Black Lives Matter's big step

Story highlights

  • Peniel Joseph: Movement for Black Lives agenda calls for the systemic overhaul of the criminal justice system
  • Agenda seeks to re imagine "black humanity and dignity" in the 21st century, he says

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life" The views expressed here are his own.

(CNN)Unfocused. Misdirected. Those are just a couple of the kinder words used by some critics of Black Lives Matter to describe the movement.

But it isn't just staunch critics who have appeared to express skepticism over the movement's focus. Last year, for example, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said during an exchange with activists: "Your analysis is totally fair. It's historically fair. It's psychologically fair. It's economically fair...But you're going to have to come together as a movement and say, 'Here's what we want done about it.'"
    "...Because in politics, if you can't explain it and you can't sell it, it stays on its shelf," she continued.
    Peniel Joseph
    Maybe they were stung by that last point, maybe they weren't. But either way, the Movement for Black Lives has gone a long way toward responding to that perceived shortcoming with the release of a new report, one that marks an important new phase in the growth, development, and sustainability of the Black Lives Matter movement.
    Published to coincide with the upcoming two-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that triggered national demonstrations focused on institutional racism in the criminal justice system, "A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice" includes dozens of thoughtful policy recommendations designed to promote concrete, real-world solutions to racial and economic inequality.
    The sprawling agenda broadly focuses on six themes: ending the war on black people; reparations; divest-invest; economic justice; community control; and political power.
    At its most radical, "A Vision for Black Lives," advocates reparations for slavery, educational discrimination and environmental racism in the "form of full and free access for all Black people" to lifelong education. More pragmatically, the agenda calls for the systemic overhaul of the criminal justice system, including "an end to money bail, mandatory fines, fees" and other related charges that financially cripple poor black defendants.
    The movement's vision of a racial justice focuses on balancing substantial new investments in "the education, health, and safety" of black lives, while redirecting federal, state, and local resources designed to contain, cage and control the nation's most vulnerable racially segregated and economically devastated communities.
    Specifically, the plans call for eliminating investments in fossil fuels, reducing military expenditures to bolster local infrastructure and creating a universal health care system that provides free mental health and patient care services for the poor.
    One of the document's most striking aspects is the way it places black queer women, trans, unemployed and incarcerated youth at the center of its policy agenda. In doing so, the Movement for Black Lives takes on complex new dimensions by brilliantly arguing that a racial and economic justice policy agenda should not just include marginalized constituencies within black America, but must be built around them.
    Just as black movements for civil and human rights have historically expanded America's democratic imagination, the BLM's policy agenda seeks to re imagine "black humanity and dignity" in the 21st century.
    The agenda's economic justice platform, meanwhile, calls for a progressive tax code capable of subsidizing a federal jobs program ambitious enough to dramatically reduce poverty and violence in some of the nation's toughest neighborhood. Policy wonks will note both criticism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, support for federal regulations of large banks and creative measures to increase black wealth and workers protections.
    There's much more, including a push for the restoration and expansion of voting rights, the elimination of racially biased discipline in schools, and eliminating the death penalty.
    Much of this should have widespread appeal. But criticism of the movement did not just come from those who believed its vision was too nebulous. Some -- especially on the right -- questioned the explicit focus on people of color. Why name the movement "Black Lives Matter?" they ask. "Surely, All Lives Matter?"
    Of course,all lives matter. But as the report notes, by rooting change in the specific experiences, pain, history and circumstances of black people in America and around the world, an agenda like this could transform the political, economic and cultural fabric of America. "A Vision for Black Lives" paints a portrait of the "revolution of values" that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for near the end of his life.
    Ultimately, though, while the events in Ferguson may have been the catalyst for the formation of the movement, the demonstrations have always been about more than the criminal justice system. Conservatives -- most notably former New York Mayor-turned-national-race-baiter Rudy Giuliani -- point to the much higher number of blacks killed by gun violence every year in big cities such as Chicago than those that die at the hands of the police.
    But the truth is, as the report notes, that both of these phenomena are linked to the long and continuing history of structural racism that has normalized the destruction of black bodies in America. Hopefully, the vast scope and ambition of these proposals should trigger a much-needed conversation both inside the black community and the larger society over how to finally achieve racial and economic justice in our lifetime.
    In less than four weeks, the nation will commemorate the 53rd anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. The March on Washington, attended by a quarter million Americans and watched by millions more on television, elevated freedom's cause to the pantheon of national myth.
    But the legislation that followed has too often, in our national retelling, supposedly solved the "race question." That, in turn, has left generations of Americans to wonder why black people are still protesting, demonstrating and organizing for racial justice after all these years.
    "A Vision for Black Lives" makes it abundantly clear why. And it also suggests a question that all Americans should be asking themselves: Not why black people and their allies are demonstrating in the streets, but why more people have not yet joined them.