Review: The underlying philosophy of Black Lives Matter
In 1923, amid a wave of lynchings, Claude McKay wrote the sonnet “If We Must Die.” He was faced with a society structured by white supremacy and anti-Blackness, a society that wanted Blacks “to die like hogs/ hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.” Confronted with this uniquely American form of death, McKay proclaimed that “we’ll face the murderous cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.” For McKay, the nobility and humanity of Black people was forged in fighting the monsters of white supremacy.
A similar vision animates Vincent Lloyd’s Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination. For Lloyd, dignity is not something abstracted from a notion of “humanity.” It is wrested from the teeth of domination. It is asserted in the struggle against oppression. It is born the moment the slave seizes his master and throws him down. Perhaps most important for Lloyd, dignity is Black.
Much of Lloyd’s book is about looking at centers of ontological resistance to domination, such as Black love, Black family and Black magic.
Begun while he participated in protests in Ferguson, Mo., and continued in seminars and libraries, Lloyd’s book focuses on the words of generations of Black freedom fighters. To the struggle, he offers the contribution of a keen intellect articulating the underlying philosophy of Black Lives Matter. While I disagree with aspects of his book, his core argument is a profound challenge to anyone who takes seriously the struggle for human dignity, antiracism and the work of dismantling white supremacy.
Lloyd’s philosophy depends on some fundamental claims. The first is that we must understand the “depths of anti-Blackness shading America” such that anti-Blackness “is at the center of everything, for everyone.” It is not an incidental, localized or past reality. It is reality. For Lloyd, philosophy is meant to help us understand reality and, more important, to resist and overthrow that reality. Resistance to domination is not on behalf of some antecedent given of human dignity that does not say anything about actual reality. Such abstracted claims about dignity (“all lives matter”) cannot resist anti-Black reality.
Instead, dignity is “something you do, a practice, a performance, a way of engaging the world…. It necessarily means struggle against domination.” The world is oppression; dignity is the refusal of the world. It is dying but fighting back. Black dignity is found in that fighting back. Since anti-Blackness is the primary form of domination, Black dignity is the primary form of enacted dignity.
Philosophers must begin from that fighting back in order to understand reality. Thus Lloyd places a great deal of importance on the distinction between the ontic and the ontological. Generally, these terms would refer to questions about the being of a specific object (ontic) and the being of beings (ontological). You might say the former is small-picture metaphysics and the latter is big-picture. For Lloyd, both have to do with the struggle against domination. The ontic struggle has to do with specific sites of struggle, a struggle against a particular center of domination. The ontological has to do with “struggle aimed at domination” itself. As with McKay’s poem, fighting is not only specific to instances. In asserting Black dignity, one fights the whole system of domination.
Much of Lloyd’s book is about looking at centers of ontological resistance to domination, such as Black love, Black family and Black magic. Each chapter leans into the claim that racism is not just personal or even systematic; it is the being of reality. According to Lloyd, multiculturalism, liberalism and the American project are to be discarded as expressions of that ontology. Since domination is reality, abolitionism is about abolishing everything.
It is here that some of the weaknesses of the book appear. First, Lloyd seems uninterested in Black voices that differ from his more radical approach, voices that show a majority of Black Americans want serious reform of the police and criminal justice system but do not want the abolishment of either. Those voices see arguments like those for defunding of the police as a form of political colonization by urban elites. What does Lloyd think of the majority of African Americans, who agree that “Black dignity” is a non-negotiable struggle and as a consequence want more and better policing? In his book, Black conservatives go unmentioned while establishment Black liberals are depicted as the purveyors of vacuous expressions of multiculturalism.
Perhaps these Black voices belong to those who are just “dreamers” or are trapped by respectability. But then what to make of Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks? They wanted America to live up to its ideals, not abolish them. Lloyd doesn’t let these voices disturb his text. Rather, he states that “Black dignity is the philosophy of Black Americans.” But whose philosophy of Black dignity? Which vision of antiracism? For Lloyd, “One view is right, others might seem right but are wrong.” Ironically, this sentiment seems to feed into what Lloyd, in Compact magazine, has criticized as an antiracist cult that seeks to silence dialogue.
Lloyd argues we should center dignity discourse on Black dignity. He rightly recognizes other forms of intersecting oppression, but his account still centers on Black dignity as the first philosophy, such that “all philosophy must be routed through the Middle Passage” and understood in light of “domination’s chief paradigm, Blackness.” But shouldn’t we also center dignity on the Indigenous, the refugee, the unborn or the disabled? Lloyd is right that dignity is something struggled for. However, that struggle does not fabricate a dignity not already there; it brings to light the truth of dignity that is always already there.
If white supremacy is to be overcome, anti-Blackness cast down as sin and blasphemy, and Black dignity centered as fundamental reality, we will need books like Lloyd’s.
Black dignity is an ethical, even ontological, preferential option for dignity. But if we hold this at the expense of intrinsic human dignity, then other voices and other ways of asserting dignity will be lost. This means we lose the grounding of natural law that Lloyd powerfully presents in his book Black Natural Law. The danger in losing this is that the struggle may devolve into centers of competing power with little orientation to a justice beyond power.
Making dignity entirely performative—and thus downplaying intrinsic dignity and natural law—is likely tied to how ontological Lloyd makes domination. Domination, as reality, is not a privation of a more original good but is instead the original and ultimate position and thus the position that is never overcome. “The object of ontological struggles is,” Lloyd tells us, “impossible to achieve.” More than 500 years of racial domination speak to the truth of this claim. But there are other stories of when people cast down domination. In this, I wish that Lloyd had been willing to be more than a philosopher by being a theologian. As King puts it: “the ringing cry of the Christian faith is that our God is able.” Believing domination can be overcome is not “a fantasy of domination itself,” as Lloyd puts it, but a conviction about God and humanity.
If white supremacy is to be overcome, anti-Blackness cast down as sin and blasphemy, and Black dignity centered as fundamental reality, we will need books like Lloyd’s. For all my criticisms, he does the work of philosophizing on behalf of Black dignity. He is right that dignity must be found and asserted in the struggle for dignity.
But there is a grace beyond assertion. Later in his life, Claude McKay converted to Catholicism, finding in it the only source of racial unity. He “turned to God for great strength to fight” while holding to “the Sacred Light.” We should, too. Starting from Black dignity and from the dignity of all who are oppressed, we may someday—by that sacred light and our efforts—find ourselves with human dignity, achieved.