There are certain mantras that are omitted only at the speaker’s peril. For example, whenever there’s a tragedy the politician’s “heart [has to go] out to the friends and family”. And every address must end with “God bless the United States of America”. But there’s another one making the rounds these days in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Whether you’re Democrat or Republican, you have to support the right of Black Lives Matter to peaceful protest, but condemn those who would use these protests as a cover for feckless violence.
I want to challenge this mantra. I want to argue that it’s the mantra that’s a cover, a cover for acquiescence to and therefore complicity in racial injustice. I want to argue that without Malcolm X and the threat of a race war, MLK’s “I have a dream!” would have remained just a pipe dream.
Which is not to say that 57 years later America is anywhere close to realizing King’s dream. It’s to say only that you can put half a million people in Black Lives Matter Plaza and still ask how exactly does singing We Shall Overcome overcome anything. Ultimately someone has to do something. Ultimately your disapproval of my behaviour has to be accompanied with some action not to my liking. Or, as Gandhi figured out, the discontinuation of some action that is to my liking.
Passive resistance in general, and strike action in particular, worked in India because without Indian labour the British had no reason to be there. But Israel today has no pressing need of the Palestinians. And neither has white America of black labour. So it hasn’t been the threat not to better their condition that’s moved white Americans to the degree they have been moved. It’s been the threat to worsen their condition. And what would have worsened their condition would have been an albeit low grade race war.
No war is ever fought to the last man standing. The articles of peace that are drawn up and complied with are a function of what each side would rather live with than continue to take what losses it can anticipate if the conflict is allowed to continue. And that, in turn, is a function of boots on the ground and, more importantly, on the other’s neck.
Since the withering away of Jim Crow, black America has been conned into underplaying its hand. What’s needed is a clear demonstration of just how bad things could get if the murder of George Floyd isn’t properly dealt with. And that requires that the mantra, reasonable as it may be, be foregone, at least for now.