What is Black Radicalism?

The Black radical tradition is urgent and fundamental to American democracy. Progressive liberals, conservatives, and Libertarians have been vying for ideological mind space for most of our nation’s history, yet their disagreements all benefit from the fundamental character of a racial democracy and capitalist economy, leaving questions of historical justice and racial oppression undisturbed.

The Black radical tradition has been our resource for re-imagining the contours of American life, but what is Black radicalism?When most people think of Black radicalism, the Black Panthers most readily come to mind. It’s important to understand the positive reasons behind this association, as well as the reasons why we ought to have a wider lens of the tradition outside this and similar associations.

The Panthers were notable for their particular disposition toward American civic life. Rather than seeking conciliation with a nation steeped in a history of white supremacy, they respectively advocated for two controversial principles: self-defense and self-determination. The Panthers were pathbreaking as a Black organized activist group whose main target was the police. Seeking to fend off, preempt, and, if need be, respond to police brutality, the Panthers armed themselves publicly. Where the police showed up, the Panthers followed, fully armed. No civic group had ever sought to challenge police officers in an organized fashion. Although we are accustomed to watching white militia groups freely bearing arms inside government buildings on the evening news, armed Black activists were nearly unheard of in the 1960s.

However, the Panthers had a more comprehensive program than self-defense; the idea of self-determination was fundamental to their goals. In cities with insufficient public services to aid the Black working class and poor, like their hometown of Oakland, California, the Panthers established food pantries and educational programs free to the public. The Panthers determined that American capitalism was also a racist capitalism. As Fred Hampton said in the speech “Power Anywhere Where There’s People,” “We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don't fight capitalism with no Black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.” The Panthers sought, within their means, to even the odds for those marked by white supremacy as losers in America’s system of material distribution.

Strategies employed by the Panthers have consistently been deemed radical for fairly obvious reasons. First, they sought to undermine America’s ideas of who could defend themselves. And they paid the price for seizing the Second Amendment for themselves — after marching into the California State Capitol building on May 2, 1967, openly and legally armed, California moved swiftly to pass gun regulations. But more than that, the Panther’s militancy attracted intense pressure from the federal government, which staged deadly raids on known Panther abodes. Second, they directly challenged America’s economic system by showing that people could at least partially opt out of that system through solidaristic collective action. Few Black organizations had seized that possibility and shown its promise to the Black underclass as the Panthers did.

While militancy and economic re-alignment are surely a part of the Black radical tradition, they’re are not the whole tradition.

Radicalism is not necessarily the same as militancy; this seems like a somewhat obvious point, but simply consider the way mainstream liberals have co-opted Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategies as an acceptable example of “proper” civil disobedience. Cornel West rightly argued that King was a radical for his refusal to support the Vietnam War and his willingness to express a complete lack of faith in white Americans. King also challenged the legitimate authority of state agencies, and his movement’s incursion into public spaces normally dominated by whites were a direct affront to the normal workings of white power — all the while, compelling mass media attention for his tactics. Few leaders since King have approximated the range and depth of his subversive tactics.

Just as feminists have correctly asserted that the personal is political, I want to suggest inversely that the Black radical political mindset can be personal. Sometimes, the most intense and fundamental fights with white supremacy do not happen on the streets or in the legislative halls of America, but within our very soul. All systems of power do more than control who has rights and access to goods. They also operate at the level of the soul by exerting pressure on our sense of self. Such systems can cause us to doubt our capacity for self-definition and autonomous thinking.

This was one of Audre Lorde’s enduring contributions to Black radical politics and thinking. She took fierce possession of the multiple identities she claimed for herself: poet, mother, lesbian, Black, woman, activist, lover. Lorde could rightly be seen as a progenitor of what is often vogue-ishly referred to as intersectional identity politics — that is, politics that recognizes that each of us exists at one or more crossroads of intersecting identities that fundamentally define who we are. This contrasts the white supremacist’s lens on Black people, which reduces Blackness to simplistic and one-dimensional tropes that fit many white’s ill-gotten preconceived notions. Lorde’s own view was, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Lorde’s refusal to be boxed in by such abusive laziness was a challenge to the phenomenological and sociological demands of white supremacy. It was also a distinct form of militancy that did not require outward shows of force. When we think of Black radicalism, then, we are referring to a robust idea. It is a political disposition that is outward-facing in a civic manner, and inward-facing personally. It can be militant and revolutionary, or, it can be quietly subversive. But the most important feature that ties together the many varieties of Black radicalism is that it is an uncompromising quest to take the powers and privileges that Black people have been and are denied by whites. When the Panthers bore arms, they claimed for themselves the personal security that slavery and Jim Crow trained Americans to withhold from Black people. When King led a small army of Black civilians across the Edmund Pettus Bridge following Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” he claimed public space and justified peaceful disobedience in the face of violent police action. And when Lorde said, “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive,” she denied white power the ability to define Black identity.

The main thrust of Black radicalism is telling white power, anywhere and wherever it is, “Not today; my life and future are my own.” In a nation born upon the complete subjugation of a race, what can be more radical than denying that nation the resource it so desperately craves — Black acquiescence and quietude?


About the Author

Chris Lebron is the associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).