Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi spoke at John L. Tishman Auditorium at the New School last Thursday, April 27. The occasion was “Not Yet Free,” a panel discussion sponsored by “1 Future,” a New York based social activism organization. Not Yet Free also featured eighty-one year old South African jazz singer, Dorothy Masuka, whose popular protest songs against apartheid earned her thirty years in exile. Her attendance underlined the night’s theme—persistent mistreatment of Blacks and other “marginalized groups” in the Western world.
Ms. Masuka opened the discussion by suggesting that the BLM gathering was proof that Blacks in America are not free. In so many words, she asked: Why do white police officers still kill unarmed black men? Why have many blacks not achieved the kind of wealth, education, and privilege accorded to upper middle class whites?
Tometi described her own experiences with navigating “systems of oppression,” which she identified with the fundamental social institutions of the West. Global capitalism displaces “black bodies”; immigration restrictions kill Haitians who can’t enter the United States; police departments callously murder scores of unarmed black men; American whites who are incapable of seeing that they have consumed more than their share of the pie curtail access to health and education.
Neither Tometi nor Masuka mentioned that they are also beneficiaries of the “Western dividend,” the fruits of which include individual rights, the free movement of capital, and the everyday freedom for women that is the legacy of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s rights movements. Nor were they entirely consistent about the horrors of capitalism. In fact, in a moment of excitement, Tometi praised the proliferation of tech start-ups in Africa, an unequivocal marker of capitalism’s propensity for spiritual and material improvement.
Tometi would seem to exemplify the modern West’s unprecedented ability to integrate minorities, but she seemed to think that she embodied the West's most abused victims. I wanted to ask her why she was not struck more by the benefits she had received from the West—but 1 Future scrapped the question-and-answer segment of the program because it had started late. Tometi didn’t stick around to chit-chat with the audience. I turned instead to members of the audience as they left their seats and stretched their legs in the lobby.
It’s a Beautiful Thing
A Hunter College student whom I will call Malachi Stevens was dressed in a dark gray suit. His family was from the Caribbean; he had dreadlocks.
“Do you feel oppressed?” I asked.
“I believe,” said Malachi, “in the overarching systems of oppression holding back people of color and White people are incapable of seeing it because they benefit from that system.” He averted his eyes from me. He recited the language of today’s campus activists expertly.
“But you’re a successful young man,” I said. “You attend a fine institution of higher education. You have access to an abundance of capital, opportunity, and wealthy liberals willing to work in the service of your cause. Where are these overarching systems?”
Malachi kept his counsel.
“Sara” was a 1 Future member, a recent college graduate, and a first-generation Chinese American. She dismissed the grievances of her fellow activists.
“Is it contradictory for beneficiaries of capitalism to attack it so mercilessly?” I asked.
“Do you approve of some BLM leaders voicing explicitly racist statements against whites?”
“Are you willing to say this to your black friends and organization members?”
Others comfortably engaged me in conversation. I was particularly struck by a woman I will call Rashida from Chicago. Rashida’s like a lot of young women I knew in high school—back in Queens, South Ozone Park. She spoke with a rough urban cadence; she carried herself with swagger; she was articulately plain spoken; and, like many college-educated women of color I have known, recounted her impressive list of specialized degrees. I liked her, and so I used our interaction as an opportunity to pose more pressing questions.
“Okay, imagine you’re a student at UConn,” I said, “and you’ve just heard about the Black Male Initiative, a plan to house forty black males in an exclusive dorm. How would you feel about this?”
“I think it’s beautiful,” she said with a clap. “Because we have to learn to thrive together before we can be out there with everybody else. They [straight white males] were used to having everything by themselves and could be proud of that, we never had that.”
“Is it about addressing the confidence gap between whites and blacks?”
“Yeah, yeah, and a lot of people don’t understand that because they’ve never been through it.”
On my way home the night’s events replayed in my head. “Not yet free,” I thought. It made more sense than I’d like to admit.
Contrary to popular opinion, Black Lives Matter is a movement encompassing a variety of opinions, experiences, and political philosophies. Rank-and-file activists often express allegiance to vastly different intellectual traditions, some arguing in favor of and others against the Western liberal tradition. This is a byproduct of the organization’s decentralized structure, and while this sometimes means radical voices appropriate its larger message, this tree of ideas provides much fruit for those of us who ask: What’s causing the surge in racial self-segregation on college campuses?
In a series of episodes, university officials showed they are no match for students demanding anything from segregated housing to outright exclusion of whites from campus events. Although these actions were purportedly pursued in the spirit of inclusivity and tolerance, they’ve enraged critics who see them as a step in the wrong direction. Dissenters say the health of our democracy is grounded in our citizens’ ability to coexist and debate as equals. Additionally, they say that encouraging students to join ethnic enclaves dissolves our sense of national purpose and mutual recognition of the innate equality of individuals.
I won’t answer the big questions here, but over the course of the next year, I’ll be researching and visiting college campuses across the country with the goal of producing an objective account of this fascinating moment in our history. A parallel, yet independent component of this project will be a written account of my interactions with various students, professors, and administrators. It’s true that the big data will tell us most of what we need to know, but the stories of individuals and the inclusion of their unique perspectives and experiences will bring a human face to this topic. These reflections are intended to remind readers of their fellow citizens’ humanity in an age when public debate feels like a blood sport. I hope they will enrich the dialogue around this very important topic.
Image Credit: Johnny Silvercloud, cropped.