Symbolic Gestures Are Not Enough

As Black Lives Matter protests yield results, it’s become harder to ignore the gulf between well-meaning but ultimately worthless gestures and real, radical change.

On Monday, June 8, a couple dozen congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, attempted to honor the memory of George Floyd by kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall; they were all wearing stoles of kente cloth. It made for a marvelously cringey spectacle, though an apt one.

All around the country, hundreds of thousands of protesters have risked coronavirus infection and escalating police brutality by taking to the streets, successfully building on decades of abolitionist organizing to dramatically shift the Overton window on the idea of defunding and demilitarizing police departments across the United States. Meanwhile, these lawmakers — as they announced a police reform bill that activists are calling woefully insufficient, and just a few days before Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden proposed spending $300 million to “reinvigorate community policing” — decided to stop short at using African cloth as a political prop to demonstrate their commitment to the cause.

Doreen St. Félix, in an essay on the performance for the New Yorker, wrote that she found it “akin to historical images of white political leaders preening in the exotic ‘garb’ of people living in countries they are exploiting. Inadvertently, the cloth emphasized the sense that black Americans are foreign in their own land.”

This well-intentioned stunt, an idea that originated from the Congressional Black Caucus, was appreciated by some of its audience but widely flamed on Twitter as a parody of congressional showmanship and ineptitude — something that could have been dreamed up in the Veep writers room. Ultimately, it reads as just the latest bit of performative absurdity from powerful people who’ve long avoided real accountability for causing or excusing Black suffering.

For many, it is no longer enough for those in power to make mere gestures of solidarity with Black people without also doing the work.

Sometimes — a lot of the time, really — these performances work. For most (white) Americans, or at least those who aren’t activists or organizers or obsessive politicos, it’s often enough for leaders to at least look like they’re doing or saying the right things. Democrats and Republicans alike who find themselves longing for the guidance of presidents past — who still think there’s a world in which we could conceivably “go back to normal” — aren’t so much hungering for better policies, but for better optics. Trump, though he’s finally lost the support of some Republican leaders who say they won’t back his reelection, has nonetheless faithfully (if oafishly) executed much of the Republican agenda, from rollbacks of LGBTQ rights and environmental protections to flooding the courts with conservatives. Meanwhile, the liberals who wish Obama were still in power are banking on the symbolic promise of our first Black president, even though, as Cornel West put it to Anderson Cooper in a recent viral CNN clip, “the Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a Black president and a Black attorney general … and they still couldn’t deliver.”

So why all this nostalgia? Why are people like Katie Couric longing for Obama and George W. Bush to jointly address the nation as if the problems we’re facing today — born from systemic racism and unchecked corporate greed — didn’t flourish under both of their tenures? Why has Biden been able to run a successful campaign practically fueled by Obama-era reminiscence? It’s nostalgia not for policy so much as performance — for men who were more “presidential” and respectable than Trump, with his openly racist clownery, and for leaders who knew better than to say the quiet parts out loud.

But even though that nostalgia persists, it also seems as though more and more Americans, at least lately, are unwilling to be lulled into a sense of complacency by a strong, soothing leader. For many, it is no longer enough for those in power — from politicians and corporations to celebrities and influencers — to make mere gestures of solidarity with Black people without also doing the work. Now that evidence of police brutality and other racist evils is finally encouraging more white people to care, thanks in large part to the tireless work of activists and citizen journalists, performative allyship like the kente cloth disaster in Congress looks all the more absurd and all the more infuriatingly meager. As the protests keep unfolding, and as anti-racist activists continue making their voices heard — yielding extraordinary early results — it’s becoming much harder to ignore the gulf between a well-meaning but ultimately worthless tactical gesture and real, radical, substantive change.

When the coronavirus pandemic ramped up this spring, and the Trump administration’s compounding failures paved the way for more than 100,000 deaths, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed poised to fill the vacuum in national leadership. His daily briefing presentations were widely praised and widely watched, not only by New Yorkers but by people around the country desperate to hear from a halfway competent authority figure during a terrifying time. The press briefings scored Cuomo political points for months — he saw growing support for a future presidential bid — but it soon became apparent that his passionate performance was actually obfuscating a job poorly done. A devastating ProPublica report published in May made clear that Cuomo’s slow response to the virus and failure to coordinate with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ultimately proved disastrous, costing the state thousands of lives.

And now, of course, Cuomo is paying lip service to racial justice while falsely claiming that the NYPD hasn’t been attacking nonviolent protesters with batons. (He’s also promising to pass the “most aggressive” policing reforms in the country.) Meanwhile, de Blasio, who ran his mayoral campaign in part on police reform, has ignored hundreds of videos documenting NYPD brutality during the George Floyd protests. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told the mayor during a press conference on June 5 that he can “no longer hide behind [his] Black wife and children.

“We have the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party in the driver’s seat, and all they want is ‘show more Black faces, show more Black faces.’” But here’s the problem: “The system cannot reform itself.” 

A person in power who loves the Black people in their life — or a person in power who’s Black themselves — isn’t guaranteed to represent the interests of their Black constituents. As West told Anderson Cooper in their CNN interview, “We’ve tried Black faces in high places,” but diversifying leadership hasn’t necessarily resulted in meaningful, material change for working-class Black people and other people of color in this country. Right now, West added, we have “the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party in the driver’s seat, and all they want is ‘show more Black faces, show more Black faces.’” But here’s the problem: “The system cannot reform itself.”

The neoliberal impulse to diversify the establishment by means of representational politics — a hallmark of the Obama era — has propelled slightly more people who aren’t straight white men into positions of power than might have been there otherwise. And on its face, that’s a good thing. But individual representatives of different minority groups aren’t necessarily going to appeal more to those groups or do better work on their behalf. Bernie Sanders, in his bid for president, amassed an enormous multiracial, cross-class, and intergenerational coalition of voters who believed this old straight white guy could build a better world — and it was ultimately another old white guy who’s presumably clinching the Democratic nomination, in large part due to the Black voters he frequently takes for granted. If anything, the symbolic power of presidencies like Obama’s, or candidacies like Pete Buttigieg’s, can make representation seem like an end unto itself. Finally, a Black president and an openly gay presidential candidate. Finally, more women CEOs. Finally, those at the helm of the nation-state and corporate America look a little more like the rest of the country. If they can make it, anybody can — right?

But especially in times of unrest, the limited power of symbolism and representation to effect change in our allegedly postracial, postfeminist reality comes into sharper focus. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the first openly gay Black woman to be elected mayor of a major US city, has drawn ire from student organizers, among others, for overseeing police arrests of thousands of protesters, suspending school meal distributions (which she then resumed after public outcry), and dismissing calls for reducing the police budget. Chicago is currently the biggest city in the US where leaders haven’t promised police funding reductions in the wake of the protests.

On Tuesday night, hundreds of protesters swarmed Seattle City Hall to demand the resignation of Jenny Durkan, Seattle’s first woman mayor in nearly100 years and its second consecutive openly LGBTQ mayor, who recently instituted a 30-day ban on police using tear gas on protesters — only for cops to ignore it a day later. The mayor of Washington, DC, Muriel Bowser — only the second woman to hold the position — recently proposed to increase the police department’s budget by $45 million, and was just sued by Black Lives Matter DC over her institution of a citywide curfew. The group wasn’t placated by her decision last Friday to paint its motto in huge bright yellow letters on a street just outside the White House, according to its statement: “Mayor Muriel Bowser must be held accountable for the lip service she pays in making such a statement while she continues to intentionally underfund and cut services and programs that meet the basic survival needs of Black people in DC.” The group called the gesture “a performative distraction from real policy changes.” Then, a day later, protesters added their own message, and their own demand, right next to Bowser’s mural: “Defund the police.

It’s heartening, though perhaps a bit premature, to watch a growing, collective unwillingness to accept lip service in lieu of action from authority figures.

It’s heartening, though perhaps a bit premature, to watch a growing, collective unwillingness to accept lip service in lieu of action from authority figures. Police officers can’t expect to be applauded for their performative gestures of hugging and kneeling with protesters when video evidence reveals they’re teargassing and arresting them minutes after the fact. Neither can lawmakers who show up to speak to their constituents about why they’re protesting expect their presence alone to be enough, especially when they’re caught on hot mics admitting that “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” as was the case recently with New York Rep. Eliot Engel. De Blasio just announced that New York City will paint “Black Lives Matter” on streets in all five boroughs, inspired by DC — but this seems unlikely to resuscitate his increasingly poor reputation among his disillusioned constituents. What might our cities and our countries look like if we keep demanding more than this? Already, protesters who’ve demanded more than murals have seen significant wins, from the repeal of a New York law that’s long shielded police records from public view to Minneapolis lawmakers pledging to dismantle the city’s police department.

Identity representation politics and gestures of symbolic support for Black lives (and queer lives, and poor lives) aren’t going to cut it; they never did to begin with. But Democrats are still trying to win their battle against Trump by playing his games. The kente cloth debacle isn’t so different, after all, from the president’s Bible-wielding photo op in front of a DC church — though to their credit, Pelosi and co. didn’t teargas a bunch of peaceful protesters to make it happen.

“We have a reliance in this country on asymmetrical displays that allow us to dwell in, and never penetrate beyond, the level of the cultural,” St. Félix wrote. “I am thinking of the galvanic white pantsuit, and of the hot-pink knitted pussyhat. I am thinking of the canonization of certain moments of pacification: Obama singing ‘Amazing Grace’ at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered by Dylann Roof; Bill Clinton, while leading an Administration that codified mass incarceration, being sanctified for knowing how to play the saxophone so well.” For too long, so many of us have been soothed by the symbolic, the poignant, all these “nice” moments. We’ve been pacified into complacency.

Elections matter.

At the beginning of June, Hillary Clinton tweeted a couple of photos, side by side, to mark the beginning of Pride Month while simultaneously taking a swipe at Trump. They were two images of the White House — one from 2015, after the Supreme Court vote on marriage equality, when it was decked out in rainbow lights, and one from this year, when, amid the George Floyd protests, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue went dark, as if to unconvincingly signal to disappointed trick-or-treaters that nobody was home. Clinton captioned it “Elections matter,” with a link. The tweet is a perfect encapsulation of the neoliberal obsession with symbolism over substance — and of the political establishment’s delusions about its own influence. Marriage for same-sex couples was legalized during Obama’s presidency; that much is true. But it was really decades’ worth of organizing by activists — who have called for queer justice far beyond marriage equality and still haven’t seen crucial wins realized, like universal healthcare or prison abolition — to whom we owe that (limited) victory. The Democrats, including Obama, only got on board with marriage equality after it was politically palatable.

During the turmoil of the Trump presidency, Obama and other Democratic leaders have kept encouraging Americans to vote our problems away, saying that “real change” on racial inequity starts in the voting booth. That sentiment is perhaps the biggest empty gesture of all: a promise that if people are able to overcome layers upon layers of voter suppression, and are able to actually cast their votes during the chaos of a pandemic, then they’ll finally see the changes they seek.

Wesley Lowery, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who’s been documenting the Black Lives Matter movement for the past decade, notes in his latest story for the Atlantic that “Obama did as much as, if not more than, any other American president to push for policing reform,” but “not even he can claim absolute moral credibility on these matters.” Now, he writes, “to suggest that Obama could silence the enraged screams of the streets is to fundamentally misunderstand the origins of the protests of recent years: They were, in part, a direct response to the perception among young Black activists that his administration had failed to address persistent racial inequalities with adequate urgency.” He quotes a Ferguson activist: “I voted for Barack Obama twice and still got teargassed.”

In the months and years between opportunities to vote, activists and organizers are hard at work demanding more from our elected officials and other authority figures right here, right now. They are putting their bodies on the streets; they are signing petitions and calling into local budget meetings; they are distributing their wealth via mutual aid funds and directly supporting people in their communities. They are refusing to accept performative allyship in lieu of solidarity, accountability, and — finally — justice. ●

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