The nerve ending of white supremacy

To: Focus
From: Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
September 9, 2015, 3:56 PM

Here are some preliminary thoughts:

It may be a convergence of at least two things: (1) the really public nature of police violence (or extra-legal violence like George Zimmerman) directed at black people and (2) the continued effects of the economic recession. In other words, the deteriorating material conditions of black America combined with an increased sense of precarity (exposure to premature death at the hands of police and white folks) warrant an assertion of the value of black lives. But I want to maintain that such an assertion isn’t simply about the claim that black lives matter; it is really a criticism of the belief that white lives matter more than others. When understood in this way, the phrase exposes the nerve ending of white supremacy — this belief that white lives matter most in this country (and we see this in the way communities are policed, in education, in housing, in the labor market, etc.) So the phrase, like Black Power (which was equally porous), strikes at the heart of it all.

The problem with the slogan emerges when we interpret it literally or narrowly: that it IS only an assertion that black lives matter. It becomes, in this narrow sense, a demand for recognition and can easily slip into a rather uninteresting form of bad identity politics. And we have seen some of this over the last few months. Another problem — and this annoys me to no end — is the “marketization” of the phrase. And that has happened in the name of what I take to be a bad form of identity politics that comes in the form of claims about “erasure” and the like. Here “black lives matter” becomes the possession of a certain group, tied to an origin story, and trademarked as intellectual property. All too easily the form of the struggle that occurs under its name aligns with the ethos of neoliberalism that contains its radical impulse. Competition and envy (in the guise of possession and authenticity) become its defining characteristics. And this plays itself out on Twitter and Facebook in ways that escape some and depress others.


More by this author

'This Is Me Being A Moralist'
The 'African' in African American Religion
The Crisis of the Imagination and the Persistence of the Value Gap
A Reading of Democracy in Black at Princeton

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