For a moment, let us suspend the assumption that formations of state and sociality in the United States are exceptional, unique in nature and process, which bear little or no relation to those found in other parts of the planet. Instead, let us relate the long duration of extralegal killings of Black persons by the police in this country to patterns that characterize societal management of life and death in the Black Diaspora. Patterns of Black suffering in the United States are fundamentally related to those in Canada, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, South Africa, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. In the Black Diaspora, the extralegal killing of Black women and men is not an aberration, but rather the norm. The variations are of degree. Police brutality in Brazil claims six lives per day; hence, in the largest Black nation outside of the African continent, even though Blacks make up just over half of the population, they represent about seventy percent of the victims of homicide, making it reasonable to project that of the six daily victims of police lethality, at least four of the people killed by the state are Black. In the United States, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) recently published a report showing that in 2012, a Black woman, child, or man was killed every twenty-eight hours by either an agent of the state or by someone supported by the state. Based on these findings, MXGM, drawing inspiration from the 1951 Civil Rights Congress headed by William Patterson, is campaigning to charge the United States with genocide against its Black population. In Brazil, the current Worker’s Party federal administration has adopted this line of analysis and begun a multi-ministerial campaign to address the alarming homicide rates of Black youth, statistics that are largely due to the police.
The Black Diaspora social formation’s central element—its truth, as it were—is the gendered fact of blackness. The gendered fact of blackness determines who belongs and who doesn’t. It determines one’s relationship to formations of sociality, geography, and the state. It determines whose grievances are heard and whose grievances cannot be heard. It determines whose lives matter and whose lives don’t matter. The Black Diaspora and its nation/empire-states are founded on the expendability of Black life; their current formations of sociality and state management rely on and reproduce Black death.
One of the ideological obstacles hampering the recognition that Black lives don’t matter is the belief in the intrinsic redemptive quality of the supposedly democratic multiracial nation/empire-state. This belief intimates that, through struggle, popular mobilization, the voicing of grievances, and compelling political analysis, the democratic polis can be calibrated so that Black suffering is addressed and eliminated. When Blacks and non-Blacks take it to the streets, surface facts worthy of media attention, pressure their elected representatives, protest patterns of police misconduct that disproportionately victimize Blacks, and demand reform of policing tactics and sentencing laws that have filled prisons with multiple generations of Black men and women to the point where the simple biological and social maintenance of Black communities is challenged—in short, when multiracial crowds express their discontent over the expendability of Black life, they exercise their belief in, and wish to be a part of, the redeemed multiracial democratic nation. When multiracial crowds cry “Black Lives Matter,” they assume or at least hope that (a) their demands are legible, and (b) the project of an integrated nation is not only worth pursuing, but practically attainable.
What would render the protests against patterns of anti-Black discrimination and violence legible to members of the state and society? The Black would have to become fully recognized not only as a legal subject, but also, principally, as a fellow human. To say “Black Lives Matter” is to make a plea that should be self-evident. It is also to acknowledge that full equality and recognition for Blacks before the law, within institutions, and throughout society has not been realized. To utter “Black Lives Matter” is to make apparent that while some lives matter (those of the white, and to a lesser degree, the non-Black), presently Black lives don’t matter. So while the multitude’s insistence on Black lives’ immanent and indisputable value mobilizes across racial boundaries, it also reveals an immense gap between the desired and the actual. For the desired—a society with values and institutions that operate in accordance with the maxim that “Black Lives Matter”—is constantly negated by dominant anti-Black cultural codes and their pragmatic social consequences.
Collectively, we seem anesthetized by, or willfully ignorant of, philosophical and empirical proof of the unique wretchedness of the Black condition: unique not only relative to whites, but perhaps more revealingly, to non-Blacks. Evidence of poverty, unemployment, persistent residential segregation, exposure to environmental toxins, substandard schooling, disproportionate presence of children in the foster care system, police harassment, and imprisonment: these intersecting dynamics, while also impacting vulnerable whites and non-Blacks, uniquely define the transgenerational social and physical death experience of Blacks. Police brutality is just one aspect of a constellation unendingly generating anti-Black forces.
If Black lives don’t matter, and if nations of the Black Diaspora are foundationally dependent on the degradation of Blacks, then what is there to do? If multiracial protests against Black death ask the state and society to eliminate what is constitutive, and therefore impossible to eliminate, then it may be time for a shift. What if we took seriously the accusations of anti-Black genocide that activists in Brazil and the United States have been formulating since at least the 1950s? It may be time to consider that the Black experience is so unique, fundamental, and perhaps untranslatable that a Black agenda, formulated by Blacks and for Blacks, should be the basis of political organizing, rather than one among other agendas in a multiracial bloc. It may be time to leave aside the attempts at reform and calibration and to consider theoretical and political alternatives that engage frontally the anti-Black constitution of our social world.
Joao Vargas teaches Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.