The Black Lives Matter Movement has inserted itself into the 2016 Presidential Election. From its initial confrontation with Senator Bernie Sanders to a private meeting with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the movement has become a presence. Not isolated to the Democratic Primary process, the Movement’s presence is visible in the Republican Primary as well. In various interviews, the Republican presidential candidates are asked for a response to the demands of the Movement.
With any protest movement, the Movement is speaking truth to power — those who are able to create access or erect barriers — forcing it be accountable to those over whom it has dominion. However, holding the powerful (political elites) accountable and achieving policy objectives should not be the end goal of the movement. There has to be an effort to move from protest to governance. And this is where social work and allied professions can provide support. I suggest that social workers who practice in the policy and community arenas can do two things. First, support Black Lives Matters in creating political institutions that can run and/or fund candidates who embrace critical race theory approach to governance. Second, produce scholarship that challenges the notion that economic populism (or more broadly the traditional progressive agenda) sufficiently addresses racial disparities.
Bayard Rustin, in remarking on southern demonstrators and their efforts to curb police brutality stated, “The most effective way to strike at the police brutality they suffered from was to get rid of the local sheriff.” This type political action requires organization. We recognize this as the traditional community organizing process. We identify the target system, the person who is in charge of said system, mobilize community residents and secondary targets, and create a list of demands. The result of this community organizing usually is the creation of permanent community-controlled institutions. These new institutions serve as guardians of the political gains that the community has won. However, as effective as this process has been, we need to move from community organizing/protest tactics to developing a political, economic, and social philosophy that translates into a governing agenda.
This concept is not new. The formation of the Congressional Black Caucus resulted from civil rights era activists becoming political actors. What we need today is the same translation of policy grievances into political agency. The TEA Party has transformed conservative politics through primary challenges, grassroots activism, and political action. With support, the Movement can transform progressive politics. Social workers can support activists in developing policy statements and analysis, forming and funding of political action committees, starting ballot initiatives, and running for political office. This list is not exhaustive, only suggestive of how our professional training in social justice can lend support to the Movement in the political arena. Moreover, the political arena is not the only place where our skills are necessary.
An element of power is the ability to control the narrative. The Movement is challenging the current narrative around policing. Through our scholarship, we can support the Movement by supplementing their anecdotal evidence with case study and empirical analysis. As researchers and academics, we can lend objectivity to the truth that the Movement speaks to power. Essentially, we can transform their grievances into scholarly analysis. A lot of this work is currently done. Professors have included an analysis of the events in Ferguson into their syllabi and peer-reviewed journals have created special issues on racial equity. The question now is how can we further professionalize this work. Specifically, where can we expand critical race theory in social work practice?
Can we leverage communities of learning on critical race theory at various department, schools, and colleges into a respected think-tank on racial equity? The Movement is challenging mainstream society to see the challenges of those who are racialized as black (those excluded from full political, economic, and social citizenship) in the same manner that miners would see a canary i.e. a crisis in the black community is signal of imminent systemic failure. Our scholarship can assist that process.
The legacy of slavery in the United States is that the political elites used their power to create a racialized society. They allocated economic and social resources based on the biological fiction of race. In doing so, they rooted race into our social reality. If we are going to capitalize on the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, then we should embrace the call of the Black Lives Matter movement to make blackness visible in our society. By making race visible, where it is either willfully or unwittingly unnoticed, we can readily challenge its existence. We as social workers should engage in this process through political advocacy and/or scholarship.