Hip-hop became a force for political change in the late 1980s, through popular songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Women like Sister Souljah had an important voice in rap, unlike in other kinds of art, like film. By 1991, Black directors like Mario Van Peebles and Spike Lee were making influential movies—but the year’s “most influential racial film” was the video of the police beating a Black man named Rodney King.
The media and popular culture continued to give Black people a powerful venue for portraying their experiences and spreading antiracist ideas. Meanwhile, the Rodney King film shows how new technology—like the camcorder on which it was shot—has made new kinds of antiracist activism possible.
In an empty gesture to Black Americans, President George H.W. Bush appointed the Black assimilationist Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. When Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment, Congress persecuted her. Angela Davis was furious. She had just become a professor at UC-Santa Cruz and finally quit the Communist Party because of its racism and sexism.
Reynolds and Kendi see Clarence Thomas’s appointment as showing why assimilationism doesn’t work. Integrating institutions by putting a few Black people in positions of power doesn’t do much to help the majority of Black people. This is doubly true when those powerful Black people are assimilationists who blame Black people for racial inequities and don't believe in policy change. Angela Davis, meanwhile, continued to put principles before self-interest.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton started using the Republicans’ racist law and order strategy to attract white voters. The police who beat up Rodney King were acquitted at their trial, and Los Angeles rose up in response. Clinton and his Black allies started blaming rappers like Sister Souljah for making Black people violent and greedy.
Many liberal Americans might be surprised to see that Kendi and Reynolds criticize Clinton just as much as Republican presidents like Nixon and Reagan. But they see themselves as being antiracist rather than politically partisan. And Clinton’s policies, in their eyes, were still based on racism. The Rodney King trial and uprisings are a reminder that #BlackLivesMatter’s demands for police reform are not new: they’re rooted in a long history of racist policing and antiracist activism in the U.S.
At the same time, scholars like Angela Davis were meeting at an M.I.T. conference on Black women’s issues. In her speech, Davis boldly proposed abolishing the prison system. Instead, Clinton was imposing new, harsher laws that expanded the prison population faster than ever before—mostly by locking up Black men for nonviolent drug-related offenses.
Angela Davis continued to speak out in favor of antiracist policies and ideas, while the U.S. government continued to impose racist policies and ideas on the nation. Davis’s work is still highly relevant to the present day, as mass incarceration and the War on Drugs are still two of the most significant anti-Black racist policies in the U.S.