Review of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a history of the cultural and political forces that have shaped the African-American experience.

What sets Taylor’s book apart from others on the subject, however, is how far she goes beyond simply documenting the seemingly endless dimensions of racial oppression in the United States. Instead of just describing its dynamics, she also includes a class based method so that activists may contest it – a recurrent theme of Haymarket Press’s publications. Taylor starts her overview in the 1930s, when blacks were not given the same treatment as white workers during the New Deal. After a sufficient period of education, agitation and organization, however, blacks were able to so disrupt the normal functioning of governance that Lyndon Johnson had to address their grievances.

Taylor’s understanding of the manner in which capitalism operates in America is tied explicitly to racist ideology. Though only beginning in the 1960s, she points out how racist ideologies which use the “culture of poverty” argument to explain relative deprivation of the black community have a dual function in political discourse: not only do they serve to scapegoat African Americans for their conditions rather than lack of a full Reconstruction program, but, by racializing poverty, it also conceals white poverty. This designation of workers in the lowest income sectors as disposable thus obfuscates the structural dynamics of American capitalism.

Rather than merely focusing criticism just on whites, Taylor shows through a number of examples how the class differentiation which has taken place in the Black community since the Civil Rights Movement has mean that liberal black politicians who have come to power on the hopes of ameliorating problems in the black community have taken over the task of disciplining blacks. In addition to this she points out how black capitalism boosters going back to Garvey fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the economy that they were working in. Rather than upward mobility through this means, she endorses Liberation.

Taylor emphasizes the need for working class unity and then explains how “colorblind” language and politics in the US operates to stoke racial tensions and mystify historical relations. The language of colorblindness was first used by Richard Nixon and the Republicans. While a good means of mobilizing sentiment against racial discrimination, as the black civil rights movement became compromised and co-opted by capital, it came to replicate the same effects as the racial justifications of policy thru class-based discrimination.

If this seems removed from the present as there was a black president, it’s worth pointing out that during the tenure of Barack Obama African-American’s were disproportionately unaffected by the steps taken to bolster sections of the struggling economy, that Obama distanced himself from the needs and grievances of the black community, the Supreme Court has struck down sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as no longer relevant and that in a number of NGOs point out that in historically racist places it is now increasingly difficult for people of color to vote or live without harassment.

While the hash tag first shared by Alicia Garza, #blacklivesmatter, has certainly been useful as an organizing medium – Taylor shows through historic examples of how such organizations have become co-opted and rendered a form of palliative care for the black community. In order to ameliorate these conditions, Taylor states, black and white (and brown) class based unity is the answer. BLM has moved in that direction – their most recent platform contains a number of planks that speak to the condition of the working poor. However spreading solidarity has been a historically difficult task in America and given the wont of crypto-racists to tar and declaim BLM as a racist organization hints at the difficulties they face as they are currently composed.


Interviews with Taylor below: