The Movement for Black Lives Platform Dashed My Dream of a Common Vision for Society

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Black Lives Matter protestors at City Hall Park in New York City, August 1, 2016.
Black Lives Matter protestors at City Hall Park in New York City, August 1, 2016. Credit: Drew Angerer, Getty

Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, one of two authors of the plank in Movement for Black Lives platform that describes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as genocide, said recently that he is perplexed by all the attention the statement has received, and wondered what all the fuss is about. The fuss is about different things for different people, no doubt. It always is.  I can only speak for myself. Having spent the time since reading the statement sad and a little unhinged, I am only now starting to get why it got my attention and to understand why it is a source for me, an American-born, leftist Israeli Jew, of tumultuous and agitated fuss.

It starts with this. The Movement for Black Lives platform is a magnificent achievement. It is historic and important and moves us a way toward meeting a challenge that has stymied the left for 50 years or more: to create politics that redress discrimination and oppression against particular groups and, at the same time, offer a universal vision of a good and decent society. Focusing without compromise on black history, black oppression and what is needed to ameliorate past injustices towards black people, the authors of the document have produced a vision of a society that would do better by blacks and, at the same time, by everyone else.

The platform is more than it seems, at first. It is easy to read it as a partisan document. “Black humanity and dignity requires Black political will and power,” its preamble states, and the first of its six core demands is to “end the war against Black people.” Its next core demand is for “reparations” for the many harms “inflicted on Black people — from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance.” Here, and in every part of the platform, the authors leave no doubt that they speak as black people for black people.

On first reading, the platform seems to find its place in a tradition of manifestos demanding justice and equal rights for oppressed groups, like Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women or the 1971 Gay Liberation Front Manifesto. It is the cry of a particular people for justice, rights, dignity, opportunity and all the other affordances that all people deserve, but somehow they have been denied.

And the platform is all that but, on closer inspection, its aims seem far more radical than a demand for true equality for people of color. While it is insistently partisan – it reasons from the experiences of “Black Lives” to what “Black Lives” need to thrive – the platform offers a blueprint for a better society for everyone. Even the most sectarian of the platform’s demands, for reparations, is a brief for free and open access to education, K-to-college, and everything it would take to allow people of color to learn, from safe transportation to books to meals.

This demand resolves to two intertwined statements: The first is the crucial partisan statement that the legacy of slavery and the discrimination that continued unabated for the century and a half since abolition exact a vast cost that must be paid down before equality can start to approximate justice. The second is the crucial universal statement that a good society is one in which everyone shares in the cultural and intellectual goods of that society, and where poverty is met by increased, not narrowed, opportunity. Almost all the platform’s demands have this same dual nature. The demand for “housing for all” is a demand for housing for all people of color and equally for everyone else. So, too, employment, health care and all the rest. Reparations for centuries of crimes against Black Lives, as the document describe them, promise to effect a reparation of society for everyone.

The genius of the platform is that its vision is the product of the experiences and history of particular groups, meant to fix particular injustices they suffered, and that it turns out, at the same time, to be a vision of a society that would be better for all. It elides resolutely particularist politics with politics that are universal, or very nearly so. In so doing, it provides a bridge between the politics of identity and the politics of, well, politics, or political-economy. Without invoking fancy theory, it forges links between race, class and gender identities, which, in the past decades, have done more to divide the left than to unify it.

Which is why the platform’s flat statement that Israel is nothing other than a genocidal, apartheid state wrecked me. Its absolute and presumptive rejection of the legitimate affinity that I and so many other Jews feel toward Israel is a return to simpler binary politics in which its your-people-versus-mine, the sums are zero and the justice of my claims are proof of the injustice of yours. This part of the platform is written in a different register than the rest, and with a harder heart.  

It is true that my reaction to the platform is inflected by personal insult and the sting of being dismissed as a racist murderer, along with my racist murderer kids. But my reaction goes beyond personal injury. The portrayal of Israel saddened me, too, because it argued with blunt force that the vision I found inspiring in the rest of the document was not really mine to share, and maybe is not to be trusted at all. The poet Adrienne Rich has a book called “The Dream of a Common Language.” What saddens me about the Movement for Black Lives statement about Israel is that it reminds me that the shared vision I thought I saw in the rest of the platform remains – for me, for now – only a dream.

Noah Efron chairs the Graduate Program for Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University. He hosts the Promised Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @noahjefron

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