This morning I read that Kanye West, in a moment of altered consciousness during an awards show last night, announced his candidacy for the 2020 Presidential election. I don't think he meant that too seriously, but it was an intriguing coincidence, since I had just read Mychal Denzel Smith's article in the August 31 Nation tracing the "Rebirth of Black Rage" to West's notorious accusation, during a fundraising program for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, that George W. Bush didn't care about black people. Smith draws a line from that unscripted outburst to the Black Lives Matter movement, albeit with a significant interruption during Barack Obama's first Presidential campaign. Smith's article is a defense -- more than that, a vindication -- of black rage, defined as "a radical critique of the system of racism that has upheld all of our institutions and made living black in America a special form of hell." It "cuts through [the] bullshit" whenever anyone claims that "racism is a nonfactor" or unilaterally declares racial harmony in America. It's "about holding America accountable," and Smith, anticipating critics, asserts that "If black rage has prevented alliances from forging, those are likely not alliances that would have yielded much in the way of progress anyway." President Obama is faulted for trying to suppress healthy, legitimate, black rage. He accuses the President (whose job, Smith understands, is "not to represent black America") of perpetrating, in several of his best-regarded speeches, an "invalidation of black rage." Obama too often goes out of his way to "make black anger seem unjustified or undignified." He does this, Smith argues, whenever he indulges in "false moral equivalencies" like discussing black-on-black crime during the Trayvon Martin controversy or observing that rage distracts blacks from addressing (in Obama's words) "our own complicity ... in our own condition." Such rhetoric from a President in Obama's unique historic position "provides further ammunition for those who believe that black people's anger at racism is unjustified."
I think Smith meant to write that such people believe that black people's perception of racism is unjustified. What Smith seems to mean by "black rage" is a permanent j'accuse directed at the American (and implicitly white) establishment, an insistence that racism remains the necessary and sufficient cause of racial inequality, black poverty, and black crime, independent of the behavior of black people. It rejects a perceived argument that, after a certain degree of progress culminating in Obama's elections, black behavior becomes, if not the necessary and sufficient cause of black poverty, than at least a significant cause independent of the country's racist heritage. In short, black rage doesn't want to hear "the added moralizing about sagging pants, missing fathers and 'acting white'" that Obama and other black leaders feel obliged to include in their speeches and writings. As defined by Smith, black rage presumes that, since "racism has built America," nothing short of radical change as yet unseen can take the blame off a racist society and culture. Black Lives Matter expresses this rage by demanding that politicians recognize a problem believed to impact blacks disproportionately if not exclusively and deal with that problem even if doing so is perceived by the opposition to benefit only black people. It's not surprising that Smith's own checklist for radical exchange barely extends past the criminal justice system. Giving Obama credit for once following a recent speech, Smith notes approvingly the President's call for "the end of mass incarceration, the reduction or elimination of
mandatory-minimum sentencing, the restoration of voting rights for the
formerly incarcerated, the end of rape in prisons, and more." It seems that Smith, if not Obama, could be more radical yet, but to be truly radical in social and political terms would be to go beyond what the most enraged blacks demand most urgently. Some of their demands are as legitimate as they are urgent, but just as black rage protests that the country hasn't changed enough, it may be that black rage itself doesn't demand enough change. This is the ground from which to critique black rage in general or Black Lives Matter in particular. It isn't the position of stubborn universalism (i.e. "All lives matter, stupid!") but it assumes that black lives won't be made that much better by policies that assume that only black people are wronged in this country, and that if blacks are satisfied by changes that soothe their particular sense of grievance only, then self-interested racial justice may fall tragically short of real social justice. To sum up, Black Lives Matter is a fine thing to say, but if that's all anyone has to say, if it ends the discussion, then too little has actually been said.