The Chronicle Review

Reframing ‘Black Lives Matter’

Christopher J. Lebron seeks to set the movement on firmer conceptual ground

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle Review

April 23, 2017

I n June of 1966, Stokely Carmichael exhilarated a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, with two words that declared a more militant phase in the struggle for racial justice: "Black Power." If anyone wanted to know what Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) meant by that slogan, they could turn to a book he published the following year. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (Random House), co-written with a political scientist, Charles V. Hamilton, was both a treatise on institutional racism in America and a blueprint for change.

Nearly 50 years later, three black activists — Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza — coined a hashtag that has come to define what some see as the most significant black social-justice movement since the mid-’60s: #BlackLivesMatter. But if you want to know what that movement is about, you won’t find a Black Power-like treatise on its philosophical foundations. You’d have to cobble it together from various sources.

“I don't put people on streets. I put books on shelves.”
That scattershot ideology, coupled with the leaderless structure of Black Lives Matter, threatens the movement’s future, says Christopher J. Lebron, a political philosopher at Yale University. Next month he will publish a book that seeks to reframe and sharpen the ideas of a campaign that shoulders the hopes of so many black Americans. His study, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (Oxford University Press), hitches Black Lives Matter to a centuries-old foundation of black social and political thought. It selects from that canon to build a radical political agenda aimed at pushing Americans to view blacks as equally valuable.

"The movement isn’t about just ending police violence," Lebron says. "What the movement is about is respect for black lives in all senses. Insofar as I can get to a younger generation and give them a systematic grounding as to what that is, I’m hoping to do my small part to make the movement endure more."

Lebron, 42, does not have the persona of a crusader. A tall and introverted video-game enthusiast, the black Latino philosopher labors behind the wrought-iron gates of Yale’s department of African American studies, where, in a small second-floor office with a brick fireplace, he researches the morality of racial inequality. He writes with a combination of emotional rawness and stylistic austerity that evokes one of his book’s subjects, James Baldwin.

The campus beyond his window, like many others, has been consumed by race-focused student activism. But when Lebron recently offered an undergraduate course based on The Making of Black Lives Matter, he warned students that it would center on philosophy, not social movements. "I’m not a grass-roots organizer," he says in an interview at his office one recent afternoon. "I don’t put people on streets. I put books on shelves."

Black Lives Matter has spawned an expanding shelf of books since it emerged in 2013 after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the fatal shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Authors who have already published books related to it (or have announced plans to do so) include Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an African-American-studies scholar at Princeton University; Wesley Lowery, a journalist at The Washington Post; and Barbara Ransby, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The May issue of the New Republic carries a cover story on "Why Black Lives Matter Still Matters" by Peniel E. Joseph, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

T o appreciate what distinguishes Lebron’s approach, start with the speech that first exposed his writing to a mass audience. It was January of 2015, and Lebron was invited to commemorate Martin Luther King Day at a YWCA in the affluent New York City suburb of Greenwich, Conn. Michael Brown had been shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., the previous August. In subsequent testimony, the police officer who killed Brown, Darren Wilson, portrayed the 18-year-old in quasi-bestial terms as a hulking, wild-eyed "demon." The month before Lebron’s talk, a New York City grand jury declined to indict the police officer who had choked to death another unarmed black man, Eric Garner.

Lebron decided that the best way to honor King was to question the character of his mostly white audience. He did so by borrowing a page from Frederick Douglass. In one of Douglass’s most famous speeches, "What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?" the slave-turned-abolitionist shamed whites for celebrating their freedoms while sustaining slavery. Lebron, like Douglass, opened his remarks by stressing the distance between the world of his audience and his own origins in a Puerto Rican family from the Lower East Side of Manhattan — a personal trajectory that, at various points, exposed him to welfare, food stamps, and unemployment. And, again like Douglass, he shamed his listeners for celebrating King’s achievements while blacks continued to suffer police brutality, job discrimination, and the segregation of schools and neighborhoods.

The persistence of these ills "indicates the eagerness with which white Americans have adopted the idea that securing racial justice was a matter of the passing of a law and the martyrdom of a great man," he later wrote in a column based on the speech that appeared in The Stone, a philosophy series in The New York Times. "But this clearly will not do."

That Times piece whetted the publisher interest that led to Lebron’s slim but ambitious new book. The study’s premise is that the sentiment "Black Lives Matter" represents a desire for civic equality and human respect as old as the push to end slavery. It pivots around a question: How can earlier black struggles for acknowledgment inform that same fight today?

Lebron answers that by extracting a collection of "radical lessons" from eight black thinkers. Through Douglass and Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching crusader, he highlights the power of forcing Americans to face the gulf between their stated ideals and their brutal treatment of blacks (lesson: shameful publicity). He analyzes how Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston changed perceptions of African-Americans through literature that revealed the richness of black culture (lesson: countercolonization of the white imagination). To get at issues of gender and sexuality, he focuses on Anna Julia Cooper, a civic and educational leader who saw the improved position of black women as central to the betterment of her race, and Audre Lorde, a lesbian poet who stressed the importance of embracing one’s full identity (lesson: unconditional self-possession).

Lebron pits the thinkers he admires against four black public intellectuals whose ideas he opposes: Thomas Sowell, Randall Kennedy, Glenn Loury, and John McWhorter. In Lebron’s view, they have absorbed the wrong lessons of "white liberalism," by which he means the idea of rugged individualism. They have perverted that notion into an insidious black conservatism that says African-Americans need to look for the source of their woes apart from whites.

"Whether they say it or not, what they really want to do is induce a sense of, ‘Oh man, I guess I’m on welfare because it really is all my fault that there are no more jobs in the neighborhood,’" Lebron says. "No, it’s not your fault. … We didn’t build the ghettos. We didn’t build housing segregation. The fact that white schools, being in certain tax districts, are almost as good as private schools, while other public schools are in the dump … we didn’t choose that."

Lebron’s unlikely journey from Lower East Side to Ivy League was set in motion by the interest one English professor took in him at the City University of New York’s Baruch College: Elaine M. Kauvar. She steered him toward a fellowship program aimed at getting minorities into graduate school. At that point in his life, though, Lebron had no interest in becoming, as he puts it, "that black guy doing race." He shifted to the subject in part because of his difficult experience as one of the only brown people in his political-science doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lebron is just beginning to talk about those days when his cellphone blares an unusual ringtone. "Cracking the whip!" a female voice says. "Cracking the whip!" The caller is his wife, Vesla M. Weaver, a political scientist at Yale who also studies racial inequality. He answers with a laugh.

After he hangs up, Lebron explains that "cracking the whip" is the phrase Weaver jokingly uses to rally him and their son, Lennox, out the door in the morning. Since she was leaving town for a talk, Lebron had recorded her saying it as his ringtone. That way the boy would hear it when Weaver called home.

I ask Lennox’s age, remembering an article Lebron had written about the intergenerational inheritance of racial anger and sadness. It opens with a question that Lebron’s son, sensing his father’s disaffection, asks on a regular basis: "Daddy, are you happy?"

Lebron sighs. "He’s 5 and some change now." He says Lennox’s birth shaped his decision to start writing publicly, a role he never anticipated. He wanted to do what he could to improve the world his son would inhabit. He also writes to cope with his emotions. If Lennox could sense his anger at so young an age, he worries, what will it be like when the boy is 10? Or 17?

Lebron points out how his book ends: with a meditation on King’s and Baldwin’s beliefs about the role of love in race relations.

"I’m trying to figure out how I can maintain something like hope."

Marc Parry is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.