Black Lives Matter and Kanye West vs. Martin Luther King
Black Lives Matter (henceforth BLM) is the movement that arose after the police killings of young blacks in the US became a huge issue, particularly in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. This movement has been embraced to varying degrees by public figures such as Hilary Clinton, and enjoys wide support among blacks in the US.
The central claim they make is that police in the US exhibit racist behavior in employing disproportionate force against black youths, often shooting people without sufficient reason. Perhaps this is so. If it is, then there are certainly grounds for strenuous protest.
There are very good reasons to doubt that institutional racism pervades the police quite to the extent claimed by BLM — the Ferguson shooting was shown to have been grossly misrepresented by the protesters–but that is not my concern here. My concern is with the rhetoric employed by the leaders of the movement, the philosophical forces that have coalesced around it, and where these things place BLM within the larger context of the wars of culture and ideas currently being waged throughout western civilization, particularly as these ideological wars relate to general opinion about Israel. It’s not nearly as heavy as it sounds, I promise.
Meet Deray Mckesson. Black Lives Matter leader, thinker, and now Baltimore Mayoral candidate. He seems like an intelligent, thoughtful guy, and I have little reason to doubt that his intentions are sincere. He thinks he sees a pattern of systematic oppression of black people in America, especially in cities like Baltimore, and has set out to do something about it. My quarrel is with the ideas he espouses; ideas that also lead me to question his grounds for asserting that the reality is as he says, if not his motives.
Mckesson regularly talks about “Blackness”. The way he employs this single word shows everything that is wrong with his philosophy. In a highly amusing–but upon closer reflection, greatly disturbing–Twitter exchange with erstwhile CNN host Piers Morgan, the problem with this term is clearly illustrated. Mckesson tweeted out to his (presumably mostly black) followers: “I love my blackness, and yours”. Morgan responded with what he thought would be a supportive message: “I love my whiteness, and your blackness”, only to get whipped by Mckesson’s reply: “This is an exceptional example of how whiteness needs to be centered, how whiteness can’t imagine not participating”.
This notion of blackness then, is not merely a term for positive elements of African-American culture, to be preserved and celebrated, but a comprehensive identity, including behaviors, propensities and ideological preferences. Morgan expects Mckesson to be on board with his standard anti-racist comment about how there is no superiority in skin color, thinking that this was the point that Mckesson was making in his initial tweet. The reaction is the most telling. To Mckesson, black people have “blackness” which seems to determine their behavior completely, and white people have “whiteness” which determines their behavior completely. He then proceeds to criticize this whiteness for it’s pushiness, its desire to dominate everywhere.
In Mckesson’s mind the issues with the police are just part of a larger intractable race conflict between the incompatible ideas and behaviors associated with “whiteness”, which include a burning desire to control all things and a blind hatred toward those who are different, and ideas and behaviors associated with “blackness” which include many virtuous things that nevertheless leave blacks vulnerable to oppression. He conceives of America and all of western civilization as inherently oppressive to black people, as the tendency toward racism is inherent in “whiteness”. Racism in his ideology is redefined as: “oppression of different cultural groups”, changed from its real meaning: “discrimination against individuals based on the irrelevant factor of skin color”. This redefinition has been gaining wider currency in Progressive circles.
This is the Marxist-Postmodern-Relativist construction of things. Everything comes back to the cultural tendencies of groups and the power struggles between them, with the whites being inherently evil because they have shown that they must oppress all others to be happy. How else could we explain the fact that they are so disproportionately successful?
This leads me to suspect that Mckesson takes any instance of greater success for white people as an indication of racism, without having ruled out simple differences in merit as a cause of the disparity. He probably doesn’t care about the details surrounding a shooting of a black person by a white cop. It wouldn’t matter to him whether the shooting was justified based on the behavior of this particular black person at the time, because it all eventually comes back to whiteness oppressing blackness. So while I don’t know the extent of the trend of cops actually shooting people because they’re black in situations where normal law-enforcement considerations don’t justify firing, I do know that Mckesson’s claims about it aren’t a good source of information.
Kanye West has also recently waded into these waters. He asked for “white publications” to “not comment on black music anymore” because “they don’t know what it means to be the great grandson of ex slaves and make it this far”. This in response to reviews of his new album which were very positive mind you, just not the sycophantic coronation of the greatest artistic genius of all time he believes his work merits. His argument would mean that his music cannot be understood simply as Music, to be judged objectively and according to objective standards by musical experts, but can only be appreciated by a black person who has had the undoubtedly harrowing experience of being an obscenely successful great grandson of ex-slaves. I’m sure that’s just horrible for him. Hey Kanye, I’m the great-grandson of someone who was gassed in Auschwitz 81 years after the Emacipation Proclamation, and I don’t have a Bel-air mansion and a wife who makes oodles of money just by being kept up with, so you can’t say that anything I ever think or write is wrong.
This sort of relativism, this contention that everything that people do is purely determined by their culture and surroundings, and all standards they would use to judge what others do are the products of their culture and surroundings, is not only wrong, but the complete antithesis of the ethos espoused by Martin Luther King. His philosophy, his battle, is summed up in the wonderful quote: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. Oh, where have the great rhetoricians gone.
The thing is, Dr. King presupposes that there is a transcendent objective standard by which to judge the content of someone’s character. Mckesson, and by extension the whole BLM movement, is informed by a worldview that rejects the reality of this absolute moral standard. Dr King took it for granted that there are universal standards that hold true regardless of one’s background. He fought against precisely this idea that race determines one’s beliefs and standards of behavior. BLM seems to be working with the assumption that many of the standards used by people to judge character, are themselves just manifestations of their racial culture.
These may seem like abstract and abstruse points, but I think they are absolutely central to the way actual events unfold. Martin Luther King fought for a post-racial world and a post-racial America, where race would simply not be a factor. BLM are, probably somewhat unwittingly, not only pushing that goal farther away, they are working to make it impossible in principle. You can’t get to a post racial world if there are no objective standards that transcend race with which to judge the character of individuals. You can’t have a just society when someone’s ideas are attributed to his “whiteness” by a greatly influential thinker. You can’t foster fairness when experienced music reviewers are disqualified from assessing the quality of a piece of music because of their race.
These ideological points are behind BLM’s cozying up to the Palestinians, as they see their own story and the story of the Palestinians to be manifestations of the same pattern. Once again, if all is power struggles, and those who are more powerful must have taken advantage of the less powerful, then it follows that Israel is a racist oppressor of the Palestinians. Any counterargument must employ the idea of objective absolute standards, and this notion is inadmissible in the ideological circles within which BLM travels. The more BLM ideology and rhetoric become mainstream in American political and social circles, the more anti-Israel public opinion will be in the US.
“Liberty and justice for all” presupposes an objective, absolute standard of justice and judgement. If Kanye West’s music is terrible, it’s terrible. My race or his don’t have anything to do with it. Deal with it, Kanye.