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2020 will be remembered as a year of events that have had a global impact: the COVID-19 pandemic, the accelerated onset of an economic crisis and global recession, and the continuing climate catastrophe.
2020 will also be remembered as the year of anti-racist and anti-police uprisings, under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM), taking to the streets across the US and beyond, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police officers on 25 May.1 Activists and organisers of the demonstrations the murder unleashed have taken great heart and hope in the renewed interest in antiracism and the energy it has generated. This enthusiasm needs to be tempered, however, by the knowledge that previous upsurges have led to setbacks, defeats and co-option. Above all, it needs to recall that ‘antiracism’ cannot be reduced to a single line of action or thought, but embodies its own contradictory and conflicting impulses. Antiracism can take many forms and directions, as soon became evident from the diverse responses in the US and beyond to the BLM uprisings.
The drive towards emancipation and abolitionism competes with the drive towards the politics of representation and Black entrepreneurialism. Socialism competes with narrow chauvinism. The debates spawned by BLM are both marked by ideological, theoretical and organisational differences, and are also shaped by much broader trends and historical developments.
Beyond the moment initially galvanised by the murder of George Floyd and the reignition of BLM campaigning, what has become clear is the need for antiracist movements to take up the demands and challenges thrown up in specific national contexts. That task requires grappling with longterm trends and projects that have forced the retreat of antiracist organising, alongside radical and left-wing politics more broadly.
The areas identified for reflection in this paper are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. Rather than being driven by a single or linear event – say, the march of neoliberalism, or the rise of so-called ‘identity politics’ – they are an accumulation of historical developments that shaped certain tendencies already present within antiracist thought. These developments are multi-centred, shaped by government agendas, as well as by local political struggles, and contain contradictions internal to any form of political organising.
This paper addresses some of these wider developments and contradictions, and outlines why they must be overcome in order to harness the liberating potential of antiracist organising. This necessarily means a socialist project that takes antiracism as a guiding principle rather than as a set of individual demands.