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commentary on szetela’s (2019) critique of black lives matter

The journal Ethnic and Racial Studies recently published an article by Adam Szetela on the subject of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here, I’ll summarize his argument and respond. A disclaimer: even though I think Szetela is basically correct, I come at things from a very different angle as I am not anti-capitalist as he is.

Ok, so what is Szetela’s beef with BLM? He says BLM, as articulated and developed by its founders and academic defenders, has three problems (page 1):

  1. Achievability: Szetela says that BLM does not have any plausible approach to achieve it’s extremely broad goals.
  2. Black exceptionalism: Szetela claims that BLM is articulated as if African Americans face unique problems and that undermines links with other groups like Latinos.
  3. Reflexivity: The movement is uncritically praised in the academy.

The first critique is probably the easiest to document and defend. If one takes the time to read BLM statements, or attend a rally, you come away with the impression that they want epic and massive policies that are really, really hard to achieve. Szetela (page 3):

A juggernaut of political demands has also sprung from the network. In their policy platform, “A Vision for Black Lives”, the network – along with groups such as Black Youth Project 100 and Black Women’s Blueprint – demands an end to the mass surveillance and criminalization of black people in America (Movement for Black Lives 2016). In addition, the platform urges the creation of a federal jobs programme for black Americans and financial support for black-owned cooperatives and other “Black alternative institutions”. More ambitious demands include an unconditional basic income for all black Americans.

If you know the history of Black nationalists in America, you have heard this before. These demands are very similar to the demands that you find from groups like the Black Panthers, the US Organization, and others. In my reading of history, Szetela is correct: achieving these sorts of goals is a real long shot and BLM, so far, has offered few bits of strategy on how one might get there. It didn’t work in the 1960s, when the winds of progressivism were strong, and it’s going to be uphill now as well.

What about the other two issues? In terms of Black exceptionalism, one has to tread carefully. On the one hand, Szetela is right in that (pages 10-11) “This turn away from pragmatic interracial organizing is premised on a black exceptionalist posture. In the first instance, anti-blackness is foregrounded over racism. In the second instance, anti-blackness is substituted for neoliberalism.” If you turn the plight of your own group into the one explanation for all that is wrong in the world, you’re going to have a tough time making cause with groups suffering other harms, such as Latinx victims of migration law or people of all color caught up in mass incarceration.

Yet, I can see nationalists, past and present, answering back to Szetela by adopting a position similar to that found in Huey Newton’s late writings on “inter-communalism.” In these later works, Newton did not cede the idea that there was something distinctive about Black repression, and he remained a neo-Marxist for most of his adult life, he did realize that the Black community was best served by allying with other communities. I wouldn’t be surprised in BLM’s modern defenders responded to Szetela with a similar view point.

Now, let’s get to this last point about “reflexivity.” Here is Szetela (page 15): “For [Bayard] Rustin, the exclusionary nature of black power politics, which runs on essentialism and romanticism, is a kind of “politics of escape” that avoids the difficult work of rigorous historical analysis and the formation of cross-racial solidarities.” Here, Szetela is analogizing – the BLM defenders of today have committed the same error as defenders of nationalists have in previous eras. They have turned movements into heroes who are exempt from critical analysis.

There is certainly an important truth in Szetela’s charge. Right now, BLM is not treated by many as a social formation that is open to inquiry.  The question, for defenders, is not whether BLM has a plausible strategy for achieving the goals of police reform. The question is why others can’t totally buy theories of intersectionality.

I think this is unfortunate as BLM was initially motivated by an issue of grave importance: police mistreatment of Blacks. To effectively deal with this, we don’t need heroes. We need lawyers, and pastors, and police officers, and parents, and every day voters. We need a movement with a platform that appeals to people outside the academic left and a movement that can offer a plausible strategy linked to tangible outcomes. When it became a national presence, BLM had a chance to be the platform for a larger coalition to emerge. If Szetela is right, and I think he is, then a valuable opportunity was lost.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 30, 2019 at 12:27 am

Posted in uncategorized

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