by Gennady Shkliarevsky
Black Lives Matter is a relative newcomer in the American political arena. This organization has recently attracted much attention by its uncompromising attitude toward what they define as white supremacy and its bold and destructive tactic of street protests and riots.
In its spectacular rise to prominence, Black Lives Matter (BLM) is rapidly replacing more traditional and relatively moderate black politicians and public intellectuals. In view of the organization’s unquestionable success, many try to understand what drives BLM members and explains its radical and destructive tactics.
In their numerous statements and programmatic documents, BLM emphasizes that it fights against white privilege and for racial justice. The organization often describes itself as a genuine representative of black Americans who suffer from injustice, oppression, and discrimination. Moreover, they emphasize the radical nature of their organization.
BLM does not conceal the fact that it uses violent methods—either physical or symbolic—in pursuing its goals. These methods are the fundamental distinction between this new generation of black activists and the traditional black leaders, such as NAACP and similar moderate black organizations that BLM often criticizes implicitly or explicitly.
Despite its criticism of moderate black organizations, their goals are very similar. Just like the moderates, BLM wants to undo the remnants of slavery and centuries of discrimination. Like NAACP, they also want to achieve full racial equity between black and white Americans. It is the methods of achieving these goals that really distinguish BLM from more traditional black organizations.
The shift in black leadership has been evolving gradually. It originated in the critique of more traditional black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, and their so-called black tokenism. One can trace this emergence in black literature, for example, Charles Gordone’s play No Place to Be Somebody (1969), John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), and Paul Beatty’s White Boy’s Shuffle (1996). Individually and collectively, these and similar works portray the traditional black political leaders and public intellectuals as “traitors to their race” who have essentially become part of the progressive elites and do not speak to and for the black community.
By contrast, the distinctive feature of the new generation of black activists is radicalism– their willingness to resort to direct and violent action on behalf of the black community. The ethos of BLM stresses the total commitment of its members to its cause, even to the point of sacrificing their own life. It is this unconditional commitment that makes BLM authentic in the eyes of its participants. They are willing to die to protect the interest of the black community.
Yet, the agenda of BLM is not without paradoxes. Despite their total commitment to the black community, even to the point of self-sacrifice, members of BLM share with this community little more than skin color. The defining features of the black community are its values. Shared values, much more than skin color, bind black Americans into a community. Faith, God, church, family, the sanctity of life are all part of the cultural heritage created by the black community over the centuries of its history in America. None of these are actually reflected in the agenda of BLM. One example of the glaring discrepancies between the agenda of BLM and the values of the black community is the former endorsement of “queer and trans folks.” The black community is largely indifferent, if not hostile, to issues related to LGBTQ.
The question arises: what is it then that members of BLM defend? If this organization defended the actual black community, its program should include that which makes this community real—its values. Since the agenda of BLM does not mention these values, the organization must defend something other than the actual black community. Therefore, the obvious conclusion that follows from this observation is that BLM members defend their own idea about the black community, not the community itself.
The claim by the BLM members that they fight for something that is real requires factual confirmation. They cannot derive this confirmation from the black community itself since they do not share its values. How then can they prove that they defend something real, and not merely a figment of their imagination? The answer to this question is action. By acting out what they believe, BLM members bring their “truth” into existence; they make what they believe is true visible.
The more decisive, the more energetic their actions are, the more radical they are, the more real and believable their “truth” would appear. Actions create external facts that verify their claims. Death is one of the most real facts of life. There is this irreversible finality about death that eliminates any ambivalence and ambiguity that we may see in other facts. Death by self-sacrifice is a tangible fact. It is impossible to deny its existence; its reality is unquestionable. Death by self-sacrifice on behalf of the community becomes a signature mark of the “reality” of the cause that BLM members promote through their violent actions that lead to death, both their own and that of others. These deaths are the real “proof” of the existence of their “truth.”
The current ordeal that we all experience is not only about suffering that has become so familiar to many Americans. It is also about learning what is real and what is not. Only by differentiating between the two can Americans hope to endure, find solutions, and build a better future for themselves and their country.
Gennady Shkliarevsky is a Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College, New York