Alain Leroy Locke & Black Lives Matter
The Cosmopolitan Pursuit Of Racial Justice
By Professor Jacoby Adeshei Carter (CUNY)
July 14, 2016 Picture: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Getty
This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”
Perspectives and standpoints are not valid merely in virtue of whose they are, neither are they invalid for that reason. Certain standpoints may enable an angle of vision unlikely to be obtained from any other perspective. This may even be true in instances where the perspective emanates from an earlier time.
The aim here is to speak with two voices. Sometimes the voices will be in concert, at other times alternating. One is perhaps older, wiser, displaying a reflective maturity that comes from years of critical and prescient insight into American culture. The other younger, less mature, but it is hoped not markedly less reflective or critical. Let us go on then to consider the Black Lives Matter Movement in relation to the philosophy of Alain Locke.
Black Lives Matter is a contemporary social movement began by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Treyvon Martin.[i] The movement has continued to grow in the wake of continued incidences of state violence and violence by private citizens being aimed at black men, women, and children, often without legal ramifications for the perpetrators of that violence.
The deaths of Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Nicholas Thomas, Justus Howell, Meagan Hockaday, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, and Freddie Gray have all been the subject of protest and other forms of activism by people aligned with the Black Lives Matter liberation movement.
But more than a reaction to repeated incidences of violence against black people, the Black Lives Matter movement is a broader progressive social movement that seeks structural change to the system of white supremacy that leaves black men, women, and children dead at the hands of police, drives the continuing process of mass incarceration, and visits undue and disproportionate suffering on black women, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of color.
As the website states: “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”[ii]
A unique and defining feature of the movement is its attention to the roles played in contemporary efforts at black liberation by persons who were historically marginalized, or assigned to secondary or tertiary roles in African American struggles for freedom.
There is a recognition within Black Lives Matter that Afrodescendant people are a heterogeneous and internally diverse population within the United States, and even more so when seen in their broader diasporic reach.
The explicit inclusion of previously marginalized segments of the black population in leadership roles in contemporary struggles for social justice is a defining and characteristic feature of Black Lives Matter as envisioned by the women who first articulated the movement. They write:
“Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement”.[iii]
Even as the movement is pioneering in its incorporation of myriad perspectives, it still recognizes a connection to historical efforts on many fronts to achieve systematic and structural justice for African American people in the United States and Afrodescendant people around the world.
Alain Leroy Locke was the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. Known as the “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance” following his 1925 publication of The New Negro: An Interpretation. For decades Locke was the premier theorist and critic of African-American Literature and art. Best known as a social and cultural critic, interpreter, and spokesman for African American art and literature, Locke was also a creative and systematic philosopher who developed theories of cultural democracy, value and cultural pluralism, cosmopolitanism and cultural relativism. Locke is part of the pragmatist philosophical tradition which includes American philosophers the likes of John Dewey, Jane Addams, William James, and Cornel West.
Locke was a preeminent scholar and educator and during his lifetime, and an important philosopher of race and culture. He articulated a notion of “ethnic race,” and understanding of race as a culturally and social constructed phenomenon, rather than a biological reality.
In contemporary parlance, Locke was a racial reconstructionist, and perhaps even a racial eliminativist of sorts: he held the somewhat controversial and paradoxical view that it was often in the interests of a population to think and act as a “race” even while it consciously worked for the destruction or alteration of pernicious racial categories. Abstracted from the specific political, cultural and historical contexts in which they were formed, racial designations were for Locke largely fictitious.
His philosophical contribution in the areas of pluralism, relativism and democracy aimed at proffering a more lucid understanding of cultural or racial differences and prospects for more functional methods of navigating contacts between diverse races and cultures.
In his own time, Locke urged that “[t]he paramount need in these days of increased racial tension and of augmented interracial and international concern over the issues of race is to comprehend the major and important trends of thought and action involved.”[iv]
Contemporary trends of thought regarding black liberation and racial justice as it pertains to the Black Lives Matter movement concern the role of implicit bias in present day race practices; the heterogeneity and diversity of African American people and other communities of color in the United States, the ways in which black people suffer disproportionately from violence and structural inequalities at the hands of the state; and the importance of understanding the racial injustice experienced by African Americans in relation to other stigmatized populations in the United States and around the globe.
Perhaps the most noteworthy trend in terms of activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement is the use of social media as a mechanism for progressive social change—the so-called “hashtag activism”.
Beyond that, the trend in terms of social action on the part of Black Lives Matter centers around organized protests; demonstrations aimed at making an economic impact, die-ins, and a concerted efforts to align Black Lives Matter with the advocacy of other organizations in support of economic, racial, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender justice.
The present day necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement would likely be a profound disappointment to Locke. Locke argued that color, by which he meant to indicate racial differentiation and stratification, is the “unfinished business of democracy.”[v]
Locke argued forcefully that African Americans constituted a test case, a litmus test, for measuring the social progress and racial justice of, not only the United States, but nations throughout the world with significant populations of Afrodescendant peoples.
And much like the proponents of Black Lives Matter who see the centrality of Black peoples struggles for liberation to understanding a number of other movements for social, racial, economic, and gender justice, Locke understood decades ago the crucial contribution in theory and praxis of African American efforts to obtain their proper place in American democracy characterized by structural and practical equality, reciprocity and mutual respect. A statement on the website reads:
“When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence; the fact that 500,000 Black people in the US are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows is state violence; the fact that Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war is state violence; Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state-sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by White supremacy is state violence. And the fact is that the lives of Black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence”.[vi]
Following emancipation, Locke claims, “fate cast the Negro in the role of a test case of the basic human right of freedom, of the integrity of our national Constitution, of the Union.” Writing at a time when racial oppression and segregation in the United States was legally sanctioned and conspicuous, Locke maintained that the incorporation of African Americans into American democracy constituted a litmus test for gaging the realization of the democratic ideal. That is, one could measure the extent to which the United States had realized its professed vision of democracy, by the social, economic, political, and cultural condition of black people.
And conversely, the intransigence of white supremacy, the continued implementation of violence against black people, and the persistence of structural forms of racialized, economic and cultural inequality, stand as evidence of precisely how unjust, undemocratic, and racially oppressive American society continues to be, and clear evidence of the extent, and ways, that it has failed to progress.
The idea is that the peculiar and ostensible exclusion of African descendant peoples from full and equal participation in the United States’ democracy provides a measure of just how undemocratic are its practices and institutions.
Concern for the existential struggles of black people against systematic and violent marginalization and exclusion pervades Locke’s thinking on the concept of democracy. As a pragmatist, Locke conceived of democracy as a practical ideal.
Locke argues further, that attention to the plight of black people obviates the social attitudes and practices that underlie the institutional and legal structures that deny black people full protection and exemption from violence. Locke frequently noted in his day a trend toward diversification and racial integration in progressive social movements. Along these lines the Black Lives Matter website states:
“And, to keep it real–it is appropriate and necessary to have strategy and action centered around Blackness without other non-Black communities of color, or White folks for that matter, needing to find a place and a way to center themselves within it. It is appropriate and necessary for us to acknowledge the critical role that Black lives and struggles for Black liberation have played in inspiring and anchoring, through practice and theory, social movements for the liberation of all people. The women’s movement, the Chicano liberation movement, queer movements, and many more have adopted the strategies, tactics and theory of the Black liberation movement. And if we are committed to a world where all lives matter, we are called to support the very movement that inspired and activated so many more. That means supporting and acknowledging Black lives”.[vii]
Both the advocates of Black Lives Matter and Locke are attuned to the under-realized potential of Afrodescendant people to deepen and refashion social justice discourse. “For the Negro,” Locke contends, “always the test case of the complete internal soundness of our democratic practice, is now a touchstone the world over of our democratic integrity.”
Locke’s pragmatist analysis and understanding of the underlying mechanisms through which Black people are excluded from political, cultural, economic and social participation, could potentially furnish new methods for the ameliorating social problems.
As a standard of evaluation, Locke claims that the social status of African Americans has not exclusively been a marker of failure in American race relations. If racism and racial disadvantage persist; then the present may not be radically or fundamentally different from the past.
Why should partial transformation of a social structure as fundamentally unjust as American chattel slavery to the arguably slightly less unjust system of Jim Crow Segregation, and from there to the current social arrangement characterized by racial disadvantage be seen as social progress?
Locke is cognizant of the fact that racial progress has far too often been piecemeal and gradual, and in many instances has only come when forced by the weight of circumstances and unrelenting efforts by Black people to problematize white complacency and complicity in an unjust and undemocratic status quo.
And as the Black Lives Matter movement makes clear, even as the condition of Black people changes, they remain, as Locke suggested, a crucial indicator of the extent to which justice is practically and institutionally realized. And where black people continue to experience under white supremacy a form of stigmatization that perversely transfigures an unarmed 12-year old boy into a target of unmitigated and deadly force, they remain a conspicuous and contrasting indicator for tracking social progress or regression.
The pseudo-controversy between “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” obfuscates concern for advances in social justice and democratic progress as it pertains to African Americans [See Thalos for a detailed discussion of the redundancy of the “all lives matter” repost].
In the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown, an investigation by the United States Justice department revealed in Fergusson Missouri a community under duress. The United States has a history of using violence to, among other things, intimidate, control, and terrorize minority populations.
Historically, such violence has come as frequently at the hands of government authority (Eric Gardner, Walter Scott, Akai Gurly etc.) as it has those of private citizens (Treyvon Martin); has been aimed at women (Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd), and children (Treyvon Martin, Tamir Rice).
Violence against African Americans has frequently been a public spectacle. Black torture and death, the violent implementation of social control, and the inescapable finality of the existential consequences of implicit racial biases and stigmatization offer ephemeral vivant tableaus of contemporary African American existence in the United States.
The tableau of unarmed African Americans dead and dying at the hands of police and private citizens is so deeply imbedded in current social realities that the injustice it represents fails to penetrate the quotidian gestalt of many Americans.
If some Americans are tired of hearing about the racial oppression of black people, they should ask themselves why that oppression has been allowed to persist. Unless it is the case that protests under the auspices of black lives matter are only specious reactions to racial injustice; the fact that such protests persist is evidence of continued injustice; and that fact alone warrants ameliorative efforts in the interest of those who suffer various forms of injustice.
“If some Americans are tired of hearing about the racial oppression of black people, they should ask themselves why that oppression has been allowed to persist.
A statement by the Black Lives Matter founders on the website takes a different tack. The founders assert “We are unapologetically Black in our positioning.”[viii] Instead of arguing that Black Lives Matter need not be understood as incommensurate with the value of other lives, they contend that “[i]n affirming that Black Lives Matter, we need not qualify our position.”[ix]
This refusal to offer a justification for their position is intriguing, and relates interestingly to Locke’s sentiments regarding the younger generation of artists that comprised the “New Negro” movement.
Locke claimed that one of the unique and distinctive features of the young Harlem Renaissance artists was that they refused the consciously racial role of representation, and in so doing refused to function as apologists for African American people.
In Locke’s estimation they sought to express as well as possible their understanding of African American life, rather than defend it. Somewhat paradoxically immediately following the claims above it is stated that “[t]o love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others.”[x]
This is in effect a qualification of the affirmation that Black Lives Matter; one that recognizes the necessity of self-respect and dignity amongst a racially stigmatized population as a prerequisite for a more cosmopolitan outlook:
“BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole. When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free. This is why we call on Black people and our allies to take up the call that Black lives matter. We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways. We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined”.[xi]
It is important to understand Black Lives Matter as in part a reaction against particular instances of racial injustice. Locke is useful here, in response to the counter assertion of “all lives matter” meant as a criticism of “black lives matter”.
Pragmatism requires concrete inquiry. Attempts at amelioration of social problems are aimed at specific circumstances. In the case of Black Lives Matter it is important to contextualize the positive assertions and social actions of the movement and its members.
In situations where black lives are the targets of police violence, vigilante justice, or callous disregard by authorities or private citizens; it is precisely the value of those black lives that needs reaffirmation in those contexts. And such reaffirmation is not ipso facto a denial of the value of any other lives.
Dignity and respect for individuals in an ethnoracially pluralistic society is not a zero sum game. The tradition in the United States of affirming the humanity of white Americans in part through the denial of the humanity of African Americans notwithstanding, valuing the lives of black people need not be done at the expense of devaluing any other lives.
When we deploy “All Lives Matter” as to correct an intervention specifically created to address anti-blackness, we lose the ways in which the state apparatus has built a program of genocide and repression mostly on the backs of Black people—beginning with the theft of millions of people for free labor—and then adapted it to control, murder, and profit off of other communities of color and immigrant communities.
We perpetuate a level of White supremacist domination by reproducing a tired trope that we are all the same, rather than acknowledging that non-Black oppressed people in this country are both impacted by racism and domination, and simultaneously, BENEFIT from anti-black racism.[xii]
Consider by way of illustration of this point the recent tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The nation witnessed a terrible hate crime and act of terrorism. The deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States was a situation in which the victims were intentionally targeted on the basis of their gender identities. The act was heinous, and people were right to respond with anger and sadness to the deplorable loss of life.
Our lives do not exist in abstraction. We live in and through our bodies. In some instances those bodies manifest visible identities; dynamic social and cultural phenomena that mediate the ways we conduct our lives. No person is identity-less, and few if any are encapsulated by a single identity.
“The tradition in the United States of affirming the humanity of white Americans in part through the denial of the humanity of African Americans notwithstanding, valuing the lives of black people need not be done at the expense of devaluing any other lives”
The tragedy in Orlando certainly motivates a variety of responses among them the affirmation of human life. One might say, it causes us to reaffirm the notion that all lives matter, and indeed they do.
But in terms of our grappling with understanding the full extent of the tragedy, it would be misleading to think that the assertion of the value of all lives is the most pertinent in a situation in which those thought to live a particular kind of life, or to live their lives through particular identities are targeted on that basis. Of course all lives matter, but the commission of this terroristic hate crime does not straightforwardly call into question the value of all lives, it calls specifically into question the value of the lives of gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and Latino/a people.
If in this circumstance it is an appropriate and important response to assert and affirm that any lives matter, it seems most appropriate to make that assertion with regard to the lives that were targeted for victimization. Moreover, that assertion should be made on the basis of the very gender, ethnic, and racial identities that were the basis of their victimization.
What needs to be reaffirmed following the Orlando tragedy is not that all people deserve to live lives free from victimization, but that, as has often not been the case, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people deserve to be free from victimization. To act otherwise is to miss important features of the situation and thereby inhibit opportunities to advocate effectively for the sort of justice the situation demands. In the words of the movement’s founders:
“When you drop “Black” from the equation of whose lives matter, and then fail to acknowledge it came from somewhere, you further a legacy of erasing Black lives and Black contributions from our movement legacy. And consider whether or not when dropping the Black you are, intentionally or unintentionally, erasing Black folks from the conversation or homogenizing very different experiences. The legacy and prevalence of anti-Black racism and hetero-patriarchy is a lynch pin holding together this unsustainable economy. And that’s not an accidental analogy”.[xiv]
Locke held that social races are transitory. That does not, however, mean that they are not real. Race, like many other forms of identity, is a transactional phenomenon; that entails that races are not merely internally fortified, but are partially constituted by the interactions and interrelations between people and groups.
Locke remarked that “[w]hat is racial for the American Negro resides merely in the overtones to certain fundamental elements of culture common to white and black and his by adoption and acculturation.”[xv]
Racial groups, on his view, are historically determined and socially constructed populations, characterized by qualitatively distinct variations on styles of living and methods of expressiveness, unique and varied sensibilities, diverse forms of religious expression and spiritual comportment, and of course the more pedestrian aspects of living involved in the various elements of folk culture.
Locke rejected competitive nationalism in favor of a pluralistic civilization capable of merging political nationalism and cultural pluralism in an increasingly international world. Locke’s philosophy is centrally concerned with unearthing the fundamental impediments to the formation of appropriate values and attitudes.
The impediments in question—absolutism, dogmatism, and forced conformity in the case of values, and parochialism, racial chauvinism and provincialism in the case of practical expression of values—impede accurate understanding of the interconnections between race, culture and democracy, the full and free expression of one’s personhood, on grounds of reciprocity and mutual respect, as members on equal standing in cosmopolitan democratic cultures, and the cultivation of effective means for ameliorating the obstacles to a more just social arrangement.
Locke thought that the tendency to manifest provincialism in racial creeds and practices stemmed largely from the belief in a group’s uniqueness and superiority to others. Locke believed that in the absence of beliefs of this sort, or if they were proven false, people would be less inclined to retain them, even more so if viable alternatives to narrow-mindedness were made more appealing.
Locke’s prescription in this regard was, first, an emphasis on commonality across cultures, races, genders, and ethnicities, what he calls basic values, or cultural constants. Secondly, he prescribed an accurate appreciation of difference, one that does not merely tolerate diversity, but regards it as a positive and desirable feature of society.
Locke was opposed to absolute forms of valuation; that is, conceiving of values as though they apply to all human beings, at all times, irrespective of social or historical conditions. He preferred instead a form of value pluralism intended to accommodate a wide array of contending values. When values are held to be absolute there often results a tendency to discount the legitimacy of rival values. Pluralism avoids conceiving of values in absolutist terms.
Locke’s pluralism is intended to set various value conceptions on equal footing. As such he did not understand the profession and exercise of a given value as necessarily incommensurate with that of other values. Thus, Locke’s theory of value need not see any incompatibility with the worth of all lives, in maintaining that a particular set of lives grouped according to a specific ethnic, racial or gender identity matter. And importantly, Locke’s work provides a theoretical justification in this instance, for what the Black Lives Matter movement has instantiated in practice.
Footnotes & References
[iv] Alain Locke, “Whiter Race Relations: A Critical Commentary,” The Journal of Negro Education, (Summer 1944): 13:3, 398–406.
[v] Alain Locke, “The Unfinished Business of Democracy,” Survey Graphic: Magazine of Social Interpretation, (1942), 31:11, 455–61.
[xv] Alain Leroy Locke, “The Negro’s Contribution to American Culture,” The Journal of Negro Education, (1939), 8:3, 521–529. 522.