To say the Black Lives Matter movement has had a polarizing effect on political discourse would be an extreme understatement. Since the movement gained steam in 2015, it has had a powerful effect on the public space and the shape of the current election cycle.
Libertarians, and other groups of the individualist right, have been split on how to react to the movement. A lot of animosity has come from libertarians reacting to the collectivist attitudes of the most vocal spokespeople. The most visible people at the forefront of BLM frequently do express radical left-wing beliefs, with anti-capitalist sentiments deeply entrenched in their rhetoric. Combined with ideology laden with calls for “social justice” and rhetoric about “white supremacy” and “patriarchy”, this is hardly a fertile-seeming ground for libertarian thought.
Yet, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld have on multiple occasions expressed sympathy for BLM. During this summer’s CNN Town Hall, Johnson made his position clear. “My head’s been in the sand on this”, he said, “I think we’ve all had our heads in the sand, and let’s wake up. This discrimination does exist and has existed”.
Some libertarians were shocked and upset at this statement, and for any statement of support for BLM. To many critics, it represented an endorsement of collectivist, anti-individualist, anti-free speech movement. How could any libertarian, let alone the Libertarian presidential candidate, openly express support for such a movement?
The idea of partnering with BLM has been suggested previously on Being Libertarian. The suggestion was not well received. And it would be fair to say that the majority of Being Libertarian’s writers are no friends to BLM either. And to be honest, actually partnering with the leaders of BLM would be a disastrous misstep, if it were even possible.
Nonetheless, Johnson is absolutely right on Black Lives Matter.
Just because the leaders and organizers of a movement are pushing an extreme ideology out of step with libertarianism (and reality) does not mean the sense of grievance they are tapping into, and the activism they are mobilizing, is illegitimate. In fact, their success and impact proves that the problem they address is very real. And libertarians need to understand that and get on board.
Libertarians need to stop conflating the hardcore of extreme activists who happen to be the most vocal and currently dominate the BLM public narrative. The vast majority of people who support and work alongside BLM are ordinary people who have lived with persistent injustice and have seen their communities deteriorate for decades. BLM is just a vehicle for expressing that discontent. The leaders are just coloring it with a bankrupt ideological twist.
Working with BLM to build a freer and more just country does not mean libertarians have to hold hands with the activists currently mobilizing the movement. It means acknowledging that the problems they are confronting exist and that they need to be addressed.
And it means acknowledging that it is very much a race problem. Some libertarians try to argue that the socio-economic issues facing black communities are poverty-based and that racism is not a big issue. But even controlling for wealth, black people are clearly suffering at the hands of the law and facing greater economic hurdles than are people of other ethnicities. Is there a systematic war on black people? No, obviously. But to deny that racism exists is to deny reality.
I would even contend that, even if there was conclusive statistical evidence that race is not a factor in the treatment or outcomes of individuals, the perception of that impediment is sufficiently great as to demand acknowledgement. Sometimes a dominant cultural narrative is unresponsive to facts alone. To achieve real change, we sometimes have to accept realities as they are perceived, not just what statistics and data tell us. There is a real feeling of fear and abandonment in many black communities. Only through a compassionate and understanding policy platform can libertarians help to improve the lives of these citizens.
What we need to do is move beyond the traditional libertarian pitch to America’s black communities, which has failed utterly to resonate. Yes, the Drug War is a problem. It is responsible for incarcerating black people, particularly men, at horrifying rates. And it has claimed countless lives through its contributions to gang war, overdoses, and police action. This argument is a very powerful one we need to maintain. But it is not sufficient to winning black communities over to a libertarian viewpoint.
To do more, libertarians need to address the fundamental breakdown in the social contract within black communities. Distrust between these communities and police, and distrust of local government more generally, has produced the perverse result of pushing voters toward Democrats at the national level: Because local authorities do not represent them, they turn to a national authority as the only legitimate vehicle for their protection and provision of public goods. This outlook has not improved the lot of black people in American cities, and distrust and discontent continues to grow (and rightly so).
The case we have to make, one that BLM supporters would be receptive to, is that giving more power directly into the hands of local communities will provide them with genuine policy-making agency. Restoring the social contract means giving this power to the powerless.
And that is why Gary Johnson is right, and why libertarians everywhere have to do better. Attacking BLM will do nothing but alienate a group with legitimate grievances toward the current social order. We need to harness that energy and turn it toward real positive social change. That can only begin when we get our heads out of the sand.
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