June was a long, arduous month dominated by a single story: Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and destruction of state and national monuments, or at least those commemorating historical figures that do not live up to 21st-century standards of decency. But if the first month of what is sure to be a “hot” summer taught us anything, it is that none of us can pass muster when the moral goalposts are constantly being moved by political radicals. The resurgence of BLM surprised some but not all of us. Social justice warriors are nothing if not resilient and opportunistic. And this time, following the horrific murder of George Floyd, they have better funding.
Seemingly every corporation in American (and Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK) is behind them. What’s more, Nike, Target (both of which had their stores heavily looted during the riots), and all the rest have pledged unconscionable sums to BLM’s “work.” Throughout June, corporate support (especially from big retail and big tech) for BLM increased exponentially. Forbes even set up a tracker of all corporate donations dedicated to anti-racism efforts. Woke capitalism seemed to be entering a new metamorphosis.
The Falling Away
But then, on July 1, the Telegraph reported that the BBC told staffers and guests to stop wearing BLM badges on air, claiming that the campaign “hijacked” George Floyd’s death for political ends. No “visual symbols of support” for BLM are to be worn on screen. The impetus for the decision by BBC, and other big-name organizations, is allegedly the UK branch of BLM’s call on lawmakers to defund the police.
But perhaps most concerning to the broadcasting service was a Twitter screed by BLM UK regarding Israel’s proposal to annex the West Bank. The tweets in question stated that “mainstream British politics is gagged of the right to critique Zionism.” BLM attempted to distinguish “anti-Zionism” from “anti-Semitism,” emphasizing accents of colonialism associated with the former. But Marie van der Zyl of the Board of Deputies of British Jews begged to differ, characterizing BLM’s statements as the furtherance of an “antisemitic trope.”
The irony or ironies was that of all the outlets to defend BLM for its “criticism” of Israel, the New Statesman pleaded with the public to disregard a single “ill-judged tweet” and continue to embrace the overarching cause. It will be remembered by many readers that not a year ago the New Statesman mounted a now thoroughly discredited (thanks to Douglas Murray) campaign to destroy the reputation of the late Roger Scruton, strategically clipping interviews and speeches to fabricate antisemitic and other “unacceptable comments.” No such grace and maturity were shown to Sir Roger, whose only crime was wanting to make England beautiful again. Why now should an upstart, riotous political organization be afforded a courtesy the greatest living Englishman at the time — who while being raked over the coals and sacked from unpaid public service in his own country was being honored by Poland for his role in the struggle against an actually oppressive regime — was not? Wrong politics, perhaps?
In any case, a source told the Telegraph that “The BBC cannot be seen to support any kind of cause over another, and Black Lives Matter is certainly a campaign.” This even though the same BBC had been displaying support for weeks. Such support had been purely moral, they assure us, not political.
Fast forward to July, and the BBC is appalled by BLM’s sudden turn toward anti-Semitism, violence, and general political extremism. The BBC was shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover that amongst BLM’s chief demands is the defunding of the police. Perhaps, the network heads had not bothered to read BLM’s website, or the dozens of press releases and hundreds of tweets expressly stating their demands.
Following the BBC’s statement, the Premier League sought to distance itself from BLM, stressing that its endorsement of the campaign was on “moral” and not political grounds. In addition, several Sky Sports pundits expressed uneasiness with the continued display of BLM paraphernalia, hashtags, et cetera. And last week Tottenham Hostpur became the first football club to sever ties with the campaign. Crystal Palace has since followed suit. In a letter, the executive director of the club lamented that “a value-based action is being hijacked by those with their own political agenda.”
Similarly, Northumberland County council member Peter Jackson claimed that BLM, because of a small number of “political extremists,” had “definitely strayed into the political arena,” turning an “equality movement” into a “political movement.” Jackson went on to say that “mindless vandalism … attacks on the police, and … people effectively trying to rewrite history” all looked political to him. You don’t say?
Last month, James Lindsay presented a thought exercise called “The Woke Breaking Point,” which is self-explanatory: he asked readers to identify “a line that, once crossed, signifies to someone that the ostensibly good or noble thing they currently support has soured or, as the case may be, gone completely bad.” Well, thankfully, some Britons — the BBC, a few footballers, and one county council member, to be exact — are woked out. Let’s hope others on both sides of the pond follow suit.
Heads in the Sand
What is curious about this development in the UK, from news media to sports leagues to public officials, is that all of this was not realized before. It is perplexing that the BBC and the Premier League were caught off guard by BLM’s calls for defunding the police. Had they cared to tune in to American news, or even BLM’s Twitter feed, a bit over the past month, they would have known about this.
If the heads of the BBC or the executives of the Premier League had bothered to peruse the BLM site (or that of the Movement for Black Lives, which features a five-year plan), they would have found calls for the abolishment of police, prisons, and capitalism, and a commitment to a “radical realignment of power.” Jackson would have even found an “electoral strategy.”
This is also not the first time that the UK chapter of BLM has made inflammatory remarks directed at Israel. In its first-ever platform, the chapter labeled Israel an “apartheid state” and accused it of “genocide.” At the time, even Jonathan Greenblatt, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, which wrote a BLM curriculum for schools, criticized the organization for the hyperbolic slur. Yair Rosenberg of Tablet called it “a blood libel on a national scale.”
Most importantly, if corporate executives and local politicians had been paying attention to the ideology festering in American and British universities for decades and now animating BLM — though this is almost certainly too much to expect — they would have foreseen where the movement would end up, rhetorically and otherwise. But, then again, if they had not kept their heads in the sand for the past month, they would not now be able to avail themselves of the “hijacking” narrative — and maybe that’s the whole point.
In truth, BLM has been remarkably consistent in its message, expressed values, and ideology from the word “go.” There has been no ideological “hijacking.” Although, according to Patrisse Khan-Cullors (one of the founders), BLM is “adaptive and decentralized,” every chapter in the network is unified around “a set of guiding principles,” promulgated clearly in BLM’s statement of belief. (The website reads like that of any local church). In said statement there lies more than just a litany of amorphous political goals. On display too is the unmistakable influence of critical race theory (CRT).
Without an understanding of CRT (which concerns itself with much more than “race”) as the animating worldview behind BLM, it makes little sense that an organization ostensibly dedicated to antiracist advocacy and protesting police brutality would also look to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” Why does an organization founded by people “enraged by the death of Trayvon Martin” and “searching for justice for Mike Brown” care about “trans-antagonistic violence”? Why does BLM want to “dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk”? What does George Floyd have to do with “freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking” (my emphasis throughout)? Was Derek Chauvin possessed by “ageism” when he knelt on Floyd’s neck?
The function of intersectionality within CRT, in particular, provides some coherence to this hodge-podge of commitments. Indeed, Khan-Cullors has distinguished BLM from other black liberation precursors in that it is “more radically intersectional.”
In brief, CRT envisions the society as stratified along lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, and so on. The world is organized according to oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressors in our context are white, heteronormative, cisgender males. Oppression is predominantly proliferated through the ideological hegemony of the dominant class (i.e. white, straight, male colonizers). White dominance is maintained by control of the cultural norms, customs, beliefs, and narratives.
What is important to understand for our purposes is that all identities, including race, are socially constructed (structurally contingent). Those designated “white,” and therefore racist, are people who benefit from the status quo in a society built by white supremacists.
Racism is no longer animus based on ethnicity or skin color. It is prejudice plus power. This means that only those with requisite systemic power are capable of actualizing their prejudices and thus of being racist. In America, the UK, and most of Europe, racism is being white. Robin DiAngelo makes clear that the question is not if, as a white person, you are racist, but how. And given the dominance of whites, scholars of CRT hold that oppression (especially racism) is ordinary, ubiquitous, and baked into the system. All of this is complicated by intersectionality, which highlights the heterogeneity of privileges and draws out the layers of oppressions that people belonging to different identity groups experience.
Intersectionality, a concept introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is less an overarching grand theory than it is a mid-level, connector theory, so to speak, that “complexifies” the CRT framework. It allows the high-level insights of CRT regarding oppression (racism, sexism, cisgenderism, heteronormativity, colonialism, etc.) to more easily be brought down to the ground level and thereby become politically applicable. It acts as a theoretical linchpin for CRT and allows it to become simultaneously more focused and broader in scope.
For this reason, intersectionality is certainly an organizing, analytical tool, but it is perhaps better described as a sensibility that instructs the use of all other analytical tools, even those provided by CRT. Intersectionality is a praxis, intended, per Barbara Tomlinson, to be “an activist and academic imperative” designed to “address intersecting vectors of power,” overlapping aspects of identity vis-à-vis oppression.
Crenshaw originally employed intersectionality to critique how anti-discrimination laws treat race and gender as single-issue vectors rather than, in the case of black women, interlocking, mutually reinforcing sources of oppression. It is often said that black women are “double bound” by both the dominance of whites and males in society. Race constructs the way they experience gender, and vice versa. The hypothetical black lesbian is the exemplar of intersectionality, which is to say especially marginalized, since she occupies three points of oppression on the matrix of domination.
For intersectional theorists, oppression is viewed more or less in the aggregate. Wherever oppression exists, it is a threat to all oppressed people. But intersectionality also urges people to see that, per their identity markers, in some scenarios they are oppressed, whereas in others they are the oppressor (e.g. black cis men are oppressed as to their race but oppressive as to their gender). What is clear is that, everywhere and always, white men are occupiers and beneficiaries of distinctly hegemonic identities.
When the founders of BLM say that their movement is “radically intersectional,” they mean that they intentionally consider all forms of oppression perceived by a critically conscious (i.e. woke) gaze in Western society. It is all or nothing. As Richard Delgado points out in his book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “The predicament of social reforms … is that ‘everything must change at once.’ Otherwise, change is swallowed up by the remaining elements, so that we remain roughly as we were before. Culture replicates itself forever and ineluctably.”
On the Jewish Question
In light of all this, especially the notion that cultural identities are structurally contingent and the CRT definition of racism, the anti-Semitic tweets from BLM UK begin to make more sense. Indeed, in hindsight, they were totally predictable as an outgrowth of the ideology informing everything else BLM stands for.
According to the proponents of CRT, Jews, like Italians, became “white” a long time ago, mainly because during the mid-1940s they assimilated, became middle-class, and therefore have garnered sufficient systemic power. Similarly, in 2018, the Atlantic drew attention to the alleged “whitening” of Asians.
CRT-ers believe this, not because they are trying to counter Steve Bannon, but because, as Karen Brodkin argues in How Jews Became White Folks, the federal government was too busy with segregation against black people in the postwar period to care about formerly stark divisions between northern and southern (and eastern) Europeans. Per Brodkin, Jews were “whitened” because of white interest convergence: as black veterans returned from Europe and the South Pacific, the white–nonwhite racial divide simply became too pressing to care about whether or not Jews were getting into Harvard. The stuff of School Ties was over. It was total war between Europeans and everyone else.
Once a group is designated “white,” they are labeled oppressors and subject to ruthless critique, even discrimination. In Ibram X. Kendi’s antiracist manual, discrimination is not wrong, so long as it is the right kind of discrimination. Applied to “whites,” the authors of oppression, discrimination unto “equity” is totally acceptable.
Not only are Jews “white” but they are also, via Israeli “colonialism,” active oppressors of a marginalized group — Palestinians. Regardless of the history of criticism of “Zionism” providing cover for anti-Semitism, BLM is self-assuredly justified in doing the same. Even though the conflict over the West Bank is a world away from BLM’s founders, or even the UK chapter, wherever oppression is, there will be BLM also, dismantling systems of domination. White supremacy is a global problem, the real global pandemic.
Jews — whether of American, British, or Israeli citizenship — therefore, fall under BLM’s purview of derision. Proliferating anti-Semitic tropes against a “white” group is then of little consequence. It might even further equity as the predominate narratives and norms of society are problematized and deconstructed.
Narratives like Brodkin’s have been imbibed for decades by unwitting students at elite Western universities. Now they are being broadly disseminated through large-scale activism. CRT is the predominant instructor of public discourse today, especially in America and especially on all things race. Wherever CRT leads, the Overton window will follow. Today’s oppressed is tomorrow’s oppressor.
Accordingly, what would previously had been called “anti-Semitism,” but is now chalked up to the righteous pursuit of “equity,” within BLM was predictable. But for that matter so were the riots and the global spread of the admittedly well-organized movement (especially for one that is averse to formal leadership or any semblance of hierarchy). For contemporary critical theorists, the relative power dynamics explain everything. Where there is power, there is oppression, and oppression must be stamped out. Hence, all is politics, and in an allegedly white supremacist, “racialized,” Western context, all politics are racial politics. Such a worldview transcends borders.
Doubtless, George Floyd’s death and the immediately subsequent demonstrations — lamenting Floyd’s death and promoting the worthy cause of police reform — have been “hijacked,” or rather, politically exploited. Antifa has done this, as has Revcom (just like they did with Ferguson). Soon after his death, Floyd’s own family publicly condemned the violent outbursts in Minneapolis, much of which was instigated by angsty teenagers allied to no cause but watching the world burn.
But the idea that BLM — the movement, the hashtag, the organization, the phrase — has somehow been hijacked by radicals and led to an erratic ideological departure from its founding principles is naïve, to say the least. Anyone who says otherwise has not been paying attention.