Social movements come in different varieties. Some are movements that emerge slowly out of years and decades of organizing and remain relatively contained and containable by their leaders. These might range from environmental justice to labor organizing. Others, also emerging from years and decades and organizing, can blow up so fast that there is no real leadership or organizational structure. Black Lives Matter is an excellent example of the latter. There is of course official BLM organizations, but it very quickly became a slogan that corporations could adopt without really doing anything. One certainly can’t blame any organizer for this–you can never tell when a movement will go viral and when it does, you lose control of it quickly. Nonetheless, there are consequences when a movement becomes a popular slogan and thus loses its real meaning in favor of corporate bromides and, in this case, white people on the east side of Providence festooning the neighborhood with Black Lives Matter signs in front of their $800,000 houses while sending their kids to private schools.
All in all, it seems there was a racial reckoning — it was just disproportionately experienced by privileged Americans. Talk of social justice efforts and antiracism reached new levels of influence in the Zoom-layered corridors of the intelligentsia, corporate America and other upper-middle-class or elite-controlled institutions. Yet this reckoning often didn’t have ambitions for systemic change as much as it concerned itself with matters like representation, diversity, promotion and renegotiating the terms of corporate social responsibility. (And instead of uplifting, say, Black women’s voices it continued to elevate those of men and other women of color.)
It’s been an amorphous project, sometimes laudable and, at other times, awkwardly disconnected from the original, grass-roots critiques focused on policing, criminal law and how injustice is highly concentrated in financially divested communities.
Protest leaders didn’t march last summer to widen the trend of Black Lives Matter signs in tree-lined progressive neighborhoods, where Black neighbors are often conspicuously absent because of classist zoning laws. While many cultural shifts have been welcome, it’s not clear that people were protesting for things like greater demographic variety in the ads, magazine covers or entertainment that we consume.
And the cause of the marches certainly wasn’t to win vague news releases from corporations about solidarity and commitments to fight for equity, which in hundreds of cases failed to include robust follow-up. But that’s, largely, what America got.
Less than a month after testimony began in the trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s death, at least 64 other people were killed by American law enforcement, with Black and Latino people making up more than half of the dead.
“This past year wasn’t a win,” said DeRay Mckesson, an activist, podcaster and co-founder of Campaign Zero, which pushes for policies intended to reduce police brutality. “There were important narrative shifts and symbolic shifts. The police also killed more people in 2020 than in every year we have data except for 2018.”
He paused to praise some “nice” changes, including the rollback of racially insensitive products and how Band-Aid is diversifying the skin tones of its bandages, but added, “All these things are overdue and none of them is structural change.”
This is what’s really important here–nothing has changed. All the BLM signs, all the talk about diversity, all the allowing players to kneel during the National Anthem–Black Americans are still being slaughtered by the police and white Americans are getting increasingly antsy about it. Change has to be meaningful to be change. We will know this makes a difference not when more whites put up BLM signs but when the cops stop killing Black people with impunity. That may never happen in this racist nation.