Review: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”

by Miles Raymer


In the fetid wake of Donald Trump’s election two years ago, I found myself awash in unwelcome questions: How could someone so obviously unfit for office be elected President of the United States? Why had so many of my fellow voters failed to recoil at the blatant petulance and dishonesty that saturated his political persona? What next?

Trying to come up with satisfying answers to these questions hasn’t been easy. Since I have a liberal background and a liberal arts education, it seemed best to start with an attempt at understanding disaffected conservatives, many of whom put Trump over the edge in key rust belt states. This produced some useful results (e.g. this, this, and this), but after spending about a year in that investigative mode, I found myself called back to my roots. In the absence of true conversion, one can only spend so much time entertaining the views of one’s political opponents before the desire to revisit one’s own positions becomes too powerful to ignore.

To that end, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is a terrific resource. Taylor’s perspective is informed and forceful, and while I do not share all of her political convictions, I think her voice is critical to the project of banishing lethargy from American activism and empowering this country’s most vulnerable citizens.

Among other uses, this book is an excellent tool for stoking deserved outrage about the past and present treatment of African Americans. Taylor recounts in painful detail the pervasive, systemic fashion in which African Americans have been brutalized and marginalized throughout American history. This treatment, she effectively argues, is not a superficial stain on the American tapestry, but rather an intrinsic quality of the tapestry itself. This is a country where “Black people were never intended to survive as free people”––a fact that must be confronted in any serious discussion of America’s past, present or possible futures (193).

To support this viewpoint, Taylor explores the vicious nature of police brutality, housing and job discrimination, mass incarceration, voter suppression, and unjust fines and fees targeted at black communities. She also provides keen examinations of the language of oppression and liberation throughout, demonstrating how the words and phrases we use to talk about race have progressed and regressed over time. Although I was already familiar with the broad strokes of these subjects, it was helpful to learn more detail and to be reminded of how profoundly these problems compromise the integrity of the American project.

One element of Taylor’s analysis I found novel was her explication of the wide range of perspectives and experiences contained within the African American community. It should go without saying that the African American experience is not monolithic (just as the experience of any racial/ethnic group is not monolithic), but that truism isn’t very enlightening without concrete points of access that illuminate the complexity of the situation. These are exactly what Taylor provides.

Most engaging are Taylor’s observations about how contemporary class differences between African Americans create diversity and tension:

How do we explain the rise of a Black president, along with the exponential growth of the Black political class and the emergence of a small but significant Black economic elite, at the same time as the emergence of a social movement whose most well-known slogan is both a reminder and an exhortation that “Black Lives Matter”? Examples of Black ascendence have been used to laud the greatness of the United States, as Obama echoed when he claimed that “for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” At the same time, Black poverty, imprisonment, and premature death are widely seen as the products of Black insolence and lapsed personal responsibility. In reality, these divergent experiences are driven by deep class differences among African Americans that have allowed for the rise of a few while the vast majority languishes in a despair driven by the economic inequality that pervades all of American society. (6)

Much of the book explains how these class differences produce disparate and sometimes conflicting responses to oppression. The presence of a visible African American political class and economic elite complicates the narrative of oppression, often obfuscating the continued suffering of millions and perpetuating the widespread myth that America has become a “postracial” society:

Today, when poor or working-class Black people experience hardship, that hardship is likely being overseen by an African American in some position of authority. The development of the Black political establishment has not been a benign process. Many of these officials use their perches to articulate the worst stereotypes of Blacks in order to shift blame away from their own incompetence…There have always been class differences among African Americans, but this is the first time those class differences have been expressed in the form of a minority of Blacks wielding significant political power and authority over the majority of Black lives. This raises critical questions about the role of the Black elite in the continuing freedom struggle. (78-80)

This dynamic arises in many different aspects of African American life: policing, where many officers terrorizing African American communities are themselves black; schools, where educated African American teachers struggle to edify their underserved communities; and activism, where the methods of an entrenched old guard are being challenged by new waves of decentralized youth engagement. Taylor does an exceptional job of revealing the causes and consequences of these conflicts, and also suggests practical ways they can be overcome.

I am persuaded by most of Taylor’s arguments, but there are two places where I either disagree with her or find her analysis incomplete. The first of these is the way in which Taylor seems comfortable dismissing entirely the assertion that the personal choices and cultural practices of African Americans can contribute to their own oppression:

Explanations for Black inequality that blame Black people for their own oppression transforms material causes into subjective causes. The problem is not racial discrimination in the workplace or residential segregation: it is Black irresponsibility, erroneous social mores, and general bad behavior. Ultimately this transformation is not about “race” or even “white supremacy” but about “making sense” of and rationalizing poverty and inequality in ways that absolve the state and capital of any culpability. (24-5)

I agree with this passage entirely, except that I don’t think it holds true in all circumstances. Taylor’s case for the reality of structural discrimination is ironclad, but that reality doesn’t preclude the possibility that personal responsibility and culture can reinforce and perpetuate systemic trends. Taylor’s text contains the implicit assumption that personal responsibility and culture can subvert and ultimately overturn structural discrimination (otherwise why bother writing this book?); her repeated failure to consider that the reverse might also be true exposes an intellectual inconsistency.

I think we are dealing with a “both/and” situation here. Admitting the significance of individual conduct and cultural norms doesn’t need to be tantamount to blaming African Americans for their problems. This line of thinking should not be used to smuggle unfair accusations into discourse, but neither should it be off the table if we are to address the full complexity of these issues. Taylor oversimplifies the situation by ignoring this potentially fruitful line of inquiry.

I also part ways with Taylor when it comes to her assessment of capitalism. While I agree with many of her points about the failures of capitalism and its interrelatedness with racism, I don’t share her position that the road to Black liberation necessitates doing away with capitalism entirely:

Racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. Can there be Black liberation in the United States as the country is currently constituted? No. Capitalism is contingent on the absence of freedom and liberation for Black people and anyone else who does not directly benefit from its economic disorder. (216)

I concur that Black liberation in today’s America is impossible in the absence of deep institutional and societal changes, but I think these changes can be accomplished in part by modifying and controlling capitalism rather than scrapping it. Historical experiments with socialism/communism do not have an appealing track record, and despite its considerable downsides, capitalism has played a key role in producing the wealthiest, safest, and freest era in human history––the one we are currently living through. Reining in the excesses of capitalism and its racist outgrowths with sensible policies and social activism is not only more politically feasible than transitioning to a different type of economy altogether, but also safer than a full-scale revolution, which would severely increase levels of violence in this already-violent country. For those interested in this approach, I recommend the following books:

By far the strongest element of Taylor’s book is her preoccupation with the conditions that will bring about substantial and lasting progress. The final chapter––one of the finest pieces of cultural critique I’ve ever read––makes a clear and sensible case for American unity in the struggle against inequality and oppression. Although we should never deny the specificity of the African American experience or that of other minority communities, Taylor reminds us that no single group can achieve progress alone. Coalition-building is our most effectual mechanism for pushing progress, and Black liberation can only be achieved when African Americans battle white supremacy alongside other victims of oppression, including disenfranchised white people:

White supremacy has historically existed to marginalize Black influence in social, political, and economic spheres while also obscuring major differences in experience in the social, political, and economic spheres among white people. Like slavery, this was necessary to maximize productivity and profitability while dulling the otherwise sharp antagonisms between the richest and poorest white men…”White people” are typically regarded as an undifferentiated mass with a common experience of privilege, access, and unfettered social mobility…Despite the ubiquitous “common sense” of “white privilege,” most ordinary whites are insecure about the future. Whites’ pessimism about the economic future is at a twenty-five-year high, with millions believing that they cannot improve their living standards. This pessimism is rooted in the erosion of their economic situation. (210-11)

As Nancy Isenberg has thoroughly documented, America has always contained a permanent white underclass whose material circumstances align much more closely with those of minorities than with their wealthy white “brethren.” Taylor deftly reveals why white people should have a deep investment in resisting white supremacy, and paves the way for class-based alliances across race boundaries. True liberation, Taylor posits, will be wrought not through the abrogation of identity differences, but rather by the cultivation of class-based bonds across identities, with common struggle as the cornerstone of solidarity:

The common experience of oppression and exploitation creates the potential for a united struggle to better the conditions of all…Political unity, including winning white workers to the centrality of racism in shaping the lived experiences of Black and Latino/a workers, is key to their own liberation…In this context, solidarity is not just an option; it is crucial to workers’ ability to resist the constant degradation of their living standards. Solidarity is only possible through relentless struggle to win white workers to antiracism, to expose the lie that Black workers are worse off because they somehow choose to be, and to win the white working class to the understanding that, unless they struggle, they too will continue to live lives of poverty and frustration, even if those lives are somewhat better than the lives led by Black workers. Success or failure are contingent on whether or not working people see themselves as brothers and sisters whose liberation is inextricably bound up together. Solidarity is standing in unity with people even when you have not personally experienced their particular oppression. (214-15)

I cannot conceive of a better framework with which to reshape America into a place that is truly the land of the free.

Rating: 9/10