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Which Black Voices Should Their White Supporters Heed?

Black Lives Matter: Three times as many whites as blacks participated.

Travon Brown, with megaphone, leads the Black Lives Matter Protest march through Marion, Virginia on Friday, July 3, 2020

Travon Brown, with megaphone, leads the Black Lives Matter Protest march through Marion, Virginia on Friday, July 3, 2020. (Earl Neikirk for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

We’re now emerging from an intense period of racial justice protests that began after the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. It was exhilarating and pride-inspiring to witness the multitudes in the Lehigh Valley who “took it to the streets” on behalf of racial equality, especially the waves of Black and white young people.

According to the Pew Research Center, some 15 million adults participated in the protests, which makes it the largest movement in American history. In terms of interracial composition, three times as many whites as Blacks participated and the percentage of Hispanics was higher than that for Black people.

Further, so many young people participated that it could be rightly characterized as a generational revolt. But will these events remain an historic “moment” or the start of an ongoing liberation movement?

After an interminable and unconscionably overdue response, we saw significant white allyship and we finally realized that white people must listen to Black voices and be accountable. However, in that vein, a key question remains: Which voices should white allies heed?

As Black activist Eric Jenkins reminds us, no organization speaks for all Black people, and some Black-led organizations are totally disconnected from the lives of the Black working class. As Jenkins notes, some traditional Black organizations are even leery to accept white activists lest it disrupt their relationship with the dominant white power structure.

So, should white allies listen to the voices of the “go-along to get-ahead” types, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, composed of 55 members? The late Bruce Dixon, an editor at Black Agenda Report, characterized the CBC as part of the “Black Political Class,” whose first allegiance is enabling the 1% to rule, a class to which most Black Americans do not belong. “Blackness,” here, is just an image brandished to banksters, military contractors and corporate interests.

As Dixon asserted, CBC takes its marching orders from the Democratic Party and obscene gobs of cash donations from white corporate sponsors in exchange for safe Congressional seats, cushy lifestyles and undeserved status.

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Should we listen to the Black voices attempting to co-opt and neuter the system-transforming potential of Black Lives Matter by diverting it simply into voting for Democrats? As a Facebook friend recently wrote, “The Democratic Party is now an upper-middle-class party that’s singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ 50 years too late.”

Or, rather, should we be attentive to Black voices in our midst who echo the powerful legacy of social and political transformation derived from Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass and Paul Robeson to W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Audre Lorde to more recent voices such as bell hooks, Margaret Kimberley, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Mary Hooks?

Their work strongly suggests they would all advocate a gradual merging of Black Lives Matter demands such as “stop killing black people,” ending mass incarceration and abolishing institutional and cultural racism with demands to dismantle capitalism in all its predatory forms. The aforementioned social justice activists knew that a reckoning with America’s history of racism and economic injustice can never be realized without joining both sets of demands.

For example, as Martin Luther King Jr. matured as a leader, thinker and radical activist, be became openly anti-capitalist (and anti-U.S. imperialism). In a speech to his staff in South Carolina, just one month before his assassination on April 4, 1968, Dr. King spoke approvingly about the new and dynamic young radicals in the movement who understood that “only by structural change can current evils be eliminated because the roots are in the [capitalist] system rather than in men or in faulty operations … they all understand the need for direct, self-transforming and structural transformation. This may be their most creative collective insight.”

Finally, meaningful change will only come about when tens of thousands of people are willing to engage in large-scale civil disobedience and risk arrest in the revolutionary tradition of Dr. King.

Is there any doubt that were he alive today he would be all about grassroots organizing and planning another rally for the indefinite occupation of Washington, D.C.? This type of movement is the worst nightmare for those who own and rule the country. Doing anything less than attempting to bring their apparition to life would be wasting a convergence of favorable factors that may not appear again.

Gary Olson

Gary Olson

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (NY: Springer, 2013.) Contact: olsong@moravian.edu

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