Posted: March 23rd, 2022

Cogent definition of Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter is a social movement facilitated by social media, which critiques multiple forms of injustice and disparity. The movement can be viewed as the latest in a string of attempts to achieve racial parity and universal civil rights in the United States, but has been more narrowly defined by the movement’s concern with race-based police brutality and racialized violence. Beneath this oversimplification of the Black Lives Matter movement is its core commitment to creating a more just society. Black Lives Matter is not just about race-based police brutality. Police brutality and racial discrimination in criminal justice is one of the many facets of Black Lives Matter.


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From a sociological perspective, Black Lives Matter encapsulates the core tenets of conflict theory, because the movement highlights the intersectionality between race, class, gender, and power. The Black Lives Matter movement can also be understood within a postmodern framework and within a structuralist-functionalist perspective. If the term “black” is taken more as metaphor than as literal race construct, then Black Lives Matter empowers all underclass, underrepresented, and disenfranchised persons and groups including women, the LGBT community, and the poor.


What is the Black Lives Matter movement?


Sexton (2015) provides a cogent definition of Black Lives Matter, calling it “both a call to action and a response to the ways in which our lives have been devalued,” (Sexton, 2015, p. 159). Focus on black “lives” is the cornerstone of the movement, as its members respond specifically to preventable black deaths and symbolic deaths such as incarceration and marginalization. Garza (2014) calls Black Lives Matter “a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements,” (Garza, 2014, p. 1). The movement draws upon past Civil Rights movements, and includes as one of its main graphic designs the universal symbol for worker empowerment in the labor movement: the raised fist. Garza (2014) calls Black Lives Matter an “ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise,” (Garza, 2014, p. 1).


However, the Black Lives Matter movement does not solely criticize or condemn. It also provides “an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression,” (Garza, 2014, p. 1). Black Lives Matter includes about a dozen black-led organizations (Ransby, 2015). While the mainstream media focuses only on Black Lives Matter as an anti-brutality movement, scholars have recognized the genesis of the movement at the intersection between race, class, gender, and power. Chatelain & Asoka (2015) note that Black Lives Matter is based on the belief that meaningful, effective, and lasting social change can only come about by “refocusing attention on how police brutality impacts black women and others on the margins of today’s national conversation about race, such as poor, elderly, gay, and trans people,” (p. 54)


How and When the Movement Evolved


Sexton (2015) traces the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement to the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. However, Alicia Garza (2014) claims that she, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometti first created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin “was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed,” (p. 1). A controversial “stand your ground” law entitled Zimmerman to shoot an unarmed teenager in what was essentially cold blood. The hashtag was created as a means of collectively responding to the Martin murder, but after a wave of race-based police brutality incidents, the hashtag grew in importance and expanded its locus of power to become an all-encompassing movement for social justice.


Because racism has permeated almost every aspect of American society throughout its history, the recent Black Lives Matter campaign is similar to previous civil rights movements. It hearkens to W.E.B. DuBois’s sociological theories on the centrality of race, class, gender, and power in America, just as the Civil Rights Movement coalesced with feminism, queer politics, and labor rights activism in the 1960s.


On the other hand, Black Lives Matter is different from previous civil rights movements in a few key ways. For one, the Black Lives Matter movement represents the extent to which racism has become institutionalized and entrenched in American society given that the Civil Rights movement was a full fifty years ago. Second, the Black Lives Matter movement capitalizes on social media unlike any other organized campaign of its type. Garza (2014) claims that “cultural workers, artists, and designers” helped to take the hashtag “to the streets,” and admits that the Ferguson incident was the first evidence that the Black Lives Matter social media movement became fully realized as a meaningful political organization (p. 1). Moreover, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has allowed individuals and groups from disparate geographic areas to keep in touch about incidents, demonstrations, and progress. Finally, Black Lives Matter conscientiously combines issues like race, class, gender, identity, culture, power, and sexual orientation in ways no other movement has in the past.


What the Movement Means and What the Movement Does


Garza (2014), one of the creators of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, first used in social media to respond to the indiscriminate killing of an unarmed 17-year-old boy by the name of Trayvon Martin, claims that the Black Lives Matter movement serves three primary functions: liberation of Black people from institutionalized and entrenched racism, a coherent reaction against all forms of injustice, and a celebration of Black lives and culture.


It is also important to recognize that, like pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism, Black Lives Matter is a global movement, not limited to the boundaries of the United States. Black Lives Matter is, like the black power movements of the 1960s, against “state-sanctioned violence against black people and populations in and beyond the United States,” (Sexton, 2015, p. 159). Just as W.E.B. DuBois recognized the global implications of colonialism, oppression, and exploitation of disenfranchised people worldwide a century ago, Black Lives Matter rekindles public awareness in the intersections of these sociological issues. Sexton (2015) describes the way Black Lives Matter “links, rhetorically if not conceptually, a range of racial justice campaigns across an expansive geography and a complex network of local, state, national, and international organizing efforts,” (p. 159).


Black Lives Matter means social and political activism with practical results, and the movement achieves this goal through social media and the promulgation of information via traditional media streams and academia as well. The movement does focus on specific areas of concern ranging from reducing instances police brutality by urging structural reform of police culture to calling upon elected officials to improve accountability within their departmental domains. Another one of the most important areas of concern for Black Lives Matter is gender equity, and although there is as of yet no clear or specific strategy for achieving gender equity, there has been some emphasis on female victims of police violence. Women experience police violence in gendered ways, not just as the victims of shootings, stops, and profiling, but also by experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault (Chatelain & Asoka, 2015, p. 54). Sexual harassment and sexual assault are cornerstones of a misogynistic society, which in turn becomes a racist and exploitative society founded on the principles of colonialism.


The movement also means transforming the identity and culture of black communities and the political movements that sustain them. Until recently, black political activism has not been fused with feminism enough to create meaningful and lasting change. Failing to focus on feminism, or failing to merge its ethos with that of feminist ideology, black activism is destined to fail because “a movement for racial justice must necessarily be inclusive,” (Chatelain & Asoka, 2015, p. 54). If sociologists continue to ignore or downplay black female experiences, the society will “fundamentally fail to grasp how the laws, policies, and the culture that underpin gender inequalities are reinforced by America’s racial divide,” (Chatelain & Asoka, 2015, p. 54). Furthermore, the Black Lives Matter movement is a movement against all forms of oppression. Goals of the movement include to “destabilize inequality in the United States at large, and to create new possibilities for all who live here” including the LGBT community (Ransby, 2015, p. 31).


Sociological Perspectives and Related Sociological Theories


Racism in America has pernicious and broad effects, including impacts on the health status of African-Americans. As Garcia (2015) points out, racial injustices in the judicial system, racialized police violence, and racialized police misconduct are all taking a toll on the health and well-being of people of color in the United States. Structural racism refers to the entrenchment of racist biases, attitudes, and beliefs that cause problems like indiscriminate killing of African-Americans, and also the vehement reactions to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Conflict theory, postmodern sociological theory, and structural-functionalism can all be applied to Black Lives Matter to better understand its role in global politics. Black Lives Matter also highlights the critical importance of collective action as a sociological mechanism of political protest.


Through movements like Black Lives Matter, people from otherwise disparate social groups or strata join together under their shared experiences of oppression. Collective action therefore creates community and enables self-empowerment. The key danger with collective action is the tendency to create new artificial markers of “in group” versus “out group” status, thereby preventing dialogue and the emergence of social justice and harmony. The key strength in collective action is the peaceful subversion of normative status, roles, and norms. Collective action has the potential to transform social conflict into social harmony.


Conflict theory has its roots and foundation in Marxist theory, which points out structural variables implicated in social inequality and injustice. Conflict theory focuses on the tension that exists between disparate communities, such as between blacks/whites, between Anglos/Latinos, between rich/poor, or between cisgender/transgender. By understanding the sources of social conflict, it becomes easier to understand dysfuncational behaviors and trends including criminality and deviance. Because criminality and deviance have become focal points in the Black Lives Matter movement, conflict theory should be used to analyze this particular brand of collective action.


Competition for power and resources is another core area of concern in conflict theory. In the case of Black Lives Matter, it “is as much an example of a U.S.-based class struggle as Occupy Wall Street was,” (Ransby, 2015, p. 31). Black Lives Matter shows how race and class are inextricably linked in American political and social culture. Black communities have been systematically impoverished due to lack of access to the means of production, to lack of access to the means of attaining upward social mobility, and to lack of access to the means of improving community infrastructure. The Black Lives Matter movement shows how competition for social, cultural, and economic capital is meaningful from the perspective of the underclass; while “white privilege.” Economic injustice is structural, and cannot be understood without paying attention to race and vice versa. Conflict theory shows how structural inequities become institutionalized racism, which is also linked to capitalism and the conflicts that exist between the people in power and those without. Finally, conflict theory shows how race, class, gender, and power all coexist in a competition matrix. As Ransby (2015) puts it, Black Lives Matter presents a “bold confrontation with state power,” (p. 31). Ransby (2015) also showcases the way Black Lives Matter presumes a conflict theory underpinning: “there can be no real economic justice without racial justice,” (p. 31). Furthermore, the leaders of the movement have their personal and professional roots in labor and other economic injustice campaigns (Ransby, 2015).


Postmodernism provides an apt extension of conflict theory. By focusing on institutions and their systemic uses of power, postmodernism demonstrates how institutions like law enforcement use and abuse their power to maintain control, status quo, and social order. Rooted in Foucault’s analyses of social institutions and particularly the panopticon, postmodernism provides the means by which to understand Black Lives Matter’s emphasis on law enforcement issues. The disparity in incarceration rates, in arrests, and in police brutalities becomes more easily understood within the framework of postmodern discourse. Postmodernism also illustrates how it is impossible to segregate different types of discrimination. Black Lives Matter is about all types of disparity. For example, Krieger (2015) calls the Black Lives Matter movement “one of the most notable features of our present era,” along with climate change, terrorism, and wealth inequity (p. 587). Finally, functionalism is also linked with both postmodernism and conflict theory by showing how social institutions like law enforcement operate and the roles these institutions serve. Education is another social institution that exhibits race-based status and privilege. Empowering the black community through support for black-owned businesses and social institutions is a viable solution to the problem of racism. Other potential solutions include an emphasis on peaceful protest and collective action, which have both been hallmarks of the Civil Rights movement since King first adopted the Gandhi model to fit the needs of disenfranchised Americans. Ginwright (2015) also proposes an optimistic view for how Black Lives Matter as a movement works from a sociological perspective: “present conditions in Black communities have fostered the development of new modes of youth leadership that focus on hope, love, and joy, and are ultimately restorative and redemptive,” (p. 33).


Nationally Relevant Issues and Examples


Dawning in America now is a “growing activism about police killings and, more broadly, the Black Lives Matter movement, which shows that police killings are at once indiscriminate and discriminatory (Krieger, 2015, p. 587). However, Black Lives Matter is a comprehensive movement to invoke social change and does not only focus on police brutality. While previous attempts to highlight the problem of police brutality have raised some degree of awareness among the general public, the Black Lives Matter movement represents an organized effort that capitalizes on new media and social media to convey essential truths about institutionalized racism, sexism, and economic disparity in American society. Goals of the Black Lives Matter movement are comprehensive, including structural and normative changes. The Black Lives Matter movement represents the most recent in a string of many attempts to redefine social institutions in the United States and achieve social justice.


Personal Perspectives


The very fact that the mainstream media has portrayed Black Lives Matter as controversial supports the cause and underscores its importance for generating more meaningful social and political change. By occasionally labeling the movement as anti-police when it is only anti-police violence, the media perpetuates racism in America. Distorting the truth about Black Lives Matter belittles and silences Black voices, which is precisely what the movement is trying to fight. In essence, the “controversy” over Black Lives Matter is the problem. The truth is, black lives have not mattered for the majority of American history — the vast majority. Black contributions to the arts and sciences have been downplayed, and the dominant culture has systematically appropriated black cultural forms without paying credit. The Black Lives Matter movement should not be necessary in the 21st century, but with racism still part of the American psychological fabric, the movement provides an effective way of promoting empowerment within all underclass and underprivileged communities.




The goal of Black Lives Matter is to show that “history is vital, because we live our history, embodied. Our goal is … a just and sustainable world in which we and every being on this planet may truly thrive,” (Krieger, 2015, p. 587). Linking Black Lives Matter to the earliest Civil Rights movements allows for a more thorough understanding of the role the movement plays in American and world history. Black Lives Matter encapsulates resistance to colonialism and systematic exploitation of workers around the world. The movement protests patriarchal assumptions and social institutions. Most importantly, Black Lives Matter provides a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to social justice that does not narrowly focus on any one issue like police brutality. The movement provides the means by which to stimulate a national and international dialogue about injustice and oppression, and shows how the oppressed can empower themselves by breaking free from the dysfunctional constructs and discourse. Rather than creating change from within dysfunctional social institutions, Black Lives Matter asks people to transform the essence of those institutions.




Barnard, A.V. (2015). Keep it contentious. Berkeley Journal of Sociology. 18 Aug, 2015. Retrieved online:


Blauner, B. (1989). Black Lives, White Lives. Los Angeles: University of California Press.


Chatelain, M. & Asoka, K. (2015). Women and black lives matter. Dissent 63(3): 54-61.


Garcia, J.J. & Sharif, M.Z. (2015). Black lives matter: A commentary on racism and public health. American Journal of Public Health 105(8): e27-e30.


Garza, A. (2014). A herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. 7 Oct, 2014. The Feminist Wire. Retrieved online:


Ginwright, S.A. (2015). Radically healing black lives. New Directions for Student Leadership 2015(148): 33-44.


Krieger, N. (2015). Public health, embodied history, and social justice. International Journal of Health Services 45(4): 587-600.


Rodriguez, J.M., Geronimous, A.T., Bound, J. & Dorling, D. (2015). Black lives matter. Social Science and Medicine 136-137, July 2015: 193-199.


Sexton, J. (2015). Unbearable blackness. Cultural Critique 90, Spring, 2015: 159-178.


Yancy, G. & Butler, J. (2015). What’s wrong with ‘All Lives Matter’? The New York Times. 12 Jan, 2015. Retrieved online:

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