Back in 2006, I had a series of exchanges with the late African American and radical scholar Roderick Bush. Most of our exchange focused on issues he addressed in his text We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century. The exchange pointed to the fundamental role of racism in the founding and maintenance of the US Empire. Indeed, Mr. Bush reminded me that not only was it the foundation of the US Empire, but also “Racism continues to be the main ideological pillar of capitalism, even as the public perception may be that racism is much less legitimate than it has been in the past.” Consequently, he surmised that anti-racist resistance was and is a crucial (if not the most crucial) hub of resistance to capitalism and empire.
In her new book, From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor takes a similar approach in her examination of African-American resistance to the empire of racism we call the United States. Looking primarily at the past fifty years of that movement, Taylor dissects the role played by the civil rights movement in both moving Black Americans closer to liberation and its subsequent place in stifling that forward motion as some of the leaders of that movement shifted into positions of power in both the public and private sector. It is a history equally uplifting and depressing. For examples of the latter aspect, one need only look at the recent statements by some so-called Black leaders regarding the current presidential election cycle in the United States. Certain members of the Black Establishment are supporting Hilary Clinton, who claims to be a civil rights pioneer despite so much historical evidence to the contrary, believing her campaign will be their ticket to more inside jobs for the elite they represent. In doing so, these supposed leaders decry the programs suggested by Clinton’s opponent—programs like free tuition, jobs programs, and so on—with one such pro-Clinton “leader,” Rep. Clyburn, echoing the far right and calling these programs “free lunch.”
Taylor’s text makes it clear that Clyburn is not alone in his politics among the African-American elite. She takes down the Congressional Black Caucus, pointing out its despairingly weak voting record and its collusion with some of Black America’s worst exploiters, like Wal-Mart and the private prison industry. In doing so, she narrates the history of this trajectory towards conservative capitalism, describing the growth of the Black US middle class, its roots in earlier history and its meaning for the Black liberation movements of today. In this discussion, Taylor examines how the growth of the African-American middle and upper classes has not only left the bulk of Black US citizens behind, but also how it has affected their education, their employment status (in terms of jobs available and numbers employed), and their treatment by the courts and police. Taylor spends a long chapter on the latter subject, tracing its history from the days of slavery through Reconstruction up to today, when police murders of African Americans occur on the average of several per day and Black citizens represent a disproportionate majority of prisoners in the world’s largest penal colony system.
It is this ongoing fact of mass incarceration and police murders that created the Black Lives Matter movement. Although it is a movement still struggling to define itself, it has already made a substantial addition to the never-ending US conversation about racial politics. Unfortunately, it has also already experienced efforts by mainstream power elites to divert its radical stance to one more accommodating with the existing system. In response, some self-appointed leaders of the movement have claimed it as their own and met with Barack Obama and others in its name. Taylor not only acknowledges this trend; she calls for a greater understanding of Black liberation history and a closer bonding with movement’s for workers’ rights and against capitalism. In other words, the movement must maintain its radical analysis, learn from radical organizations and individuals in history, and beware of the illusions created by the system that appear to be progress. Naturally, meeting the primary demands—to end police brutality, murder, and mass incarceration—would certainly be progress. However, unless there is an essentially radical analysis that fundamentally challenges the racist fact of US history, that progress is unlikely.
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is an important book for today. In its pages, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor takes on the Black establishment in the United States, calling them out for their liberal ultimately reactionary words and compromises. In making it clear that the work of the Black freedom struggle in the United States is far from over, Taylor takes apart the myth of a post-racial America. She decries politicians like Clyburn, along with various Black capitalists and preachers, who have helped maintain the stasis Black America finds itself in. This book is a condemnation of the failure of the US political system to deliver on the hopes of the civil rights movement. Instead, argues Taylor, the system and most of those African-Americans involved in it, are resigned to substituting black politicians for black political power, a black bourgeoisie for genuine economic power, and mass incarceration for Black liberation.
The myth that we are all now equal in the United States is exposed in a concise and readable narrative, replete with numerous statistics woven into the text. Stating that it is the outcomes of laws and pronouncements that determine whether or not racism exists and not the intention of those phenomena, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation dispels the lie of a post-racial nation. Instead, it examines where we are at the current juncture and how we as anti-racists can achieve a genuinely anti-racist society.