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black lives matter, black power, and civil rights

In this post, I want to delve into a historical issue – how does Black Lives Matter compare with previous Black freedom movements? Aside from intrinsic interest, the question is important because it gives insights into what the future of BLM might be.

First, BLM openly uses a rhetoric and framing that is somewhat different than the classical civil rights organizations. For starters, the movement appears to be secular. This isn’t to say that BLM is completely separate from Black religious life, but it clearly doesn’t present itself in Christian terms. Rarely does one see BLM appeal to the Bible or forge strong ties to traditional Black churches, though obviously some religious people are involved. Instead, BLM uses an oppositional framing derived from the observation that Black citizens are more at risk in society and that there needs to be an affirmation and celebration of Blackness.

Second, BLM employs a lot of language associated with the Black power movement. As I noted last week, the official BLM website favorably quotes Huey Newton, among others. Also, the focus on the Black community is itself a legacy of Black power, which emphasized the need for respect, pride, and institutional autonomy. Thus, I think one might be justified in saying that the current manifestation of BLM is a revival of the ideals of Black Power, though not its organizational form or even its tactics.

Third, organizationally, BLM has adopted a fairly decentralized mode of operations that is more akin to Occupy Wall Street than the Black Panthers. This speaks to both a long term historical process and our own moment. Immediately, the issue is social media. BLM is a movement that literally spun out of social media discussions. One should not be surprised that a movement with these roots should operate in this manner. Historically, I sense a long term drift among progressives from the mass politics model of the classic civil rights movement. It could be the case that radical activists simply don’t want to deal with more mainstream constituencies of the Black community, such as the churches or the Democratic party.

To summarize, BLM is a movement that deals with long standing issues, ones that date to the civil rights era and before. It’s also a movement that employ many traditional protest tactics, like rallies and street protest. But the movement mixes in new elements. BLM presents as a modernized Black Power group instead of a sequel to civil rights groups. It combines Black autonomy and direction with use of social media and D.I.Y. ethos where each branch decides what it wants to be. Sociologists call identity based politics “new social movements,” but BLM might be described as the New Black Politics.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 21, 2016 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. Humor me if you will. How does BLM compare with previous movements in terms of alliance building? My understanding is that previous movements were hesitant to associate with LGBT groups. Do you see BLM being more willing to make new allies?

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    Michelangelo Landgrave

    July 21, 2016 at 3:30 pm

  2. When the Black Lives Matter movement started, I thought about whether it would have a similar trajectory to Occupy Wall Street. In particular, I was thinking about the lack of centralized leadership that seems more common in liberal movements today (see this paper–http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/1/137). So I think its ability to endure is interesting. It can partially be explained by the fact that its event-driven, and keeps getting propelled by police shooting, but it probably draws from a different population than Occupy Wall Street, one that is culturally less individualistic.

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    chrismartin76

    July 21, 2016 at 5:26 pm


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