Black Lives Matter and the destruction of social capital

By Lorenzo

Recently read the following comment:

A second example i’ll give is Black Lives Matter. One is labeled racist/white supremacist/white nationalist/nazi if you say “no, All Lives Matter.” But the problem isn’t a devaluation or disrespect to the grievance (at least in all instances as it is implied) — it’s the selection of the name. … In the BLM case, the name is overly narrow and the counter argument is equally disparaged. I’ve gotten into some heated discussions with Black/All/Blue lives matters all in a group and I posed a simple question: If the movement had started as “Police Accountability Matters” with the exact same issue to be resolved, would they react different — and all 3 opposing views suddenly agreed, everyone suddenly stopped the name calling and “arguing” and started discussing the pros & cons of ideas on how to solve the problem. They were all getting too hung up on the word selection and arguing about the rationality of each other based upon different interpretation of what the label meant.

Which fitted what had struck me about BLM, which is the destruction of social capital involved: that is, of positive social connections, of networked reciprocity.

Social capital can reasonably be called capital, because it is a form of the produced factor of production (distinct from land, which is the acquired-from-nature factor of production, and labour, which is the reproduced factor of production). Other things being equal, the higher the level of social capital, the better functioning a society and the better prospects for a social group.

When the mainstream gay and lesbian community was seeking to achieve decriminalisation of their erotic lives, relationships with the police were crucial, for good and ill. The police were used to persecute the queer community, leading famously to the Stonewall riots.

As the process of legal and social normalisation of homosexuality became increasingly successful, relationships with the police were still crucial, as gays and lesbians were particularly vulnerable to, and specifically targets of, violence. So the gay and lesbian communities worked to build better relations with the police. This was largely, and surprisingly quickly (as social change go) highly successful, leading to, for example, police contingents marching in Pride marches. In my own city of Melbourne, there has recurrently been a police show on the local gay and lesbian radio station, Joy FM, either as part of the regular program grid or as podcasts.

Along comes Black Lives Matter, who began to stridently object to police marching in uniform in Pride marches, which was an attack on, and seen as such, the connections built up between queer communities and police forces. In other words, an attack on built-up social capital.

Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, two of whom identify as queer. It was founded and spread largely through social media, which means via a communication mechanism with the most limited level possible of social connection and still communicate. Black Lives Matter has also been a disaster for the African-American community and relations with the police. The attack on queer-police social capital was a relatively minor part of a wider social capital disaster, a disaster which can be measured in hundreds of lost African-American lives from the post-BLM surge in homicides in various cities with high African-American populations such as Baltimore and Chicago. The increased death toll in dead African-Americans (1,800) for two years (2015, 2016) is more than half the estimated African-American deaths (3,446) from lynching in the decades 1882-1968.

The disaster came from (1) a gross mischaracterisation of a (highly variable by region and jurisdiction) problem with police use of deadly force; (2) a ludicrously simple diagnosis of the cause (racism); and (3) a misplaced approach (demonising police and actively seeking to reduce police interactions with African-Americans at which it has been all too successful). If one wanted a test case of what is wrong with intersectionality in a time of social media outrage, this is it. Attempting to operationalise intersectionality, notably via social media, in the form of BLM, has a much higher body count since 2014 than any form of white racism.

BLM manifests intersectionality’s indifference to problems of social order, the presumption of malice in “explaining” social outcomes and the attendant sacred victims without social or moral agency (particularly not negative agency). Despite the burblings of such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, the biggest danger to “black bodies” comes from other African-Americans, not the police. The main line of defence against that danger is not Twitter outrage, but the police themselves. The BLM reduction of social “analysis” to Manichean duality (evil, racist police v oppressed “blacks”) is a disastrously false simplification that directs attention and effort away from approaches which have some chance of being effective and towards a wildly simplistic and divisive outrage disastrous in its effects.

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out (pdf), the point of sacredness is to remove from trade-offs (or strongly resisting any trade-offs) and a functional social order is all about managing trade-offs.

One of the ongoing problems in African-American communities is their low levels of social capital. It is hardly surprising that a political campaign based on attacking existing social capital turns out to be disastrously counter-productive. On the contrary, it seems a sad irony that communities suffering from low levels of social capital spawned a political movement destructive of social capital.

More accountable police forces better connected to their local communities can have considerable success in reducing crime. But that requires building broad coalitions focused on creating connections, not parading moralised differences. Presuming malice, undermining connections, poisoning interactions may be be congenial to the playbook of TwitterIntersectionality; to a time of cry-bulliespoint-and-shriek, the oppression Olympics and moralised identity hierarchies. But it is not remotely a path to better social outcomes.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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