JUNE 22, 2016
WHEN I WAS MARCHING with Black Lives Matter protesters in the streets of Los Angeles, shutting down Sunset and then the 101, I was proud to take part in a disruptive movement seeking to cut through our collective complacency about this nation’s failure to take racial diversity, inclusion, and equity seriously in courtrooms (the jury verdict for neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who profiled, confronted, and ultimately killed Trayvon Martin, birthed the BlackLivesMatter hashtag), in police encounters, and in countless other contacts between black citizens and state actors. Yet critics accuse the movement of pointless theatrics and question its efficacy, doubting its power to produce social change.
President Obama took this position in a town hall–style event in London on April 23, where, sounding didactic and patronizing, he urged BLM activists not to “just keep on yelling at” elected officials and to recognize that “the value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room.” BLM’s disruptive, discomfiting tactics rankle established black leaders — like Obama — who subscribe to the politics of respectability. For proponents of respectability politics, the racial reputation of blacks matters, for respectability gets you to “the table” and “in the room.” But for BLM activists it’s not worth getting “in the room” to occupy a seat of power “at the table” if the price of admittance is a raft of stale compromises that fail to address state-based anti-blackness in the form of police brutality, mass incarceration, legally privileged racial profiling, and racially biased jury verdicts, to name a few. While Obama hagiographers put him on a pedestal, BLM activists “just keep on yelling” uncomfortable truths at elected officials — like him — about his and others’ thick dossier of domestic failures in racial justice matters.
For instance, truly disadvantaged blacks bear the brunt of mass incarceration and broken windows policing, and they have not fared well in the Obama era, according to the administration’s latest-available statistics. Despite a better unemployment rate for blacks overall since he took office, the number of African Americans scrambling to eke out a living below the poverty line — hand to mouth, subsistence and survival — has grown from 25.8 percent in 2009 to 26.2 percent in 2014. BLM activists recognize that just having a black man like Obama “at the table” “in the room” will not help truly disadvantaged blacks (or black criminals, who disproportionately come from such families) as long as he remains wedded to a politics of respectability in matters of law and order and blame and punishment.
Proof of the movement’s efficacy lies in Pew, Gallup, and YouGov opinion polls that show a marked increase over the last 18 months in the percentage of Americans who acknowledge race relations as a pressing social problem, in the movement’s success in thwarting the reelection efforts of district attorneys like Chicago’s Anita Alvarez (#ByeAnita), and in the critical self-reflection and self-revision taking place in police departments across the nation.
College campuses also furnish compelling proof of BLM’s efficacy. Many University of Missouri students and faculty members, whose protests caused its president, Tim Wolfe, and its chancellor to step down, saw themselves as part of a seamless web of activism linking campus protests, Ferguson, other police brutality protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Wolfe himself blamed his ouster in part on BLM. What’s more, the student groups that have recently invited me to lead campus climate forums and discussions at places like UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and Cal State Northridge often proudly declare their Black Lives Matter affiliations, attachments, and sympathies. The movement has helped spur university students, faculty, administrators, trustees, and other stakeholders across the nation to critically reflect on their successes and failures in matters of inclusion, diversity, equity, access, and opportunity.
Accordingly, it was supremely fitting that University of Southern California Provost Michael Quick recently came to View Park — a predominantly black community near Leimert Park, in the heart of black Los Angeles — and announced bold new diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives to a gathering of students, faculty, artists, and Black Lives Matter activists. Then on April 19, Provost Quick followed up those remarks with a memorandum to the USC community cataloging 22 new programs and initiatives launched by the university in just the last six months, designed to promote inclusion and equity, including, to name a few: greater transparency and accessibility to demographic data on students, faculty, and staff; a community advisory board — akin to a police commission — for campus police; a decentralized model of accountability that creates diversity liaisons in 19 different schools; a new standing Diversity Council that reports directly to the provost; and stepped up staffing and funding support for cultural centers.
What’s more, USC President Max Nikias dedicated half of his 2016 annual State of the University Address to the centrality of equity and access to the mission of the university. Before a packed Town and Gown, Nikias urged the university community to seize the moment — seize the BLM-inspired zeitgeist — as an opportunity to stand strong for inclusion. “When we exclude, we betray ourselves,” he said to faculty, quoting Mexican author Carlos Fuentes. “When we include, we find ourselves.” In his words I hear echoes of chants from the front line of Black Lives Matter activism — “Say Her Name,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “We Gon’ Be Alright” — and marvel at how swiftly change can come when students, faculty, staff, and central administrators seize a moment made possible by a movement.