Black Liberation and Left Renewal

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation compels us to respond to Trump by building multiracial solidarity and socialist alternatives.

A Black Lives Matter march in Baltimore, Maryland in July 2016. John Lucia / Flickr

The election of Donald Trump has only made the need for widespread resistance to racist state repression more urgent. The new president rode into the White House on a wave of reactionary populist anger, pledging to restore law and order following the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions and the rise of Black Lives Matter. Trump appealed to moral panics about race and crime to win consent for authoritarian proposals that promised to protect against a series of purported threats to national security.

His actions so far — from selecting prominent representatives of finance capital for his cabinet to rashly issuing executive orders; from his imposition of hiring freezes in all government agencies besides the military and security forces to his strident immigration restrictions — all demonstrate a willingness to make good on those promises.

In this context, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation could not be more timely. Written in the late Obama era and first published by Haymarket Books in 2016, this volume demonstrates how the Black Lives Matter movement’s resistance to racism and police violence has “morphed into a political crisis” that not yet been resolved. Taylor depicts organizations ranging from #BlackLivesMatter to the Black Youth Project 100, arguing that they represent “a newly developing Black left.” Taylor’s analysis illuminates how this burgeoning movement has ruptured “post-racial” illusions and how their radical critiques of racism, policing, and inequality position black people to “transform social conditions.” In doing so, she argues that they have sparked a long-needed discussion about the unfinished struggle to overcome racism, militarism, and poverty.

Drawing on a range of sources that include Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, and the Combahee River Collective, Taylor shows how the black freedom movement has historically “pushed mainstream politics to the left.” In sharp contrast to backlash narratives that depict white working-class resistance to civil rights and anger at the 1960s urban uprisings as the source of a punitive turn in politics, she highlights how elites deployed law-and-order strategies to defeat these struggles. The freedom movement, we learn from Taylor, threatened those elites by upending racist stereotypes in service of a reconstruction agenda that would improve material conditions not only for African Americans but for the multiracial working class as a whole.

From #BlackLivesMatter has already found a wide audience among those seeking clarity about the violent expansion of the police and prisons. While thoroughly examining the roots of racist law-and-order rhetoric and the bipartisan politics that surround it, the book puts relatively more weight on how politicians rolled back the welfare state while violently extending the “policing and prison state” in response to the black freedom struggle of the 1960s.

Taylor illustrates how this transformation depended on racializing and criminalizing the black working class while elevating a “new Black elite.” Her materialist critique places the political strategies that sought to put “Black faces in high places” in the context of the deteriorating conditions poor and working black people faced as a result of concentrated poverty, mass incarceration, and crumbling housing. Indeed, she claims that Ferguson and Baltimore illuminated not only “the racism and brutality of American policing,” but also the black elite’s embrace of neoliberal policies that promote privatization, gentrification, and punitive politics. Any debate about the anti-police violence movement, she concludes, must keep this neoliberal political project in its sights.

The next phase of the movement, Taylor argues, will have to further develop its analysis of race, class, and policing. Any discussion of the “racism of the police,” she insists, must interrogate their “role as armed agents of the state” and recognize that they serve the interests of capital and the state. In one telling example, Taylor investigates how policing enabled gentrification and “municipal revenue creation.”

This political-economic analysis contextualizes Taylor’s exploration of police murders. As she notes, police kill more people in the United States than any other country in the global North, a disproportionate number of whom are black and indigenous. That these victims also include poor Latinos and whites, she writes, “establishes an objective basis upon which a multiracial movement against police terrorism can be organized.”

From #BlackLivesMatter also suggests the importance of understanding the state’s response to past radical movements. As she writes, communist and socialist movements have long combined antiracism with their commitment to organizing workers. But in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution — whose centenary we are celebrating this year — struggles rooted in dramatic challenges to Jim Crow and fascism faced extreme state repression that culminated in the Cold War period.

Agreeing with the late Manning Marable’s generative insight that anticommunism and McCarthyism set the freedom movement back by “a decade or more,” Taylor offers a welcome corrective to the thesis that the civil rights movement benefited from the national security state’s concessions to middle-class liberal organizations. Indeed, she emphasizes the political cost of the Cold War–era belief that racism “could be fixed . . . by changing the laws and creating ‘equal opportunity,’” an argument that divorced discussions of race from debates over political economy. Likewise, Taylor highlights the bipartisan consensus around racist state repression by noting that liberals collaborated with conservatives in a series of repressive responses to radical demands for a “socialist redistribution of resources.”

Perhaps most importantly, Taylor reveals what is at the stake in our interpretations of the history of black freedom struggles. In her view, the fight for black liberation would benefit from a more thorough engagement with socialist theory. In her conclusion, she reminds readers that socialism had once been widely promoted as a legitimate response to racism, militarism, and capitalism, but elites successfully marginalized it. She suggests that the state’s “anticommunist witch hunt” in the post–World War II period “largely destroyed any links between the socialist movement of the 1930s and the new wave of struggle in the 1960s.” In this way, Taylor emphasizes that political repression blocked discussions within the movement over strategies that could address both racial inequality and capitalism.

Some readers will be wary of the conclusion that state repression destroyed the links between socialist struggles and the civil rights movement, pointing to the persistence of the alliance throughout the era. After all, sixties radicals like Angela Y. Davis turned to figures like W. E. B. Du Bois to advance historical-materialist analyses of policing and prisons. As I argue elsewhere, the state responded to the freedom movement’s most radical demands with intense repression that paved the way for the neoliberal state. Indeed as Davis noted in conversation with Taylor last November, we must heed the radical intellectuals of the postwar antiracist left if we want to forge organizations capable of defending against state repression and of intensifying the struggle for hegemony.

Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter is an important point of departure for the project of left renewal. This vital book challenges readers to carefully study and engage with the history of antiracist struggle against policing, prisons, and poverty. Ultimately, it compels us to respond to the rise of Trump by building multiracial solidarity and articulating alternative futures.