There was a time when Black Lives Matter was committed, principally, to protecting black people from being killed by police. They have expanded their purview lately.
Last week, a consortium of over 60 independent Black Lives Matter organizations released a platform addressing issues facing African Americans. They’ve come a long way, indeed, from a cluster of activists demonstrating and tweeting from Ferguson, Mo. Their platform has six main planks, each with several sub-planks, constituting a list of demands that would make the heart of any progressive civil rights leader swoon.
It’s all there: criminal justice reform, education reform, jobs programs, upending politics-as-usual, more and better mental health services. And on top of all that, reparations.
By the time the platform gets to breaking up big banks and getting big money out of politics, it becomes clear that Black Lives Matter has grown from a very specific - and noble - mission into a call for an entire leftist revolution. In the parlance of contemporary social media discourse, Black Lives Matter is the quintessence of "woke."
For the uninitiated, that’s "awakened," in the political sense. One opens one’s eyes to the truths about injustice, oppression, racism and where we need to go from here. Earlier this year, Fusion’s Charles Pulliam-Moore offered a useful primer on some of the nuances of the term’s use. But woke-ness is a more complex business than the movement’s platform drafting committee appears to realize, and it has its limits.
Woke, in essence, serves a function that those of a certain age will recall the phrase "politically correct" once did. In the early 1980s, a left-of-center person used politically correct to mean, roughly: someone with liberal politics, which we know is the only socially acceptable, intellectually defensible way to think. One said it with a wink, knowing there were some loose ends to the reasoning, but secure that one was with the angels in the grand scheme of things.
Quickly, however, politically correct, acerbically reduced to the acronym "PC," was co-opted by the political right (and even the center) as a term of abuse, calling out the left for its assumption that its view was platonically correct. By the 1990s, even those on the left regularly disavowed being "PC."
"Woke" is a black-inflected renewal of the assertion that there is a particular politics and worldview that qualify as enlightened, rather than as one position out of many. And, within limits, there is value to that kind of assertion - at some level, we must all proceed upon conviction, on pain of stasis.
However, one must at the same time keep in mind that truth is elusive, especially with regard to issues of race and justice.
Plus - and I assume we can all agree on this much - any standard of being woke, by itself, is just that. A woke-ness worthy of the name is about going from woke-ness to bringing about meaningful, and tangible, change. Too often these days, people confuse awareness with action, when in the old days action was always front and center.
And the truth is that in terms of focusing on that difference, as well as the fact that it’s hard to identify a single truth, Black Lives Matter’s new platform illustrates the dilemma facing the movement, whether it knows it or not. What we might call the practical limits of being, or staying, woke.
In and of themselves, the BLM proposals are just what the doctor ordered - or at least what Hillary Clinton might have inadvertently ordered - as a result of her reply to an activist who questioned what was in Clinton’s heart with respect to African Americans in the wake of her support of anti-crime policies affecting black communities in the ’90s. Clinton responded: "I don’t believe you change hearts, I believe you change laws. You change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate."
That was, in its own way, one of the most woke things Clinton has ever said, and Black Lives Matter should be commended for moving from agitprop to extracting concessions from Clinton and her challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, during the Democratic primaries. A year ago, no one expected the movement to exert that much leverage in a presidential race.
However, a problem with this platform is that it is unsuitably woke to the past. To be woke that slavery, Jim Crow and redlining had lasting systematic effects difficult to surmount is one thing. But in forging change, it is incumbent on BLM or any movement in the post-civil rights era to attend to what has - and hasn’t - worked in the past. Reparations presents the most acute challenge. This sounds sensible enough, but a thoroughly "woke" person might say black America has already received reparations.
They’re not called "reparations," of course, but that’s just an issue of terminology. Affirmative Action has been reparations; the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act battling redlining was reparations; the original intent of No Child Left Behind was to identify disparities between black and other children in scholarly achievement and therefore qualified by definition as reparations; in the late 1960s, nationwide, at the behest of the National Welfare Rights Organization and other movements, welfare programs were reformed to make payments easier to get. This, too, was a form of reparations.
These programs didn’t send checks to individual black people as payment for service rendered during slavery, but then generally, most people, including the nation’s first black president, consider this kind of reparations unworkable. More to the point, many of these programs have had, at best, inconsistent records of success. But the platform could be seen as calling not just for reparations but more reparations, upon which we assume an argument as to why the new ones called for have a greater chance of working than, roughly, the Great Society program and all that has come in its wake.
Or, the platform calls for jobs training programs. And given that unemployment among black people is about twice the rate among whites, on the surface, this makes sense.
Again, though, a call for jobs programs would sound familiar to civil rights activists of any decade since the 1930s: In the 1970s, black activists pinned their hopes on the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which has since morphed into the under-discussed Workforce Investment Act of 1998. These are jobs programs, as are programs such as the private America Works, that help former welfare recipients across the nation in getting and keeping solid jobs.
Thus, the movement’s awareness and, specifically, the aspirational progressive policy demands it has generated, isn’t enough: To simply call for jobs programs is like calling for paved streets. An effective set of demands would specify where current jobs programs have fallen short - and something obviously has. But that effort, of course, involves meticulous scut work that frequently doesn’t yield the kind of fervor or clarity of a hashtag or a march. Activism is hard.
Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. used to warn proteges, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, to battle the "cocktail-sip Negro" who was given to counseling the go-slow approach to civil rights. But don’t mistake my point for that. My point isn’t "slow down" - nor do I oppose Black Lives Matter’s original mission - although I have suggested a bifurcated one that also addressed violence within black communities.
It is, rather, that BLM’s current platform is a great beginning, but its woke-ness quotient is insufficient for the call of the present. It isn’t as if generations of people haven’t had the same concerns that Black Lives Matter now does. And a great deal has been tried. Some of it has worked, too much of it has not. Part of being woke is having a sense of what can actually be done. Here, today’s revolutionaries must attend to the historical details.
Not because younger activists should genuflect to their elders. Not because the movement can’t be progressive. And not because raising awareness has no value. But because the eventual purpose has to be changing lives: You can’t call for progress without checking up on what has impeded previous efforts. One must be woke to that reality, as well as the more grievous aspects of the black past. I am sure Black Lives Matter, with the energy and imagination it has shown thus far, can be, and stay, woke to a richer engagement with how we got from the past to where we are.
McWhorter is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" and "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language."