Black Lives and Power

I have been thinking about the increased visibility of power as a concept for months, now. It’s the product of the steadfast focus on power in Black Lives Matter movement. Through this focus BLM achieves an exceptionally consistent sublimation of this broad theoretical concept into specific, everyday reality. I’m sure in the past people have done the same thing with “freedom.” Now we have the same regular concretization of the concept of “power.”

It’s addictive, thinking more and more about power, all the time. I know it’s not everyone’s thing, but as for me, I like it so much I traded years of my young, potentially-profitable life going to school for it.

Thinking about power is at the heart of political science. When we study politics, we study the social distribution of resources — that is, “who gets what, when and how.” The research we do aims to explain “who gets what”; who gets the majority of votes, the favorable trade deal, the tax break, or the prison sentence. This focus on “who gets what” can also be expressed as “who has the power to achieve what outcome.” Describing the nature of power, then, becomes very important to being able to understand the thing you’re studying. For people in academics studying legislative votes, you wrestle with Robert Dahl’s equations. For people in academics studying organizations, you think dig Max Weber’s description that power depends on defeating social resistance. (And for people in academics who use Google to discover there’s a whole encyclopedia devoted to different definitions of power, you suddenly realize the definition of power itself is the site of power-struggle and enjoy the moment of irony.)

Power is such a critical concept because it’s a word that stands in for an explanation of outcomes from competition–interpersonal, intergroup, or against an inanimate object or force. When two people or two groups have different preferences and one gets their way, we use the word “power” to describe that outcome. Conflict over resources–like money, status, or security–which leads to a distribution of those resources is the very essence of politics. Power is the measure of difference across the resources people obtain.     

As a political movement, Black Lives Matter’s sustained focus on the concept of power has been an important aspect of their work. They’ve made it a regular part of public conversation across a range of incidents and events, creating new interpretive openings into things white America had previously not viewed as ambiguous. One example of this is in the activists’ repeated observation: “Watch whiteness work.” Activists apply this phrase in cases where we see a white person experiencing judicial or social lenience– a lenience, which we know from repeated examples, is unlikely to be extended to similarly-situated black people.

When an activist points to whiteness “working,” she invokes a person’s race silently pushing the bad judicial or social outcome away. The whiteness displaces the opposing force. Like gravity, or electricity, it is invisible power. It is the achievement of a non-action in a case where there would otherwise be an action. With its implicit reminder of the contrasting black experience, what “watch whiteness work” does is show us something that we can’t ordinarily see: the arrest not made, the threat not perceived.

When we don’t see this difference, we are not aware of the role of power in the interactions we have with each other, with law enforcement, with policymakers, with our current and potential employers, with our teachers, with our landlords, with our judges and juries.

Once it’s dialed in as a focus, though, you can see it in everything.  

(Next time! The rhetorical value of “privilege” over “power.”)

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