to change these conditions, and now the hard work of moving from diagnosis to treatment is under way. We need new tools, including new organizations and strategies, that can actually deliver on the demands that brought so many into the streets last summer. Unrealized demands for change can turn into cynicism, despair, and detachment, leaving the forces of reaction intact and on the offensive. Our moment is full of promise and also peril.

This article was originally published by The New Yorker.

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