Black Lives Matter and hollow American pragmatism

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In this June 8, 2020, file photo, the White House is visible behind a woman who holds her fist up as she poses for a photograph with a large banner that reads Black Lives Matter hanging on a security fence in Washington, after days of protests over the death of George Floyd. Photo by Andrew Harnik/File, AP Photo).

Today the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement continues a nearly six-month-long vicious struggle against a country interwoven with white-supremacy and bent against change. 

Yet, there is already much to be said about the success of BLM against an entire corrupt and racist criminal “justice” system and millions unconcerned about anti-black violence. Although slow-going, progress is being made towards the firing, arrest and conviction of the officers who murdered George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and innumerable other innocent black Americans. Many cities around the country have instituted historic policing reforms and considered police abolition in its entirety. Most importantly, millions of Americans are no longer just spectators to injustice: they’ve begun educating themselves about anti-racism, organizing protests and physically fighting back against a variety of oppressive institutions.  

The movement was initially founded by three black women activists following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman in 2013, witnessing widespread participation from Black Americans at the time. Since then, unprosecuted anti-black murders from state and vigilante actors have increased yearly. In tandem, Black Lives Matter protests have grown in size and strength, spread geographically and have come to include many white Americans who were initially ignorant, apathetic or opposed to them. Today it could be summarized as a highly decentralized, millions-strong body of people mobilizing against racist violence. 

For many white Americans, the term Black Lives Matter may be relatively new, but the conditions which provoke the movement have existed for centuries: American police are violently empowered to enforce an implicitly — sometimes explicitly — racist legal code with impunity. Likewise, even amateur historians can trace protests against these conditions to the Rodney King Riots in the 1990s and as far back as the murder of Emmet Till, which in many ways sparked the 1960s civil rights movement. The prevalence of Black Lives Matter today is a natural result of continued institutional racism in the United States. 

However, what is new is both the unprecedented white participation in protests against brutality and racism as well as various policy responses around the country — radically reforming and defunding police departments are now topics of discussion to the United States in 2020. The question this situation raises is: How has Black Lives Matter succeeded in rallying millions and fundamentally changing our politics about police, racial justice and the history of this country in its entirety? 

One reason for their success has been their refusal to adhere to many traditional notions of pragmatism in politics: that we should rally around the most “electable” candidates; that our goals should conform to current circumstances and changes likely in the near future; that in our difficult system we should not stick hard and fast to principles — what we know to be right — we should alter our stance towards compromise, to achieve something at all. 

Pragmatism in American politics boils down to the notion that, in order to create the best world, we should significantly limit our imaginations of what is possible. The Black Lives Matter movement plainly reveals the lack of support for this position. 

All of these pragmatic ideas would have halted BLM years ago if many were convinced. The success of the movement is due to their insistence on politics not based on the possibilities of any given moment, but on what is necessary. BLM does not advocate for electing the best politicians to eventually reform our country’s broken criminal justice system; they claim that justice must be demanded and enforced by the people today. 

Our familiar American pragmatism is a recipe for disaster: If we all base our political positions off of what we consider to be “realistic,” the political arena becomes a reflection of “realistic” positions rather than our views about how the world should look and how people deserve to be treated. The idea of pragmatism in politics is one propagated by and convenient for those in power because, through widespread ownership of media and education systems, they can greatly influence our expectations of what is likely and possible in the future. 

The changes which abolitionists and Black Lives Matter activists assert are necessary to create a country where everyone of every race is safe and respected have not taken the national stage because they were watered-down for a country opposed to them. In reality, the consistency and honesty of the Black Lives Matter movement has been very attractive to a country rife with contradiction and confusion. 

Today, we do not need a politics where we constantly analyze how our beliefs relate to the status quo and strategize about how truthfully to present our beliefs. We need to apply what we know to be true — such as the truth that black lives matter — to an immediate politics based upon honesty and direct action. BLM proves that politically, it pays to ditch hollow American pragmatism. 

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