What Am I Reading? Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a post giving you, gentle readers, a peek into a book that I’ve been reading. In fact, the last time I did so was back in May of 2017 (index of book reviews here). But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been reading: I have been. And I’ve been reading some interesting and thought-provoking stuff, including the book that I want to highlight for you today.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).

This book taught me a great deal about the black American experience, about the history of the struggle for black liberation, about the important role played by black urban rebellions of the 1960s and the successes of the Civil Rights movement, about how electoral politics has failed black America and castrated the hard-won gains of that earlier generation, about how “colorblindness” coincides with victim blaming and how it dovetails with the legitimization role played by the black elite, and about much more besides.

But I don’t want to spend time giving you my thoughts about the book. I could never communicate it in as punchy and compelling a manner as does Taylor. So I’m going to give you a few excerpts so that you can get a taste of the book. I hope you’ll surf over to Haymarket and order yourself a copy!

The three sections below discuss the black American experience with policing, solidarity and the “racist feedback loop” in American domestic and foreign policy, and the intersection of race and economics. As usual, bold is mine and italics are from the original.

On policing:

At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans began their long transition from living largely in rural areas to living predominantly in urban ones. In that time, there have been many changes in Black life, politics, and culture, but the threat and reality of police surveillance, scrutiny, violence, and even murder has remained remarkably consistent. The daily harm caused by the mere presence of police in Black communities has been a consistent feature of Black urban history and, increasingly, Black suburban history. Police brutality has been a consistent badge of inferiority and second-class citizenship. When police enforce the law inconsistently and become the agents of lawlessness and disorder, it serves as a tangible reminder of the incompleteness of formal equality. You cannot truly be free when the police are able to set upon you at will, for no particular reason at all. It is a constant reminder of the space between freedom and “unfreedom,” where the contested citizenship of African Americans is held.

The racism of the police is not the product of vitriol; it flows from their role as armed agents of the state. The police function to enforce the rule of the politically powerful and the economic elite: this is why poor and working-class communities are so heavily policed. . . . But the police also reflect and reinforce the dominant ideology of the state that employs them, which also explains why they are inherently racist and resistant to substantive reform. In other words, if the task of the police is to maintain law and order, then that role takes on a specific meaning in a fundamentally racist society. Policing has changed over time as the nature and needs of the American state have changed, but it has also remained incredibly consistent as a thoroughly racist institution trained on Black communities. The racism of the police, historically, has also overlapped with the economic needs of business and the state to create a racialized political economy that is particularly burdensome on Black communities. (107–08)

On solidarity and US domestic and foreign policy:

In the contest to demonstrate how oppressions differ from one group to the next, we miss how we are connected through oppression—and how those connections should form the basis of solidarity, not a celebration of our lives on the margins. The American government demonizes its enemies to justify mistreating them, whether it is endless war, internment, and torture or mass incarceration and police abuse. There is a racist feedback loop, in which domestic and foreign policies feed and reinforce each other. This is why US foreign policy in the Middle East has reverberated at home. The cynical use of Islamophobia to whip up support for continued American interventions in Arab and Muslim countries inevitably has consequences for Muslim Americans. And the ever-expanding security state, justified by the “War on Terror,” becomes the pretext for greater police repression at home—which, of course, disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos/as in border regions. (187)

On the intersection of race and economics:

Capitalism is an economic system based on the exploitation of the many by the few. Because of the gross inequality it produces, capitalism requires various political, social, and ideological tools to divide the majority—racism is one among many oppressions intended to serve this purpose. Oppression is used to justify, “explain,” and make sense of rampant inequality. For example, racism developed under the regime of slavery to explain and justify the enslavement of Africans at a time when the world was celebrating the notions of human rights, liberty, freedom, and self-determination. The dehumanization and subjected status of Black people had to be rationalized in this moment of new political possibilities.

It is widely accepted that the racial oppression of slaves was rooted in the exploitation of the slave economy, but fewer recognize that under capitalism, wage slavery is the pivot around which all other inequalities and oppressions turn. Capitalism used racism to justify plunder, conquest, and slavery, but as Karl Marx pointed out, it would also come to use racism to divide and rule—to pit one section of the working class against another and, in so doing, blunt the class consciousness of all. To claim, then, as Marxists do, that racism is a product of capitalism is not to deny or diminish its centrality to or impact on American society. It is simply to explain its origins and persistence. Nor is this reducing racism to just a function of capitalism; it is locating the dynamic relationship between class exploitation and racial oppression in the functioning of American capitalism. (205–06)

Those who have read DET for any period of time will by now understand why I liked this book so much. Again, I encourage you to get yourself a copy so that you can learn from Taylor like I have.


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