Skip to main content

Black Rights Protests: A New Era?

By Joe Feagin

As some readers know, I have been researching and writing on Black antiracist movements, revolts, and rebellions now since 1970. With Harlan Hahn, I did the major social science book on the hundreds of 1960s Black “riots” against systemic racism, especially white policing racism (Ghetto Revolts: The Politics of American Violence, 1973, Macmillan).

The current, mostly nonviolent protests against anti-black racism are similar in a number of ways to the 1960s Black civil rights movements, which I have researched in a number of places since 1970 as well. They are also similar to many uprisings by enslaved and Jim Crowed black people before the 1960s.

Researchers like me have long assessed the major dimensions of these human rights movements, which include the “underlying conditions” that lie behind all such Black protests and the “precipitating events” that generate them in a specific societal setting. These problematical underlying conditions include white racial discrimination in policing, jobs, housing, education, and many other areas, on a daily basis. There is an extensive social science literature (for example, here in Racist America) documenting these conditions, decade after decade after decade. The precipitating events usually involve substantial, often dramatic discrimination against a Black person by specific whites in a public setting, especially by police officers engaging in discriminatory brutality or other policing malpractice. The majority of Black protests, small and large and now in the 1000s since 1619, have been nonviolent, but some have involved Black violence responding to the the white violence that has undergirded systemic white racism in this country for four centuries.

There are several major differences now between the current civil rights demonstrations and those of earlier decades, including even the more recent 1990s. One is the commonplace presence of cameras carried by ordinary citizens, which capture important aspects of black rights demonstrations and policing responses that would not have been known, or would have been covered up, in previous decades. Today, such videos can reveal aspects of policing brutality and other malpractice that are much harder for whites in power to deny. They carry images of often horrific precipitating events quickly onto cable TV and social media, a dramatic new reality compared to previous eras of blacks rights demonstrations.

A second obvious difference is that the current black rights demonstrations involve far more non-black Americans, including large numbers of white Americans, than in most previous eras of these human rights demonstrations. This suggests there is now broader US citizen support for social change and reform, especially in regard to the all too commonplace police brutality tactics. How enduring these white commitments are remains to be seen, but they do clearly mark a major difference in regard to black protest demonstrations since the 1960s and 1990s protest eras.

A third difference that I see is the significant number of white supremacists and other white invaders uncommitted to black rights who have been violently involved in looting and property damage in some of the demonstrations, a new aspect that likely confuses many (especially white) people about the legitimacy of some of the rights demonstrations. Some of these whites, mostly men, have posted extensively online about the desire to trigger a “race war” by invading nonviolent black demonstrations, and they are trying to get a more violent and authoritarian government response against black and other rights demonstrators.

There is a long history of white officials, especially in the segregationist Jim Crow South, blaming “outside agitators” for local Black uprisings, and one sees some of this today in regard to the contemporary black rights demonstrations, but there is also a quite new phenomenon of outside white agitators coming in to accelerate violent activities with criminal and race-war goals.

A fourth difference in these current black rights protests is how widespread they are and how long they have lasted so far. There have been black rights demonstrations in at least a hundred cities, including many in other countries. And, as of this writing, they have been taking place repeatedly for 8-10 days in numerous cities, a longer period of time than for most black rights demonstrations and uprisings in past decades and centuries.

These briefly stated insights are where I start on comparing the current black rights uprisings to past uprisings. I have seen little serious analysis on most of these dimensions so far, but I am sure we will see much more in the future. Hopefully, we are at the beginning of real racial change.

This article was originally published in Racism Review on June 5, 2020.