Glenn Loury argues passionately for a more nuanced and balanced understanding of recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere, if we are to make headway in tackling the country’s continuing racial conflict. Loury’s alarm is understandable. For the past few years a steady stream of violent racial incidents has sparked angry protests centered on the theme that black lives matter and on the deep racial polarization in the United States.
Yet Loury’s argument is misguided. It lacks historical perspective and nuance. And it is surprising that an economist would elide the economic underpinnings of black disadvantage. Loury offers the wrong advice not only for black activists and their allies but for the country as a whole. Most of all, Loury fails to provide us the basis for understanding how white supremacy, reworked for this neoliberal era, shapes the current racial terrain.
Loury ignores ways in which white supremacy shapes the racial terrain.
Loury errs by centering most of the discussion on the person of Michael Brown, but the black activists in the St. Louis area and throughout the country realize that the problem is not Brown, his character, or how he is characterized, but a society in which police routinely kill unarmed people. Rather than Rosa Parks, Brown should be compared to the victims of lynching during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Megan Ming Francis vividly demonstrates in Civil Rights and the Making of the American State (2014), black victims were portrayed by the state and white civil society as menaces to American civility and civilization, to be controlled by any means necessary.
In response, some black leaders unsuccessfully pursued a strategy of balance, calling for an end to black criminality and for due process. Individuals such as Ida B. Wells and organizations such as the NAACP and the CPUSA rejected that strategy and pursued the more effective one of building a social movement and fighting in the streets, the legislatures, the courts, and the court of public opinion to obtain justice for the black victims of mob lynchings and legal lynchings, such as the Scottsboro Boys.
This is not to suggest that the traditional Civil Rights Movement is the best mode for our time. I agree with Loury in that respect. The economic and social context within which the Civil Rights Movement was built and flourished no longer exists due in part to massive changes in the American political economy. The murder of black folks sparks anger, but the foundation of that anger is the lack of economic opportunity for those denied access to decent educational opportunities and forced into the lowest end of the labor market. As blacks moved into the manufacturing and public sectors in the twentieth century, their incomes rose. But the neoliberal remaking of the economy and state devastated black communities.
The Black Power Movement may have more to teach us now. As Malcolm X pointed out, a weakness of the Civil Rights Movement was a focus on civil rights instead of a more robust concept of human rights. I would add democratic rights. The slogan “black lives matter” focuses attention on the claim that blacks are being robbed by the state and vigilantes of the human right to safety and the democratic right to equal treatment under the law. Today’s anger follows the denial of basic human rights, even if it is too early to define the nature of a movement that is at its beginning.
More than the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement attempted, not altogether unsuccessfully, to address the kinds of hardships that form the backdrop to today’s racial divide. While the political economy of the Black Power era differs from today’s, there are similarities in the political environment. These include a highly racially polarized society, a need to focus on the economic demands of the least affluent sectors of black and brown communities, a need to do the difficult work of building working alliances between disadvantaged communities, and a need to force the state to extend full democratic rights in arenas ranging from voting to criminal justice. The goal, which so upset whites, was the redistribution of power and resources.
We should not rebuild the old Black Power Movement. Those days have passed. But I suspect that new movements will learn from the Black Power Movement because ending racial inequality still demands redistribution of power and resources and the institution of human and democratic rights.