Will BlackLivesMatter Fall Into the Elephant's Graveyard of Social Movements?

has professionalization struck again?

It’s kind of astonishing, when you roll it around in your mind, what BlackLivesMatter meant in 2020 and no longer means in 2021. We had this explosion of street protests, some intense riots, an ever-escalating intensity in revolutionary rhetoric, and the ceaseless demand for fundamental change. Concepts of race and power that had quietly bubbled along in far left spaces and academic departments for years suddenly became inescapable on social media. Traditionally staid organizations put out statements and policies that drew from revolutionary rhetoric. Even many Republicans felt shamed into at least conceptually embracing the notion that America’s war on its Black people had gone too far for too long. Typically apolitical people you know were moved in an organic and meaningful way. Everyone agreed that this was different.

And then, so quickly, the actual social movement was gone. The various epiphenomena endure; white screenwriters the country over are taking parts they wrote as white men and turning them into queer Black women, huge banking entities are still drafting statements about their devotion to the communities they’ve denied mortgages to for generations, panicky white liberals practice ever-more unhinged shows of deference towards their Black colleagues, deference which is of course absolutely stuffed with condescension. But what racial justice issues are currently on the national radar that have any short-term political salience? Which relevant policies or laws have a chance of being enacted in the next year that would move the racial justice needle? Biden’s Child Tax Credit is on net a massively pro-Black program, and must be made permanent, but my sense is that a large-scale redistributive program that is not racially targeted at all does not qualify as anti-racist for many. There have been a number of states and cities that have undertaken police reform efforts, but in many cases they have been quietly rendered toothless, and in others they amount to a simple refusal to prosecute crime that seems tailor-made to prompt reactionary backlash. If you’re a Black standup comic looking to secure a Netflix special, it would seem that your path has gotten easier. But 15 months ago we were talking about changing society at its very foundations.

What remains of that radicalism is the critical race theory fight, and as I have argued, it’s fundamentally a consolation prize - CRT is rhetorically extreme in many of its manifestations, but it makes nothing happen directly, has given conservatives a big meaty target to attack, and any progress that might stem from it depends on teachers being willing to teach it and students not just listening to but accepting what they hear, which is, it’s fair to say, not how it always works in the classroom. I’ll ask again: when you marched last summer, did you march for minor curricular changes in some public K-12 schools? Or did you march to change the world?

It’s fair to ask how we got here. How did the vibrant street movement become a set of forgotten signs, whitening in apartment windows? It seems clear to me that BLM ran up against a foe very few social movements manage to defeat: professionalization. I honestly don’t think what happened is particularly mysterious, really. An immense amount of money (in the tens of billions of dollars) has poured into BLM-associated organizations from foundations and corporations and individual donors, and some large portion of that money went to hiring upwardly-mobile Black college graduates in positions vaguely related to racial justice. Diversity officers, consultants, educators, analysts, advocates, and related. I stress that I mean it quite literally when I say that a ton of young Black BLM activists got hired right out from the streets they had been protesting in. This is not an allegation of cynical self-interest, on their part, of selling out. I am 100% convinced that the activists who were rewarded in this sudden explosion of do-gooder money took the jobs believing that they were going to help make the world a more just place. Indeed, the people who donated the money had the best intentions, and so did the people at the tops of the organizations that mandated hiring, and so did the middle managers who did the hiring, and so did the new hires. But it still all leads to people who were radicals in the street in 2020 filing reports and glad-handing donors in 2021.

There are certainly worse outcomes than the creation of thousands of jobs for Black professionals; I don’t mind if some money from white yard-sign activists and wealthy liberals looking for a tax break gets transferred to Black people. But those who have been hired to be prorganizers are overwhelmingly drawn from the Black college-educated class, who on average are doing substantially better than the Black median. A jobs program for Black people seems like a salutary outcome of the past year’s unrest, but the people who need the most help aren’t getting it this way. And, besides, like I said - they said they wanted systemic change, and they haven’t gotten it.

I imagine if you are the kind of guilt-stricken white liberal who (like me) donated some money to BLM causes in the past year this theory of mine might be a little disturbing. This isn’t what you paid for! But, well, it’s exactly what we paid for. Who did you think you were donating to? Did you think they were going to walk around downtown Oakland handing out $100s to the protesters they found congregating there? I don’t know how this remains so misunderstood by otherwise informed people: nonprofits are self-serving entities that exist to perpetuate their funding and the jobs of their workers. The nonprofit industrial complex is not in the business of selfless altruism. This is not an allegation of cynicism on the part of any individuals but a function of the nature of systems. Sometimes nonprofits do a lot of good along the way, despite the graft and the self-dealing, and it can make sense to donate to them for this reason. But any good nonprofits do they do in spite of their nature as nonprofits and typically despite their institutional best interest. It is baffling to me, the number of educated people who believe that because an organization puts “antiracist” in its name they must actually achieve a reduction in racism in effect. In fact, because they create a professional caste whose existence depends on racism, their interests are served if racism lives forever.

Many will rush to say that there is plenty of time and opportunity for BLM to help bring about a real political agenda, and this is true. I am not giving up. I don't think it's right, though, to say that it’s far too early to ask pointed questions about how the movement is doing; BLM is now past seven years old. But certainly I am hoping to see them articulate and fight for a concrete policy agenda that gets beyond diversifying tiny elite spaces and which actually improves the economic and material fortunes of the average Black person. It’s just difficult to see how it happens from here. Institutionalizing activism creates perverse incentives that militate against contributing to real change, even beyond the way that resources are spent on the insatiable blob of bureaucracy. To re-galvanize the movement now would take another brutal racist police murder, which none of us wants, and even then it’s hard to see what would change. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was seen by many within the movement as a watered-down compromise bill, but even that failed politically. What changes in the near future to make real reform possible, especially given that it’s likely Republicans retake one of the houses of Congress next year?

Occupy Wall Street recently celebrated its tenth birthday. I have not written much about it because I don’t feel there’s a great deal to say; OWS was about the supremacy of class framing as an organizing strategy, and within the left coalition that framing has lost in such a rout that many consider it inherently racist. But Occupy was also marked by the tyranny of structurelessness, a lunatic refusal to cohere into anything like a functioning organization. Legend has it that when Occupy leaders met with Srdja Popovic, who as a student activist helped overthrow Milosevic, he asked them what their strategy was, and they responded “strategy is corporate, strategy is hegemonic.” So it’s little wonder the movement died in its crib. The trouble is that the opposite tendency, to “get serious” and get professional, has also led to failure among social justice movements, as institutions are easily captured by money and establishment politics and the inertia of now. You need organization and you need some (some) professionals; the movement needs lawyers, it needs someone to organize the bus trips to DC, it needs an entity that can oversee renting the Porta Potties. My struggles in the anti-Iraq war movement taught me the absolute necessity of structures. But I also exist here in left spaces in New York City and over and over again see organizations that take donor money and get cozy with the local Democrats and seem to have no purpose other than to provide their workers with jobs.

BlackLivesMatter is a righteous movement, one that has suffered from performative politics and purity struggles in the same way all progressive movements do these days but which has the right demands at heart. I want it to succeed, not only in the fight against police racism but also to close our many and deep racial gaps. But to get there they’ll have to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis that all social movements do, the disorder of too little organization and the disease of too much.