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How to teach about Black Lives Matter

Scholars of race and politics put together this short course.

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Editors’ note: In this archival piece, Good Authority editor Nadia E. Brown and colleagues lay out a curriculum for teaching college students about Black Lives Matter. It was originally published on June 11, 2020, after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd and as the summer of massive protests over racial injustice had begun. 

Protests demanding racial justice in the wake of the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, among others, have left Americans trying to make sense of racial violence by the police, and energized to end brutality against Black bodies. We believe this is an opportunity to share research on the Black Lives Matter movement with anyone interested in learning more.

We created a micro-syllabus that draws from “Politics, Groups, and Identities,” or PGI. This academic journal examines the politics of structural disadvantage on politically salient identities. In the tradition of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and as heirs to the legacy of Ralph Bunche, PGI prioritizes and publishes accessible essays that examine contemporary politics, and has published a great number of articles on race and politics in America.

The PGI micro-syllabus brings together readings about the Black Lives Matter movement, police violence and Black political responses. 

Here’s a short course on Black Lives Matter

The PGI micro-syllabus covers a broad range of topics and a variety of approaches to research. We imagined these essays could be read together, something akin to a short course on Black Lives Matter. We outline such an approach below.

We suggest beginning with readings that explain the context for the development of Black Lives Matter as a movement in the racist history of the United States. In this section, several authors use an American Political Development lens – studying the historical development of politics – to better understand how the punitive history of incarceration and government-sanctioned violence toward African Americans has spurred periods of resistance.

For example, Megan Ming Francis explores how social movements that combat police violence, such as Black Lives Matter, have played a key role in the development of political institutions in the United States. Similarly, Chloe Thurston situates the Black Lives Matter movement in the historical context of American racial equality movements in protests against the U.S. justice system.

The next section of the short course would examine who participates in the movement and why. Alexie Labelle demonstrates that those experiencing marginalization – members of the LGBTQ community, for instance – are more likely to get involved in social movements like Black Lives Matter. Tyson King-Meadows analyzes a unique survey of Baltimore citizens before the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. This analysis shows areas that reported the most frustration with the police emerged as major flash points for the Black Lives Matter movement in the city.

The course moves on to explore how the media, politicians, and the population react to the BLM movement. Several of the readings discuss racial differences in people’s responses to incidents of police killings. Others examine the use of social media posts and political cartoons as both vehicles for political expression and powerful tools for political change. The essay by Rosalee Clawson and Dwaine Jengelley explores the media’s role in the depiction of demographic groups – and the implications of such depictions on group relations. Arguing for a closer look at how racially implicit or explicit messages are woven into media coverage of crime, Jenn M. Jackson explores how media “framing” of news events influences public opinion.

The course concludes by thinking of ways the Black Lives Matter movement can address the current challenges that Blacks face. In the 21st century, the fight for racial justice has experienced a resurgence following the slayings of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Charleena Lyles, Sean Reed, and David McAtee, among others. Will the growing support of Black Lives Matter lead to lasting and systemic change?

While there is no singular way to address systemic racism, which was baked into the country at its inception, scholars can engage the public to find effective solutions for creating an anti-racist society. Nadia Brown and Jamil Scott’s essay is especially relevant in this regard. In reviewing books by Eddie Glaude, Marc Lamont Hill, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Brown and Scott explore the electoral implications of BLM as the movement transitions between “protest” and “politics.”

The PGI micro-syllabus is just a start

We recommend complementing the micro-syllabus with foundational readings in Black politics. Work by Ture and Hamilton, Adolph Reed, Jewel Prestage, Mae C. King, Katherine Tate, Ron Walters, Linda F. Williams, Hanes Walton, Jr., Manning Marable, Nick Nelson, Michael C. Dawson, Mack H. Jones, and Richard Iton provide the necessary background for understanding today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement and its political implications.

Recently published academic books speak to the continued salience of race and how it shapes public opinion, political behavior and political institutions. We also recommend Christopher LeBron’s “The Making of Black Lives Matter,” Shateema Threadcraft’s “North American Necropolitics and Gender,” Daniel Gillion’s “The Political Power of Protest,” Alvin Tillery’s “What Kind of Movement is Black Lives Matter?” and Niambi Carter’s “American While Black.”

There are also compelling books by activists Charlene Carruthers and Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele. When read alongside the PGI micro-syllabus and other academic books listed above, these resources provide a glimpse into reimagining what equity looks like for marginalized populations.

Our micro-syllabus is but one step in understanding the current calls of the Black Lives Matter movement. To be sure, it’s not enough to read about Black struggles and the broader political context in which they’re embedded, but our hope is that in sharing these readings we can inform the public conversation, and help cultivate policies and practices that will dismantle anti-Black structures and institutions.

Updated Oct. 17, 2023