Two years after vigorous protests for racial justice ignited and swept across the United States, the prospects for a broad, radical transformation in the way public safety is conceptualized and realized seem remote. As an academic who studies these social forces, what strikes me most now in the contemporary landscape is the strength and extent of racialized reaction. What stands out so prominently in the retrenching countermovement, or backlash, is not so much its strength (although there is that), but the fact that it can be observed not just in the expected venues but also in locations where progressive change might well have been thought most probable.
I am not equating that reaction with defeat for the racial justice movement. In one sense, indeed, the scale of backlash indexes how powerful that movement has been — and in particular, speaks to what a threat it posed in the summer of 2020 to status-quo institutional and partisan configurations. Against this, the post-2020 reaction deliberately redrew the terrain upon which movements for racial justice unfold: Changing the topic from lawless policing to secondary-school reading lists was a strategic attempt to draw attention away from the most neuralgic, least deniable, aspects of racial injustice in the United States. It was an effort to reclaim a mantle of righteous victimhood.
What happens in the wake of this reorientation, however, is not determined by the forces of reaction alone. How movements for racial justice respond to that reaction — and here I mean the broad movement for Black lives, or BLM for short, not the foundation by the same name — will play a critical role. Laying the backlash strategies out systematically casts light on the relation of two terms key to racial justice struggles yet persistently underexplored in the scholarship: power and democracy.
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