Framing a Transformative Vision for Black Lives

This week we’re revisiting selections from our 2016 series ‘With Love and Respect: #ScholarsRespond to A Vision for Black Lives,’ edited by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi. Today we’re featuring an essay by Clarence Lang. 

March for Racial Justice (Photo: The All-Nite Images, Flickr)

Framing symbols and discourses—rendered in the form of images, platforms and demands—are the most critical aspect of any movement-building effort. At their most effective, they bring political coherence and focus to an activist community, convey meaning and goals to supporters and potential participants, mobilize constituents to action, and equip adherents organizationally to contest for legitimacy (and power). Along these lines, framing discourses can communicate insurgent ideas about what changes are necessary, rather than simply what reforms are deemed possible.

The work of movement framing has been an enduring feature of struggles for black freedom, though each wave of struggle has imagined black freedom in historically specific ways. This history includes the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (1896), which promoted seven “Objectives” for the education, economic welfare and social rights of women and youth during the early years of Jim Crow, and popularized the motto “Lifting as We Climb.” It also encompasses the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s 1920 “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” which globalized a Black Nationalist vision of self-determination in the wreckage of the First World War. Similarly, the “Ten-Point Program” of Oakland’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (1966) reflected an anti-colonial consciousness prevalent among urban youth of color. As another example, the “Combahee River Collective Statement” (1977) spoke to a growing intersectional approach to both analyzing and combating oppression on the bases of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Moreover, in its 1998 “Freedom Agenda,” the Black Radical Congress reacted to the retreat from racial equality and economic justice that had occurred during the successive presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton, and offered a politically left alternative to the reactionary black conservatism of the 1995 Million Man March.

The Movement for Black Lives’ (M4BL) recently issued “Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, & Justice” belongs to this rich tradition of transformative agenda setting. It represents a coalition effort of more than fifty organizations, including the Dream Defenders—whose members staged an occupation of the Florida capitol following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin—and the Organization of Black Struggle, one of the first local respondents to the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Most immediately, the M4BL demands are a culmination of the “Black Lives Matter” activism that has evolved since Zimmerman’s acquittal.

On a bigger canvas, these “Policy Demands” speak to the effects of a current neoliberal landscape characterized by, among other things, a denigration of social welfare expenditures and ideas of the public good; an emphasis on fiscal austerity and the punitive functions of the state; the deregulation of capital; widening gaps of wealth and privilege; the reduction of all social relations to private market exchanges; and the resulting atomization of the individual. Tellingly, the M4BL platform demands “Economic Justice,” to be accomplished by restoring greater regulations to the financial industry, strengthening the rights of workers to unionize across job sectors, instituting public works programs, and supplanting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with a progressive restructuring of all existing U.S. trade agreements. Indeed, TPP—and its predecessors like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—strengthen corporate and finance capital at the expense of wages, household income, and overall working and living conditions for the “99 Percent.”

One result of this decades-long neoliberal project has been a renewed debasement of electoral politics. This is manifested in the deregulation of campaign spending, the personal corruption of candidates purchased through massive amounts of money and career patronage, the use of vile demagoguery to conceal elite decadence and hegemony, and updated weapons of voter suppression against marginalized populations. The Republicans, led by their Tea Party wing, continues headlong into undisguised white supremacist politics. The Democratic Party center, while signaling left, is poised yet again to turn right, in the process betraying the most loyal and progressive members of its base while offering little more than symbolic representation and access. Meanwhile, the nation’s first black presidency, historic as it was, has tragically exposed the illusion of racial transcendence, the structural limits of individual black heroic exceptionalism, and the dangers of confusing an electoral campaign (even if initially a rebellious one) with an actual social movement.

Rejecting a false, demoralizing, crisis-driven choice in this dominant two-party setup, the M4BL platform rallies for “Political Power” encompassing universal voter registration, “a ban on any disenfranchisement laws,” public financing of elections, and the end of “super PACS and unchecked corporate donations.” Confronting deep-rooted inequalities in U.S. political power, the nation’s history of silencing dissidents, and the rising drumbeat for state repression against “Black Lives Matter” itself, this set of demands also advocates for the release of all political prisoners. Ultimately, the “Political Power” plank envisions a long-term “remaking of the current U.S. political system in order to create a real democracy where Black people and all marginalized people” can realize the full possibilities of electoral participation and democratic decision-making.

Elsewhere, the M4BL “Vision for Black Lives” recognizes the necessity of diverse solidarities, most explicitly including “respecting the rights of our Indigenous family.” In this respect, it underscores the connections between anti-black racism and the specter of perpetual war in the global peripheries; nativism and Islamophobia at home; the corporate desecration of ecosystems and heritage sites occupied by Native American peoples like North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux; an intensified reaction against expressions of sexual difference; and an emboldened denial of women’s right to both choose intimate partners and exercise reproductive agency. Simultaneously, this ethos of solidarity extends internally to black communities themselves, bringing to the forefront, according to the document’s preamble, “the most marginalized Black people, including…women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, differently-abled, undocumented, and immigrant.”

It is from this wide-ranging sense of black identity that the M4BL policy agenda demands: “End the War on Black People.” Such warfare has pivoted on the interwoven, racialized violence of the state-sanctioned “war on drugs,” mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, community surveillance, police militarization, profiling, the criminalizing stigma of the “prison label,” and extrajudicial killings by law officers and vigilantes. This demand to end “the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of our people” implicitly challenges the false equivalence between, on the one hand, the authority, latitude and deference that the state gives to law enforcement and, on the other, the routinized disposability of black life. Notwithstanding the very real tragedy in the shooting deaths of several officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge during the riotous summer of 2016, the resulting slogan, “Blue Lives Matter,” is a cynical means of justifying repressive police tactics against “Black Lives Matter” activists. Equally important, “Blue Lives Matter” hides the existing asymmetries of power between the police and the policed, with people of color in the latter category too often victims of official misconduct and abuse.

This politics of black disposability extends, as well, to ongoing patterns of metropolitan disinvestment, financial capitalist redevelopment, and black residential displacement.  Consequently, the third M4BL plank, “Invest-Divest,” champions a reallocation of public funding from punishment to “local restorative justice services,” “fully funded education,”  “sustainable energy solutions,” and the revitalization of health, employment, and other essential infrastructure in the black home sphere. This dovetails with the platform’s demands for “Community Control,” which includes participatory budgeting at all levels of governance, oversight and control over law enforcement agencies, and the end to the privatization of public education. Mirroring the principles under “Community Control” and “Invest-Divest,” the platform’s section for “Economic Justice” elaborates related proposals for food and housing cooperatives, clean air and water, and “an end to the exploitative privatization of natural resources” that has led, for instance, to water contamination in Flint, Michigan, and environmental disaster on sovereign Native lands threatened by fracking and oil pipelining.

The document’s centerpiece, “Reparations,” integrates the platform’s overarching themes of restorative justice for past and present black racial oppression, economic redistribution, community (re)development and control, and political self-determination. For those of us in academia, the strong emphasis here on education—“free access and open admissions to public community colleges and universities, technical education (technology, trade and agricultural), educational support programs, retroactive forgiveness of student loans, and support for lifetime learning programs”—is a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” has taken root on numerous campuses.

While many university administrators have tried to forget the demonstrations that occurred during the 2015-2016 academic year, anti-racist student protesters have continued to press their incipient demands for a fundamental reordering of the university. It would be useless to try to predict the direction of current campus battles around “diversity, equity and inclusion” in recruitment, retention, curriculum and speech, climate, funding, and the institutional endowments left by slavery. It is also impossible to know how these struggles in higher education might affect tendencies toward academic professionalism, atomization, and individual career progression. For now, black student unions and their offshoots have reemerged as fighting organizations, through their example beckoning black faculty and staff to become accomplices in a community of rogue assemblies. Africana Studies programs and departments, brought into being by student dissidents in the late 1960s and early 1970s, similarly have been inspired by contemporary student activists to reinforce, or completely rediscover, their identities as undisciplined, fugitive spaces of study and struggle. On many of our campuses, robust alliances with various other fugitives of the neoliberal university may yet await.

From this standpoint, the M4BL case for reparations is significant in that while it addresses the particularities of violence and exploitation that black people collectively have experienced, the proposal’s remedies for health, housing, full and free education, livable incomes, and debt forgiveness exemplify a far-reaching program of progressive social democratic reform that blatantly repudiates neoliberalism. At their best, black liberation agendas have helped to expand the meanings of freedom, and the horizons of democratic thought, across society. The M4BL “Vision for Black Lives” is no different.

At the outset, the authors concede that “not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy.” This may be true, but it is entirely consistent with the black organizing tradition. From the Colored Convention Movement of the antebellum period to the National Black United Front of the early 1980s, black freedom struggles historically have stretched upward for goals that are far more capacious than what the status quo is able or willing to accommodate at a given period. The more pertinent issue right now is how and where “A Vision for Black Lives” will circulate among independent media outlets, public libraries, churches and ecumenical groups, dormitories, barbershops, hair salons, classrooms, community centers, and other areas of the black public sphere.  It has been precisely the audacity of this movement framing, and the resilience of the black radical imaginary, that has sustained black people in an intergenerational long march. And if the course of African American history has taught us anything, it is that even the boldest freedom dreams warrant our serious contemplation.

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Clarence Lang

Clarence Lang is the Susan Welch Dean of the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts. Lang’s research focuses on black social movements in the 20th century United States; African-American labor and working-class history; and black communities in the urban Midwest. He has authored two books: “Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggles in St. Louis, 1936-75,” and “Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties: Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism and Politics.” Lang’s research and essays have been published in the Journal of African-American History, Journal of Social History, Journal of Urban History, Race & Society, New Politics, The Chronicle of Higher Education, American Studies Journal, LaborOnline, and Critical Sociology.

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