Black Lives Matter: Three Key Texts
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2016), 288 pp.
Alicia Garza, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (New York: One World, 2020), 336 pp.
Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), 477 pp.
Since its inception in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has impacted the discourse on race and racism and has also begun to generate profound shifts in how people in the United States and beyond think about state violence, policing, Black livelihood, and Black liberation. Especially in the year 2020, following yet another series of severe cases of racist (police) brutality, Black Lives Matter has successfully mobilized for mass demonstrations that have carried conversations on day-to-day racism and their national specificities into the mainstream. While this stark increase in public attention has led some people to believe that Black Lives Matter is a fairly recent phenomenon, it is crucial to acknowledge the movement’s gradual but constant development that has, since its very early stages, been accompanied by numerous scholarly and activist publications. Given the sheer number of insightful articles and books either directly about or generally related to Black Lives Matter, our selection of books for this review can only be considered a small glimpse at the entire body of work.1 That we have opted for three books by Black women for the following review of key texts is not a coincidence but seeks to reflect one of the core messages of Black Lives Matter which is to work against the systematic erasure of Black women’s contributions. We chose books from different genres that either deal with Black Lives Matter in detail (Taylor; Garza) or with aspects of the underlying structural discrimination that the movement seeks to expose and eliminate (Wilkerson).
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016) is among the earliest studies of Black Lives Matter and the socio-historical conditions that produced the movement. Written at a time when anti-racist protests were increasing on a national scale, Taylor sets out to answer the question why a social movement stressing the value of Black lives would arise under America’s first Black president. While Barack Obama’s sweeping victory in the 2008 presidential election was interpreted by many critics as signaling the emergence of a post-racial United States, this belief was soon undermined by incessant policing brutality that revealed Black people’s vulnerability to gratuitous (state) violence. For Taylor, the question of the rise of a Black movement under Obama cannot be answered by pointing to the permanence of racism alone. Her introduction begins with a lengthy quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., which projects the vision of a Black movement beyond the parameters of anti-racism. It rejects the idea of integration into a capitalist system and aims to achieve Black liberation through fundamental structural transformation. The radical King, then, introduces the critique that Taylor’s book title implies. This critique is based on two main theses: first, that the advancement of neoliberal capitalism—including its reinforcement by the complicit, post-Black politics of the Obama administration—is key to understanding the emergence of Black Lives Matter; and, second, that neoliberal capitalism must be overcome through a social upheaval generated by the Black movement in order to truly move from #BlackLivesMatter to Black liberation.
Taylor highlights four factors that contribute to Black suffering and can ultimately be read in the context of the advancement of neoliberalism and the related abandonment of Black (sub)proletarians. The first factor, the myth of a Black “culture of poverty” (8), indicates the notion of personal responsibility. Pathologizing Black culture, this myth both explains and naturalizes Black poverty in the so-called “land of the free” by obscuring its systemic causes. The second factor is the emergence of colorblindness which aids “politicians in rolling back the welfare state” (52) and connects to the ideology of freedom of choice. For Taylor, colorblindness characterizes the post-civil rights era in which “the absence of racism in the law meant that African Americans could not claim racial harm” (52-53). It further denies the existence of racism, alleging a free society wherein individuals’ “poor choices [are] the only real constraint […]” (64-65). The third factor, the conformist turn in Black politics, is shaped by the state’s consistent suppression of the Left. Brutality against civil rights and Black Power leaders compelled many leftist activists to pursue a less dangerous path of electoral politics. This inclusion “of Black politics into the political mainstream” concurred with the state’s “aggressive effort to cultivate a small but stable Black middle class” (80) through Black employment in federal agencies. It is, according to Taylor, this stratified opposition between complicit “Black faces in high places” (18) and the majority of Black (sub)proletarians that characterizes and complicates the conditions of the current Black liberation struggle (75-106). Policing, finally, is historically linked to the production of a “racialized political economy […]” (108). Modern, militarized policing has generated mass incarceration as wealth inequality exacerbated and “welfare as we know it” ended (121).
The interrelation of these factors, coupled with the disillusionment over a Black president who, as Taylor argues, remained “silen[t] on the critical issues facing African Americans even as he has parroted the worst stereotypes about Black culture and irresponsibility” (19), constituted growing frustration and anger in Black communities. This was aggravated by what Taylor observes as a tendency of Blacks “to look inward instead of making demands on the state and others” (218). Taylor does not inquire into the structures that wring recognition from poor Blacks, compelling them to mainly “look inward” and accept ideologies and stereotypes that reinforce their oppression. However, she concludes that the continuation of oppression—even as Blacks submitted to such ideologies by “working harder than everyone else” (218)—created a tension that eventually “explode[d]” (218). It was this tension that elicited uprisings such as the one in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of Michael Brown. Yet, Taylor sees the Ferguson rebellion and concomitant birth of the Black Lives Matter movement as only two out of three necessary steps toward Black liberation. The third step is to broaden the scope of activism in solidarity with all oppressed (sub)proletarians, or in Taylor’s words, “to connect the current struggle to end police terror in our communities with an even larger movement to transform this country in such a way that the police are no longer needed to respond to the consequences of […] inequality” (219). During four years of neo-fascist law and order under Donald Trump, the call to “defund the police” was popularized by a broad transnational and cross-racial coalition led by Black Lives Matter activists. “Defund the police” rests on the idea of redistributing public funds to the social branches of the state in order to produce forms of community support that render policing obsolete. Thus, while the slogan “defund the police” resonates with Taylor’s call for systemic action against state violence, her insistence on a “much larger vision of what a different world could look like” (216) is a reminder that, in this struggle against the immediate social ills, one should not lose sight of the long-term goal: Black liberation realized in the context of a cross-racial, socialist revolution.
Alicia Garza’s The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (2020) complements Taylor’s historical analysis by providing an insider’s perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement. Stressing the insufficiency of electoral politics in bringing about sustainable change, The Purpose of Power highlights the importance of transforming power relationships. The book is in many ways a manual on grassroots organizing and the building of coalitions; but it is also a memoir about, as Garza explains, “how a movement shaped my life—and why I became determined to build a different one” (11). The subtitle bespeaks a twofold movement, the “coming together” under #BlackLivesMatter out of a sense of “falling apart” during a psychological crisis that Garza (and Black people at large) underwent in reaction to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. The subtitle also evokes the recent upsurge of protests in the wake of the dual crisis of police brutality during a pandemic that continues to harm Black and Brown lives in particular. Thus, capturing the two significant phases in the history of Black Lives Matter—its emergence in 2013 and upsurge in 2020—the subtitle carries one of the central lessons on movements defined by Garza as follows: “Movements are much more like waves than they are like light switches. Waves ebb and flow, but they are perpetual, their starting point unknown, their ending point undetermined, their direction dependent upon the conditions that surround them and the barriers that obstruct them” (xi). The Purpose of Power, therefore, is also about demystifying movements and challenging the dominant perception of them as sporadic events. It reminds readers of the continuous struggle that goes into the pursuit of freedom. Garza’s clear-eyed observations of the conditions that shape movements are informed by many factors, inter alia, her degrees in Anthropology and Sociology. Her academic training is evident especially in the first part titled “A Short History of How We Got Here” (1), wherein, in a manner of sociological reflexivity, she outlines her coming of age at a time when right-wing conservatism was ascending to power. Indeed, Garza’s extraordinary perception is shaped by her extraordinary position in social space: growing up as a Black queer woman in a predominantly white neighborhood and being raised by a Black mother (a former prison guard) and a white, Jewish stepfather.2 Interweaving her personal story with historical developments, she illustrates the destructive effects of Reaganism on Black people and Black women particularly. Yet, Garza found everyday resistance personified in the feminism of her late mother.
Garza outlines her path to professional activism and the gradual emergence of Black Lives Matter. She meticulously lays out the hard work of organizing and provides hands-on advice as well as in-depth reflection on both the pitfalls and promises of (building and sustaining) movements: from her “First Lessons” (ch. 3) as an apprentice organizer through her “First Fight” (ch. 4) as a community activist, to the birth of Black Lives Matter. She also warns that by now all too common phenomena—such as the popularization of and capitalization on Black Lives Matter that are frequently dismissed as side effects of advancing to a mass movement—should also be considered critically regarding their potential to undermine the very goals of that movement (249-67). Garza also makes a strong case for “sustained organizing” as opposed to merely being visible or “going viral” and thus emphasizes the importance of (social) media as a tool, not an end in itself (141). The strength of her arguments for or against certain strategic efforts but also her criticism of problematic phenomena within movements also lies in the fact that she is frank about her stance. Garza makes a clear distinction between her personal views and those of the network, seizes her book’s platform to lay out her larger goals for justice and equality and is not shy to address those dynamics within movements that stand in the way of those visions. Some of her views, she acknowledges, may be surprising for those harboring strong, absolute ideas of concepts, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw’s framework of intersectionality, a term that Garza defines as “what happens when we do everything through the lens of making sure that no one is left behind” (146). Garza’s perspective on intersectionality emphasizes the qualities of the term and highlights its potential to build alliances across groups that otherwise do not (seem to) share many commonalities.
What may at first glance not fit into this higher vision of justice for all and building coalitions with people whose views differ from one’s own is Garza’s reckoning with DeRay Mckesson, whom she uses as an example of someone who “offers a sharp lesson on pedestals, platforms, and profiles […]” (255). Her harsh, several pages-long criticism of Mckesson should not be mistaken for personal animosity driven by vanity or a struggle for power between two different activist styles, however, it should be understood as a moment that painfully confronted Garza and many other activists who do not harbor (any sort of) male privilege with the realization that leadership of men still continues to be prioritized in the Black community “regardless of their actual contribution” (264). The problem with someone like Mckesson, his strong presence, and the media’s and establishment’s infatuation with Black, gay cis-men like him is, Garza claims, that it is prone to erase Black women’s work and thus does a disservice to the actual, larger goals of Black Lives Matter. “Unity”—especially when it only serves to perpetuate century-long problems within different communities—is thus not Garza’s most important goal. By addressing the question of Black, male privilege that also pertains to gay men, she does not shy away from talking about a highly sensitive issue. Yet, this allows her to confidently assert the original agenda of Black Lives Matter one more time towards the end of her book, namely liberation for all Black people. She thus closes on a positive note regarding the future of Black power that she believes has the potential to make America “great for the first time” (275).
Whereas Taylor and Garza focus specifically on Black Lives Matter, Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by award-winning journalist and professor Isabel Wilkerson connects the United States, India, and Nazi Germany as “three caste systems [that] have stood out” (17) in history. She offers a much broader, but equally informative take with regard to Black liberation and opts for the concept of “caste” as the system that undergirds the phenomenon of racism with a relentless imposition of social hierarchies. Yet, the two words, Wilkerson asserts right in the beginning of her illuminating study, “are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other” (18-19). What makes “caste” particularly useful for the endeavor to understand the root cause of racial discrimination, however, is that it emphasizes the structural nature of discrimination that sustains race or racism, while the latter ones have by now frequently (and wrongly) been charged with subjectivity and feelings, Wilkerson claims. It is especially her structural and international approach to caste which she lays out by drawing from numerous historical and personal incidents—reaching from early, colonial American history in the seventeenth century to recent events, such as her stay in India—that make her book instructive in the context of Black Lives Matter. While targeting the underlying inequalities and discrepancies that also find expression as forms of racism, the system of caste has much wider repercussions. They are frequently not as easily detectable or recognized for those who are not on the receiving end of these injustices. For Wilkerson, caste is characterized by strong social hierarchies based on “divine will” (17) or supernatural forces, mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, and the belief that each caste must remain “pure” (29). Thus, the analytical lens of caste exposes the very power dynamics that usually go unnoticed but also develop harmful racialized effects. With regard to these aspects, Wilkerson explores several facets of Black dignity and the frequent failure of whites to recognize Black accomplishment, humanity, or even presence.
She offers a compelling, multi-layered account of The Lies that Divide Us as her book’s subtitle indicates. In an instructive section of the book, titled “The Euphoria of Hate” (ch. 19), Wilkerson succinctly explains what all three systems of caste have in common. Analyzing a movie scene in which Hitler is hailed by a large crowd of “ordinary Germans” (82) with great excitement, Wilkerson states that while every person would say about themselves that they “would never have attended such an event” or “a lynching” (266), the “uncomfortable truth […] [is] that evil is not one person […] [but is] lurking in humanity itself” (267). In recognition of that, Wilkerson, in her epilogue, yet ends on a fairly positive note and provides a host of ideas and advice for all those who “have hit the caste lottery,” as “[t]he price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly” (386), she writes. Besides radical empathy—that is, “to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel” (385)—she also urges us to take responsibility “for what good or ill we do to people alive with us today” (387).
While skillfully oscillating between the past and the present when it comes to the United States and India, the book’s argument would have further profited from also addressing contemporary racism in Germany more explicitly instead of mainly focusing on Nazi Germany. This would have provided more nuance to her very laudatory account of how Germany deals with its Nazi past. She sees Germany’s memory work as a possible role model for the United States, but unfortunately does not really elaborate on Germany’s current conflicts around caste and racism in this context. This might also be quite a telling lack in her argumentation, however, as Germany itself is still reluctant to think about the Holocaust when it comes to its relation to other forms of racialized caste systems, such as colonialism or different expressions of racism in unified Germany after 1989.
Nicole Hirschfelder (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)
Luvena Kopp (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg)
 The following small selection of texts provides an overview of additional key texts on Black Lives Matter: Charlene Carruthers, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements (2018); Marc Lamont Hill, We Still Here: Pandemic, Policing, Protest & Possibility (2020), Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (2016); Ibrahim X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (2019), Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016); Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (2018); Alexander S. Vitale, The End of Policing (2017).
 We opted for the capitalization of “Black” and “Brown” as political terms of self-definition and empowerment. This is not meant to reify the notion of biological races; it is rather an acknowledgment of the effects of social racialization and an attempt to provide a linguistic counterbalance to it, that is, to a power relation that continues to systematically privilege whiteness. Not capitalizing “white,” in turn (since the stylistic guidelines for this journal recommend the capitalization of all racial markers), constitutes an important step in this context in order to avoid invoking all too common “All Lives Matter” rhetoric.