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After the Backlash

Understanding the democratic appeal of retrenchment and reaction to movements for racial justice has never been more urgent.


Two years after vigorous protests for racial justice ignited and swept across the United States, the prospects for a broad, radical transformation in the way public safety is conceptualized and realized seem remote. As an academic who studies these social forces, what strikes me most now in the contemporary landscape is the strength and extent of racialized reaction. What stands out so prominently in the retrenching countermovement, or backlash, is not so much its strength (although there is that), but the fact that it can be observed not just in the expected venues but also in locations where progressive change might well have been thought most probable.

I am not equating that reaction with defeat for the racial justice movement. In one sense, indeed, the scale of backlash indexes how powerful that movement has been — and in particular, speaks to what a threat it posed in the summer of 2020 to status-quo institutional and partisan configurations. Against this, the post-2020 reaction deliberately redrew the terrain upon which movements for racial justice unfold: Changing the topic from lawless policing to secondary-school reading lists was a strategic attempt to draw attention away from the most neuralgic, least deniable, aspects of racial injustice in the United States. It was an effort to reclaim a mantle of righteous victimhood.

What happens in the wake of this reorientation, however, is not determined by the forces of reaction alone. How movements for racial justice respond to that reaction — and here I mean the broad movement for Black lives, or BLM for short, not the foundation by the same name — will play a critical role. Laying the backlash strategies out systematically casts light on the relation of two terms key to racial justice struggles yet persistently underexplored in the scholarship: power and democracy.  

If BLM owned the conversation in the summer of 2020, racial reaction has more recently dominated the terrain of institutionalized, democratic politics at the national, state, and local levels. Start in the Beltway: Partisan polarization in Congress meant that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House twice, always faced long odds. An oft-cited reason for its failure was disagreement about the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which blocks many tort suits. But it is hard to believe Senate Republicans would have ever supplied the necessary votes to shield the measure from a filibuster, given their ongoing efforts to stoke voter fear about rising crime. 

Qualified immunity, meanwhile, is a judicial creation, and just one of a battery of doctrines that limit the availability of remedies for state coercion. What the Supreme Court can create, it can of course unbraid. But after a seemly period of equivocation in the wake of the Floyd killing, the justices unanimously, and without oral argument, tightened the bridle on constitutional tort liability — narrowing the class of plausible cases almost to a vanishing point. So much for the idea of the liberal justices checking, or even calling out, the most conservative Court in a century.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has hewed to its general strategy of moderation without bite. Exemplary is a recent announcement by the Justice Department’s associate attorney general, the former civil rights chief under Obama, of a “knowledge lab” for police departments seeking to change. Since all that has apparently hindered change is the absence of a “one-stop shop” online for reformers, this “lab” will no doubt mark a turning point, maybe even a revolution. The president, for his part, seems to think that an anemic executive order on policing, two years after the fact, will deter future wrongdoing by the Derek Chauvins of the world. The paucity of such meager effects reflects both a longstanding alignment of Democratic politicians and the carceral state, and also hints at the electoral vulnerability of marginal Democratic representatives in the face of “moral panics” about crime.  

The paucity of such meager reforms reflects both a longstanding alignment of Democratic politicians and the carceral state, and also hints at the electoral vulnerability of marginal Democratic representatives in the face of ‘moral panics’ about crime.

At the state level, meanwhile, scholars have mapped a spate of “anti-defund bills” limiting municipalities’ power to draw down on policing expenditures. At least four of these passed. In contrast, no state has (to my knowledge) enacted any legislation that would either reduce or cap spending on police forces. In Florida now, a state attorney or a member of a municipal board-member can thus appeal any city police budget that reduces funding to a commission appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis. Georgia’s measures simply bar certain budget reductions, while Texas’s law prohibits any reductions to law enforcement budgets, after adjusting for inflation, in large cities — like Austin, which was forced to refund its police department after defunding it in 2020.

States have also enacted legal measures that make popular mobilizations of the sort seen on the streets in 2020 more dangerous and more difficult. According to the International Center for Non-for-Profit Law, 38 states have enacted measures making public protest more difficult since January 2017. Florida’s H.B.1./S.B.484 (presently enjoined) hence creates a felony of “aggravated riot” defined as groups of 25 who “endanger[] the safe movement of a vehicle.” Like several other anti-protest bills, Florida’s also enshrines a “right to crash cars into people,” a morbid, not-so-veiled nod to the tragic counterprotests against white supremacy in Charlottesville. 

Perhaps most surprising, the reaction to racial justice movements has not been confined to the state and the national levels. In its early days, BLM notched up success at the municipal level. Cities that moved forward on funding related measures, however, quickly became targets. The American Police Officers Association, for instance, described Democratic leaders in these localities as having “abandoned the rule of law for the rule of the mob.” By late 2021, however, most cities had reversed course, and were planning to increase police funding. And two years in, Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered, is its own dispiriting microcosm of retrenchment.

My home city of Chicago provides an illuminating example of how reaction has squelched reform even in a supposedly progressive and racially diverse city. In a forthcoming academic article, Robert Vargas, Caitlin Loftus, and I have explored how Mayor Lori Lightfoot has invoked time-honored Windy City tropes about the intolerable toll of gun crime as a justification for increasing the 2022 Chicago Police Department budget. Even some Democratic Socialist aldermen voted for this budget, citing its social services provision. At the same time, we show, the racial disparity in police stops has been creeping upward. Even in a blue city, in a blue state, in the absence of any real prospect of Republican backlash at the polls, structural reform has not prevailed — and racial disparities in policing have continued to grow.

To be clear, I do not believe backlash is the whole story. Many people have been politicized by racial justice movements; the idea of a “post-racial” America has been usefully shunted to the margin. The idea of structural change is no longer beyond the pale and is, indeed, the subject of a rich and intellectually fruitful literature. Some important policy reforms have been enacted. Locally, for example, the successful campaign to end money-bail here in Illinois is one that has been rightly celebrated.

But the opposition, hurdles, and limitations that have been faced even by modest reform efforts show the depth and strength of reactionary forces. In particular, it illuminates their persisting hegemony across varied institutional platforms. To varying degrees, the latter are democratic in character, albeit imperfectly. One lesson of the reaction to BLM is the tight hold reactionary forces presently have on even reasonably well-functioning democratic forums — and the opportunities for hegemonic arbitrage that this creates. This is a process in which dominance of one site of political contestation (say, the Supreme Court or the statehouse) has been used to block progress in another (say, the city or the street-level). In contrast, movements for racial justice have often struggled to translate popular mobilization into durable institutional power or new channels of democratic voice. Nor, we have seen, have they consolidated new alliances within exactly existing democratic politics: The contrast with radical, even violent elements of the right that have forged links to more centrist tendencies in the Republican Party is striking.

The nature, dynamics, and the scale of ongoing reaction to BLM, in my view, are not yet fully appreciated or well understood. It is now a matter of vital importance to understand these vectors and redoubts against racial justice. It is not enough to bemoan the weakness of our democratic institutions, or to complain about a captured media. We need a clear-eyed understanding of precisely how power is presently configured and exercised to entrench harmful policing within existing institutional channels — and how it has succeeded (where it has) in pushing back on the movement unleashed in 2020. 

We need a clear-eyed understanding of precisely how power is presently configured and exercised to entrench harmful policing within existing institutional channels — and how it has succeeded (where it has) in pushing back on the movement unleashed in 2020.

Part of this effort entails a better grasp of the words we use. To date, the terms power and democracy have been central in academic work theorizing racial police reform. But that academic work has largely focused on recuperating those terms — and on imagining what a more inclusive form of power might look like. It has not focused on the question of how defenders of the status quo ante are likely to respond to new social movements through what Charles Tilly called “repression” — “any action … which raises the contender’s cost of collective action.” This is a serious omission.

Any system of democratic choice creates a network of levers and channels through which power is exercised. Power and democracy are hence entangled, or imbricated, with each other. In a sufficiently complex system, like ours, the relation of these entanglements will often be opaque. Precisely how they are accessed or sealed off requires close inspection — and not hazy appeals to “democracy” as if it were power’s simple antipode.

Even the brief sketch offered here suggests some anchor points for such an analysis. To begin, it suggests that it is a mistake to think of the local, state, and national arenas for policy change as separate forums for social change. Rather, the different jurisdictional levels of American politics are linked both through legal arrangements — nested hierarchies of constitutional power — and through political networks (think here of the Republican Party and the business group ALEC). What’s done in one (local) venue can be unraveled in another (state) forum where the forces of reaction are strong. Repression of a local movement hence doesn’t need to happen within the city that hosts the movement: Both the state and the federal government provide venues for countervailing action. Again, the progressive city of Austin, to name one example, is routinely in the crosshairs of the Texas legislature and governor. And the Trump administration went to war with a public-health organization in Philadelphia that attempted to open a safe-injection site to curb opioid overdoses. In both cases, local initiatives provided partisan fodder for a state or national body not just to make policy, but also to mobilize the public against reform. 

Further, one of the striking commonalities of reaction in the last two years is how reactionary forces have tried to outflank racial justice movements’ tactical choices. Whereas the latter took aim at what it viewed as structural by targeting funding, its enemies have targeted the very architecture of democratic choice that decides how change is demanded, and which venue is available for such change. The very rules of the democratic field — about who can vote, and whose voice can be heard — have offered the most fertile terrain for reaction these two years. As a consequence, collateral damage to the conditions of democracy may well be one of the most enduring consequences of the reaction to movements for racial justice. 

Collateral damage to the conditions of democracy may well be one of the most enduring consequences of the reaction to movements for racial justice.

With all of this in mind, I think it is fair to say that the effort to promote different, more democratic modes of public safety beyond the carceral state is profoundly connected with the more diffuse, national battle against what Tom Ginsburg and I have called democratic erosion: the process through which legal change is used to unravel the necessary structures of democratic choice, and hence to push the national back toward a more authoritarian structure. This linkage between reactionary struggles over policing and a larger arc of democratic decline has been missed, at least among the scholarly literatures with which I’m most familiar. The curtailing of protests, the licensing of private force against street marches, curbs on the right to vote, and aggressive attacks on those who seek to diversify civil education — all these have the effect of unraveling the conditions of democratic choice. And the two campaigns — for racial justice and for the sustaining and enlarging democratic choice — do not necessarily move in lockstep: It is a bitter irony that progress on the first front often leads to reaction and decay on the second. That is, racial reaction treats democracy as permissible collateral damage. And, to an extent that may be underappreciated, defeat in the realm of democracy will lead to catastrophe for racial justice. The relation of the local and the global, in short, is neither unidirectional nor mechanistic.  

This is, to be sure, only a start at deepening our understanding of these counterforces. More is needed. As I have explored recently, a scholarly model here is Stuart Hall’s piercing 1984 essay “The Great Moving Right Show” — as clear and precise an account of both the instruments and, critically, the democratic appeal of reaction and neoliberal retrenchment as one might want. In my review, absent from abolitionist scholarship to date is anything akin to Hall’s brilliant work: a strategic, positive analysis of our conjuncture, one that teases out the lineaments through which power in fact is exercised, and how reaction parries the demand for racial justice. 

Neither democratic rule nor racial justice are ever consolidated; neither is immune from sabotage or rollback. At a historical moment at which the two values are entangled in complex and sometimes confusing ways, the need for clarity about the precise vectors of reaction — its strategies, resources, and weakness — has never then been clearer. At the same time, the cost of blinkered focus on either one of those values — democratic and racial justice — to the exclusion of the other has never been higher.

Image: Jakayla Toney/Unsplash