advice for black student movements today

I recently had a long discussion with a journalist about the current state of black student activism and we spent a lot of time thinking about what can be learned from the past. I started with two major points:

  • Have specific and achievable demands. One of the big lessons of movement research is that you need to present ideas that make sense within the institutional context of the protest. Hire more minority faculty? Achievable. End all micro-aggression? Not achievable.
  • Clearly link protest tactics to outcomes. A lot of protest is highly expressive and it is not clear how it is linked to some concrete social change. One of the brilliant tactics employed by the students at Missouri was having football players boycott an NCAA game. The penalty was $1 million per game. The protest mattered.

Then, we got into more subtle issues:

  • When possible, student activists should be deeply involved in activism off campus. In my study of the Third World Strike, I was deeply impressed with how much help campus activists got not only from “protest groups” (like the Oakland based Black Panthers) but also from religious leaders, attorneys, and politicians.
  • Learn to cultivate alliances with institutional insiders. In my book on Black student protest and Black studies, I discuss numerous instances where students relied on deans, consultants, and lawyers to help push their case.
  • Know when to fight and when to compromise. Assuming that one has a well planned protest, there may be a point when you can get something. Social change is not about eternal fighting, it’s also about knowing when to claim a victory and get something.

Feel free to use the comments to discuss more lessons from research for activists.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2016 at 12:01 am

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The two major points are reasonable, but don’t you also protest for other reasons, like building solidarity and generating buzz? In that case systemic demands and unrealistic goals seem like they could be useful.

    Liked by 2 people

    Philip N. Cohen

    April 11, 2016 at 12:26 am

  2. Sure, but I bet BLM wants more than good feelings.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 11, 2016 at 12:44 am

  3. In my interviews with the local (and sometimes national) press, I cite the radical flank effect literature (term coined by Herbert Haines and diffused into the literature). Short version: radicals help moderates win, most of the time but not always. See also the old Gerlach and Hine work on the virtues of decentralization and polycephaly.

    My read of the literature is that you don’t win your stated goals when they are diffuse, but diffuse multi-faceted movements that have radicals in them win more than tame reasonable lobbyists who ask for only one thing.

    Liked by 3 people


    April 11, 2016 at 4:03 am

  4. OW: Fair points. When I speak about this issue, my point is not to dismiss radicals. Rather, radials and moderates actually need goals that people can act on. Perhaps the radical flank has more outrageous demands, but they must be demands that make sense and there must be some conceivable path to reach them.

    A subtle point is that some movements may not have yet developed well articulated goals and protest may be a tool for movement building. But if I understand the intentions of many black student activists, the goals could certainly be articulated in sensible ways: increase access to education; more diversity on the faculty; open discussion of racist incidents on campus. Those interested in BLM could talk about ways to reduce police shootings; ways to ensure safety of people in policy custody.

    When I speak to the media about my own issue (immigration), I tend to offer a combination of broad idealistic goals (open borders) and very specific policy reforms (don’t deport non-violent migrants).

    Liked by 2 people


    April 11, 2016 at 4:28 am

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: