Our Reckoning with Race

This article is part of the Review’s series on the 2020 US elections.

When protests ricocheted across the country this past summer in response to then Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, I marveled at what social movements on the left had built since Donald Trump’s election: bail funds, political education programs, mutual aid networks, movement lawyering shops, new grassroots organizations and campaigns. The slow and constant work of organizing had seeded a growing common sense, central to this year’s protests, that violence is at the heart of policing. Abolitionist and anticapitalist organizing has spread across the country, with more and more people arguing that throwing money at the police for new gadgets or trainings does nothing to decrease police violence. But the changing national conversation is about more than just policing. It is about how we understand racism and what it will take to end it.

The conventional liberal understanding of racism focuses on individually held bias against a racial minority. This view of racism has translated into diversity and antibias initiatives in schools and workplaces. Over the past four decades, such trainings have become common practice, despite questions about their effectiveness. And they have been central to recent police reform agendas. In 2014, after then police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a rebellion in Ferguson led to a national reckoning with police violence against Black people; the Obama administration’s ensuing Task Force on 21st Century Policing included implicit bias training for police as chief among its recommendations. But recent studies on the impacts of implicit bias trainings on police confirm what many have long known: that these measures do not abate police violence or systemic inequality.

Today’s movements focus not on individual bias but instead on infrastructure: how racism operates through what kind of housing, schooling, and jobs are available to whom, and whose communities are occupied by heavy police presence. Whether you look at the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a young formation of hundreds of racial justice organizations, or Detention Watch Network (DWN), a two-decades-old coalition of over a hundred organizations working to end immigration detention, the targets and strategies among these organizations have become more aligned. Consider the demands to “defund the police” or “abolish ICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), both central to recent protest movements. These demands aren’t focused on an individual officer’s action—a racist attitude, an irresponsible use of force, a refusal to follow the rules—or a particularly egregious departure from the status quo. The demands to defund and abolish are a rejoinder to decades of conventional reform strategies that have not only failed to mitigate the violence of these institutions, but have accompanied their sprawling growth. They target the legitimacy and footprint of the institutions themselves—as engines of racialized violence and inequality.

Change will not come, as I wrote this summer, without an intersectional, antiracist, anticapitalist agenda focused on dismantling institutions that perpetuate violence against communities of color, the working class, and the poor. These include prisons, police, and the so-called child welfare agencies that separate rather than support families.

The Movement for Black Lives’ policy platform “Vision for Black Lives” addresses the connection between institutions that carry out surveillance, criminalization, incarceration, detention, and deportation. It demands complete divestment from these institutions, and an investment in housing, public transportation, health care, education, and “living wage employment.” This divest–invest paradigm—a push to defund particular institutions and fund others—responds to the abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism: “state sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” M4BL’s demands are for more than building to meet people’s needs—they aim to put an end to anti-Black racism and to build infrastructure to support Black life. DWN’s “Defund Hate” campaign does not target anti-immigrant bias among individual officers. It aims to cut funding for ICE and Border Patrol.

The US government’s miserable response to the global pandemic illustrates how the country fails to provide for the basic human needs of so many. This lack of social provision means that now more than 30 million people lack health insurance and are out of work. Tens of millions of people are hungry. Up to 40 million people face possible eviction. Household debt is over $14 trillion. The impacts of Covid-19 are racialized because inequality is: Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are experiencing rates of infection two to three times that of whites and suffering the highest rates of death. These rates of illness and death are caused by segregated and exorbitantly priced housing, profit-driven health care, meager wages for essential work, and thousands of prisons, jails, and detention centers—all of which disproportionately affect Black people and people of color. This is what Gilmore means by a “vulnerability to premature death” sanctioned by the state.


Trump recently banned federal agencies from holding workplace diversity trainings based on critical race theory—a body of scholarly work that studies the relationship between race, law, and power. He also issued a proclamation in defense of Christopher Columbus and announced a new commission on “patriotic education.” All of which only reminds us that race was never just about ideas: it has always been about land, labor, and ownership.

Abolitionist organizations make connections between policing today and slave- and border-patrolling of the past to place policing within a material history. They remind us that racism is not simply about bias or hatred; it undergirds the history of land and wage theft, dispossession, displacement, and the killing of Black and Indigenous people in this country. Whether through his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” his championing of family separation, or his portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, Trump routinely performs the connection between brutal past and present.

If Barack Obama’s election suggested a postracial society, Black Lives Matter exposed that myth. Today’s racial justice organizers are articulating practical ways to ground our understandings of race and fight for a more equal future. Committing to an antiracist agenda that attends to all we must take apart and what we must build would be a direct challenge to a Joe Biden and Kamala Harris administration as well. While the progressive congresswomen known as “the Squad” often echo this more materialist account of race, the Democratic Party by and large focuses narrowly on diversity and inclusion. Today’s movements are hoping to
build grassroots majorities around their antiracist agendas, which is why in the run-up to the election they continue to organize around what needs to be built from the ground up.

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