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James Vernon (York University), "The Panthers Can Save Us Now"
Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy, 2022
The approaching 10th anniversary of the emergence of Black Lives Matter invites critical reflection on the movement’s achievements, challenges, and – as several prominent voices on the Left have recently argued – fundamental limits. On the one hand, what one might call the BLM paradigm can largely be credited with the fact that an increased awareness of racial disparities, as well as an impassioned demand for their redress have become effectively de rigueur among white liberals, Democratic Party representatives, academics and teachers, civic leaders, political pundits, and even celebrities and corporate CEOs; on the other hand, despite this seemingly radical shift, the number of police killings has continued to climb – this past year reaching record highs – poverty and hunger rates have remained disturbingly stable, and the architect of mass incarceration now sits in the White House, where he has not only overseen the expansion of the federal prison population, but called upon a desperately struggling nation to further fund the police. Given the almost inverse relationship between popular concern with racial oppression and material improvements in the lives of the economically marginalized and overpoliced populations BLM arose to empower, it is unsurprising that their framework finds itself increasingly contested as a path to revolutionary, or even progressive, political change, with the most forceful challenges arising from historians of the black Left like Adolph Reed and Pascal Robert. Perhaps the most important and influential of these critiques can be found in Cedric Johnson’s recent book, The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now.
Johnson sees the BLM paradigm as centred around the “notion of black exceptionalism” (17), which posits the existence a generally homogenous “‘black community’, all of which suffers the indignities and liabilities of racial subordination” in a manner that “swamp[s] any differences among them”. Because it “falsely equates racial identity with political constituency” (18), black exceptionalism is perfectly suited to bolster and impose a form of brokerage politics, wherein any individual member of an internally diverse population can be transformed into its authentic representative. This explains why, when “we examine the social composition of dominant left currents, which are largely the same as those articulating the rhetoric of Black [exceptionalism] today” we primarily find “academics, nonprofits, [and] political operators”; in other words, a “thin layer” of professional managers “largely unmoored from the working class”.
Black exceptionalism and the contemporary ‘antiracist’ activism grounded in it thus readily deflect from a critical focus on the economic engine of insecurity and inequality, replacing them with a focus on issues of special concern to the black and – perhaps more pertinently – white liberal elite: increased representation on corporate boards and other institutions, mandatory DEI training in workplaces, the identification and reduction of microaggressions, and other ‘progressive’ changes the owning class are all too happy to incorporate into their language and practices in order to profitably appear consonant with trends in ‘social justice’; as Johnson puts it, “[c]orporate antiracism is the perfect egress from […] labor conflicts. Black Lives Matter to the front office as long as they don’t demand a living wage […] and quality health care” (xi). This, Johnson suggests, explains why black exceptionalism was and still is “encouraged by liberal statecraft from above” (22); it facilitates and entrenches “a form of ventriloquism that has long been a problem within black political life and scholarly and popular interpretations thereof” (144), creates a disciplinary managerial caste whose ‘egalitarian’ demands subvert the difficult, but necessary and demonstrably achievable forms of cross-racial solidarity, and redirects popular struggle into largely superfluous battles, even if there are occasionally valuable victories therein.
As the title of his book suggests, Johnson closely identifies the post-BLM revival of “racial essentialism” (57) with the recent resurgence of interest in the Black Panther Party (BPP). While this connection is more asserted than defended, from the berets donned by Beyonce’s backup dancers at the Superbowl, to the Oscar-bait dramatization of the state murder of Fred Hampton, to the omnipresence of the Black Power fist on protest signs and NGO merch, there is certainly plenty of evidence that, as Vivek Chibber puts it, “no organization in that corner of anti-racist mobilization […] has come close to occupying such a conspicuous place in the popular imagination” as the Panthers. In order to forge the class-centric, broad-based coalition required to force deep-rooted structural change, Johnson thus calls for an end to the “vanguardist posturing” grounded in “sixties nostalgia” that seeks to revive the Panthers as a guide for political analysis, rhetoric, and action, and for a return to a much earlier Leftist tradition based upon universalist principles, goals, and collectives (57).
Johnson’s work, in my view, convincingly demonstrates not only the conceptual and strategic limits of the ideology of Black Power, but the need to find a way to re-center economic analysis and universalist solutions in contemporary Left struggle. However, in this paper I seek to show that, rather than contesting the vision of the BPP, Johnson’s critique of the BLM framework and call for a Left reorientation should perhaps best be understood as furthering it. Tracing the evolution of both their ideology and organizing strategy, I demonstrate that, contrary to the presumptions of many contemporary anti-racists who invoke their image and memory, Panther leadership made essentially all of Johnson’s arguments against black exceptionalism long before him.
While they undeniably emerged from the nationalism in vogue during the Black Power era, the BPP’s expansion coincided not only with their public abandonment of that ideology, but with their articulation of an increasingly harsh critique of black exceptionalism–or what they called ‘cultural nationalism’–as an effectively reactionary and elitist politics. Founding member Bobby Seale, for example, not only continually claimed that what we face “in essence […] is not at all a race struggle [but] a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small, minority ruling class”, but furthermore warned – in remarkably harsh terms – that the “ruling-class system […] perpetuates racism and uses racism as a key to maintain its capitalistic exploitation”, by, among other more obvious ways, “us[ing] blacks, especially the blacks who come out of the colleges and the elite class system, because these blacks have a tendency to flock toward a black racism” that fragments the cross-racial solidarity necessary to manifest real political power. Even a figure as associated with Black Power as Eldridge Cleaver not only argued that “there is not going to be any revolution or [even] black liberation […] as long as revolutionary blacks, whites, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Chinese and Eskimos are unwilling or unable to unite into some functional machinery that can cope with the situation”; he identified the central impediment to this unity as the purveyors of identity politics that seek to build a movement “on a basis that perpetuates disunity among races” and thus are “discovering new ways to divide us faster than we are discovering ways to unite”. Far from the standard bearers of black exceptionalism, then, the Panthers presciently warned that the “nebulous enunciation of Black Power […] has provided the power structure with its new weapon against our people”. Effectively summarizing the critiques of both the BPP and Johnson, Oakland Panther Linda Harrison argued:
Because cultural nationalism offers no challenge or offense against the prevailing order[,] the influx of ‘Black and Proud’ actors, movies stars, social workers, teachers, probation officers and politicians is tremendous. Bourgeoisie and upper class standing is no handicap to the ‘Black’ and vice versa. The power structure, after the mandatory struggle, condones and even worships this newfound pride which it uses to sell every product under the sun. It worships and condones anything that is harmless and presents no challenge to the existing order. Even its top representatives welcome it and turn it into ‘Black Capitalism’ and related phenomen[a]. Everyone is black[,] the bourgeoisie continue to hate their less fortunate black brothers and sisters[,] and the oppressed continue to want.
After detailing the extensive testimonial record of Panther critiques of racial essentialism and the brokerage politics that proceeds from it, I show that the BPP’s turn away from black nationalism towards a strenuous advocacy for, and instructive practice in, both intra-and inter-racial coalition building, brought them into violent – and occasionally lethal – conflict with not only black nationalist organizations, but the surrounding state, confuting Johnson’s effort to tie them to later forms of neoliberal antiracism, and revealing their continuity with the Left reorientation for which he rightly calls.
This reorientation, however, must be built within the current alignment; that is, one wherein – at least for the foreseeable future, and for obvious historical reasons – the population is divided by both the material reality and political rhetoric of racial division and disparity, and thus remain understandably invested in the identity categories upon which they are built. Thus, as Huey Newton argues, because “[i]t will take time to resolve the contradictions of racism and all kinds of chauvinism” that render cross-racial solidarity so difficult to sustain, the Panthers developed a strategy of both working to unify communities along the identity lines within which they currently felt most comfortable and/or interested, while simultaneously pushing them to envision and build increasingly inclusive coalitions that could transcend them. Succinctly summarizing this ‘intercommunal’ model of organizing – which dialectically integrates identity-based organization with the class-centric goal of universal solidarity – one of Hampton’s final speeches also reveals the extreme distance between it and the BLM paradigm that has usurped the BPP’s legacy:
We are not a racist organization because we understand that racism is an excuse used for capitalism; we know that racism is just a by-product of capitalism. [… We know] everybody […] is going to have to be involved in the revolution if we’re going to have one. […] We’re going to have to start getting out there with the people, and a lot of the times we think we’re better than the people, but that’s an insult and that’s criminal. […] We all stay right here with the people, because we love the people […] We say all power to all people. We say white power to white people. Brown power to brown people. Yellow power to yellow people. Black power to black people. X power to those that we left out. We say Panther power to the vanguard party.
Precisely because, as Johnson rightly claims, they nevertheless maintain a dominant grip on the contemporary anti-racist imaginary, I close by arguing that the history of the Panthers represents a unique resource for undermining the current hegemony of black exceptionalism. On the one hand, their singular theory and practice of political vanguardism–perhaps best reflected in the infamous Chicago Rainbow Coalition, whose history I briefly trace–represents an instructive and potentially inspiring case study in how to progressively organize a population divided by both the reality of ongoing racism and racial disparity and the rhetoric of identity politics into potent – if unsteady, halting, and fragile – coalition; on the other hand, even if one contests the enduring value of their organizing methods or the import and extent of their achievements, exposing the strenuous Panther critique of the brokerage politics of Black Power would arguably allow the essential arguments Johnson brings to bear on it to resonate more deeply with those who embrace that ideology in the mistaken belief they are furthering the Panther legacy. Rather than consigning the BPP to the past along with the nationalists against whom they often bitterly fought, I contend that the journey Newton, Seale, and other Party leaders took from militant nationalism to an intercommunal coalition politics offers a model that may well lead contemporary adherents of black exceptionalism to begin to question and eventually abandon their current commitments. That is, reviving, rather than forsaking, the Panther legacy may also help resuscitate Johnson’s vision of “a class-conscious politics [that] organiz[es] around commonly felt needs—that is, those basic necessities that we all require for reproduction, such as food, clothing, housing that is safe and appropriate to our specific needs and life stage, health care, education, time, and space for creative expression and recreation” (171); or, as Seale puts it, the recognition that “[a]ll of us are laboring-class people, employed or unemployed, and our unity has got to be based on the practical necessities of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
Given their powerful critique of black nationalism and their fruitful efforts to move a population divided by such discourses into productive unity, the Panthers represent an instructive exception to the brokerage politics of black exceptionalism; moreover, given both the seemingly intractable hegemony of neoliberal anti-racism and the unique role the Party’s popular image plays in propping it up, they also offer an essential resource in the struggle for the necessary return to class politics. At the very least, precisely because they are ‘having a moment’ in popular culture, bringing their unjustly neglected theoretical and practical work into contemporary debates offers a chance to pose the very arguments Johnson rightly raises to the current paradigm through voices that are far less easy for scholars and activists to dismiss.
For all of these reasons, it may not just be that the Panthers can save us now; it may be that only they can.
 See, e.g. “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence”, available at https://nonsite.org/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence/; or, more recently, the tellingly titled “Bayard Rustin: The Panthers Couldn’t Save Us Then Either”, available at https://nonsite.org/bayard-rustin-the-panthers-couldnt-save-us-then-either/.
 See, e.g. “The Obsession with the Black/White Wealth Gap Protects The Elites”, available at https://www.newsweek.com/obsession-black-white-wealth-gap-protects-elites-opinion-1661910
 Cedric Johnson, The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Debating Left Politics and Black Lives Matter (New York: Verso, 2022). Cited by page number in running text. See also his magisterial history of the Black Power movement, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
 Vivek Chibber, “Introduction”, in Ibid, 1-12 (6).
 Ibid, 10-11.
 This trend is particularly glaring – and takes particularly disturbing forms – in critical discussions of Hip Hop culture, as I seek to demonstrate in my recent Sampling, Biting, and The Postmodern Subversion of Hip Hop (Palgrave MacMillan, 2021), esp. Ch. 4.
 Ibid., 1-2.
 Bobby Seale, Seize The Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1991), 72.
 Ibid., 70-1, emphasis added. I reconstruct the Panther critique of largely campus-based forms of analysis and activism in “Huey Newton’s Lessons for The Academic Left”, Theory, Culture, and Society, 37-38: 7-8 (2021), 267-287.
 “An Open Letter to Stokely Carmichael”, in Philip S. Foner, ed. The Black Panthers Speak (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 104-8 (107).
 Ibid., 105.
 “On Cultural Nationalism”, in Foner, ed. 151-4 (152).
 Huey P. Newton and Vladimr I. Lenin, Revolutionary Intercommunalism and the Right of National Self-Determination, ed. by Amy Gdala (Newtown, Wales: Cyhoeddwyr y Superscript, 2004), 33.
 Speaking in The Murder of Fred Hampton (dir. Howard Alk, 1971)
 Seale, 72.
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