Why are people quick to condemn Black Lives Matter using the Civil Rights Movement as a frame of comparison? How do we effectively analyze and compare the two movements without underscoring each of their respective goals and significance within the sphere of racial politics? Is the criticism that Black Lives Matter has received justified?
I hope to argue that there was a fundamental shift in activist ideology that occurred between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. As it was realized post Civil Rights Movement that racism was an issue buried deep within American Civil Society, racial activism started to become much more nihilistic and pessimistic. Black Lives Matter is built around the idea that these insidious forms of racism must be exposed, and thus it seeks to disrupt the normative societal structures that have been compromised. This was unlike the Civil Rights Movement which believed that Civil Society could be reformed to create equality. The unpopularity of Black Lives Matter should not be used to characterize its effectiveness. The movement has marked an important transition in racial politics- towards a focus on liberation.
I plan to start the paper by mentioning how Black Lives Matter came to be and some of the history leading up to the movement after the Civil Rights Movement. In discussing some of the differences between the two movements, I want to collapse all of them to this underlying ideological shift. In the process, I can debase many of the other ways the movements are compared today. The second part of the paper will build on this analysis to explain why much of the criticism of Black Lives Matter is not justified. The movement builds on many of King’s commitments and makes evident a colossal history of anti-black racism.
Link to Infographic:
Originally approaching my proposal, I was somewhat unclear where my RBA was going to end up. My area of focus was deceptively broad. The more I spent time researching and thinking, the more I realized I could write multiple essays on many of the topics that I originally hoped to cover in one. Much of the feedback during the peer reviews that I had received primarily centered on the lack of direction in my proposal. There was a general lack of clarity in terms of what I wanted my RBA to ultimately look like. I knew I wanted to focus on the Black Lives Matter with respect to its ideologies and tactics in comparison to the Civil Rights Movement. The first draft of my proposal however spent too much time focusing on the civil rights movement- establishing it as a relevant frame of comparison for Black Lives Matter. I also failed to present any scholarship on Black Lives Matter itself. The general comments on organization such as the need to improve my topic sentences and conclusion also lent credence to the fact that my overall thesis was ambiguous.
In my infographic presentation, I had relatively better understanding of the direction of my research and how I wanted to go about comparing the two movements. I received generally positive feedback with many of my peers commenting that I had a clearer roadmap of where I was going and what I hoped to focus on. Many found the images and text moving with just the right balance of the two. There were a few questions on how I planned to use this comparison of ideologies (optimism vs pessimism) for my argument. Upon further inspection of my proposal, it seemed there was a disconnect between the existence of these ideologies that I established and my analysis on the way the movements were compared. I decided that I wanted the argument of my RBA to be two-fold: First, I would show that there was a shift in ideology between the movements using history as evidence. Second, I would then use this to debase the normative polarization that has occurred between these two movements. Black Lives Matter simply begins from a pessimistic ethic but is an extension of the radical legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the process of determining the topic I would hope to further investigate, I narrowed it down to these five potential areas of research.
- Contemporary education has witnessed a shift towards more active learning methods where much of the onus is placed on the students to develop their own unique understanding of the material to promote advocacy and independent thinking skills. As a form of simulated immersion, role-playing is one such technique that is often employed. I believe however a number of questions can be raised on its efficacy especially its tendency to engender a dissociation and complacency with the real-world issues being discussed- antithetical to an activist mentality that it hopes to foster.
- In the last blog post, I discussed the use of culture jamming as a form of disruption and subversion against normative cultural codes. There is much evidence that the use of culture jamming today has failed to produce a significant impact and has sometimes done more harm then good. I would be interested in further investigating whether the problems of culture jamming are intrinsic to its nature or whether its potency has diminished temporally.
- Another issue I think is critical to examine with regards to contemporary activism is the evolution of modern racial politics. I would argue that things like the birth of the Black Lives Matters movement is not only indicative of the emergence of long-suppressed racial tensions but also signals a shift in the ideology of contemporary racial politics- namely from afro-optimism (which defined the civil rights movement) to one of afro-pessimism.
- In “Activism!” Tim Jordan discusses a number of forms of activism. In particular, he criticizes more reformist forms of activism that take incremental steps towards change within the institutions that they criticize. Jordon dismisses this form activism arguing that this can never be a true form of transgression that activism calls for. However, I think there is definitely more room for inquiry here given the empirical success of many reformist movements.
- Finally, I also considered the area of climate activism as a potential research subject. Environmental issues have also become more and more split along partisan lines. I think there is a lot of room to investigate modern climate activism and how it may combat widespread climate denialism that has leaked into the mainstream or just general public apathy.
A number of racial scholars cite that modern liberalism has created a ruse that we’ve “solved” issues of discrimination. People have become complacent with Voter I.D. Laws, Gerrymandering, racial violence dubbed “self-defense”, a Criminal Justice System disproportionately incarcerating minorities. It pushes the issues underground, making them subtle and harder to identify but all the more insidious. Many people argue that the response of the black community in the form of protests, solidarity around Black Lives Matter, etc. primarily indicates that “buried racial tensions have finally come to light”. I think this view as a starting point is problematic. It causes racial analysis to be posited in terms of its visibility to some external entity. I think it also causes a fixation on the past where we spend too much time attempting to uncover what was. I would argue that the best starting point for analysis of contemporary racial politics is understanding the fundamental shift in ideology that occurred after the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was fundamentally optimistic in that it sought to reform a system that it believed could include all bodies of people. However, it became more apparent that a civil society literally built upon the enslavement of the black body could never truly be inclusive. Thus was born the idea of Afro-pessimism which I believe has slowly taken over as the predominant ideology of racial politics. I think realizing this shift is critical to any further investigation of modern activism in the context of race.
“…complex thinking is not absent from culture jamming, but it is tempered by the immediate demands of political activity.” -Tim Jordan in Activism!:Direct Action, Hacktivism, and the Future of Society
In “Activism!”, Tim Jordan analyzes the tactic of culture jamming as a method of subverting, usually problematic, cultural codes imposed primarily by corporations and the state. These symbolic codes define and idealize a particular way of life, being, emotions- corporations, for example, attempting to manipulate the populace’s desire for expenditure. In opposition, culture jamming tries to “turn the languages against themselves” (Jordan 103), and in doing so “open[s] up new languages through which desires and needs may be defined by individuals and communities” (Jordan 103). However, Jordan pinpoints flaw in culture jamming, namely that it begins from a fatalistic assumption where “nothing is free from these codes”. It works within the confines of normativity, rearticulating a dependency on and sometimes inadvertently reaffirming the same structures it attempts to dismantle. Jordan claims that culture jamming’s inability to produce affect strictly independent of the cultural codes it criticizes raises questions on its effectiveness as a tool for activism.
I think Jordan raises a unique critical perspective that I had never really considered before. Instead of working on building existing cultural codes that are free from corporation or state influence, we spend too much time working with already “poisoned codes” (Jordan 116). In the process these methods are either co-opted by these institutions (Jordan’s example where Nike deliberately culture jammed itself) or are mapped out and pre-empted. Culture jamming has lied unquestioned in the arsenal of many activists of our generation. For example, in last years election, there was a noticeable surge in liberal activism. A notable tactic against Trump’s “Make America Great Again” was to repurpose it as “Make America Gay Again” or “Make American Hate Again”. Despite conveying its intended message, these phrases would put Trump’s original campaign slogan on a pedestal and reinforce its relevance within our culture. In fact, much of the anti-trump activism could be described as culture jamming as much of it simply parodized Trump and his campaign. Much of Hillary Clinton’s campaign was defined in opposition to Trump’s. Given the results I think noticing this tendency is particularly relevant and important to consider when discussing contemporary activism. The election did a particularly good job in revealing this unintended effect of culture jamming.