how black lives matter can actually change things

The old ways of engaging in politics have not liberated us. There is little radical in the continuation of methods that failed to achieve their objectives 50 odd years ago. As the police in America continue to kill African-Americans, Emma Dabiri looks...

by Emma Dabiri
05 August 2016, 2:32pm

As I'm writing this the news of Korryn Gaines death at the hands of the police is breaking. A police investigation of a traffic violation resulted in the shooting of the petite 23-year-old and her 5-year-old son. Instagram pictures from a few days ago show images of the same little boy, kissing his mother's pretty, very-much-alive, smiling face.

What are we supposed to do in the face of the ceaseless onslaught of documented black death? As the story goes, most people who do anything, protest, taking their collective rage and organising in public spaces, demanding change, demanding somebody take stock of what can -without too much hyperbole- be described as global black genocide. From the US to Brazil, to the Mediterranean Sea and the coasts of Europe, it is apparent that people of African descent are regarded as less than human. No matter the impact and reach of the tireless efforts of Black Life Matters we are reminded daily that actually no, black lives don't seem to matter much at all.

While the word radical - synonymous with innovation - is often employed in the context of activism and protest, there is little radical in the continuation of methods that failed to achieve their objectives 50 odd years ago.

In response to the recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, law professor, author, and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander urged the necessity for a profound shift in our consciousness. Despite the high profile, highly organised civil rights protests of the 50s and 60s in the US, the agitating, and the protest here in the UK, that led to the race relations legislation of the 60s and 70s, consider the state we are in now. Noting that "truly transformative change depends more on thoughtful creation of new ways of being than reflexive reactions to the old", Alexander reminds us "What is happening now is very, very old. We have some habits of responding to this familiar pain and trauma that are not serving us well." While she doesn't elaborate on how to facilitate this consciousness shift, her recognition of the necessity of changing our responses is deeply significant.

Alexander is of course, right, the old ways of engaging have not liberated us. While the word radical - synonymous with innovation - is often employed in the context of activism and protest there is little radical in the continuation of methods that failed to achieve their objectives 50 odd years ago. All the signs are in place that we need new methods, and approaches. Fundamentally, we need to take stock of the quality of the lives we are living, the stories of the lives we are aspiring to live, and start asking ourselves: What kind of world do we actually want to live in? Is the best we can imagine one in which we are materially rich? In which black is equal to white? Women equal to men? And so forth down the line, ad infinitum, until we have achieved race, gender, sexual equality? Personally my expectations far exceed that. Think about it. Is it worth risking your labour, your sanity, your very life, in attempting to achieve egalitarianism in a system rotten to its core? A system never designed to be equal in the first place. A system with the logic that black lives do not matter coded into its DNA. A system which from its very inception has worked to ensure that the material comforts of a few can only be had at the expense of the many, at the expense of the very earth itself. Do you really want to succeed in such a system? So I ask again: What kind of world do you want to live in?

Part of the necessary shift in consciousness for me comes from taking a more holistic approach to existence, seeing the interconnectivity of all life but also of all oppression.

The extra judicial killing of people of African descent on the streets of America's towns and cities are not isolated events. It is imperative that we start connecting dots and understanding the processes by which all oppression is interlinked, ultimately traceable to the same source and part of the same story. On one level these killings are the manifestation of the global anti-blackness that renders black life the very least valuable in the racialised hierarchy of humanity. But we all remain enmeshed in a psychotic system wherein all life is, to varying degrees, treated with scant regard. The operating logic of this system is the promotion of economic growth at the expense of all else.

Part of the necessary shift in consciousness for me comes from taking a more holistic approach to existence, seeing the interconnectivity of all life but also of all oppression. It is crucial that we start to examine the multiple ways in which neoliberal systems threaten our existence. Despite being conditioned to accept the story of economic growth as the panacea for all our ills, there is more than sufficient evidence that not only does unbridled growth not reduce poverty but in-fact creates it, while its "externalities" produce all sorts of social ills: debt, overwork, inequality, and climate change. As we can see, beyond the systemic violence at the hands of the state, it creates plenty of other creative ways to kill us! A study from the think tank, Global Humanitarian Forum in 2009 revealed that nearly 99% of all deaths from weather-related disasters and 90% of the total economic losses that are sustained by climate change, occurred in the global south, with Sub-Saharan Africa being particularly vulnerable. Remember when I suggested the whole genocide theory wasn't hyperbole?

Many of the black civil rights activists and liberation fighters of the 60s and 70s centralised the role of capitalism in our oppression

The people must be educated to understand that any black man or Negro who is advocating a perpetuation of capitalism inside the U.S. is in fact seeking not only his ultimate destruction and death, but is contributing to the continuous exploitation of black people all around the world.

Thus cautioned Foreman at the National Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit on April 26, 1969.

Groups such as The Black Panthers organised around a belief in revolutionary socialism, rather than identity politics, as their raison d'etre. It was this type of systemic analysis that led Richard Nixon then President of the United States, to view the uncontrolled Black Power movement as a major threat to the internal security of the United States. His solution was the cultivation of Black capitalism- a domestic policy to contain black protest and to modify behaviour.

By drawing African-Americans into the capitalist fold - an initiative never about improving quality of life - Nixon achieved his larger ideological goal of subverting African American radicalism. This policy has been insidiously successful. Neoliberalism is now so entrenched that many of us seem to see no contradiction in looking to corporate interests for "radical" revolutionary direction, especially when those corporate interests are presented to us with a black face. In doing so however, we make ourselves only more vulnerable to very forces that have a vested interest in undermining our movements. No matter what powerful iconic imagery is being invoked, if the underlying message reinforces the logic of economic growth, of capital accumulation, the message is not radical, nor revolutionary. It is conservative, anti-human, and it will not serve you well! Blogger The Radical Faggot highlights Beyoncé's reference to herself as a black Bill Gates as an example of this type of thinking: "Bill Gates isn't just a rich, white, man. He is one of free market capitalism's most powerful advocates. His foundation has supported multiple projects that undermine unions, affordable education and public schools. His wealth has worked to privatize and gentrify Black communities across this country. Lyrically lauding his achievements is at best thoughtless, at worst sinister".

Personal Identity
Meanwhile reductive forms of identity politics increasingly replace structural analysis as central to the contemporary story. The further entrenchment of capitalist logic is apparent in the hyper individualism where personal identities become pre-eminent. Being non-white or queer does not make us de facto exempt from our complicity in capitalism, or systems of power that marginalise others. We have to understand this rather than naval gaze obsessively over our own personal experiences. There is space for us to come together based on shared experiences, but we need to do a lot better than just that.

In his powerful piece My skinfolk aint all kinfolk. The Left's Problem with Identity Politics, R.L. Stephens II interrogates the effectiveness of organising around personal identities, arguing that "we can't build politics from this foundation because socially imposed identities don't necessarily tell us anything about someone's political interests". Racial or sexuality identity politics can mask a wide range of conflicting agenda's and power dynamics that further entrench the marginalization of certain bodies.

Overemphasis on socially imposed or self selected identities can be distracting when instead of "learning to recognize how the overarching systems maintain their power and then attacking those tools, we spend our energy finding an "other" to embody the systemic marginalization and legitimize our spaces and ideals… We use these "others" as authorities on various issues, and we use concepts like "privilege" to ensure that people stay in their lanes. People of color are the authorities on race, while LGBTQ people are the authorities on gender and sexuality, and so forth and so on. Yet, experience is not the same as expertise, and privilege doesn't automatically make you clueless… We mistake essentialism for intersectionality as we look for the ideal subjects to embody the various forms of oppression; true intersectionality is a description of systemic power, not a call for diversity". We have to establish ways of organising around shared visions that might or might not overlap with personal identities. This is a challenging task, but remember truly transformative change depends more on thoughtful creation of new ways of being than reflexive reactions to the old!

Central to most indigenous societies were rituals that induced complete mystical experience,"experiences that radically alter our understanding of reality and in which we go beyond our default, egocentric way of seeing the world, and connect deeply with the underlying unity and interconnectedness of all things". However such rituals are largely absent from life in late stage capitalism. This is unlikely not a coincidence. As a result of this, and in contrast to the illusion of freedom and choice we are sold, we actually occupy a pretty reduced version of reality. This in turn impacts our ability to respond to old problems anew and experience creative thinking, which could in turn produce, alternative actions. Increasingly however, there are those who are involved in what might be described as a psychedelic revolution. Beyond psychedelics there are various other ways for achieving altered states and forms of heightened consciousness and exploration of these might prove beneficial to transformative aims.

Ultimately, what remains crucial is recognising the inherent inhumanity intrinsic to the core of capitalism. And we desperately need new stories. As a strategy, the advancement of reductive identity politics, used to mobilise in order to protest for the reform the current system, is not up to the challenge of meeting the accelerated necessity for change. We can protest for the next hundred years and deaths like that of Korryn Gaines will continue on apace. Our new story must set about the task of identifying, challenging, dismantling and ultimately creating alternatives to the current cannibalistic global system, if we wish to ensure a world in which black lives might actually matter. The achievement of such an aim could create a quality of life most of us cannot, as yet, even begin to imagine! 


Text Emma Dabiri
Photography Christelle de Castro