A commentator on CNN said, ‘Maybe we can finally get back to normal’. And when I hear things like, “Maybe we can get back to normal”, I think, ‘What was your normal?’. Because when Obama was president, I was marching for Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner — fresh out of college. What was your normal? It was never okay.
Shortly after the US presidential election was called for Joe Biden, activist Sydney Teese made these comments at Washington DC’s Black Lives Matter Plaza. They spoke to the feel-good bromide that often meets black people organising against state violence. The ballot box can offer a reset, we are told; the conditions which currently undergird black lives with the imminence of death are temporary aberrations. In reality, ‘maybe we can finally get back to normal’ is less a reassurance than a liberal confession: once its mobilisational power is no longer aimed at Trump, the movement for black lives all of a sudden won’t matter so much.
This is the great contradiction of the coalition which makes up the Black Lives Matter movement — the tension that runs between its radical, grassroots core, and the liberal sympathisers and institutions which have pledged allegiance with BLM for cultural, financial, or political gain. In the United States, commentators often wilfully misinterpreted Black Lives Matter as an anti-Trump coalition. It’s far easier to sell a movement aiming at a reintroduction of ‘professionalism’ and ‘statesmanship’ to the donor class than it is one which speaks about a rupture with the presidency’s very foundations.
The BLM protests which reached fever pitch in summer 2020 coincided with right-wing populist governments in both the USA and the UK. But despite what much of the commentary around them may have led you to believe, these governments and their buffoonish figureheads are in many ways inconsequential to the demands of BLM organisers. These demands predate Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, and will likely outlast them too: an end to the carceral state, the disempowerment of the police, and divestment from the state apparatuses which shape the conditions for premature death.
There seemed to be a degree of recognition at the end of President Obama’s tenure that the ballot box and electoral representation could not meet the demands of radical black activism. Eight years of America’s first black president had achieved precious little in terms of racial justice. As Teese indicated, BLM was actually forged during Obama’s tenure by black queer activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in direct response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the murderer of Trayvon Martin. That murder took place in February 2012 — months before Obama would even be re-elected for a second term.
But Obama’s response to the movement was not an embrace. As the writer Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in 2016, the president’s approach was one which ‘glosses over [police brutality] in an attempt to offer his full-throated support’ for the police, which ‘continues the mythologising of police heroism that protects them from prosecution and reform.’ As BLM took increasingly clearly defined abolitionist perspectives—bringing to the fore systemic critiques rooted in the history of black oppression—it was never likely to find an ally in such a committed defender of the system.
The goal of abolition is even more central to the iteration of BLM in 2021 than it was in 2016. But now we have the established record of a black president who throughout his eight years in office could not even meet the bare minimum expectations of solidarity and police reform. Against this backdrop, anyone who claims that post-Trump presidencies, be they Democrat or Republican, populist or technocrat, will be compatible with the aims of Black Lives Matter is engaged in at best wilful dishonesty.
So what can be expected of liberal allies of BLM in a post-Trump political order? One where right-wing populism has been—at least temporarily and institutionally—weakened? It has to be recognised that BLM’s coalition was not tenable in any longer-term sense. This was evident when scores of multinational corporations shared infographics and black squares on their social media in solidarity with the protests.
Many participants in the movement were encouraged by this, seeing it as a sign of broad support if not hegemony. But the reality was more like co-option: the movement’s demands were kicked into the long grass of corporate social responsibility. Instead of debates about structural inequality, we heard talk of ‘unconscious bias training’ — including from the Labour Party and its leader Keir Starmer. Social problems were reduced to individual behavioural issues.
A great example of the consequences of this could be seen in Leicester. Although it decorated its brand image with the stamp of BLM, the fashion firm Boohoo became implicated in its own human rights scandal with reports of exploitative labour and modern slavery conditions for migrant garment workers at its factories. All of a sudden, a black radical movement could somehow be consistent with forcing people the anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon might have called ‘the wretched of the earth’ to work in sweated conditions throughout the height of the pandemic, without sufficient PPE or space for social distancing.
A reckless disregard for lives—particularly those lives whose worth is diminished and demeaned by their ethnicity or class position—is not the sole preserve of right-wing populism. It was an absolutely intrinsic feature of the liberal order which preceded this latest reactionary wave, and manifested itself in New Labour’s attacks on asylum seekers and hooded youths to their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the Cameron government’s response to the London Riots, its Hostile Environment policies, and its ‘Go Home’ vans. These are often the records of the corporations, institutions, and individuals who claim to be on the right side of history.
Accordingly, when questions are raised about the Democratic president and vice-president, BLM can’t expect to mobilise the same coalition of allies as it did in 2020. Certainly, public support for BLM has declined since the summer; the Pew Research Centre found that from June to September 2020, American adult support for BLM dropped from 67 percent to 55 percent. Not only this, but Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s declared support for increased police funding runs directly counter to the demands of the movement.
Harris in particular represents a familiar amnesia. At the end of the Obama administration, there seemed to be widespread understanding that black faces in high places did not guarantee substantial change in conditions for black people. But today we are expected to believe that a more junior leader with few real powers who just happens to have black heritage will serve as the silver bullet for American race relations.
Under Obama’s watch, the unemployment figure for black people escalated to double digits, standing at 16.2 percent by July 2011. Black families in negative equity hit a record high of 14 percent — far outstripping comparable rates for white families and hitting its peak four years later in 2014. This owed substantially to Obama’s pro-corporate response to the housing crisis. As the authors of a People’s Policy Project report put it:
African-Americans were disproportionately victimized at all levels of the housing and foreclosure crises, they stood to gain disproportionately from any sensible policy response. But because policy was not sensible — because it was, in fact, a catastrophic failure — the first black president in American history was a disaster for black wealth.
Two years before the official formation of BLM, when he was asked by NPR whether he felt he had ‘any special responsibility to look out for the interests of African-Americans’, Obama responded: ‘I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American. That’s my job as president of the United States, and I wake up every morning trying to promote the kinds of policies that are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people so that they can live out their American Dream.’
Of course, there is an element of truth to this. During Obama’s presidency from 2007 and 2016, the average wealth of the bottom 99 percent dropped by $4,500. Meanwhile, the average wealth of the top 1 percent rose by $4.9 million. It wasn’t just black people getting screwed — but it is absolutely clear that there was no particular gain for the community from its first black president. In fact, it arguably did worse.
It is amusing that liberal anti-racists who this summer marched with Black Lives Matter will now become champions of a vice-president whose record as prosecutor was one of opposition to investigating police shootings and keeping innocent prisoners incarcerated. But it also tells us something: the bare minimum of official representation will be hauled out once again as a panacea for America’s racial inequalities in the years to come.
It is thin gruel. But more than that, it is dangerous. These shallow politics paved the way from Obama to Black Lives Matter and finally a Trump presidency in the first place. If we set about laying that road again, we can’t be surprised where it leads.