Policy and Possibility in the Movement for Black Lives Platform

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 Matt Delmont.

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In her 2010 Presidential address to the American Studies Association, scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore stressed the importance of understanding policy as a pathway to social change. “Policy is the new theory,” Gilmore said. “Policy is to politics what method is to research. It’s a script for enlivening some future possibility—an experiment.”

I read the Movement for Black Lives platform with Gilmore’s words in mind. Underlying the coalition’s six policy demands are thirty-four policy briefs that include specific steps for federal, state, and local legislative action, models of successful policies, and links to organizations working on related projects. These policy briefs reflect over a year of careful deliberation and planning, and express a tremendous amount of care for the future of the movement and the future of the country.

The level of detail in these documents is a rebuke to critics who suggest that Black Lives Matter is merely about slogans and hashtags. The “Ban the Box” policy brief, for example, outlines a set of actions to end the use of past criminal history in determining eligibility for housing, education, licenses, voting, loans, employment, and other services. The brief highlights the pioneering work on this issue by All of Us or None, a grassroots civil and human rights organization, and points to model legislation from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Georgia.

Similarly, the seven-page document on prison conditions mentions a dozen organizations working on the issue and producing positive results in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and other cities. These policy briefs do an impressive job of cataloging the work that has been done to date on specific issues and of offering roadmaps for future action.

A sense of possibility flows throughout these policy briefs and show that activists in the current black freedom struggle are as organized and future oriented as previous generations. The Movement for Black Lives platform and policy briefs make it clear that ending violence against black people will require a great deal of work. Making this work visible is an important step to understanding Black Lives Matter as part of a longer history of black activism. As historian Jeanne Theoharis and others have noted, the history of the civil rights movement is often invoked to chastise today’s activists.

The popular history of the civil rights movement also keeps much of the work of the movement hidden, obscuring the everyday grassroots organizing by unsung activists that made the movement possible. This is a problem because isolating a small number of leaders and a handful of protests make the earlier civil rights movement appear larger than life and impossible to reproduce. Framed in this way, the mythic history of civil rights can thwart action in the present or undermine belief that change is possible in the future.  The Movement for Black Lives counters this mythic history by emphasizing specific policy levers and the unglamorous work of organizing.

It is important to not fetishize policy and in the Movement for Black Lives platform’s final paragraph the authors write, “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.” Still, given the enormity of the problems that underlie these demands, it is important that the coalition’s vision presents pathways for generative action. Although most media coverage overlooked these policy briefs, focusing instead on the call for reparations and statement on Palestine, I believe it is the platform’s depth and specificity that will prove most important in the coming months and years.

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Matthew Delmont

Matthew Delmont is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College. He is the author of three books: Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (University of California Press, 2016); Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (University of California Press, 2016); and The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia (University of California Press, 2012). Follow him on Twitter @mattdelmont.