18 Jan What Does 2021 Hold For Black Lives Matter?
This year, we should not be satisfied with surface level cosmetic change. We must pay attention to who really takes the difficult – and often less public – steps to materially improve people’s lives, writes Johanan Sowah
It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I’m still in sheer disbelief as I try to make sense of the insurrection at the Capitol this month. Re-watching the footage two weeks later, I’m immediately brought back to the streets of Portland, Oregon last year. I remember that cool summer evening in 2020 when I watched a tense encounter escalate between Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors and the supporters of the far-right group, the Proud Boys. I keep thinking to myself: had it been BLM activists rioting in the Capitol, then such a moment would have been viewed by law enforcement, and much of the general public, as far more grave and dire from the beginning. I’m a young Black man who grew up in the northern Virginia suburbs. Until recently, I shied away from social justice issues and the often hyperbolic “soul of our nation” political rhetoric. But the senseless police killing of George Floyd caused me to open my eyes and look more deeply at common, mundane acts of racism in the lives of many Black Americans.
The events at the Capitol brought me back to our summer of protests when every day seemed momentous and consequential. Now I’m wondering if this year will be filled with as many cultural milestones. In 2021, I can see Black Lives Matter re-entering our social media feeds and the broader national conversation, as it has over the last few years. There’s a potential scenario in which those who wield power and influence continue to promote the hashtags and raise their fists high and make all the symbolic gestures without actually taking substantive action forward. The danger here is in hollowing out the important causes that people have marched for, like enacting police reform and narrowing the increasing racial wealth gap. We should not just be satisfied with the surface level cosmetic change in knowing that, for example, some Fortune 500 companies will be adding more minorities to their board of directors this year.
Even though Black Lives Matter is still quite a polarizing and weighty subject in our discourse, many of the more detailed legislative proposals it brings to the conversation are widely supported. Regarding the police, people largely agree on the need to implement measures like universal body cameras and more rigorous training. There is also much consensus about certain redistributive economic policies that would aim to benefit the poor and working class in this country, very many of whom are people of color. There certainly isn’t universal agreement on all the priorities related to BLM and generally helping people in need. However, in 2021, it would be best if we kept the focus on substance so as to enable us to sort through these differences.
I am a bit wary of exploring the ways in which a Joe Biden administration might rise to meet this cultural moment. We should keep in mind how lawmakers might choose to declaim progress without really taking the difficult and often less public steps to materially improve people’s lives. But I’m cautiously optimistic that in 2021 a new approach to COVID-19 relief will be a notable step to addressing inequalities exposed by the pandemic. I hope we will focus less on the occupant of the White House and what he simply says (or tweets), and rather pivot towards the actions of the administration and lawmakers in Washington.
We should remember that at the end of the day, policy is the entire game. And if effective policy measures aren’t enacted, it hardly matters what the people on your team look like on the outside and it hardly matters whether or not you can give a scathing rebuke of those on the other side of the aisle. On this day every year we remember Martin Luther King Jr. and the transformative era of social progress that defined the life he led and the age he lived in. We’re long past the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s, but we still aim to speak out peacefully and loudly to preserve and expand rights for all people
Photo: Toby Melville