There’s a certain liberal optimism about race in the United States, and last night’s Ferguson grand jury verdict unmasked the complacency that lies underneath it. For decades we’ve watched as the legacy of anti-racist movements has been channeled towards the economic and political advancement of individuals like Barack Obama and Bill Cosby. And we’ve watched such individuals lead the attack against social movements and marginalized communities – today, they are the ones urging restraint.
No serious challenge has yet arisen to this co-opting of the anti-racist legacy. Within the academy and within social movements, intellectuals and activists have rendered ourselves totally impotent. We’ve reduced politics to the policing of our language, to the questionable satisfaction of provoking white guilt. And we have allowed our present to become the age of Oscar Grant, Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown.
There is a rebellion taking place in Ferguson, which has spread to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Oakland, and this rebellion shows that it’s time for us to wake up. Once upon a time, movements against racism came to understand that it was not enough to make space for black and brown people in the American dream of social mobility; it was necessary to make a demand for power – Black Power, and all the militant movements of Chicano/a and Asian-American communities which emerged alongside it. The action that took place in the streets last night should remind us of the universal and ongoing significance of this historical rupture.