Black Lives Matter has had a profound affect on US politics. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes how its emergence is partly down to the inadequate response to racist police killings by existing black leaders from Barack Obama to Al Sharpton.
The book is particularly useful for readers who want to know about the subtleties of developments in US politics and racism through recent decades.
Taylor describes the growth of police harassment through the “broken windows” policy that supposed that by stopping petty crime all crime would be reduced. As this was introduced in Camden, New Jersey, summonses for riding a bike without a helmet jumped from three to 339.
This is a pattern across the US, where local authorities use this crackdown as a tax on the poor, relying on income from fines on such “anti-social” conduct to replace austerity cuts in government funding.
A recent study has shown that young black men aged 15 to 19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers are.
Taylor argues that this cannot be understood as just a black versus white problem. Black politicians run the city of Baltimore and control its police force. But this didn’t stop Freddie Gray dying or the establishment closing ranks around the officers in whose custody he was when he died.
Taylor explains how this fits in with the development of “colourblind” politics in the US. The theory was first used by Richard Nixon and the Republicans, but was later taken up by sections of the black movement as it became utterly compromised.
Being colourblind means saying that no group should have advantages. In practice this means removing anti-racist laws that were enacted in response to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the 1960s. For instance, the Supreme Court struck down sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 as no longer relevant.
These policies relegate racism to the past as there are no legal equivalents to the Jim Crow laws. They ignore the institutional racism of US society.
For Talyor the way to escape the dead end of mainstream politics is to look at the class tradition of fighting racism, such as that used by the Communist Party in the 1930s.
She argues that people who claim that emphasising class involves downgrading racism often talk as if black people or women are not a significant part of the working class.
She complains about the attitude that led some activists to criticise Muslim Lives Matter as undermining Black Lives Matter, commenting that “connections should form the basis of solidarity, not a celebration of our lives on the margins.”
This is a valuable and timely book.