breaking: the radical black left exists

Today I shared this post from Bruce Dixon at Black Agenda Report on social media. As he has done often, Dixon critiqued the coziness of someone associated with #BlackLivesMatter, Deray McKesson, with an institution of establishment power, here Yale University. (McKesson’s relationship to BLM is controversial.) Dixon, a longtime activist and organizer himself and a harsh critic of black political leadership in this country, particularly took McKesson to task for his connections to the corporate ed reform movement, pointing out that McKesson is a graduate of Teach for America who advocates for charter schools. There’s nothing surprising about that criticism, if you know Dixon’s radical politics and opposition to neoliberal ed reform. (An opposition I share, by the way.)

I have no particular insight into this divide. I’m just a member of the peanut gallery. I do think that Dixon is a writer and activist of great integrity, someone I admire. But there’s no reason that anyone has to listen to Dixon or think he’s correct. If people think he’s wrong, they’re free to say so. That’s politics, that’s how it works. Like I said, I’m no expert, here. What I find weird is that, whenever I simply point out that black critics of BLM exist, it tends to freak out a lot of (white) people. There’s this sense that the existence of black critics of a very successful, very necessary and righteous movement for equality and justice for black Americans is somehow disordered or wrong.

In fact, the most cutting, most effective criticisms of BLM writ large have come from the radical black left — Dixon, his BAR colleague Glen Ford, the University of Pennsylvania’s Adolph Reed, the South Lawn’s Douglas Williams….

Personally, I tend to be much less critical of the BLM movement than they are, although as some random white academic, my support doesn’t matter much. I don’t pretend to have any special insight, much less credibility. But I don’t see the existence of this kind of criticism as inherently unhealthy. Every successful protest movement, no matter how principled, needs critics, people who pull from the left and play a watchdog role. I don’t know if Dixon is right to accuse McKesson of being a profiteer. I do know that every grassroots political movement in the history of the world has had people eager to monetize it somehow. (Hello, Glenn Beck.) So watchdogs like Dixon are important, even if you think they’ve gone after an undeserving target.

What I really think resistance to this kind of left-wing critique of left movements amounts to is a juvenile theory of political change. Politics involves getting people who have bitter disagreements to come together, on a contingent basis, to overcome problems of deep moral need. What all of the critics I mentioned share with McKesson (and with me) is a belief that the United States is a deeply racist society, one which treats black lives as inherently less valuable or important than white, and which has engaged in an open conspiracy to degrade, impoverish, disenfranchise, assault, and kill black people. And all of them are united in opposing that state of affairs. They disagree about the means to get there, and about what a truly just society would look like. But that’s politics. There’s no goodies and no baddies, no white cowboy hats and black cowboy hats, no teams. No gods and no heroes. The truth is, there is no permanent coalition of the righteous. It’s all temporary, and today’s friend is tomorrow’s foe. You can never rest easy knowing that you’re on the side of the good guys. But you can, maybe, be part of a temporary alliance that creates real change.