Stay Woke: A People's Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter

by Tehama Lopez Bunyasi, Candis Watts Smith



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781479836482
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 717,872
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi (Author)
Tehama Lopez Bunyasi is Assistant Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

Candis Watts Smith (Author)
Candis Watts Smith is Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Penn State University. She received her PhD from Duke University and was awarded the 2013 Best Dissertation Award from the Race, Ethnicity and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

Read an Excerpt


On the Matter of Black Lives

Let's imagine a street lined with high-rise buildings. One of them is burning. What do you do? All of the buildings matter, but the one on fire matters most at that moment. The thing is, if you don't put out the fire in the burning building, you risk all of the surrounding buildings burning down as well. This is the message of the Black Lives Matter movement: Black lives are under attack, and we all ought to galvanize a sense of urgency to address the direct, structural, and cultural violence that Black people face. It's not only the right thing to do, but the fate of the entire neighborhood depends on it. We, as a society, cannot say we are all free and equal until those who are at the bottom of various domains of our society — political, economic, social — are also free and equal.

Needless to say, this message of mattering sounds differently to different people. This is perhaps best illustrated by the competing hashtags in response to #BlackLivesMatter, such as #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter. These rejoinders, or at least the motivation behind these alternative hashtags, we believe, can best be understood with the help of social science research, which tells us that Americans across different racial groups see the world differently. This is one of the few facts that social scientists actually agree on. On matters related to race and racism, white Americans and Black Americans, on the whole, have almost diametric perceptions about the way the world works. Latinx and Asian American attitudes often fall somewhere in between these viewpoints, sometimes closer to Blacks', other times closer to whites'.

There are many reasons for this divide, but one that strikes us as particularly noteworthy is the tendency for Americans to surround themselves with (or be surrounded by) people who are very similar to them. For example, one study showed that if the average Black American had one hundred friends, eighty-three of them would be Black, eight would be white, two would be Latinx, and the rest would be of some other race. If the average white person had the same number of friends, he or she would have one Black friend, one Latinx friend, one Asian American friend, a few friends of other races, and ninety-one white friends. Perhaps more striking is the finding that nearly 75 percent of whites do not have any nonwhite friends.

Intuitively, this makes sense. We live in a racially segregated society. We tend to live in neighborhoods with people of similar racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We go to schools with people who are demographically similar to us. And at eleven o'clock in the morning on Sundays, when many Americans go to church to worship, their communion with one another still initiates the most segregated hour of the week. As we will explain, this reality is the outcome of historical and contemporary public policies, but it is also due to the choices of individuals, some of whom have more choices and greater latitude to pick and choose than others. Ubiquitous racial segregation across several domains of American life means that whites, Blacks, Latinxs, Asians, and American Indians live very different social, political, and economic realities.

People across racial groups also have different relationships with racial inequality and racial injustice. As such, when members of different racial groups hear "Black Lives Matter," some are likely to interpret the meaning of that message in different ways. Some folks may hear "White Lives Don't Matter" or "Black People Hate the Police," thus leading them to defensively declare, "All Lives Matter." We should like to note that these interpretations are quite antithetical to what the participants of this social movement intend to communicate. Its supporters might be afraid, tepid, or even suspicious of some police officers, but they are not anti-police, mostly just anti-police-brutality. They are not even antiwhite, because that too would be antithetical to the purpose of the movement; although, to be clear, they are anti-white-supremacy. While these alternative interpretations serve to undermine Black protestors' efforts to codetermine the narrative that explains ongoing racial inequality, they show us that some people are simply oriented toward inequality in a totally different way than others.

For other people, the message of "Black Lives Matter" resonates clearly. In this slogan, they hear, "Yep. Black Lives Don't Really Matter" or "[Insert name of any Black person] Could Be Next," thus leading them to suggest that something needs to be done about racism in US society. Supporters and participants of this movement, like those of previous Black social movements, believe that "we must do what we can do, and fortify and save each other — we are not drowning in an apathetic self-contempt, we do feel ourselves sufficiently worthwhile to contend even with the inexorable forces in order to change our fate and the fate of our children and the condition of the world!" Again, different life experiences lead to alternative perspectives of how the world works, what our roles are in it, and what we can do to change it for the better.

The phrase "Black Lives Matter," generally speaking, is an odd thing to hear in the first place, particularly in the twenty-first century. If we could travel in time and report back to Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth, they might be surprised to learn that a major social movement that began nearly a century and a half after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished slavery) and during the first self-identified African American president's second term in office is premised on the notion that Black people's lives are in a precarious position. Indeed, that is the point: "The brilliance of the slogan 'Black Lives Matter' is its ability to articulate the dehumanizing aspects of anti-Black racism in the United States."

Many Americans often feel a sense of cognitive dissonance when they hear this slogan chanted in the street, printed on T-shirts, and debated by pundits on the evening news. On one hand, native-born Americans and immigrants alike have been taught that if people play by the rules and work hard, everybody has an equal opportunity to succeed. The path mapped out toward the American dream is indelibly imprinted on our brains; our shared language of individualism and value of meritocracy is practically learned through osmosis. We find comfort in knowing the formula to American-styled success like we know the back of our hand. On the other hand, a movement that suggests that some lives matter less/more than others has developed well past the historical era when Black Americans were first eligible for full citizenship. Something does not compute. Right?

These two dueling ideas existing at the same time is discombobulating. Martin Luther King Jr. predicted that this weird sensation might arise, noting that the thing about a Black political movement is that it "is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws — racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced." His insights are as true now as when he was alive.

What are these flaws? Where did they come from? How do they evolve and persist? People in US society tend to have different answers to these questions because they have different historical narratives about these aforementioned flaws. And the truth of the matter is that most white Americans are simply not proximate to some of these problems, especially that of racism, or at least not in a way that disadvantages them. What this means is that despite the fact that anti-Black racism is pervasive in US society, there are many people who are shielded from even taking race into consideration. Racism is so embedded in our language and rhetoric, our political and economic institutions, and our social interactions (or lack thereof) that without any intention to do so, scores of people end up perpetuating racism by simply going about business as usual.

By moving beyond the dominant colorblind or postracial narrative of US society, we gain more leverage to answer those questions as well as a few others: How could we ameliorate these flaws? What could our society look like if these flaws did not exist altogether? The contemporary Movement for Black Lives has served to highlight many of the modern-day factors that prevent the United States from listening to its better angels, thus providing an illustrative teaching moment for those who are interested in working toward developing an antiracist society. We hope to provide readers the tools to partake in the debates around race, to navigate spaces of contestation on issues of racism, and to participate in antiracist movements in contemporary US society in a more fully informed way. We wrote this book for students of racial justice to critically engage and interrogate these factors. Stay Woke is for those who seek to engage in life in the United States from a different perspective.

We focus on Black lives, specifically, for three reasons. First, anti-Black racism is deeply embedded in the foundations of this country, including its founding documents, its institutions, and its policies, past and present. Second, from birth to death, Black people, on average, experience a very different United States than do members of other racial groups. When these experiences accumulate, layering one on top of the other, it becomes clear that there is a necessity for a social movement that reinvigorates calls for racial equality and racial justice in the twenty-first century. We do not mean to suggest that other groups do not matter, which brings us to the third reason: when we lump together the beautiful and the terrible histories and experiences of "people of color," we do all of them a disservice. The history of genocide and contemporary marginalization of Indigenous Americans, the history of slavery and contemporary mass incarceration of Black Americans, the history of exclusion and contemporary double standards set up for Asian Americans, and the history of colonization and contemporary demonization of Latinxs are inextricable intertwined, but they are not synonymous. Our intention is not to participate in an Oppression Olympics but instead to avoid universalizing the experiences of Americans across ethno-racial groups.

Coming back to the issue at hand — the matter of perspective — we use this chapter to outline some cold, hard, uncomfortable facts about the precariousness of Black life in the United States. Our aims are to make sure that we are all on the same page about the matter of Black lives and also to illustrate the axiom that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Some Uncomfortable Facts

The twenty-first-century Movement for Black Lives began to stir in 2013 after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. In reaction to the acquittal, Alicia Garza wrote a love letter to Black people, and she ended the letter by writing, "Black people. I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives Matter." Patrisse Cullors, her friend, put a hashtag on it, and Opal Tometi helped to build a network of folks who wanted to unite under that message: #BlackLivesMatter.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has become known as one that is primarily concerned with police brutality, but it is actually one that is broadly concerned with raising awareness of ongoing racial disparities, developing empathy for Black life, and ending anti-Black racism. Since the development of the hashtag, many other organizations have joined to develop a united front under the moniker the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) — which consists of about four dozen local and national organizations such as the Black Youth Project 100, Mothers Against Police Brutality, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and BLM as well. While the focus of these organizations is on Black lives, the founders of the BLM movement assert, "when Black people get free, everybody gets free."

Most Americans agree that racism still exists in the United States, but many people have a narrow understanding of what racism is. This makes sense. There are various interests involved in making a particular definition of racism dominant. For example, the leaders and participants of the civil rights movement made an effort to define racism as systemic and institutional, but the Nixon administration only a few years later was able to narrow this definition to one of overt intention to discriminate on the basis of race. While there is some overlap between the two conceptualizations, two individuals each relying on a different definition of racism will probably never come to a shared conclusion about how to eradicate racism and its progeny. Being cognizant of the cacophony of definitions of racism with which Americans are faced helps us, as educators, to realize how difficult it is for students of antiracismto separate misinformation and disinformation from an otherwise-complex reality.

Typically, when people think of racism, they think of Jim Crow, lynching, police with dogs, the N-word, and other overt behaviors and attitudes. That is an accurate depiction of a type of racism, but racism also exists in other, more covert and enduring forms, which we call structural racism. Structural racism refers to the fact that political, economic, social, and even psychological benefits are disproportionately provided to some racial groups while disadvantages are doled out to other racial groups in a systematic way. In the United States, this has resulted in white Americans having greater political, economic, social, and psychological benefits, on average, while people of color have more political, economic, social, and psychological disadvantages, on average. Nobody needs to do anything with bad intentions for structural racism to persist, but people across racial groups can intentionally or unintentionally assist in perpetuating racial inequalities. The thing about structural racism is that it is embedded in our everyday affairs, making it difficult to see if you do not know what you are looking for. Consequently, it is unclear to some people why such a Movement for Black Lives needs to exist.

In the remainder of this chapter, we provide a slew of data that illuminates the ways in which Black citizens find themselves at risk in various domains of life in the United States. We start with the most contentious: policing and the criminal justice system. Then we move to highlight racial disparities in more mundane areas of our lives: housing, education, wealth, health, and employment. We hope that by presenting the evidence across various areas of society, the fact that Black lives are consistently marginalized becomes clearer.

Police, Crime, and Justice

Many people, including a number of the movement's supporters, believe the Black Lives Matter movement is primarily focused on the police and police brutality. To be sure, it is the protests against such violence that made Black Lives Matter a household name. While this social movement is assuredly concerned with broader conceptions of the way that Black people are marginalized and contend with violence in US society, its attention to policing has been so impactful because it is a domain where people can point to individuals, policies, and patterns of behaviors across police departments to show that something is wrong and has been wrong for some time. An understandable ire arises from knowing that "there was [a] lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. [Over a century later, it's] been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days."

The historian Russell Rickford explains,

By confronting racist patterns of policing, Black Lives Matter is ad- dressing a reality that touches the lives of a wide segment of people of color. Structural racism in the post-segregation era generally has lacked unambiguous symbols of apartheid around which a popular movement could cohere. Yet mass incarceration and the techniques of racialized policing on which it depends — "broken windows," stop-and-frisk, "predictive policing," and other extreme forms of surveillance — have exposed the refurbished, but no less ruthless, framework of white supremacy.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 On the Matter of Black Lives 7

2 All the Words People Throw Around 47

3 The Politics of Racial Progress 117

4 Are You Upholding White Supremacy? 145

5 It Doesn't Have to Be This Way 167

6 Twenty-One Affirmations for the Twenty-First Century 191

Conclusion: We Believe That We Will Win! 217

Acknowledgments 225

Notes 227

Bibliography 239

Index 255

About the Authors 269

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