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Canned Response: David Brooks, Reparations, and the Kumbaya Column

There was something entirely predictable about New York Times columnist David Brooks’s op-Ed on reparations. Not so much with regard to the subject matter (Brooks indeed has never before written in support of reparations), but rather in the framing of the ‘argument’ itself. And while the dilemma that prompts his column is certainly a worthwhile one to explore—namely, trying to discover why when he looks around and observes the many divides that characterize American life (rich/poor; urban/rural; red/blue), it’s the racial divide more so than any of the others that seems to stare back at Brooks with a grim, implacable quality of permanence—the author’s treatment of black suffering seems ultimately intended to advance his own ideological agenda rather than the cause of justice for American Descendants of Slavery.

The racial divide is hardly the first atrocity to really grip Brooks’s imagination. Nor is it the first for which he appears to gain a vague sense of its singularity. In fact, that circumstance—finding that among a set of horrors seemingly alike in nature, one in particular figures in his mind as uniquely odious—is one that has reliably served Brooks as a prelude to sermonize. Five years ago, after ISIS militants beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Brooks also mused over his own intense sense of revulsion: “I’ve been trying to understand why the act of a beheading arouses this strong visceral response,” he wrote, “Why does separating a head with a knife feel different than a shooting, or a bombing?” And so now, like then, Brooks’s latest column, “The Case for Reparations,” finds him confounded by his distinct sense of the awful and trying to again name the “haunting sensation” he experiences as he contemplates how the racial divide in America “doesn’t feel like the other divides.”

But questions like these—why does a beheading feel different than x; why does the racial divide feel different than x—function for Brooks less as genuine appeals to critical thought and would instead seem to operate purely as contrived introspections that allow him to strike an attitude of sober thoughtfulness while being certain of his answer for what he personally believes most afflicts and ails humanity. That scourge, for Brooks, is always an increasing separation from the spiritual.

It is, after all, the ISIS militants’ patent disregard for the body’s “spiritual essence” to which he eventually ascribes his heightened sense of disgust at a beheading. And insofar as we too recognize and are revolted by it—when the “body’s spiritual nature is gratuitously and intentionally insulted”—then that is what differentiates us as higher-order beings than the “zealots [who] hew to a fringe of their faith that holds that the spirit and the body are at war with each other.” And while he haltingly acknowledges there will “probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition” to defeat ISIS, he nonetheless appears to reject it as a solution of any real consequence, maintaining that “ultimately the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam.”

Given Brooks’s insistence on the primacy of cultivating the spiritual as our most potent resource in the face of certain pernicious evils of the world (as much is obvious by a cursory look at some of the titles of his columns over these past years: “Building Spiritual Capital”; “Fighting the Spiritual Void”; “Capitalist Winds Expose the Spiritual Void”; “The Remoralization of the Market”; and “The Body and the Spirit”), one can be fairly certain that the ‘superior version’ of ideology that he has in mind—be it religious, political, or economic—involves nothing so much as an emphasis on the shared nature of our existence not just as material beings but, beyond that, as spiritually connected entities; a recognition of how, as he writes, “every human body has some piece of the eternal.”

It is the failure to relate to one another in this way that Brooks is always eager to diagnose as permanently stunting our development toward righteousness. So it’s no surprise, really, that when Brooks is weighing his sense of the racial divide’s singular quality as compared with other societal fissures, he characteristically offers this as a possible explanation: “One way of capturing it is to say that the other divides are born out of separation and inequality, but the racial divide is born out of sin.”

It’s a curious but—for Brooks—ideologically cohesive distinction. As a conservative, inequality and separation (while present levels are perhaps in his mind no doubt obscene, and while he himself may even argue the need for more fair-minded and moral policy to mitigate their scope) are ultimately matters grounded in the individual’s right to differ. If I am not materially well off, but choose to invest in a certain stock and end up experiencing an impressive percentage of return, am I sinning? If my family has always lived in the suburbs and unfailingly voted Republican, are we a family implicated in sin? Considered in the abstract, no. If, however, a person ceases to be a human to me on the basis of the color of their skin, I inarguably forfeit a defensible position wherein I could be said to not be acting from a place of innate wickedness and clearly violating what Brooks calls the “natural moral order to the universe.”

And so it’s in this respect that, for Brooks, the racial divide is categorically different: because white America presumed it had a right to differ itself qua humans from African-Americans. It is coherent only as a pure corruption of the heart, and Brooks feels as such that there is no option for healing that rent in our nation’s soul but in a spiritual return that confers a full sense of humanity and collective belonging upon black America. But the case for being seen as equally human is not the same as the case for being made equally American. And insofar as Brooks understands himself to be making the ‘case’ for reparations—or that his is a persuasive and compelling exposition of the singular plight endured by black America—he is woefully deluded. In a post-What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap world, it feels at minimum irresponsible if not altogether inimical to justice to have any contribution to the discourse of reparations out there that studiously avoids confronting the basic fact of how whatever chance a person has today of attaining an even remotely normal life in America is tied directly to which side of the legacy they were on after it was decided that white America would have material gains originated and sustained for it over the course of generations, while black America would be made to suffer material losses in equal measure over that same period of time. The entire landscape of American life—economic, political, civic—is in the fullest sense a pure and abiding expression of that. And what seems to completely elude Brooks’s awareness of what gives the racial divide a “dimension of depth,” or why that divide seems, as Brooks also writes, “more central to the American experience” than the others, is precisely because those other divisions—rich/poor; urban/rural; red/blue—are all in essence extensions of the deliberate separation of people into categories Black and White which served as the foundational basis for the economic ambitions of the United States. To point out the intensity of that divide relative to the others is like remarking on how the root of a tree seems to have more depth than its branches.

Which is why for all of his ostensibly deep ruminating, Brooks evinces no real desire for bringing to light the actual material implications of the racial divide. Either that, or he is just a phenomenally ill-equipped thinker when it comes to the function of race in America across centuries. Because if he were in fact committed to revealing deeper truths about what makes it unique in its essential and original evil, the assessment of the racial divide simply would not just point to how one side morally transgressed when it denied the other its humanity; it would necessarily aim to carry that thought to a further point of completeness and approach the divide between black and white America in the most genuinely reparative-oriented manner: by talking in clear and explicit terms about how that moral rupture was the flint and steel to spark American free enterprise, serving to place one group at a distinct advantage to reap the benefits of that system, and feeding its failure directly back into the other group and then letting (and oftentimes managing at the federal level) the logic of consolidation over generations ensure the enduring and fixed nature of that advantage and injustice. Then and only then does the terrifying salience of the racial divide really begin to take shape.

More than enmity between black and white America which in many ways has at least superficially abated, it is the ever-widening chasm of access to opportunity that best describes their relation. It is the material outcome of the legacy of discriminatory government policies and a private sphere absolutely rife with hostilities toward black people. And in the cause to provide redress for that condition, spirituality can only be one of several available means, but not an end in itself. That latter possibility is what it seems like Brooks is ultimately arguing for. His is always an anatomy of society in the midst of spiritual crises. And in the case of the racial divide, actual reparations is, for Brooks, basically an afterthought. This much is apparent in his appeal to one particular passage in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on the same subject which conveniently supports Brooks’s notion that an ideal of justice will come from our looking inward: “Coates’s essay seems right now,” Brooks writes, “especially this part: ‘And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” It’s a telling selection, and one which ultimately allows him to shift the focus off what would actually be required to make black America whole; a reassuring but wholly fallacious message to himself and his readers that the racial divide is most appropriately and purely served by a redistribution of our compassion and not of what’s in Uncle Sam’s pockets.

In the end, the question that animates Brooks’s column has already been pretty well unpacked and answered, especially as of late. Read Darity. Listen to Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore. Listen to a sermon by the Reverend Doctor Kevin Cosby where he takes spirituality out of the realm of the ethereal and makes the justice demands of the gospel materially relevant to the black community. The information that can help acquaint a person with the distinct nature of the racial divide and the data informing the justice claim of American Descendants of Slavery all the way up to the present day is out there. And if, like Brooks, you are afforded access to a platform like the New York Times to step up to the plate on behalf of black America and that justice claim, it’s really not that hard to keep your eye on the ball and take the fucking swing. Don’t get up there and daydream about how nice it would be if the game wasn’t rigged against certain players. Or that in the American context those seemingly benign instances of inequality and separation can be thought of as in some sense not sprung from and bound up in the sin of the racial divide.1 In so doing, a person appears as either incapable of really advancing the mission, or an opportunist who is co-opting the issue for their own purposes. And given the imprecision of Brooks’s analysis, the non-specificity of justice, and his well-worn spiritual agenda, it’s not exactly a stretch to attribute some rather dubious motives to his sudden concern over healing the racial divide. It’s like that old adage: “Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” Give David Brooks a column and he will find that everything he encounters needs spiritualism. And if he’s really so concerned about why some things ‘feel’ particularly more morally detestable than others, he need look no further than considering what it means to pen a column that takes the singular issue of reparations, empties it of its material dimension, and uses it as a carrier argument for the need to recognize our cosmic interconnectedness.


1. To use the earlier example: how to account for white Americans participating in the stock market at such higher levels than black Americans with similar education and income?

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As American as Red-baiting: A Snapshot of Russian Web Traffic to One Very Pro-#ADOS Movement Space on the Internet

[Author’s note, added 3/7/19: It seems a few people declaiming this post online have this scenario in their heads wherein when I first hit the publish button, I’d apparently done so with a smug understanding that I would—with that single keystroke—effectively be putting to rest any suggestion of Russian involvement in the #ADOS movement. Alas, no. And while I find the below metric indicating traffic from Russian IP addresses to an explicitly pro-#ADOS site striking and kind of humorous (given the widely adopted theory that #ADOS is part of some Russian plot to sabotage the Democratic Party’s chances in 2020), I’m also pretty mindful of how one example of something constitutes a rather weak case for saying anything really conclusive about the larger phenomenon on which it intends to comment. But before totally dismissing this, it seems to me worth considering how the data supplied here—limited though it may be—nonetheless represents literally 100 percent more evidence suggestive of a basic *lack* of Russian engagement with #ADOS than anything that has thus far been produced by the supposed ‘experts’ who are appearing in the national media and actually stating as fact the matter of Russian infiltration. After all, one would think that these are people who have access to (or can easily obtain) the material that would corroborate the narrative they’re putting forward. The fact that they simply seem to be uninterested in doing that should really be the impetus for ridicule and derision rather than the appearance of a small bit of data that is—at the very least—interested in contributing to less speculative account of a situation.]

That’s .008% engagement from Russia over the last year, the place named by Democratic Party loyalists and intelligence ‘experts’ as the apparent hotbed for weaponizing and disseminating #ADOS dezinformatsiya throughout social media.

I invite you to extrapolate.

#notAbot

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Consider the Mule: Antonio Moore & Marianne Williamson in Conversation

Say you are taking a test.

You are taking a test and you come to a multiple choice question that reads like this…

Q: The following quote—Sometimes there is externalized oppression and injustice and unfairness, but the deeper injustice is within our minds”—typifies an attitude ordinarily found in which of the following viewpoints:

a.) Conservative

b.) Liberal

c.) Progressive

d.) The candidate who has made reparations for American slavery a primary plank in her presidential campaign platform

In a way it’s sort of a trick question; because in modern politics, the dismissive attitude toward deep, structural barriers to achievement expressed in that statement has taken root in the capital-T ‘Thought’ of both A and B, and even—although in a less pronounced way—some self-styled Cs. But what you would probably not hesitate to eliminate from consideration is option D. After all, isn’t the whole raison behind being an advocate for something like reparations for slavery (and the legacy of accrued disadvantages endured by those victims’ descendants) borne out of a pellucid awareness of how absolute is the degree to which systems and structures determine an individual’s ability to navigate and meaningfully participate in American life? One would think—one would hope—that if there were one person in whom this type of self-help platitude wouldn’t find a proponent, it would be a pro-reparations candidate for president.

Nonetheless, these were the exact words spoken last week by Marianne Williamson—a candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination—to Antonio Moore, a co-founder of the American Descendants of Slavery movement (ADOS). Williamson was responding to a question posed by Moore about whether or not she—as a minor candidate who is taking up the not exactly widely celebrated cause of making black America economically whole—could identify with, and relate to, ADOS’s recent experience of having larger, establishment interests coordinate what he called a “minimalization of [its] voice because it doesn’t fit the narrative of what [they] need to be said.” And while her answer wasn’t about black America per se, it’s really troubling to hear this little bit of pop-psych wisdom surface in a general discussion about the realities of structural disadvantage and the lengths to which those with power will go to discredit and delegitimize insurgent movements in order to preserve the status quo. Williamson concludes her response by telling Moore, “So where I feel none of this would hold us back…is if there’s enough activation within us.”

It’s again that last phrase that just sort of clangs around in the ear after it hits: if there’s enough activation within.

For the last century and a half, there’s been a basically bipartisan consensus on the inability of black America to simply ‘activate’ itself. And while the self-help literature industry from which Williamson emerges traffics endlessly in this sort of vernacular, the matter of black uplift to which she now addresses herself demands an entirely different and wholly distinct register. Absent this, one wonders if there’s a point where Williamson’s metaphysics and personal philosophies begin to contradict or—at minimum—complicate her ability to really persuasively and meaningfully advance the national discussion about reparations; a national discussion which has regrettably appeared to reach its apotheosis with exactly that language of individual agency being weaponized against black America to exculpate the profound influence of this country’s monstrous history of racism on the present, and to abjure the basis for reparative justice. In order to move beyond that, a candidate like Williamson—who does in fact seem to earnestly care about how we can use the institutional juice of government to repair the desperate situation that American Descendants of Slavery have been made to inhabit—ought to be way more conscious of how that sort of rhetoric plays so very neatly into the arguments of those who will forever reject the idea of the socio-economic immobility of the black community as being a semipermanent systemic feature and instead attribute it to some psychological deficiency of its group’s members.


Williamson is big on history. And a lot of her hopefulness in being able to create the political will for a reparations package seems to rely on really drilling down into the past, bringing it to light, and elucidating white America on how the post-emancipation period saw a basically immediate and radical attenuation of freedom and opportunity for black America. She cites the failure to provide freed slaves with forty acres and a mule—and how we probably wouldn’t even be having this discussion if that promise had actually been delivered—as something to which the white audiences with whom she speaks across the country really connect. And Moore’s got this real brilliant thing he does during this part of the interview where he talks about how anyone like Williamson who is trying to meaningfully do reparations needs to take extreme care not to succumb to a discourse of justice that tends to “forget the mule.”

Williamson nods politely while she listens, and you can see by her expression that she’s actively trying to process what exactly that statement means: we tend to forget the mule.

I think this is another instance (you see something similar happen in the interview he did with Rothstein a while back) where Moore is talking about blackness and its relation to wealth in America in a way that a lot of people who outwardly profess a commitment to racial justice either really struggle with applying certain concepts of redress, or they simply just don’t get it. Because the forty acres is one thing; and indeed—by adjusting for the valuation of acreage during that time, translating it into present dollars—we can look to that as a basically knowable figure for what compensation for descendants of slavery might entail. But, as Moore points out, it’s really the lack of the mule—the tool used to cultivate that land, and to make it maximally profitable, and thus be what really allowed a family to participate meaningfully in American civic, economic and political life—that most accurately characterizes the ever-compounding nature of black exclusion and what has driven the tremendous advantage of whiteness. And to the extent that our reparations discourse—if it fails to bring all those elements together in a coherent way and directly connect that sustained exclusion to its profound intensity right now in the present—will be woefully and ruinously inadequate.

Moore usually talks about this stuff in terms of ‘plugs’ and ‘outlets.’ Outlets are just opportunities for advantage, and plugs are what an individual can leverage in service of accessing them. For Moore, navigating American life in some recognizably normal way is really just about a person being able to insert a plug into an outlet in order to realize a possible benefit. It’s fairly straight forward. The forty acres was really just the outlet; the mule was supposed to function as the original plug, which is to say that it’s what a family would have used to start building out assets across generations, providing a measure of stability to help keep pace with opportunity’s ever-increasing cost in America.

Of course, that didn’t happen at all with black America. And their best efforts to build wealth following the denial of those critical resources were not only suppressed by the menacing violence of terrorists but by the decades-long quiet and subdued violence of anti-black public policy; so much so that now American Descendants of Slavery inhabit so severely disadvantaged a position in the vastly unequal landscape of national life that the process of doing violence unto the group is more or less automated. How else would you describe an existence in which—just to try to survive—the most wealth-poor group is forced to assume ever-greater debt to be able to compete for access to opportunities in predominantly white institutions that offer absolutely zero guarantee of actually paying off or guarding against the discrimination and bias of private actors? Access to education—and the enervation of HBCUs which are institutions meant to be responsive to the black experience in America—is a great example of this, and it’s what Moore brings up to Williamson during the interview:

“We see that now today in schooling and education,” he says. “We see black students unable to pay student debt; they went out and got these educations that they can’t plug into anywhere. So I ask you, also, what are your thoughts about HBCUs?”

What follows is basically Marianne Williamson’s own ‘Aleppo’ moment:

“What is HBCU?” she asks Moore. And after he tells her, she continues: “Well, I would ask you for the most informed information on that. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Am I…I would ask you. Is that a good thing? Isn’t it a good thing? I mean aren’t historically black colleges—I mean I would assume that when they were set up maybe they were not with the best of intention because they might have come from a consciousness of segregation at that time, but isn’t it…I mean…I think that there are Jewish universities, and so why shouldn’t there be black universities and women’s universities if that’s what people choose. What am I missing?”

The answer is a lot. Marianne Williamson is clearly missing a lot. There are multiple instances throughout the interview that betray a very real deficiency in her understanding of black life in America. And it would probably be pretty easy to be cynical about her whole campaign and kind of write her off as a nice, well-educated and obviously articulate lady who is maybe just a little too mystical and a little too out of step with certain political realities to really be considered a viable or even capable messenger for reparations on a national level.

Except there’s something really telling and worth paying attention to in her admittedly fumbling response to the HBCU question. It’s when she says to Moore, “I would ask you for the most informed information on that.” It’s literally the first thing she says when confronted with her own ignorance about a subject that significantly impacts black America. And yeah, it’s troubling that she doesn’t know what an HBCU is. But there’s something real and genuine and refreshing in that moment in which her instinct is to defer entirely to the black person in the room. And insofar as there’s a candidate in the field who is going to center the issue of reparations, maybe someone who feels they have all the answers is kind of less important or valuable than someone who recognizes they need to be listening to—and getting their information from—the right sources in the black community. Williamson—having already spoken with Sandy Darity, and having personally invited Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell to be sitting at the table if and when there comes a time to shape reparative justice policy—seems to critically recognize that she needs to be doing exactly that, and that seems important.

Consider the particular valence an expression like ‘going out on a limb for…’ takes on in the context of publicly advocating for American Descendants of Slaves to be made whole. While she’s got her shortcomings—and they are serious shortcomings—Marianne Williamson is engaged in that, and she deserves a lot of credit for staking out a position on structural racism that isn’t afraid to propose how a solution to the problem of one specific group’s deliberate, centuries-long exclusion from American life must be particular to that oppressed group and proportional to that cost if it’s to function as actual justice. To the extent you feel this issue needs to be brought into the discussion during the Democratic primary debates, I would encourage you to go to Williamson’s website and make a donation to her campaign that will help satisfy the new DNC requirements for grassroots fundraising and allow her to use that platform to foreground the cause of #ADOS. She’s clearly signaling that she’s open to having the very best people in her ear.

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With Allies Like These: #ADOS and the Hegemony of Liberation Dogma

With the creation of #ADOS, Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore have thrown the railroad switch on the black agenda train in American politics. Predictably, the conductors and passengers aboard the People of Color Express—who’ve long promoted the idea of a shared destination regardless of one’s station of origin—are venting their spleens online, responding with the usual mixture of supercilious disdain and petulant mewling at the group’s insistence that, as a matter of basic preservation for the black community, a program of self-interested political action that actually corresponds to its particular oppression is imperative.

That strident outcry against #ADOS—that it is divisive; that it is ego-driven; that it is insufficiently committed to overhauling deeper structural phenomena—recalls nothing so much as the song of a bird who has come to love its cage. And while the contemporary radical or revolutionary ‘movements’ pronounce upon the apparently unprincipled nature of the #ADOS project—regarding as naïve and frivolous its advocacy for reparations from the U.S. Government, and chastising it for not joining in swearing fealty to some ostensibly unifying ideal of Pan-Africanism that is today arguably more sentimental and nostalgic than it is emancipatory—it’s tough to discern what they actually find more upsetting: the movement’s actual politics, or the movement’s actual movement.

Relevance is an enviable quality, and #ADOS’s ascendancy in our national politics is maybe nowhere more apparent than in the swift and coordinated efforts by Democratic establishment interests to neutralize it and seal off any space beyond the margins where its agenda could be more broadly expressed and advanced. And insofar as these total smear campaigns are being mounted against a movement that represents nothing so much as an emerging awareness that the language of shared struggle is the graveyard of justice for black America, it ought to raise some legitimate questions about who that rhetoric actually belongs to in the first place. After all, if the real threat to power is in a federation of undifferentiated black and brown people, it would seem like a lot of unnecessary trouble to marshal the black loyalists in the party to help promulgate the idea of the #ADOS movement as running 2020 election interference for the Russians, when—according to the ‘solidarity across group boundaries’ assumption at the core of most oppositional politics—the group’s self-isolation from the unified front should render it basically ineffectual anyway.

One wonders if it’s possible, then, that the idea of a shared fate of all marginalized people maybe proves more advantageous to a political class that has demonstrated that language to be far more effective as a means of social control for black America than it has been in actually producing some actionable revolutionary consciousness. Moreover, what does it mean to have a major political party be observably on the defensive, deploying the Afro-functionaries in its ranks to try and discredit the movement, all because a group is shifting the usual terms of engagement away from a global framework and instead situating its specific justice claim squarely within the arena of the national?

Whatever the answer to these questions, the #ADOS movement is proceeding from a position that says black America simply no longer has the luxury of an engagement with power that is essentially emotional, and that its survival as a group with a specific justice claim for the accrued disadvantages tied to America’s well-preserved racial caste system depends on drawing a very clear distinction between the performative and that which is actually political. As for the various diasporic elements whose reaction is to sneer and deride them in that mission, their position is little except vanity. At minimum, they ought to drop the arrogant pretense that their opposition to the movement is rooted in some high principle of revolutionary ideology and just admit that they simply have no respect for them or what they are trying to accomplish. Admit that the specific oppression that American Descendants of Slavery have endured as a group matters to them only insofar as they would homogenize it, genuflect and acquiesce to co-sign the big, fat conceit at the center of a politics of sameness: that is, that there exists some world state—one in higher authority to the sovereign nations themselves that have carried out and perpetuated the various injustices—that these oppressed groups can stand before as one and argue their case.

Alas, the reality that there exists no such entity is, though, always a matter to be postponed for the revolutionary diaspora. In the interim, those who—like #ADOS—are seen as breaking rank with the broader marginalized to mobilize in self-interest, bringing their history of particular discrimination before a government with the actual authority to make laws and allocate resources, are denigrated and ridiculed as being hopelessly deluded and solipsistic. One thing here bears mentioning: while the #ADOS movement is being reproached and spoken of derisively as a disunifying force in emancipatory politics, the group itself has never once promoted or engaged in this seemingly paradoxical and definitely antagonistic relationship to another oppressed group’s condition. While #ADOS may object on the level of strategy, or point out what it sees as the glaring problem of a lack of reciprocity in support for its struggle, it has never—not once—blatantly disrespected or belittled the fact of the enormous historical importance of a particular group’s oppression and what they may be owed as a result.

And this is why it’s hard not to hear in the denunciation from all sides of #ADOS a tacit, resentful endorsement of the structural subjugation that has so particularized their experience as a group. And it’s so odd how those detractors of the movement—who no doubt would profess to espouse a style of radical thought that is foundationally committed to rejecting all manifestations of hegemonies—are either unaware or just totally indifferent to the fact that they are subjecting American Descendants of Slavery to yet another form of hegemony, that of today’s social-critical thought favored by the Left. In so doing, they more resemble the oppressors whose attitudes of tyranny and intolerance and coercive obedience they claim to denounce than the apparent champions of personal liberty of black and brown people across the globe.

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Bricks Without Straw: Black America, The West Louisville Forum & the Need to Shift the Giving Paradigm

There’s a special kind of torment that you sometimes see actively rupturing among some of the more socially-responsible or at least ‘right-inclined’ members of the white community once the sheer profoundness of black disadvantage really starts to sink in. Or maybe it’s not just the fact of its sheer profoundness. But rather it’s the sort of ‘Deep Impact’ moment of becoming aware of all the ways in which every dimension of white life is predicated on that disadvantage. And that to inhabit whiteness as an American without participating in a type of politics that points a way out of that societal and economic parasitism is to remain basically complicit in its production. It’s like witnessing in real time all of those little switch valves that a white psyche possesses in order to divert the flow of difficult and awful truths all suddenly beginning to not open anymore.

So it’s not surprising when the presentations from Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore—two individuals whose unsparing analysis of race in America can reliably excite some of that latent white hysteria surrounding what’s really lurking beneath the floorboards of that house of stability they’ve come to know and love and understand as white life—have one white audience member during the Q&A portion of today’s forum in St. Stephen Church desperate for concrete answers as to what meaningful actions she (and other whites) can take in order to help effect justice for black people.

There’s an almost pleading quality in the woman’s voice when she asks her question:

‘Um, as a white person who’s trying to grasp the difference—the supremacy…the culture—that has undergirded everything in such a negative way still today, this is overwhelming for me to grasp what you all are saying about ‘redlining philanthropy.’ I’ve not heard this before. Um, the story has to be told more, obviously. But, um, aside from—and I’m not asking…I’m conflicted in saying…because I don’t want to put this on black people to come up with what should white people do, there’s already plenty—but as white people who are intending to do right things, aside from giving to historically black colleges, regardless of the tax or not tax benefit, what can we be doing? The connections, the sharing, the social exchanges…I’m hearing that…I’m hearing a lot. But I don’t know… What do you value the most that we can be doing?’

ξ


We now—in terms of philanthropic giving and charitable giving—have a red line drawn around black institutions across this nation — Antonio Moore

Philanthropic redlining could, in a way, be described as the fulfillment of the ostensibly political act—hope—that was printed on the ’08 Obama campaign posters. Of course hope is obviously not a political act. It is simply—when you tally up the ledger of a political agenda like Obama’s that was so clearly partial to the rich—the remaining public balance. As Antonio Moore points out during his presentation at the forum, Obama—while undoing black wealth—helped usher in an unprecedented number of millionaires during his time in office. Moore’s analysis is worth quoting in full:

‘Since 2015, as a result of policy, new white wealth has calcified. Let me explain: everybody talks about Obama and the destruction of black wealth, but very rarely do we talk about the creation of white wealth. It was a parlor trick. By not giving the [bailout] money from the Great Recession to the home owners, it deeply affected black wealth because black people have property as their main asset. Very rarely do they have stocks, the small amount of black people that do have wealth. So you’ve cratered black wealth. Well, at the same time [Obama] does quantitative easing, leading to a boost in the stock market and creating a new class of white wealth who will be the givers in this nation due to a tax policy that benefits them. So in 2015, America has 4.5 million millionaires. By 2018, America has 17.5 million millionaires, nearly all white or foreign. There are no ADOS saviors for St. Stephen Church and Simmons College.’

In other words, philanthropic redlining is the predictable outcome of the federal government’s failure to remunerate American Descendants of Slaves following centuries of that group’s bondage and the several decades of discriminatory policies that principally functioned to keep wealth out of the black community, while at the very same time, consolidating it in white America. For black institutions, which across the country languish in the shadow of a policy like redlining, the wealth that was created and then hoarded within white America is now a primary funding source upon which those institutions must rely to actually be able to move forward in fulfilling their historic mission of black uplift. That private wealth—the potential tax dollars which our government prefers to abstain from democratizing and redistributing in the public interest—belongs to a donor class to which black America in its nearly-perennial condition of forced dependency must now beseech in hopes that those few individuals might in kind look sympathetically and charitably upon their specific plight.

But for Yvette Carnell, the homogenous networks of social connections of the ultra-rich only portend further enervation of these black institutions, since those networks naturally exclude American Descendants of Slaves. Philanthropic giving, then, is merely a reflection of well-established structures of society—white wealth flowing into white institutions—when what black America urgently needs, according to Carnell, is a serious refutation of that model.

‘We as citizens are supposed to define our priorities as a country,’ she defiantly says to the audience gathered at St. Stephen Church. ‘A billionaire should not have the right to tell us—descendants of slaves—that you don’t get your justice. That your unpaid time, your unpaid labor, the oppression of over four-hundred years does not get to be paid because I don’t think I have enough money and I don’t care and I don’t desire to fund it.’

As a substitute, Carnell says, American Descendants of Slaves must advocate for greater government involvement in redistributing tax dollars, which is to say, redistributing power. ‘You need [government] to be big, you need it to be robust and you need it to work on our behalf,’ she says, stressing that black America cannot realistically rely on the resources of the ultra-rich when the quid pro quo nature of social and economic exchange in supercapitalist America de facto writes Descendants of Slaves out of the equation.


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There’s this video clip that Antonio Moore plays before he begins his presentation that offers the audience in the St. Stephen sanctuary a real stark example of what exactly this exchange that Yvette Carnell refers to looks like. In the video, Madeline Levin recounts her experience of speaking with parents whose children aspire to attend the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities: ‘What [the parents] do,’ she says, ‘is instead of attaching a check for one hundred and seventy-five dollars with your child’s application, you attach a check for one million and seventy-five and you just staple it on.’

This practice of buying access accords with what Moore often refers to as ‘the rise of legacy,’ a way of looking at outcomes in a person’s life less as a result of individual effort, and rather as a fundamental expression of whose ancestors were either beneficiaries or victims during a now bygone era of wealth-building in the United States. During his presentation, Moore highlights how this rise of legacy sharply reveals itself in race-specific ways, noting the extremely disproportionate number of students that attend HBCUs on Pell Grants as compared to the slim number of Pell Grant recipients found at the nation’s premiere colleges and universities. ‘8 HBCUs have over 90 per cent of their students receiving Pell Grants,’ he says, ‘Harvard is 11 per cent.’ And for Moore, the money that feeds into that latter institution—and which then circulates throughout other white-dominant spaces—is destined to remain as segregated as the nation itself: ‘What happens under philanthropic redlining is that the 90 per cent of Harvard that doesn’t receive Pell grants just gives to each other,’ he says. ‘They give to each other for all kinds of endeavors, but none of those endeavors deal with correcting why black people have to receive Pell Grants.’

As for why that is, it seems reasonable to view it as less a pure expression of anti-black attitudes, and more as simply (though no less nefariously) behavior patterned after what our deeply anti-black institutions have been structured to promote and reward. ‘They’re exchanging social capital,’ Carnell says, ‘They’re exchanging something they need at that tier with something somebody else needs at that tier, and [American Descendants of Slaves] come there with nothing.’

In light of this, what is required, then—and what has always been at the core of the Breaking Brown project—is a regimented and disciplined approach of that group around a bold, justice-driven agenda that recognizes and responds to the dramatically weak institutional capacity in the black community as a major obstacle to uplift and a deliberate creation of federal policy. Carnell looks out into the pews before her and counsels: ‘Your life, and what is happening to Simmons College…what you are seeing is a starving out. We are being starved out. And we are not any help to ourselves in terms of how we’re being starved out because we believe that societies are structured by personal agency rather than structures and institutions.’

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“There has only been one college to make a comeback of the HBCUs. Only one in history. One that went down and came back. It’s Simmons. And let me say this: the reason why it came back was not because of black folk money.” — Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby

To return to the white woman in the audience who when we last left her was in a state of seemingly painful suspense to learn what she can possibly do, provided all of this extremely disheartening information about how white life is essentially organized around the accrued advantages of multigenerational anti-black policies and—later—‘race-neutral’ policies that nonetheless came so preloaded with the former’s economic disadvantages that they managed do the work of ensuring that the black community would be efficiently and systematically excluded anyway.

Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby responds to her by saying, ‘Louisville is the model.’

Dr. Cosby is the senior pastor at St. Stephen Church, who—when he’s preaching about justice to a congregation—routinely invokes the trope of
‘courageous ears;’ that is, a willingness of a person to surrender preconception, shed bias, and to begin from the premise that his or her most basic assumptions about American society, and maybe even about themselves, are potentially unreliable guideposts in governing their involvement in working toward the improvement of U.S. race relations. It means recognizing how perhaps our sensibilities about those race relations have long been powerfully shaped by a status quo-affirming barrage of propaganda, and how even in our most well-intentioned endeavors the tendency is to bring with us colonial attitudes that presuppose the very power relations that have historically conditioned the obscene level of inequality we ostensibly oppose.

In Louisville, those individuals and organizations who were moved to invest in the city’s black-led institutions, and who gave them new life, did so by having courageous ears; by hearing and respecting that essential modifier: black-led.

‘Do you know how Simmons got kicked off?’ Dr. Cosby asks the audience. ‘I went to a white man named David Jones Sr., and said, “Mr. Jones, I know nothing about higher education. I’m a pastor. Simmons is about to close. It has no money. It has no accreditation. But it’s a historic institution that can become Louisville’s HBCU if somebody invested in it.” And guess what he did? He gave the school in February—Black History month of February of 2005—unrestricted funds in which he said, “Here’s a check for a million dollars.” And the same thing has happened to the Gheens Foundation, who is here, and thank God for them…We have a headquarters building that was the former—check this out—the former Sons of the American Revolution because the Brown Foundation gave the school three-million dollars.’

No doubt Rev. Dr. Cosby understands that—in terms of solutions for making black people whole in this country—the coffers of private donors are necessarily ancillary to a more appropriately-scaled suite of reparative federal policies that take in tax dollars and redistribute wealth in a way that redresses how black institutions in the U.S. have generally been rendered impotent and hobbled in their purpose. Nonetheless, as a model of white cooperation, the investment of resources into Simmons College of Kentucky is instructive because it demonstrates not only what is possible with an allyship that defers to the leadership of black people, but also what the supporting role that whites ought to play in the project of black liberation looks like. The importance of this arrangement—and not just in philanthropy, but in the freedom struggle more generally—is something on which Yvette Carnell closes out the forum:

‘When I say that it’s importantfor you to be here, I want to make it clear when I say that, I’m not justsaying be somewhere where we’re talking about race or redlining. What I’mtalking about is the importance of white people being led by black people. Thisis St. Stephen. That’s Reverend Cosby. So you’re willing to learn what youshould be doing from us. And not enough do we have white people who are willingto be led by black people in these types of organizations. So if you want afirst step, this room needs to be filled up with a lot more white people.’



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Holding All The Slavery: Michelle Alexander, Jose Antonio Vargas, and the New Citizenship of the Same Old Notblackness

This past week, the New York Times published an Op-ed by Michelle Alexander entitled “None Of Us Deserve Citizenship.” And for anyone who’s been following Mrs. Alexander’s work recently, the subject matter—while a departure from her previous scholarship on the incarceration of black men as a modern analog to Jim Crow—probably doesn’t register as too much of a surprise.

Last November, she sat down with Jose Antonio Vargas—the author of the book Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen—at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary for an installment of the institution’s ‘Spirit of Justice’ series. During the discussion, the two used Mr. Vargas’s memoir as an entryway into exploring ‘vital questions of our time,’ all of which were informed by precisely the sort of nervous, hand-wringing worry over our apparently hypocritical and morally bankrupt relationship to the concept of citizenship that Michelle Alexander expressed in her Times column last Friday.

As was plainly evident that night, Mrs. Alexander and Mr. Vargas share a sympathetic view of undocumented immigrants and are equally troubled by prevailing attitudes toward the group. To use Vargas’s own words, his work aims to shift our understanding of immigrants away from one in which they are “seen as mere labor”—their “physical bodies judged by perceptions of what [they] contribute, or what [they] take”—and toward an understanding grounded in compassion in which their existence is no longer “as broadly criminalized as it is commodified.”1

Yet for all of its concern with the dehumanizing plight of undocumented immigrants, Dear America is noticeably void of references to figures both past and present who have actually fought for rights on behalf of that group and advocated for exactly the sort of liberal immigration policy that the book itself seems to uphold as the enlightened, progressive model we ought to strive to implement. People like Sylvia Mendez, Rodolfo Gonzales, Luisa Moreno and Ravi Ragbar receive no mention at all in the two-hundred plus pages given over to encouraging a reader to reimagine what citizenship means; to—as Vargas had said that night at Union Theological Seminary—think of citizenship not “as by law or by paper,” but rather as a fundamentally moral way of belonging in the world that first asks “what is my relationship to other people?”2

Instead, it is to African-Americans—particularly Civil Rights leaders and writers—that Mr. Vargas predominantly appeals when putting forward the radical argument that we ought to jettison citizenship as that which confers certain civic and legal rights onto an individual. Which is to say that the group whose history has been a lethal struggle to actually even just partially secure citizenship as some kind of basic defense against the otherwise wholesale assault on black life in America—let alone be able to meaningfully participate in the opportunities offered in the world’s richest nation (riches they made possible)—is the very group Mr. Vargas would point to when trying to advance a project that ultimately seeks to make that access available to anyone on the planet.

This leveraging of the particular U.S. black experience in the service of other marginalized groups was apparent onstage in November when he was asked by Michelle Alexander essentially the same question that animated her recent Times column: that is, if there is no moral justification for our political borders, then what? Mr. Vargas began his response by saying, “Migration is going to be the defining question of the twenty-first century,” a claim which recalls nothing so much as it does W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous proclamation from The Souls of Black Folk, where he writes, “The problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color line.”

Of course what’s so troubling about Mr. Vargas’s assertion is the assumption which—at its core—suggests that we have meaningfully resolved that social dilemma here at home of which Du Bois spoke, and that we should now apply our resources toward providing relief for a new generation of victims of U.S. foreign policy. Or that—insofar as we concede that we have not resolved it—there shouldn’t be any reason to view the sort of justice owed the black community and the plight of undocumented immigrants as fraught with any sort of tension, or as mutually exclusive given certain realities in our political economy.

It’s this attitude which—if adopted uncritically in a broader movement of social justice—is one that necessarily threatens to undermine the specific justice claim of American descendants of slaves, one by which citizenship can be conceived as the primary mechanism for holding government accountable for its constitutional transgressions against them as a group. Nonetheless, when Michelle Alexander asks Mr. Vargas if he is optimistic about African-Americans adopting a position wherein their citizenship ceases to serve that specific emancipatory possibility, he responds again by appealing to a member of their group: “I have the James Baldwin answer,” he says, “I cannot afford to be a pessimist because I am alive. And to be a pessimist means that life is nothing but an academic matter and so therefore I am forced to be an optimist.” He then says “it’s inevitable,” and that “the only way out of this mess that we are in is to insist on how these issues and these peoples are interconnected, all intersectional.”


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James Baldwin is referenced a total of five times in Mr. Vargas’s book. “Baldwin challenged my very core,” he writes. Toni Morrison is mentioned seven times: “No book stimulated me more than Morrison’s [The Bluest Eye]”. Along with Maya Angelou, these authors comprise what Vargas considers his “holy trinity of spiritual guidance.” Black writers, he maintains, “gave [him] permission to question America.”

There is, though, a thin line between permission to critique and permission to co-opt. And it appears Vargas is very much engaged in a project of the latter with respect to the African-American struggle in this country. Dear America is filled with instances that betray a total cluelessness of how the black experience in America is fundamentally an experience of continuously being made to undergo the consequences of coming from chattel slavery, a particularity whose essential economic dimension differentiates it from that of other minorities who—precisely because they emerge from an entirely different historical circumstance—have been afforded a relatively greater degree of social mobility in America.

That Vargas is either indifferent toward this distinction, or simply oblivious, is apparent when he writes: “Understanding the experience of black people in America—why black was created so people could be white—pried open how Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups have been historically oppressed through laws and systems that had little to do with what was right.” In fact, a genuine understanding of the experience of black people in America would necessarily acknowledge the specific quality of its injustice, and not try to shoehorn the struggle to right that wrong in with a plurality of oppressed groups who have all historically enjoyed a modicum of advantage at the expense of black people who were repeatedly excluded from access to opportunities to be lifted out of grinding, generational poverty.

That advantage is in fact nowhere more obvious than in Mr. Vargas’s own family’s experience in America. His great Aunt, who was married to a former U.S. marine, owned the 3-bedroom house in California in which Vargas lived throughout his childhood.3 The name of the town Vargas grew up in is Mountain View, which is located in Santa Clara county.

Like so many American cities, Mountain View was extremely hostile to efforts at residential integration. In his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein tells the story of Ben Gross, the chair of the Ford automobile plant’s union housing committee. After Ford executives announced plans to close the plant in the Richmond-Oakland area and move production to an expanded facility in Milpitas about an hour south, Mr. Gross tried to find a developer to create an interracial subdivision that would provide housing for the plant’s approximately 250 black workers whose union had negotiated an agreement that allowed them to keep their jobs and be transferred to the new plant.

Rothstein describes how—looking at Mountain View as a possible location—the developer “could not find a financial institution in the San Francisco Bay Area willing to provide funds for a development that would permit sales to African Americans.” Forced to look elsewhere for financing, a loan was eventually secured from the vice-president of New York’s Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. However, as Rothstein says, “when the builder’s intent to sell to both blacks and whites became known, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors moved to rezone the site from residential to industrial use.” On the developer’s next attempt to obtain a different plot of land in Mountain View for integrated housing, city officials informed him “they would never grant the necessary approvals” for a project of that nature. Soon after, Rothstein writes, “the builder gave up.”

During this same time was when another developer—a man named William Blackfield—broke ground on Rex Manor, a tract of 394 homes in Mountain View, one of which would become the house that Mr. Vargas’s great aunt and her husband would own.4 That house, located on Farley Street, is now valued at 1.7 million dollars, which is in fact the median price of homes throughout Rex Manor and just slightly less than the median home value in the Mountain View area more generally, which is 1.9 million. Given the racially restrictive history that Rothstein described, and the way in which that pattern of segregation tends to get reproduced each generation, it does not require much thought as to which group holds effectively none of that wealth. Indeed, the black population of Rex Manor—at 2%—is basically nonexistent. And on Farley Street—where Mr. Vargas presumably began to absorb the full measure of the black experience in this country—it is literally 0.0%.


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“The parallels are endless,” Michelle Alexander told Mr. Vargas in November, between the phenomenon of mass incarceration and that of mass deportation. “People don’t generally think of mass incarceration as being a response to demographic shifts,” she said, with Vargas sitting beside her in an attitude of thoughtfulness, nodding along, “but that’s exactly what it was, as suddenly this huge new population of people were entering into new neighborhoods, new jobs, and then people began to fear the loss of their white racial status.”

In a way, it was sort of baffling to have witnessed firsthand the nation’s preeminent scholar on mass incarceration describe in such baldly misleading terms the circumstances that led to the unprecedented imprisonment of black men in the U.S. We need only look to a place like Mountain View for a clear understanding of how black people were essentially made incapable of moving, of ‘entering new neighborhoods’ and ‘new jobs.’ The jobs left them, and they were left to neighborhoods like Richmond and Oakland, where a festering of crime is simply the natural outcome of isolating and quarantining an already profoundly wealth-poor group of people, and then heavily policing the resultant symptoms of poverty. And while it’s convenient for the purposes of Mrs. Alexander and Mr. Vargas’s argument to suggest that the two groups have historically shared a similar degree of agency when it comes to physical mobility, the fact is that—while the undocumented come here5—American descendants of slaves are here only because their ancestors were brought here. And because they were kept in a condition of constraint and immobility so total that it still today ripples through the generations, they’ve been rendered an almost continually-palsied people with respect to economic opportunity. They have none because the rigidity of an economy built on antiblackness simply would not by its very design permit it. There couldn’t be an integrated Mountain View, and so there must be necessarily be a black Oakland. And Oakland must be made so that the essential feature of American blackness—an economic condition of near-total constraint and easily sourceable profit—gets reproduced and manages to persist even despite the twentieth-century sleight of impartial, ‘colorblind’ policy. Oakland becomes, in effect, one of many urban areas in which slavery and Jim Crow are reconstituted so that whiteness elsewhere can continue to be anything that is built on top of black failure.

In light of Rothstein’s account, what else is Mountain View, really? It’s where everyone who wasn’t black and saddled with the cost of coming from chattel slaves went to become white. As Yvette Carnell at Breaking Brown repeatedly says, “whiteness is normality.” She describes America as being “a place where everybody—white, black, brown—comes to make themselves white.” Similarly, Antonio Moore frames whiteness in those same terms: not as a type of privilege that is strictly limited to white skin, but rather as a relatively superior ability to navigate American life by being able to plug into opportunities of advantage. This exact concept of whiteness as a thing that can be inhabited haunts nearly every page of Dear America. Throughout, there is the extremely uneasy tension between the sort of ‘spiritual mentorship’ provided Mr. Vargas by black literary figures—which shapes in him a kind of consciousness of racial justice, a kind of critical attitude toward whiteness—and the professional mentorship that he receives beginning at a very young age, which is provided exclusively by white people, and that actually materially shapes the whole of Mr. Vargas’s life.6

That the professional mentorship he receives while in America is routinely one accompanied by the mentor’s financial support speaks to the glaring contradiction at the heart of a project that aims to subvert whiteness as a power structure without first confronting and meaningfully challenging the grounds—the negation—on which it is essentially constructed and by which it continues to be accessible to any person, regardless of skin color, who does not come from that history of transgenerational deprivation that Mr. Vargas’s spiritual mentors wrote about at such length.

At one point in Vargas’s memoir, he writes, “There comes a moment in each of our lives when we must confront the central truth in order for life to go on.” However, the closest that he gets to acknowledging the central truth of how literally everything in his life is anchored in the financial stability of whiteness—which is to say, the contingency of black exclusion—is when he writes, “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if I had not attended a relatively wealthy school in a community of privilege.” And while there is in this reflection some suggestion that he is at least dimly aware of all that white wealth has made possible for him—how it was the white people in his life “who would find windows and try to open them when doors were shut”—there is really no attempt at all to think beyond his extremely rare and individual experience of white philanthropy in order to connect that to a larger project of advocating for institutionally-based reparative justice for the black community, a community to whom he repeatedly makes clear he owes such a tremendous spiritual and (although it is unquestionably less clear to Mr. Vargas) material debt.7


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The word reparations appears zero times in Dear America. This despite the fact that his life here simply does not exist without the exclusionary policies that prevented black people from having the sort of access to opportunities that allowed Mr. Vargas a place in society that—in so many ways—vastly exceeds the semblance of belonging that has defined black citizenship in this country since the Civil War amendments.

And insofar as he is attempting to now advance a concept of citizenship that he describes as a “citizenship of participation…[of] using your voice while making sure you hear other people around you,” then he utterly fails at his own project by not explicitly naming what so obviously drives the disorder of black disadvantage, and which has prevented descendants of slaves from, as a group, ever really participating in American life in any recognizably normal manner.

Mr. Vargas’s notional citizenship is defined by “how you live your life.” A way of being in the world that is implicitly present. And as long as that mode of relating to others is not exactingly attentive to history, or is not one that prioritizes the need to structurally adjust how whiteness as a power structure has been perfectly accessible even to members of marginalized groups whose legacy is not its very foundation; as long as that mode of relating claims to be in opposition to white supremacy but is not premised on an undoing of black disadvantage that entails some sacrifice—some loss elsewhere—then whiteness or notblackness will always be sought after, and opening up the borders absent that commitment will only accelerate the cementation of a caste system in which black people are at the absolute bottom. White supremacy does not go away simply by the addition of more people of color who—in the idealistic open borders fantasy—are somehow not going to compete for their families.

And this is precisely the problem. It’s hard to think of a time in recent memory where the Left doesn’t treat its mission of social justice for the black community like something that resembles a torch relay, with that group’s plight supposedly needed to ignite another’s and so on and so on with each new leg of the race. The assumption is, of course, one of mutual benefit, of reciprocity in the progression towards universal justice. And while the Left has been encouraging them to participate in the relay using this strategy for some time now, it would seem the Left is nearing the limits of their apparent theoretical wisdom to actually produce some empirical proof of concept. And that it’s going to get more and more difficult to continuously counsel patience, or to demand more compliance as being for the black community’s own good, all while ignoring the overall result being that—while other marginalized groups get to run with all the moral force of the African-American struggle—the descendants of slaves simply get left—as Yvette Carnell says—holding all the slavery.

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NOTES

1. Vargas’s nonprofit group, Define American, wears its apoliticalness proudly. “Our tactics, from the outset,” Vargas writes, “have focused on neither policy nor politics.” Define American instead proceeds from a belief that “you cannot change the politics of immigration until you change the culture in which immigration is seen.” In this way, Define American is entirely invested in the depiction and portrayal of immigrants through media (and insofar as the organization is committed to the cause of advocating for all oppressed groups more generally, the depiction and portrayal of all victims of discrimination and prejudice as well). No doubt storytelling and narrative are an important and powerful part in—if not changing attitudes—at least helping shape the discussion in a way that promotes a more accessible type of engagement with the various struggles of marginalized groups. And while Define American’s cofounders seem to represent a kind of panoply of oppressed groups, the conspicuously absent representative in the mix is an American descendant of slave. Jehmu Greene, the African-American slice of diversity at the committee’s helm, is the daughter of Liberian immigrants. And so what are the implications of founding an organization intended to shape broad cultural understandings of victimization while, at the same time, leaving out a voice that can personally speak to the singular plight of American descendants of slaves? Certainly it would seem that, if there were one group that would be essential in shaping a kind of consciousness about what ‘defines American,’ or really challenging the assumptions of what constitutes our place here, it would be the group whose victimhood is foundational to America as a nation in the first place; the people who were violently coerced to come here, made to labor for free in the service of creating the richest nation in the world, to only then later be terrorized and excluded from accessing any of that wealth.

2. Although his name doesn’t make it into the book for reasons which should become clear, Mr. Vargas did once cite Larry Itliong during an interview with Ruben Navarratte. “When I get down,” Vargas said, “I find a lot of comfort in history. In knowing that whatever I am going through, other people survived it. Look at Americans like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Larry Itliong.” The mention of Itliong in a promotional interview for a book about lax immigration policy, and written with the intent of changing dominant attitudes toward the plight of undocumented workers is perhaps one of the most complicating and undermining elements of Vargas’s whole project. It exposes not only his own limitations with respect to historical knowledge, but also offers an illuminating example of the limitations of an ideology that recognizes no tension between the importation of a supply of vulnerable workers and the capacity of the U.S. labor movement to make meaningful inroads in the fight against capital. This is something that Larry Itliong himself—who is most known for his leadership role in the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee—understood. AWOC was a leading opponent of Public Law 78, and the Bracero Program, in which Mexican nationals were brought into the U.S. to work the fields at very low cost to the growers. Moreover, AWOC—whenever it became aware of growers engaging in the use of workers who undermined the farm labor movement—routinely protested to the relevant state and federal agencies. Itliong’s actions, one would think, would be totally repugnant to someone like Vargas.

3. Occupancy of the family in the house was arranged to take advantage of the third bedroom, which, Mr. Vargas says, “was rented out to a friend,” and which presumably functioned as a supplemental income for the family.

4. The home was an asset acquisition which—owing to Mr. Vargas’s great uncle’s military service—was likely assisted by the FHA-VA loans that, for African-Americans in postwar America, were virtually impossible to obtain.

5. And typically come here thanks to their community possessing an initial measure of wealth that makes the process of immigrating (legal or otherwise) possible in the first place. In Vargas’s own case, his grandfather paid “forty-five hundred dollars” for young Jose’s fake green card and passports. In today’s money, that is the equivalent of $8,000. Moreover, his grandfather hired a professional smuggler to get him into America. Today, these costs can range anywhere from $4,000 – $10,000.

6. There are truly too many instances to count where Mr. Vargas is provided an advantage by his proximity to whiteness. He describes how the “parents of well-to-do students were generous to many students from working-class families like [his], paying for field trips, no questions asked.” Fees for speech competitions “would be covered, with no trace of who paid for what.” In discussing the obstacle his undocumented status presented with respect to pursuing higher education, Vargas says his “adult mentors…were determined to figure out a way to send me to college.” That method would turn out to be “identifying a scholarship program that did not ask or care about [his] immigration status.” That scholarship was established by a “venture capitalist named Jim Strand,” whose children were Jose’s classmates at Mountain View High School. Mr. Vargas would go on to attend San Francisco State University on a four-year scholarship. Later, Jim Strand would arrange meetings for Mr. Vargas with immigration lawyers. “[Jim] covered the cost,” Mr. Vargas writes. When he is later in jeopardy of not being evicted, Jake Brewer—a friend of Jose’s—”transferred money to [his] Bank of America account so that [he] could make rent.” Jake Brewer also flew Mr. Vargas’s family and a handful of his friends out to Washington to be in attendance for his congressional hearing in an effort to help pass immigration reform: “Jake…took care of the logistics, flying everyone from California to Washington. Lola, Auntie Aida, and Uncle Conrad, joined by Pat, Rich, and Jim. Jake made sure they were all taken care of.” Throughout the memoir, there are also constant allusions made to the comforts he enjoys as a result of his social mobility courtesy of white charity. He “[flies] so much…that [he] often gets upgraded to first class.” He talks about purchasing a “big-ass place” and decorating his “massive loft,” and mentions his residences in some of the nation’s most expensive cities: Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

7. There’s this line in Dear America where Vargas, talking about his financial supporters, writes, “They did it because they could afford to; more importantly, they did it because they wanted to.” And so in a way, I guess Vargas’s advocacy of the philanthropic-centric approach of providing opportunity for marginalized people is merely an abiding belief in the result of his own experience; the belief that—because he had the good fortune of meeting some nice, wealthy white people—as long as we can convince more nice, wealthy white people to privately support efforts at uplift for marginalized peoples, and open the borders to provide an infusion of struggling groups, then we can meaningfully fight systemic racism. The shortcomings of this approach should be obvious enough. There are going to be plenty of nice, white wealthy people who are not interested in investing their money in black people for whatever reason. And because we are so segregated as a nation, it’s real unlikely that a nice, wealthy white person would even know a black person who they would be moved to invest in in the first place. Instead of relying on scenarios like his, where people “took an interest in [him]”, it would seem much more effective to advocate on behalf of groups who may not be so fortunate (or whose misfortune, it’s probably more exact to say, your good fortune is really only a result of); and to do this by pointing to government—the only entity that has the institutional juice to effect justice on that scale for black America—to coerce otherwise nice (but not that nice) white wealthy people to pay into a system actually interested in repairing their disadvantage.


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