#BlackLivesMatter, a case for a redemptive black power sensibility, A Response to Mia White and Kim Moody, At nearly 46 million, black life as it exists, Cedric G. Johnson, culturalist arguments of class, different class interests among blacks, police killings, policing as managing relative surplus population, profound demographic and political changes since the fifties, submerged segments of the black urban population, the class character of mass incarceration
Source: New Politics
Coming to Terms with Actually-Existing Black Life: A Response to Mia White and Kim Moody
By: Cedric G. Johnson April 9, 2019
Over the last five years, Black Lives Matter has served as a broad banner uniting citizens from all walks of life against the most egregious and visible use of police force against black civilians. Until the election of Donald Trump, who made his “Blue Lives Matter” commitments well-known from the very moment he announced his candidacy, popular demonstrations against police killings spread like prairie fires across the country from Oakland to Ferguson, Missouri, and on to Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, and Baton Rouge. As a rallying cry, Black Lives Matter opened up public space for disparate campaigns, networks of grieving families, criminal justice reform organizations, and localized struggles against the carceral state that had been in motion for decades. At the same time, however, like most great slogans, #BlackLivesMatter advanced a rather straightforward, if not simplistic analysis of the issue at hand, that the problems of policing were primarily racial. Black Lives Matter fervor also unleashed a torrent of historical misinformation, conspiracy theory, and wrong-headed thinking about politics. In elevating a race-centric interpretation of American life and history, Black Lives Matters has actually had the effect of making it more difficult to think critically and honestly about black life as it exists, in all of its complexity and contradictions. Rather than clearing a path through the thickets, some left intellectuals have made peace with this overgrowth of bad historical thinking, even though it threatens to choke out the possibility for cultivating the kind of critical left analyses of society we so desperately need.
Mia White’s “In Defense of Black Sentiment,” offers criticism of my 2017 Catalyst essay, “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Anti-Policing Struggles and the Limits of Black Power,” and Kim Moody’s “Cedric Johnson and the Other Sixties’ Nostalgia” addresses that essay, and my more recent New Politics essay, “Who’s Afraid of Left Populism?” I appreciate that both White and Moody have taken time to craft responses to my work. I first came to know White as part of a growing, dedicated community of scholars researching the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster and the long process of reconstruction and recovery that followed. White’s work stood out because of its focus on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, often neglected by the urban-studies bias towards the plight of New Orleans. I’ve never met Moody, but during the aughts, when my economist colleague Chris Gunn and I routinely co-taught a labor course at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Moody’s writings on American working-class history were instrumental in shaping our approach to the course, and were a mainstay of our assigned readings. His 1997 book Workers in a Lean World was especially helpful for making sense of the painful impact of globalized production on the once-bustling manufacturing towns surrounding us in Western New York. While I think we are all on the same side politically, and there are definite points of agreement between our essays, White and Moody rehearse some errant arguments about race, politics, and class power that have become orthodoxy on the contemporary Left. In what follows, I want to contest some of their core claims regarding the character of black political life, the role of contemporary policing in managing surplus population, New Deal social democracy, and African American progress, and finally, the relationship between electoral politics, the Democratic Party, and the future of the American Left.
Both authors abide some version of Black Lives Matter sensibility, sharing a suspicion of class-conscious politics as always reproducing racial disparities historically and into the future. My central contention with both White and Moody lies in their reluctance to engage in meaningful class analysis of black political life. Their use of clichés and anachronisms when addressing black life reflects a broader affliction of the contemporary Left. This difficulty in discussing black life in a critical-historical manner filters out and contaminates interpretations of labor and capital, and ultimately undermines strategic political thinking. At the start of his essay, Moody says that he “will not attempt to present a different analysis of ‘black exceptionalism’,” but in fact, his and White’s essays are both defenses of black exceptionalism, the very interpretative and discursive sensibility that I have criticized in recent writings. Black political life is and always has been heterogeneous, a complex of shifting ideological positions and competing interests. Black political life has always been shaped by broader conflicts between labor and capital, even in the contexts where black non-citizen or second-class citizen status was the norm. When White and Moody turn to black political life, however, these basic empirical-historical facts of African American political development are minimized, or vanish altogether. This is not a new problem. Continue reading