Martin Luther King Jr. once warned civil rights activists to beware of “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Malcolm X said something similar in his warning to black activists to watch out for “the white moderate” and how they are more dangerous than white conservatives. Their warnings should be recirculated, as BLM activists are facing the same issues that King and X faced in the 1960s.
Black Lives Matter have helped generate a firestorm of justice in recent weeks. BLM activists have put forward demands for deep systemic reforms that have largely been ignored by the political establishment. Even worse, liberal society pretends to support the demands of Black Lives Matter while doing little to meet them. Symbolic change is pushed instead.
In the place of defunding police, we are seeing localities change street names. Instead of demilitarizing police training, we see newspapers capitalizing the “B” in black. In place of addressing the systemic racism of the job and housing markets, we see McDonalds tweet in “support” of BLM. Instead of freeing people from prison, we get TV shows changing voice actors.
There has been a debate over the meaningfulness of these attempts of corporate appeasement. The Simpsons, for example, announced that all their non-white characters will be recast with race-appropriate actors. Family Guy has done something similar, where long-time character Cleveland (voice by a White actor) will now be recast with a Black actor.
I bring this up as there are many BLM activists and allies that have questioned the point of these moves. No one in the BLM movement were demanding that TV shows change actors. They are demanding an end to police murder and systemic racism that personally harms their lives. Instead of universal praise, many within BLM circles were actively scratching their heads in confusion.
The reason for this confusion is how widely publicized these changes were. They were pushed by the media as if they were great strides in the fight against systemic racism. BLM activists realize the banality of these moves.
Stopping white people from voicing non-white characters does nothing to address police brutality, nor housing and job discrimination, nor the disparity in arrests and sentences. As noble as these acts may be to the individuals, we should not delude ourselves into thinking these acts are anything more than symbolic.
To be fair, there is nothing wrong with acts of symbolic change if it is backed by substance. I am a proponent of removing racist statues, for example. However, I am under no illusion that removing a statue of General Lee will ultimately mean anything if his legacy is still maintained. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the mentality. Hiding the problem does not actually make the problem go away.
You can change all the street signs, rename schools, share hashtags, capitalize letters, and recast and reshape every TV show that has ever been made. They mean nothing if they are not backed by sweeping social change. In effect, this is exactly the problem that MLK and Malcolm X spoke about.
These acts of symbolic change, without social reform, constitute the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” and the “white moderate.” These are “reforms” that are surface-level only, giving the appearance of change while maintaining the capitalist status-quo. The point of these moves by corporate America to seem more “woke” is only meant to appease the protesters. It is to dull them, pacify them, make them complacent and comfortable.
BLM activists need to be wary of corporate America’s intentions. There is no need to reject any overtures, but any acceptance should come with a large amount of healthy skepticism.