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?’
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.
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.’
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.’
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.”
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%.
“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
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.
NOTES1. 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.↩
This past Thursday, Antonio Moore sat down for an interview with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In writing that book and demonstrating how New Deal era housing policy deliberately excluded African-Americans from the same access to wealth-building opportunities with which it furnished white America, Professor Rothstein has no doubt provided a valuable contribution which supports one of the principle claims that inform a politics of reparative justice.
However, when Moore asks Rothstein whether he thinks the nation can make meaningful progress toward rectifying the wrongs of its history “if white people want to stay white”—that is, if the approach to racial justice isn’t one that necessarily understands whiteness as a fundamentally advantageous economic position that is made wholly possible by its historical relation to blackness as a purposely engineered inferior one—Rothstein provides a surprisingly limp and cringe-worthy response:
“Well, I think about it a little bit differently,” Rothstein says. “White people did not get an advantage through the policies I was just talking about. They got what they were entitled to…The problem was not that whites got an advantage of moving into [single-family homes in the suburbs]; the problem was that African-Americans were denied that same opportunity. Everybody should have been entitled to that kind of subsidy to move into a single-family home. So I think that it’s not helpful to talk about whites having gotten an advantage. What we should be thinking about is that African-Americans were denied that same opportunity and that’s what needs to be remedied.”
It’s hard to say how that’s not precisely what Antonio Moore is thinking about when he speaks to the centrality of race in relation to federal policy designed to lift a nation out of poverty and promote economic betterment among a bourgeoning middle class. Moore then rightly points out how the advantage—regardless of whether a person feels comfortable explicitly naming it as such—was “baked into creating a system” of wealth positionality in which one group naturally benefits from access to opportunities that is denied another group. Moreover, as a result of these race-conscious policies having further contaminated the black community with profound economic disadvantage, Moore uses Rothstein’s own work to demonstrate the ways in which blackness became, in effect, a “contagion” whereby whites who associated or transacted with African-Americans were “created and made into black people.”
It’s at this point in the interview where it becomes apparent that Antonio Moore is talking about race on a level that Rothstein—with all due respect to his scholarship—simply does not appear to engage with it. He is, after all, a white septuagenerian. And while his work evinces an obviously deep and thorough understanding of one of the critical ways that the U.S. government created one group’s economic position at the expense of the other’s, he does not appear either able or willing to really grasp how the government was—in so doing—also in the “insidious” business, as Moore says, of manufacturing race so that blackness and whiteness as categories gained essential and rigid economic identities, ones that depend entirely on the other’s condition of advantage or disadvantage, a dialectic that has, for so long, made up virtually the whole of what is recognizable as American life.
Rothstein nonetheless counsels how we must appreciate what the New Deal got right in its creation of programs that provided pathways to wealth and prosperity for one group, while also identifying those flaws in the policies that “prohibited African-Americans from participating in them to the same degree as whites.” He continues: “If we understand that, then we’ll be able to come together in a civil rights movement that requires the participation of both African-Americans and of whites to correct this.”
But it’s not clear how what Rothstein is asking us to understand here is not an exact description of the government having manufactured advantage for one group and disadvantage for another? And why—in his vision of a way forward for justice—is the coalition discouraged from admitting this obvious reality into its consciousness? “We’re not going to create the kind of civil rights movement that we need if we try to blame the beneficiaries of programs to which they were entitled for the inequalities in this country,” Rothstein tells Antonio Moore. But it seems eminently arguable that, absent that difficult task of—as Moore says—“getting really honest about race and what race has done in America even after slavery,” the solutions put forward by a coalition insufficiently attentive to those consequences are ones that will ultimately function to uphold the normalization of the racial hierarchy in American economic, political, and social life, even as they work toward ameliorating the material conditions in the black community.
To posit a musical analogy, the approach offered by Rothstein—where it’s seen as not helpful to advance a discourse that isn’t sensitive to the notion of white entitlement (as if the advancing of that sort of discourse is the problem and not the very real historical fact of white entitlement itself)—is like taking a bad, unworkable melody line, and instead of changing the notes around and trying to do something really radical and different—the ‘solution’ for making it better is to just move it into a different key. It is a mere transposition of a problem, rather than an actual solution, and one in which the essential shape and intervals between the constitutive elements all remain exactly intact. How much progress can we really ascribe to that?
Richard Rothstein ought to be commended for providing a pellucid account of one example of how the federal government bears responsibility for its creation of a bottom caste of economic failure. However, in terms of coalition-building and what white ‘participation’ might actually look like in the fight to redress that injustice, we would be much better off looking to people like Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell—people who do not shy from identifying those dynamics in American life that have shaped the lived realities for blacks and whites—from whom we ought to take the lead.
This past September, Carmen Twillie Ambar began her role as the 15th president of Ohio’s Oberlin College. And—as tends to happen when someone from the African-American community ascends to just such a position of prestige—her biography quickly became the subject of virtually all of the articles that were covering her recent high-profile career move.
Mrs. Twillie Ambar is the college’s first African-American leader, a distinction which—for many onlookers—signals incontrovertible proof of cultural progress. The sort of capital-O Overcoming narrative which (for obvious reasons) is a feature of much of the writing that comments on any black person in America’s major achievements, is again in the case of Mrs. Twillie Ambar relied upon to transform what would otherwise be a fairly unremarkable act of administrative succession into a triumph of the human spirit and a fulfillment of progress with respect to American race relations. Here is one writer’s (herself a student at Oberlin) particularly rapturous response to learning of Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s appointment as president:
“A bit of balance has been restored in the universe. I lost one great president, and now I’ve gained one much closer to home. This is not only a victory for the college or for students of color, but a victory for Black women…Us Black and Brown people are sacred. When we are born, we lose our individuality; we are woven into the fabric of our ancestors–All the kings, queen, empires, civilizations, triumph, suffering, and bloodshed that has come before us and will come after us. This is our legacy. For the college to elect–for the first time–a Black woman into its highest position is its first step towards finally honoring that legacy.”
Less ecstatic coverage—while not necessarily attributing Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s presidency at an elite liberal arts school to enacting cosmic equilibrium—nonetheless strives to emphasize her background as being one that is entirely rooted in the African-American experience; that is to say, in a condition of oppression, injustice, and basic non-opportunity that really underscores and brings into focus the magnitude of her career achievements, of which her presidency at Oberlin is really just the latest in a long line of impressive administrative tenures. Readers are consistently reminded that Mrs. Twillie Ambar is just a “handful of generations removed from slavery,” and that her father, Manuel Twillie, labored tirelessly for most of his life in the field as a “cotton picker.”
But this foregrounding of ancestry is not just a convention in the journalism that aims to contextualize Twillie Ambar’s successes. In the remarks that she herself delivered during her introductory ceremony at Oberlin College last May, Twillie Ambar asked the audience there to “just imagine the Deep South, the heat,” where she said her father would “look up at the hot beating sun as he was out there picking cotton and he would say to himself, ‘I don’t know what I want to do but I know I don’t want to do this.’”
It’s a compelling image, and one that—elsewhere—surfaces fairly often in her personal musings on her improbable trajectory. In a 2016 essay for Inside Higher Ed, she writes that her father had been “plowing behind a mule since he was six,” living in the “black section” of Colt, Arkansas, a place referred to as “Dark Corner.” She says that his family’s circumstances were so lowly that he might have been given “a few nuts for his Christmas present.” And during a 2017 interview with The Chronicle Telegram, she wonders, “[W]hen my dad was standing there in that cotton field, could he ever have thought that his daughter would have the opportunity to be president of Oberlin College?”
A listener would have to be somewhat insensate not to be genuinely moved by the story that she invites you to consider, one in which her parents persevered (as she also remarked in her Oberlin introductory address) “against all odds.” But a deeper look into Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s ancestry appears to raise the question of exactly how total those odds actually were. And how—as is common with so many who occupy the ‘first African-American’ of x category—the fact that she and her family appear to have been the beneficiaries of circumstances extremely uncommon in black America is something that seems to be carefully omitted from her family’s history in favor of promoting the uplifting (if artificial) idea of individual agency in the face of great adversity; a sort of partial telling of one’s pathway to success that ultimately works to encourage the societal misperception that, insofar as black people can’t seem to transcend their station, it is a matter of personal attitudes and behavioral deficiencies and not the profound headwinds of group-based wealth scarcity—the true ‘all odds’—that are endured by most American descendants of slaves, and which by and large confine them to a life of nonexistent opportunity.
In a taped interview that took place in 1995 for the oral history project, Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South (a copy of which is now archived at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture), a woman named Delores Woods provides an account of some of her experiences in the South during that time for the interviewer, with one caveat: “You know, like I say, I was kind of sheltered by living in a black community and they all land owners.”
The African-American community Mrs. Woods was referring to was in a place called Caldwell, a small town located in St. Francis County, Arkansas. In 1899, about forty years before she was born, Bishop Henry M. Turner—the leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—had declared that Arkansas was “destined to be the great negro state of the country. The meagre prejudice compared to some states, and opportunity to acquire wealth,” he reasoned, “all conspire to make it inviting to the colored man. [Arkansas] is the state for colored men who wish to live by their merits.”
It was perhaps that promise of opportunity—that meritorious idea—that had first attracted Delores’s uncle to the area. He’d arrived from Mississippi, and his brother—Delores’s father—soon followed. There, he married Hula Gillam. Hula had been raised by her grandparents, who’d owned farmland in Arkansas. In addition to the crops produced on that land, Delores tells the interviewer, her great-grandparents “sold milk and butter, and…eggs and chickens.” They “had their own little food orchard” and “raised their own garden…they basically raised all the food that they ate.”
Delores’s mother and father—who’d sought to buy their own cotton farm in St. Francis County—were driven to live a life of similar self-sufficiency: “They raised their own corn, and own vegetables, and own hogs, and own cows,” Delores says, “and we killed our own meat and we had our own vegetables in the freezer. At that time they made what they called lard and they had that.” Delores also says how her parents had resolved to not take on any debt: “My mother said if we need to buy baking powder or salt or flour—something like that you didn’t raise—she would go out and chop by the day—a day—and get that 35 cents or 50 cents a day. And that’s how we lived.” In due time Delores’s father was able to buy the family a farm; it adjoined another plot of farmland owned by his brother.
Meanwhile, her paternal grandmother—a woman named Dinah—would often come to St. Francis County from where she lived in Mississippi to visit her son. Slowly, in a kind of piecemeal fashion, she relocated herself to St. Francis County: “And so what she did,” Delores says, “she had—I got that trunk now—she had a big old trunk and she put all her stuff in it and she came out like she going to visit her son, but then when she go back the trunk is empty. So she go back and get some more stuff, and she moved all her stuff, and then so she got on out here.” Eventually, Delores says, Dinah was able to “save up her some money and then she bought her place.”
On all her family’s properties in Arkansas—her great grandmother’s farm, her grandmother’s farm, and her parents’ farm—Dolores and her eight siblings worked chopping cotton. “If we get through with our farm,” she says, “[other black people] would hire us.” And so during the interview, whenever the exploitation and mistreatment of sharecroppers that was widely practiced during the time is brought up, Delores is repeatedly very upfront about how—because of her family’s extensive property ownership, and that of the local black community—she was relatively insulated from those sorts of experiences. “And of course, I don’t know if it ever was going on in the community where I was because, like I said, all those people down in [Caldwell] for like four or five miles owned their own property and they were kind of big people because in those days—in the thirties and the late twenties—they had their own T-Model Fords and A-T Fords.”
Delores’s family was some of those ‘big people.’ And in addition to possessing a kind of shrewd acumen for business—for, as Delores says, “[knowing] how to save a penny if they got a dollar”—they also “all had the attitude,” by which she means that they all seemed to share as a kind of familial trait a definite inability to suffer the frequent demonstrations of contempt and antagonism of bigoted whites who expected black people to behave obsequiously before them.
Delores hadn’t worked for a white man until, as she says, she was “probably ’bout 16 years old.” And when one eventually did hire her to chop cotton—and then tried to short her on her earnings for the day—she proved to not be easily intimidated or cowed into making allowances for white people which she knew to violate fairness: “I said, no you don’t owe me that. You owe me some more, so and so. And I read my figures off to him just like I carried them. And he kept arguing and he wanted to make me say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ And I would not say yes sir and no sir. I can talk to you all day and I’d never say yes and never say no…I’d say it as a kid. Give me my money.” After that incident, Delores quit and went to work someplace where she could make “more money and [be] in the shade.”
Before Delores’s grandmother, Dinah, had moved herself out to St. Francis County, the “boss man” back in Mississippi had once instructed her to go with her newborn child out into the rain and “get the cows out of the cotton, ’cause they done got out,” she responded matter-of-factly, “My baby’s young. I’m not going out there getting in the cotton.”
That baby would grow up to one day hold a knife to a white man’s throat who’d tried to attack his brother. He also “toted the shotguns in order for the black people to be able to vote when they go down to vote, cause [whites] didn’t want them to.” His name was Allen Twillie, Delores’s dad, and Carmen Twillie Ambar’s grandfather.
When Delores’s youngest daughter was in college, she did some research on the family name. What she discovered helped explain, for Delores, what had always enabled the Twillies to—as she says—”[know] how to maneuver and how to get by” the way they had, and why they didn’t “take no mess” from whites who looked upon them with arrogance and disdain.
“[My daughter] did some studying of history, a looking up your name,” she says, “and when she went back and researched it she found out that the Twillies were never slaves. And so I guess that’s why they always had the high-strung attitude with [whites].” When Delores relayed her daughter’s findings to her mother, she seemed to meet the news merely as confirmation of what she’d already surmised: “And so my mother said, she said ‘Well, I had always figured that out that they were never slaves because the attitude and the way that they did about people and the way that they were able to get by.'”
The Twillies were “Frenchmen,” according to Delores. “It was two brothers of ’em”, she says, who first came over from France to the United States by ship. “So if you run across any Twillies anywhere,” she tells the interviewer, “they all kin to us.”
“Nothing changes lives and family trajectories more profoundly than a college education,” Carmen Twillie Ambar, kin to those two Frenchmen, wrote in her essay for Inside Higher Ed. “I’ve seen it in my own family. Those ‘plow to the end of your row’ and ‘stand tall’ parents of mine graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock.1 They went on and got advanced degrees. Before long, their children did as well. No more Dark Corner.”
But what was Dark Corner, really? It sounds pejorative, but—to hear Delores describe it—Dark Corner was a vibrant, relatively prosperous and cooperative community of black landowners. “I’ll say our black community, if somebody got sick or unable to handle their crops or like they wadn’t going to get it out, when the other people would finish theirs, they all go over there and give him a day,” Delores says, “I mean give him a day. Just chop his cotton out or plow it out. And if he was sick, then they would just go over there and work that crop out.” When someone in the community was building a house on their land, Delores says, “all the men in the neighborhood [would] go and help build the house and the women would cook the food for taking down there ready to eat. And they’d build that house.” And so contrary to the implication that Dark Corner represents a kind of inferior or undesirable former state of affairs for the black family—where progress is understood as away and removed from—it seems maybe more appropriate to adduce what Dark Corner was as a source for what a family such as the Twillies would have required in order to have the opportunity to succeed in America. In this light, it’s not so much ‘no more dark corner,’ as it would seem to be ‘nothing more without Dark Corner.’2
But actually recognizing the trans-generational advantages conferred upon a person whom descends from a class of landowners is to sacrifice the usual outpouring of accolades that we bestow on anyone—but especially an African-American—who spins a compelling self-creation mythos, one whereby a person bootstraps him or herself into a better existence seemingly by dint of an indefatigable spirit coupled with good decision-making skills. And while in Twillie Ambar’s case this has made for good media fodder so far, the complicating fact remains that the cotton row on which her father was plowing was set on sprawling acres of family-owned land, some of which had been in the family for generations.3
For much of black America—a group with an already very low wealth position—the suggestion that enrolling in college and obtaining a degree is the most prudent course of action for effecting a more favorable trajectory of a person’s life is simply empirically untrue. As demonstrated by the recent report, What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap—put together principally by leading wealth economists and scholars Sandy Darity of Duke University and Darrick Hamilton of Ohio State University—”[a]t every level of educational attainment, the median wealth among black families is substantially lower than white families…Moreover,” the authors write, “on average, a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth than a white family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma.” Critically, when evaluating predictors of “both college attendance and college completion,” the authors of the study note that it is the level of “family wealth” that is a decisive variable.
For Twillie Ambar, there is strong evidence to suggest that it was precisely this factor—her family’s wealth—that opened up the possibility for their later impressive achievements. And there’s no reason to think that, in the present era of extreme wealth inequality, such contingent access to opportunity would be any different for other members within her community, the preponderance of whom are the products of discriminatory government policy that denied their ancestors wealth-building pathways.
And so what seems required, then—insofar as the institution that she now leads professes social equity to be one of its fundamental values—is a commitment on some level to a political agenda that aims to make that sort of access available to American descendants of slaves as a matter of justice. However, looking at Oberlin’s record on racial justice—particularly the former president’s refusal to even negotiate with a list of demands submitted by the college’s black student union in 2016—there’s certainly reason to be skeptical of the institution’s appetite for meaningful action backing any such pledge.4 Will Twillie Ambar be different? Her disinclination to provide a fuller picture of the ways in which she was the beneficiary of an extremely atypical set of circumstances—and the specific reasons behind why and how so many in her community as nowhere near as fortunate—should caution those who would rush to equate a black face in a position of power with a fidelity toward doing whatever they can in order to help lift up the rest of their group.5
But perhaps in her capacity of president of a college that, in all likelihood, doesn’t necessarily assume their applicants are generally burdened by the inhibiting realities of the wealth-deficient, there is no real need for Twillie Ambar to imagine herself in relation to the rest of her specific group. In fact, that disassociation is probably incentivized by the various dicta of contemporary higher ed; namely, creating budget surpluses, increasing endowments, and operating revenues.6 And anyway, does she really even owe anyone a fuller account of her background?
Arguably, yes. And the reason why is because it’s the very idea of that history that both the college and Mrs. Twillie Ambar leverage to underscore the significance of her appointment as president, to connote and legitimate the degree of import that her particular honorific as president represents. No one would doubt that the farm labor done by her ancestors was difficult, or that as black people living in Arkansas they were made to suffer that insolent pride of southern whites. But as immigrants and landowners, the Twillies were able to live above that most systemic and enduring and punishing legacy of slavery, the wholesale exclusion of wealth-building opportunity. And so to create the impression that she’d been able to overcome—by the sheer determination and the industrious pluck of her parents—the deep, structural adversity that hamstrings and enervates virtually the whole of the African-American community is to at the same time trivialize and exploit that adversity, a grave condition of victimhood, and one that stands in dramatic contrast alongside her family’s actual lived experience which—as even her own aunt concedes—is but a kind of partial likeness of that utter hemming in of opportunity, that carceral-like existential counterpoint to white life.
And so when Mrs. Twillie Ambar says, “Part of my job as president is to show our students that people from all backgrounds can be seen as leaders and can be successful,” there really ought to be some pushback on that very notion, one which relies entirely on a glossing of significant components of her own background. In fact, as the first African-American president of Oberlin, rather than simply stand as symbolic reassurance for the rest of America—where the impression is that we’ve completed the work of fixing the enormously disadvantaged background out of which the group she apparently represents comes—the more important part of her job should perhaps be to testify to the appreciable differences in access to opportunity that exist within the black community, and to show how those function to demarcate who among them gets to even be considered for those leadership positions in the first place.
Ultimately, all of this may be perceived as simply trying to label Mrs. Twillie Ambar as some kind of imposter or fraud, or that there’s a suggestion that her authenticity as the college’s first African-American president is up for debate. In fact, no. Mrs. Twillie Ambar is obviously an African-American woman. And to the extent that she and the rest of society genuinely understand her family’s position and experiences as the fullest embodiment of what it means to be black in America, then she will continue to be thought of as exactly as authentic as the culture will allow. But this is precisely the point. If we are to ever really reckon with American history—with the lack of access to opportunity that actually pervades the lives of U.S. descendants of slaves, and meaningfully grapple with the reasons why—then there desperately needs to begin to be a space opened up in the intellect that can accommodate a more nuanced and thorough understanding of the specific ways in which Mrs. Twillie Ambar is very much an aberration from her group, and how there are seriously harmful implications for other members of the community (and for our collective sense of national progress, more generally) when any black person in a position of power misrepresents his or her history by identifying it with one that was in fact totally different both in its nature and consequence.
The concern for creating this consciousness is nowhere more apparent than in the projects of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, who for years now have been arguing that if our institutions are genuinely committed to achieving equality—to making the necessary structural adjustments that will produce equal if not advantageous outcomes for some members of the black community; where descendants of actual slaves can be elevated into these kinds of top leadership roles—then one prerequisite is that both black and white people alike be equipped with the full knowledge of how the caste-bound condition of American blacks hinges absolutely on a fractured and diffuse sense of their ancestry; rather, there must always be a recognition of the uniquely American centrality of wealth-scarcity to the group’s lived experience and the ongoing failure of government since Reconstruction to make them whole.
In a certain sense—insofar as that period immediately following the Civil War contained in it the promise of laying the groundwork for promoting wealth creation in the black community via land redistribution—the Twillie Family (bracketing the issue of French immigrant ancestry), as black members of a propertied class, offers us a striking vision of what may have likely been a wider phenomenon of the possibility of upward mobility for black people in U.S. society. From the immediate family of Carmen Twillie Ambar—who are college presidents, high school principals and cosmopolitan artists—to her aunts and uncles and cousins—who are a collection of attorneys, teachers, real estate firm owners7, university department chairpersons, and management consultants—they are a solidly middle-upper class unit.
And here then in the Twillies you can recognize in miniature what it seemed America feared—and maybe still does fear—above all. The reason why Forty Acres and a Mule had to be blackcoded out of possibility. Because you see a constellation of successful black individuals who, in the nature of family, are adjoined in yet a larger, evermore stable system. And then if other families like them are also prosperous, then that stability spreads outward into a whole robust community. A community whose members aren’t made to wait for opportunity to be contingently granted them inside that idle and tyrannical-like oppress of dependency, but rather is structured in a way where whomever in it can go forward and try to fashion that opportunity for themselves. A group who, in short, has meaningful access to the set of opportunities that white America has been allowed to hoard among itself from the beginning. And you see then how the absolute anxious, phobic dread of that possibility of economic displacement—maybe not even displacement but even simple correspondence—has impelled the country to go to such awful and heinous lengths to deny black America not just wealth but even just this basic familyship—sold them, lynched them, impoverished them and caged them to fragment that simple, foundational unit of innate empowerment.
1. Manuel Twillie, Carmen’s father, attended Philander Smith College on an athletic scholarship for football, as did his twin brother. He was offered scholarships by both Philander Smith and Tennessee, and—at the encouragement of his mother, who wanted him to be with his twin brother—opted to go to Philander Smith. Listening to an interview that he gave in 2007 with the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies—in which he talks about his life’s educational experiences—you hear exactly the kind of conservative, bootstrap rhetoric that his daughter uses (though she does so somewhat less subtly) when she suggests things like, regardless of a person’s background, they can succeed. Here’s Manuel Twillie speaking to the interviewer in 2007: “When we were growing up, you know, our parents, our community, believed that the way out of our situation was education. I don’t think that mindset is prevalent anymore in the black community. I think we too often find excuses about what’s not happening, and blaming the white man, the system, or whatever. Now I’m not saying the white man or the system is good. But it’s pretty obvious to me—if you look at our struggle as black people—that we’ve been able to outmaneuver the system because of our belief that education was the way out of the system we was in. I don’t think we believe that anymore…I don’t mean individuals, I’m talking about collectively. Our communities don’t really believe that. We believe that somebody owes us something, uh, ya know, we’ve been mistreated and therefore they ought to do this for us. We’ve—yes, we’ve been mistreated, but that doesn’t have anything to do with life. You have to decide if you’re going to put forth that effort…it doesn’t matter what race you are, but it does matter what you do with your life and how you push. Nobody’s gonna give you anything. Nobody owes you anything. Don’t believe that. It’s your responsibility to do with what you have.” ↩
2. At the risk of being too cynical, these terms—’Dark Corner’ and ‘cotton picker’—seem deliberately deployed without context in order to elicit a certain emotional response from people. The average U.S. reader or listener—especially at this remove from history— is likely going to auto-associate ‘cotton picker’ specifically with slavery and not as part of the production, processing and distributing of that crop as carried out by a class of black landowners. Similarly, without the right info, a town referred to as ‘Dark Corner’ registers in the ear with certain negative connotations as well; namely, the sort of extremely poor, abject conditions that result from segregation and the absence of capital ownership in the community. That both of these terms refer to something fundamentally different in the actual Twillie family history does raise question of whether they are being used somewhat exploitatively in an effort to heighten the emotional appeal of the story. ↩
3. According to public county data for St. Francis County, Arkansas, two parcels of land—each forty acres—are listed to Allen Twillie, Carmen’s grandfather. The parcels—all acreage of which was zoned crop production, save for two acres that are zoned for house lots—sit off to the side of a long stretch of roadway named after the family, ‘Twillie Heights Rd.’ The land on Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s great great grandmother’s side lays right alongside the road as well. And in looking at recent data on land valuation in St. Francis County, it would appear that all that Twillie-owned land may provide a useful advantage in helping to potentially capitalize further ventures: “The average price ($4.2 million) of land and rural property for sale in Saint Francis County,” according to Land and Farm, a top-tier rural property marketplace, “was higher than the Arkansas state average for all land and property listed for sale.”↩
4. And it shouldn’t be beyond the pale to suggest that this most recent installment of an African-American in the college’s top position might have been a decision that was, at least in part, motivated by the board of trustees’ PR concern with its image after the former president’s public misstep and somewhat out-of-touch response to those demands. This is not to cast aspersions on Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s actual qualifications for the job; it’s just a pretty basic observation . ↩
5. We need only look at what happened to black wealth in the U.S. during the first African-American president’s tenure to gain some better insight into the disconnect between minorities in power and the interests of the group that they really only seem to nominally represent.↩
6. All of which—as Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s record indicates—she is quite successful at. Cedar Crest College, the institution over which she last presided, saw its endowment rise 92 per cent during her tenure. The college also had three straight years of budget surpluses and net assets under Twillie Ambar grew by 35 per cent.↩
7. Twillie Realty is located in Little Rock, AR. Jacquelyn Twillie is the principal broker. The firm has been operating for 13 years and grosses 500k-1MM in revenue, annually.↩
A few months ago, John Hope Bryant—whose website describes him as a ‘thought-leader on economic empowerment and financial dignity’—stood onstage at an event in Memphis, Tennessee and told the audience that “there are more poor whites in America than anybody else, then and now, so this is not a minority issue, by the way.”
‘This’ is U.S. poverty. And the ‘then’ to which he refers—having cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign as an apparent precedent for his own project of economic liberation—is 1968. And while that campaign was in name and spirit an inclusive movement, its principal organizer was—even in that very same year—publicly making the point of how the country’s poor whites, unlike black people, had in fact been the beneficiaries of numerous government initiatives designed to help lift them out of poverty and promote prosperity: “But not only did they give the land [to whites],” Dr. King said, “they built Land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that; they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that; they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that; today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man he oughta lift himself by his own boot straps.”
In describing the American capitalist class’s evolution as one of peasants having become the owners of the means of production in the country’s premiere industry only with the critical assistance of government policy and expenditure, Dr. King was doing more than laying bare the pretensions of that group to vaunt themselves as ‘self-made’ individuals. By—in that same speech—noting how freed slaves, left destitute after having been made to spend centuries in a condition of human chattelhood, were explicitly refused any such policies of economic advantage during that time, Dr. King was pointing to the discriminatory underpinnings of the racial wealth gap; a phenomenon which, as he makes clear, was manufactured with the help of public policy at the federal level.
Since 1968, the disparity in wealth between that which is held in white America and that which is held in black America has only persisted and intensified, often abetted by the same kind of racially-biased policy to which Dr. King alluded as having first deprived the black community of wealth-creating opportunities following emancipation. In the relatively short period of time during which John Hope Bryant has been touring the country and promoting his strategies for economic uplift, the racial wealth divide has undergone an unprecedentedly sharp expansion. The median white family—which in 2010 was worth 16.5 times as much as the median black family—is now worth a staggering 68.5 times more. Nonetheless, when Mr. Bryant is out on the lecture circuit talking about the African-American experience in this country and the need for economic empowerment, he insists before his audiences that “pigmentation of skin has nothing to do with anything other than where the sun was thousands of years ago.”
And so as someone whose body of work betrays this kind of rigor and commitment to disentangling and oversimplifying race and poverty in America, John Hope Bryant would seem to be a curious choice to have been invited as a speaker at tonight’s event, “Bridging the Racial Wealth Gap,” one in a series of weekly colloquia held in Brooklyn entitled “Wealth Building Wednesdays.”
After all, given his own calculus—one in which whites are victimized by the economy in vastly greater proportion than any other group—it seems like it may actually come as something of a surprise for Mr. Bryant to have learned that the racial wealth gap even exists in the first place. Or that maybe he has the positions of the gap’s constituent groups backwards.
As an audience member, I’m admittedly anxious to see whether—insofar as he concedes to the empirical proof on the deep divide that exists economically between black and white America—he’ll nonetheless assert the importance of understanding that those skin colors have really only ever functioned purely as adaptive traits throughout the whole course of history. Or will tonight’s discussion necessitate slightly tighter parameters than geologic time? Will there be a more precise attempt to focus on the in fact extremely dynamic role of that accident of solar influence at certain latitudes; a more exacting look at the history of how it was used to justify and perpetuate all forms of brutality on a specific people—not least of all, economic.
Because it would, in a way, be truly obscene for our speaker to not recognize the totally context-altering location of tonight’s event—the historically-black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant—and shift the usual terms of his discussion on inequality accordingly. To fail to fully appreciate the neighborhood’s vivid legacy of racialized poverty; how its history epitomizes the post-emancipation imperative to, as much as possible, preserve the wealth-depriving aspect of institutionalized slavery, an aim realized most fully in the anti-black discriminatory residential zoning practices carried out in concert by governmental and real estate agencies who, together, literally grafted economic failure onto entire portions of the city, and who—in so doing—effectively quarantined whatever societal maladies would follow and ensured that they were given a black face.
Of course what has since followed has been the predictable—though no less atrocious—outcomes of the logic of exclusion and extraction, two processes which, for so long and to such a great degree have characterized not just Bedford-Stuyvesant but American black life in general, that it would seem almost impossible to attribute the racial wealth gap’s very essence to anything other than their crippling effects.
But you’d be surprised with what John Hope Bryant can come up with, especially when he is speaking to crowds in a setting wholly unlike tonight’s.
I first listened to John Hope Bryant speak three years ago on July 3rd at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York. His presentation was sandwiched between a culinary ambassador for the U.S. State Department—who was there to promote his book, For Cod and Country, which details the author’s approach to consuming marine life sustainably—and the Korean-American novelist, Chang-Rae Lee. The theme for all of the afternoon’s presentations was “With Economic Justice For All.”
Chautauqua is a small town in Southwestern New York state. It is, by car, about an eight-hour drive from Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Institution has been around since 1874, and—as a speaking venue—has a certain cachet when it comes to where one makes the rounds on the national lecture circuit. Four sitting U.S. presidents have visited the Institution and given speeches in its open-air amphitheater.1 It is situated just inland from Chautauqua Lake amid an almost comically-picturesque surrounding. Rows of sailboats docked thirty abreast, all nodding gently in the surf of the lake upon which, in the evening’s dying light, a lilac sky’s reflection lays still and continuous on its surface; a deep, serene blue, which further out bleeds to violet before inclining to a soft blush of pink at the horizon, fusing with the now gone sun’s last refulgent burst of vermilion.
I could probably squander the rest of this ink cartridge trying to describe Chautauqua’s natural beauty and I think still fail to sufficiently convey the sort of omnipastoral quality that envelops and obtains in just being there. The splendor—especially if one has been doing a good deal of living in the city—is so inescapable that it’s almost claustrophobic. So I won’t even bother going on. Plus, the Chautauqua video brochures that are available online do a much better job of imparting its resplendency and scenic glories, if so interested. Suffice it to say that Smithsonian Magazine, in its 2014 April issue—the year before John Hope Bryant went there to speak about economic justice—named Chautauqua the number one “Best Small Town to Visit.”
2014 was also the year in which Bedford-Stuyvesant was named by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as the number one neighborhood for new HIV diagnoses and highest recorded levels of lead in the tap water. Bedford-Stuyvesant also that same year ranked number one in the borough’s homeless student population and unemployment. Its poverty rate today is 33%, and it is one of the five neighborhoods in all of New York City that—together—supply one-third of the city’s total prison population.
It is exactly the sort of low-wealth neighborhood that Mr. Bryant had asked the audience that day at the Chautauqua Institution—in a town where the poverty rate is 5%, and where the white population is 94.2%—to all close their eyes and envision along with him. “Here’s what you see,” he said, “A check cashing store, next to a pay day loan lender, next to a rent-to-own store…next to a liquor store.”
After setting the scene, he paused for a second and then told the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not racism. That’s not even discrimination. It’s target marketing. They’re literally targeting a 500 credit score.”
Needless to say the type of thinking it takes to keep those two things isolated—to insist on the mutual exclusivity between something like credit scores as a criterion for discrimination, and skin color, and that we wrongly ascribe the latter’s anti-blackness to the former’s essentially colorblind business model—is precisely the sort of mentality that has enabled the continuum of wealth lockout and exploitation of the black community to reach well into our present without much real interruption since slavery. Once descendants of slaves were accorded consumer status in the markets, anti-black discrimination had a whole new conceptual apparatus with which to play: new language, new categories, new ways of looking at the ancient hierarchy. And it was through this new paradigm which it gained ever-greater fitness for maneuvering to shore up the already deleterious economic condition of the community following slavery and Jim Crow and to cement the profound disadvantages of what may have been an emerging rival group within the free enterprise system.
So despite trying to frame the ubiquity of predatory businesses in a place like Bed-Stuy as being a landscape that is basically natural to areas of poor credit and not race, the fact is that because of the history of complete economic subjugation of slaves—and how in the absence of some radical redistributive measures that privation is being allowed to fully bore its way down through the generations of its victims—whatever non-explicitly racist scheme of classification a person or business might use (low-income, bad credit, high crime) to establish and guide procedure (or, in the case of John Bryant, to frame a discussion about exploitation) that organization or person is simply doing polite racism and ensuring how totally naturalized and deep and basically in-built the racial inequality is and will continue to be in every aspect of U.S. national life.
Chief among these aspects of national life—and the one from which the stability and ability to participate meaningfully in all others traces back to—is wealth. And it’s presumably that relationship which we are all here tonight in Bed-Stuy to talk about. Afterall, as Yvette Carnell of Breaking Brown has said, “The tool to compete, in this era, is wealth,” before she asks rhetorically, “What do you do if you don’t have it?”
In skimming Mr. Bryant’s book, The Memo: Five Rules for Your Economic Liberation, which was available for purchase at the event’s sign-in table2, for an answer to Yvette Carnell’s question, it seems reasonable to assume that he would probably recommend that the wealth-deficient recite a litany of affirmations about their own self-worth. On page 30 of The Memo, there is a kind of graphic representation referred to as the HOPE doctrine. It contains all of the things supposedly needed to move one’s life a more wealth-positive direction, and “high self-esteem” and “high confidence” account for fully 50% of that transformation.3 The graph also includes “Aspiration,” “Role Models,” “Environment,” and “Opportunity” as the remaining ingredients a person needs to obtain greater wealth. Conspicuously absent from the graph is actual money. However, this may not come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has listened to John Bryant speak before, since he himself is on record as routinely saying, “Wealth has nothing to do with money.”4
Again, sitting here with this in mind while we wait for him to take the stage—his insistence that these things (skin color, wealth; these literally constitutive elements of the racial wealth gap) have “nothing to do” with anything concrete in their function—I have to wonder if we are going to leave here tonight all having been told that the racial wealth gap is essentially an inequality of attitude? That the racial wealth gap boils down to how white people just basically have ten times the amount of self-confidence than do black people. Or if maybe after this event we’ll read headlines like this one that appeared last year in The Guardian: “Median Wealth of Black Americans ‘will fall to zero by 2053,’ warns new report,” and understand it to mean that by 2053 black Americans will have no self-esteem.
More importantly, does anyone in the John Hope Bryant camp even think to do some basic investigating into the big, obvious claim that—in the context of something like ‘the racial wealth gap’—jumps out when you define wealth as positive self-perception? The big, obvious claim that jumps out any time he talks about poverty and says something like he had said back in Chautauqua: “That’s the African-American experience…because of slavery…we had our confidence literally beaten out of us,” or his claim that “The legacy [of] two-hundred and fifty years of slavery…and one-hundred years of Jim Crow…was that you, as an African-American, may have a suit and tie on, but you feel like crap.” Namely, is that even true? Are black people, as a group, empirically deficient in self-regard? Why would anyone accept that assertion uncritically? Afterall, insofar as John Hope Bryant has any credibility to speak to the racial wealth gap, one might reliably assume that his diagnosis of the problem could withstand a little scrutiny.
Alas, a quick search brings up three relevant studies which all directly contradict the proposition that the black community suffers from low self-estimation, one which—it bears repeating—Mr. Bryant needs to be true, lest his whole epistemic foundation and paradigm of poverty be undercut.
The first study was carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Their study, Self-Esteem Development from 14 to 30 years: A Longitudinal Study, examined self-esteem development in subjects from adolescence to young adulthood over the years 1994-2008 and found that “Blacks have higher self-esteem than Whites do during adolescence and young adulthood.” The second—a 2011 study published in The Journal of the International Society for Self and Identity—demonstrated how, among U.S. 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, “African-American students score highest” across all groups (Whites, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics) in the category of self-esteem. The study also notes that “the findings are highly consistent across 18 annual surveys from 1991 through 2008, and self-esteem scores show little overall change during that period.” Lastly, a 2002 paper published by the American Psychological Association showed “blacks scored higher than whites on self-esteem measures,” and “blacks’ self-esteem increased over time relative to whites.” Elsewhere, one of the study’s authors, Dr. Jean Twenge—a professor of psychology at San Diego State University—pointed out that “research shows black women score higher on self-esteem than women of other races and ethnicities, which may seem surprising,” she notes, “given the long history of prejudice and discrimination they have faced.”5
Certainly it may give Mr. Bryant pause, since it would seem to—at the absolute very least—complicate the basis of his argument he’d deployed onstage in Chautauqua to explain to that very wealthy community not only poverty in a general sense, but black poverty, specifically: “African-Americans are one of two groups in America who’ve had their self-esteem devastated, their confidence devastated.”
And so one has to naturally wonder why he might be so invested in this narrative of negative self-evaluation being endemic to the black community? There would seem to be an almost kind of contempt that you have to have for a group of people when—in the face of incontrovertible evidence of its not being at all the case—you would maintain positively that the problem is their mentality and attitude. The only types of people I know who contrive to convince a vulnerable person of their low self-worth are basically extremely insecure sociopaths who make sport out manipulating other people for some sort of personal gain.
This past April, a seminal report on the racial wealth gap, “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap,” was published out of Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Equality. With great vim and incisive analysis, the report goes through and methodically explodes the most common misconceptions surrounding our present discourse on what drives the divide, and thus serves to contribute to the adulteration of our conceptual approach(es) to substantively closing it.
Among the report’s authors are Dr. Sandy Darity—a Duke U. professor of public policy, African and African-American studies, Economics, and basically veritable giant in the field of generational wealth studies—Professor Darrick Hamilton—a man whose present academic appointments are honestly so impressive and numerous that he would seem to be able to be in multiple places at once—and Antonio Moore—someone who is so verse in the data on wealth disparities in the U.S. that it would seem to literally be the air he breathes.
In all of the report’s 67 pages, the words ‘confidence’ and ‘self-esteem’ appear exactly zero times. Wealth is discussed throughout the report not in the sort of vague and abstract language of attitude of mind found in the HOPE doctrine, but rather in concrete terms of how it actually functions: as a fundamentally generative asset which, depending on the initial endowment, determines by greater or lesser degrees a person’s ability to secure their next asset. The report puts it more concisely: “Literally,” the authors write, “it takes wealth to make wealth.” Furthermore, the authors are always forcing the reader to confront the historical reality of how “blacks largely have been excluded from intergenerational access to capital and finance.”
That intergenerational lack of access to capital and finance—and the resultant dependency on highly-exploitative financial services that tend to sabotage wealth-building efforts—loomed over (quite literally) a conversation that I had earlier this week with Margaret, a 70 year-old woman who has spent the past 30-plus years living right at the border of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill. She was out walking her dog when I approached her to talk about what it’s like living in the neighborhood.
“Everything in this neighborhood is new,” she told me. “But the liquor store’s always been on the corner. Everything else is new.” After she said this, Margaret turned around and looked up at the Apple Bank behind her. “That wasn’t Apple Bank back then,” she said. “It was something else. I can’t remember what it was…”
When I got home later that night, I went to my computer to look it up. It turned out that the building had been an Emigrant Savings Bank, a financial institution which—in 2016—was found by a federal jury in Brooklyn to have “aggressively market[ed] toxic mortgages” to black homeowners with poor credit between the years 1999-2008.
The next time I saw Margaret I told her about Emigrant Savings Bank and the verdict that I’d read about in the case involving their predatory loan practices. I also played for her the part of John Hope Bryant’s talk in Chautauqua where he tells the audience that these kinds of abusive, extractive practices don’t constitute racism; that they’re not even discrimination.
“Naw,” she said after listening to him. “Bull. Bull crap. Oh, please…”
Margaret’s sentiments pretty accurately reflect the data that was submitted in testimony given by the plaintiffs’ attorneys during the trial, wherein it was shown that even when applying variable controls for credit scores, income, and education levels, STAR NINA Loans (the type of predatory finance instruments offered by Emigrant that allowed prospective borrowers to apply for the loan with No proof of Income and No proof of Assets) were still 32% more likely to end up in majority African-American neighborhoods.
In walking around the neighborhood some more with Margaret and talking about the number of homes up for sale—and how a large portion of them are being converted for use as rental units—it was hard not to be reminded of Darity et al.’s assessment of the basic ontology of wealth; namely, that wealth begets wealth, a point that is driven home in about a hundred different ways throughout the report. As Darrick Hamilton observes, “It provides people with the necessary capital to secure finance and purchase an appreciating asset, which in turn will generate more and more wealth.” When Margaret and I were later saying goodbye, she mentioned a recent sale in the neighborhood that embodies Hamilton’s point exactly.
“I know the guy who owned Piro’s funeral home,” she told me, referring to Richard Costa—CEO of Clinton DeKalb Realty and two formerly active corporate entities specializing in funeral services—and a property which, according to an archived Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Map, is located in an area that was once marked ‘Definitely Declining.’ Margaret continued, shaking her head: “And he was bragging because he got that house…that whole funeral home and building for like sixty-thousand, but he made millions off of it.”
Contrary to the words ‘confidence’ and ‘self-esteem’, the word ‘home’ appears in the racial wealth gap report a total of 70 times. The reason for its prominence, as the report notes, is obvious enough: “[T]he typical household, regardless of race, holds most of its wealth in home equity.”
The rate of homeownership in Chautauqua is an astronomical 91.2%. Bed-Stuy’s homeownership rate is 21.7. When the State Comptroller’s office went to write up a post-mortem on the housing crisis ten years ago, it was reported that as of 2008 there had been a total of 800 sub-prime mortgages issued in the entire Chautauqua County area.6 In the single year of 2006, there had been 1,517 sub-prime mortgages issued in Bed-Stuy alone. Two years later, it had the highest sub-prime foreclosure rate, statewide.
The point is not simply to compare the dramatic levels of wealth inequality between these two places. In America—if the demographics are right—you can pretty easily find any number of similar examples of cities where the history of unequal access to wealth-building opportunities gets expressed in homeownership rates. This is, however, a particularly glaring one. Rather, the point is how, in Chautauqua, there is a long tradition of supposedly intellectual figures—’leaders’ from the black community—who get up before the crowds there and encourage them to feel, to think, to know that a place like Chautauqua—which so obviously enjoys an unusually high level of wealth—has nothing to do with the failure to prosper having always been assured to occur elsewhere, in a place like Bed-Stuy.
In 1918, Robert Moton—Booker T. Washington’s successor at The Tuskegee Institute—told the audience at Chautauqua, “I am glad that my people were brought here as slaves, for we were placed beside the strongest race that the word has yet produced, the Anglo-Saxon race.” He continued: “The schools of the South have been solving the negro problem. Patience, Christianity and forbearance are enough to make it possible for the white race and the black race to live in peace and harmony…We are coming on. We are behind you, but we are catching up.” Fifty years later, while riots were erupting in urban centers across the country, then-Governor of Michigan George Romney was welcomed onstage at Chautauqua with the remark, “We welcome you to a riotless Chautauqua,” whereupon hearing this, the crowd reportedly broke into “thunderous applause.”
Nearly one-hundred years later, John Hope Bryant stood in that exact spot, his turn to carry the torch of white reassurance: “Black people are not dumb, and we are not stupid,” he said, urging a la Moton for a kind of recognition of black capability while gesturing at some obstacle or barrier which is inhibiting its full potential. He stopped, letting a pregnant pause fill the amphitheater before saying, “We never got the memo. There’s a memo about free enterprise and capitalism…there’s a language to money. Imagine one-hundred and fifty-years of not knowing.”
And so with the basically all-white audience unburdened of any inkling that all the refined comforts they enjoy there—all that beautiful surrounding architecture, taking in an evening performance of Tchaikovsky and wandering the Institution’s sprawling grounds with its churning watermills; spending an afternoon getting the Baroness Facial which (I shit you not) is advertised on the Spencer Spa in Chautauqua’s website as a ‘premium face treatment’ with ‘mineral-rich clay that’s “out of Africa”‘ and will ‘leave your skin glowing like dawn on the savannah’—that all of this is completely detached from the economic consequences of the history of chattel slavery and anti-black discrimination in this country. And then, with the amphitheater’s crowd’s sympathies fully excited, John Hope Bryant partook in the Institution’s tradition of celebrating the stability of a place like Chautauqua relative to the always-waiting-to-combust locales of black America.
“Middle-class neighborhoods don’t riot,” Mr. Bryant said. “Middle-class folks want to go shopping and spend time with their families. Only poor neighborhoods riot. Middle-class black, white, Latino, Asian neighborhoods don’t riot. Only poor neighborhoods riot.” And helping to interpret for the crowd at Chautauqua those occasional, distant, remote and isolated expressions of unrest, Mr. Bryant turned again to Dr. King, quoting from his “The Other America” speech and telling the audience that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
But of course what Dr. King was saying was that the conditions that brought black people out into the streets to riot were much graver than their not having gotten the ‘memo’ on free enterprise. It was not because they didn’t know the jargon of finance. As Aaron, another Bed-Stuy resident with whom I had spoken earlier in the week noted, then as now the conditions animating unrest in black America are “civil rights. Like it’s still civil rights. That project was never finished.”
I had mentioned to Aaron that John Hope Bryant was going to be coming to Bed-Stuy in a few days for a conversation about the racial wealth gap.
“I heard John Hope Bryant speak about like four years ago,” he told me, “and he was talking about the move from Civil Rights to ‘Silver Rights.’ And that doesn’t really play as well, you know? Especially in the like, post-Mike Brown and #BlackLivesMatter moment.” I then asked him if it was safe to assume that he didn’t think that financial literacy ought to be how the country approaches the conversation about what’s needed to meaningfully close the racial wealth gap. “Financial literacy is important,” he said, “But like, having money to be literate with is more important.” Aaron then thought for a second and shrugged. “John Hope Bryant is very palatable though.” I asked him to elaborate. He paused before saying, “Because to say that the way to close the racial wealth gap is through financial literacy, people love to hear that—white people love to hear that—because then the onus is on black people. But then to say that the racial wealth gap is because of racism and that it needs to be closed through some kind of transfer payment, that’s not as popular. So if he’s coming to talk about reparations in particular, I think that’d be good, and I think that’s where the conversation needs to start, not with how can low-income black people be better with their low income.”
Like Aaron, other residents of Bed-Stuy with whom I spoke throughout the week appeared similarly dubious about the gains to be had from framing the racial wealth gap exclusively as a problem of—or as a thing that might be solved by— financial literacy. A man named Isaiah, who I had met while he was walking home with his three daughters one afternoon, echoed Aaron’s misgivings on the idea that financial literacy can or should supersede the fundamental need for reparative justice.
“The work, and the demand for reparations—that’s critical,” he said. “Let’s just begin there. I think that’s critical and long-ignored and not embraced by the broader society. I think that’s—to me, anyway—that would be the principle way in terms of resetting, and how we begin to establish ourselves on a level playing field. And, I mean, education, of course, you know I’m not gonna argue about that. It’s key. But to teach you about managing your money…and you don’t have any money… What are you going to teach me about? Concepts of financial literacy? I don’t produce. I don’t own. I think it’s…some of the initiatives, even with the non-profit community, it’s like, you’re preaching to people about, ‘hey, you’re the problem; let me get you some education.’ But they’re not connecting the other dots…”
It would be delightful to report that, in advance of tonight’s talk in Bed-Stuy, John Hope Bryant has evidently sat down and read the racial wealth gap study and now in light of the information and hard data therein stridently and without hesitation professes that what is patently and urgently required at this juncture is a commitment to a kind of politics that prioritizes securing targeted public policy to redress centuries of wealth-depriving discrimination of the community. To use the report’s own language on what this might look like in practice, “This could take the form of a direct race-specific initiative like a dramatic reparations program tied to compensation for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and/or an initiative that addresses the perniciousness of wealth inequality for the entire American population, which could disproportionately benefit black Americans due to their exceptionally low levels of wealth.”
Afterall, these legacies are presumably the exact ones referred to in the Restoration Corporation’s own manifesto, which is printed on the first page of a booklet entitled “Dream & Do: A Record of Your Journey to Economic Success,” which everyone here was given. It reads, in part, “We dream of opportunities for the people of Bed-Stuy, a community that has borne the weight of America’s history.”
But let me assure you that John Bryant did not come here tonight to talk about reparations.
To be honest, for all of The Memo’s ostensibly ‘deep’ contextualization in American history—the references to the establishment of The Freedman’s Bank, the Savannah Convention and the establishment of Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, Lincoln’s assassination and the failure of Reconstruction, all of which he mentions in the first few minutes of his presentation—Mr. Bryant doesn’t really even talk about history in any sort of meaningful way. There’s no ‘connecting the other dots,’ as Isaiah had said.
This much is apparent when, in one breathtakingly abridged description of post-emancipation life in the U.S. that occurs during the talk, Mr. Bryant tells us, “The [Freedman’s] Bank—poof!—just went away in 1874. You now fast forward from 1874, when they talked to us about money, to the next time anybody talked to us about money…a preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Poor People’s Campaign of April 1968.”7
In a way, it’s maybe almost a testament to John Hope Bryant’s gifts as an orator that the omission of 94 years is so subtle in his delivery as to not receive any on-the-spot objection, especially given how unsubtle the coordinated assault on black life was in those intervening years between 1874-1968: the mobs who massacred, the big business that depressed, and the policies that stymied exactly the sort of efforts at economic self-sufficiency undertaken time and time again by the black community over that century in the struggle for equality.
To his credit, the moderator for the evening, Colvin Grannum—president of the Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation8—tries to incorporate into the discussion an element of how systemic anti-black discrimination remains the primary and constant obstacle in black American life: “The other conversation that some of us have,” he tells Mr. Bryant, “is discrimination holds us back. That every time we try to do something, the man changes the rules, blah-di, blah-di, blah-di…Now I’m not saying that’s not valid, but how do you address that?”9
What follows is, I’d say, right up there with some of the most appalling, crass, and contemptuous responses to a question about the lived experience of racism that I’ve ever personally witnessed from any person, black or white.
Before Mr. Grannum even gets the question completely out of his mouth, Mr. Bryant has already hitched himself up in his seat, straightened one leg out and thrust his hand into his back pocket to bring out his wallet. Digging through its contents, he removes two American Express Centurion Cards—more commonly known as the ‘Black Card’—and hands them to the audience, telling them to pass them around.10
“That has no limit on it,” he smugly tells the people in the room. “I can go buy a Ferrari. I can go buy this building…It gets me whatever I want…None of this drama in life bothers me one little bit…I don’t feel any drama…I don’t feel discrimination, I don’t feel bias. People open doors for me…When you have wealth, when you own stuff, you’re in a completely different class. All I need for you is to own your home, and watch how your life changes…Just own your home.”
Just own your home. There’s an almost taunting quality to it. To tell a community of people—most of whose ancestors, when they arrived in Brooklyn, were already extremely wealth poor and who were then redlined out of opportunity to have access to owning a home—that the best defense against racism and discrimination is the very thing that racism and discrimination would not permit their participation in from the very beginning. And since wealth is always, at all times, living and growing with the world around it, that discrimination is always just remaking itself and the conditions of impermissibility, merely contemporizing them in ways that make polite the original shutting-out, recapitulating our economy’s founding dictum that there must exist prodigious failure somewhere in society; a precondition which was managed by creating a class of squalidness and degradation and failure that was coeval with the invention of American blackness itself.
Which is why when John Hope Bryant omits that history he is able only to preach in paradox. To instruct in what is intrinsically unreasonable. I guess the question is whether Mr. Bryant is unconscious of the many contradictions contained in his beliefs? Of the violence they do to the vulnerable? Does playing show-and-tell with a fancy credit card at an event where the people’s lives have been freighted with discriminatory intent strike anyone reading this as even remotely compassionate? Saying that is the panacea to the community’s legitimate cries of frustration and injustice? How does our moderator—a man who supposedly stands on behalf of that community—witness such a response, with all of its lofty insolence—its outright rejection of history—and then possibly ask the audience to give Mr. Bryant “a round of applause”? How the actual hell is a round of applause being requested of the community center, by a community leader, for the man who—just a few minutes after this wildly arrogant response—is literally instructing the people in the community to leave it and invest their money elsewhere?
“And by the way,” John Bryant says, “you say, ‘Well I can’t afford [to buy a home] in New York.’ Fine. Take your money, find yo’ broke cousin in, uh, in Detroit where they giving away property, Baltimore where they giving away property, go to the South! By the way, the South is on fire. Go there and buy a piece of crap property, ten minutes from downtown, any place, for $30,000, or $10,000 with a tree in the roof, get a rehab loan from Rich Dude here [points to Mr. Grannum] for thirty grand, now you got fifty-grand into it, max. It’s worth, at that point, 75 grand, lease it out, rent it out for the cost of the mortgage payment plus property taxes, so now they paying you $500 a month, do that three times, and you can retire.”11
Near the evening’s end, during the audience Q&A, a man who looks like he’s maybe just shy of 60 approaches the microphone and removes his hat.
“I’m really so happy to be here,” he tells Mr. Bryant, and there really is a detectable excitement in his voice. “The concept of the wealth gap is, uh, it’s just something I’m obsessed with…that gap, I refer to it as being genocidal. We just have to be real about it. They’re trying to wipe us off the map.”12
“They don’t have to try very hard,” Mr. Bryant interjects, before adding, “We did a good job all by ourselves.” Evidently becoming impatient, he says curtly, “Your question?”
“Well,” the man says, “I’d like for you to evaluate a concept I have—”
“Yep,” Mr. Bryant responds, again interrupting the man, obviously eager to be rid of him. “That’s my New York leader,” he says, pointing to woman in a section of the audience behind the man. “She’ll get your data, we’ll evaluate it and get back to you within thirty days.”
There’s a brief pause.
“Well…can I tell you what it is?” the man asks, clearly taken aback and confused by the dismissive response.
“Uhh…you’re taking up a lot of time with questions,” Mr. Bryant says, “But yeah. Sure. Go ahead.”
“Well, I’m in the insurance business. And about a year ago, I jury-rigged a proposal and put it to the MacArthur Foundation. They had this program called 100&Change. So, you know, they were gonna give one-hundred million dollars if you had an idea to change the world. And I did. I do. I still have it. But one part of that was my insurance concept to encourage people to use life insurance as a way to build wealth—”
“The answer’s yes. Next question,” Mr. Bryant says, interrupting the man for the third time before digressing into an aside about how, in South Africa (where—he informs us—”I have offices there”), AIDS is “so bad and so prevalent that the family members take life insurance out on each other because they pretty much know that two or three members of their family are gonna die, and they take the…and they just…I mean…they…they just cash about because they know that their…somebody in their family’s gonna die, uh, it’s really sad, but it’s the way of life in South Africa. My point is that life insurance is a…is an absolutely bulletproof way.”13
“Well the way you could do it here in America,” the audience member says, clearly wishing to at least be afforded the courtesy of being heard out, “is if 600,00 African-American babies are born each year—and if you put 500,000 in a fifty-thousand dollar whole life policy—that generates 2.5 billion per year. And if you know how life insurance works, that number grows every year. So if a baby, you know, at zero months, and they live ’til eighty, you’d be able to generate—”
“Yeah, no. It won’t work,” Mr. Bryant says, interrupting the audience member for the fourth time in less than three minutes. “It won’t work because of what I told you about the psychology of our people. We don’t trust each other14…it all goes back to that slave mentality, the low self-esteem, all that stuff. Until we fix the psychosis…until we deal with the fact that we were messed up, and we address it back to we don’t feel good about ourselves, we can’t do rational things.” Mr. Bryant continues, “Your plan will work in the Korean community, it’ll work in the Spanish community, it’ll work in almost any community, and it’ll work in our community once we get some mental health.”
Actually witnessing this exchange is brutal and sad and enraging. And it warrants chronicling in full not only because it reveals John Bryant at what I feel to be his most authentic: completely unsympathetic toward the black community and full of basic disdain and resentment for them who have been so obviously and profoundly victimized (the execrable remark: “We did a really good job all by ourselves”). Not only because it reveals him—a supposed ‘leader’—who, within literal seconds, will reverse-thrust on a position and contradict himself on ‘solutions’ that he espouses one second and then suddenly denounces the next (“You’re absolutely right, life insurance is a brilliant way to build wealth”/”Yeah, no, it won’t work, it won’t work.”) And not only because for all of his putative concern about the “psychosis” and “messed up” psychology that he feels is at the very root of why the black community “can’t do rational things”—and his belief in the apparently fundamental need of “get[ting] some mental health” as recourse—the actual words “mental health” or “mental counseling” or even “psychosis” for that matter appear zero times in all three of the books Mr. Bryant has authored.15
The exchange is worth chronicling because it transparently demonstrates how John Hope Bryant is essentially a malignancy himself. His project is an unsettling and weird exercise in a kind of Munchausen’s by proxy, wherein he attempts to convince a whole community of people that they are suffering from disorders of low self-esteem and intra-group mistrust, all while distorting their history in a way that seems intended to depoliticize them and lure them into reckless financial behavior that ultimately baits them for someone else’s easy profit, thus recapitulating once again the process of exclusion (though this time from the community itself) and extraction.
Is it for his own financial gain? Is he motivated by some weird, purely psychological endpoint? Obviously no one can say for sure why John Bryant seems to want to manipulate people into thinking that, with respect to black people’s actual positive attitudes of self and trustworthiness among and toward other black people, the opposite is true. Why he seems to want so desperately the external world to conform to his vision of black America as existing in this almost Hobbesian state of nature, with the community crippled not by their history of economic exclusion but by internecine mistrust and enmity. But what is certain is that John Bryant has literally no authority to speak to the psychological condition of anyone, let alone an entire group of people. There is no PhD after his name. His clumsy guesswork is easily refutable by consulting actual credentialed professionals who are doing research in the relevant field(s) of study. And the fact is that all he can do is try to actively produce the presence of the thing he describes, thus his insistence to a room full of black people on the impossibility of doing ‘rational things;’ that rational acts are the domain of every community other than theirs.16
After taking another question from the audience, Mr. Bryant seeks out the attention of the insurance man.
“By the way,” he says, “I wasn’t trying to discourage you.”
This would be laughable were it not for the massive amount of effrontery that is required for Mr. Bryant to actually say this to the man being so totally detestable, especially after having eviscerated his concept not on its own terms but at the expense of the black community being depicted as basically deficient in self-worth and completely leery of one another’s sinister personal agendas.
“I don’t get discouraged,” the insurance man responds, defiantly and poised.
And I think that’s true of the whole community here. I really do. I don’t know if many people really even need a study in order to give credence to the idea that American descendants of slaves possess a prodigious amount of conviction in their ability to do because of what they’ve always been able to do with so relatively little. Though I do wonder about one aspect of another self-esteem study that I came across where researchers observed that self-esteem of black people—while remaining higher than other groups’ throughout most of their lives—”decline[s] much more sharply in old age than [does] the self-esteem of whites.” According to the study, this begins to happen at age 60, just around the age of the insurance man in the audience.
Why then does positive self-perception begin to falter rapidly in African-Americans?
Perhaps then because after having lived fully two-thirds of their lives demonstrating as a people a resolve and implacability of will and determination and firmness of purpose that, given the conditions of injustice and violence that have defined their existence in this country, defies all basic reasoning and expectation; a persistence and optimism that endures despite those horrors and which serves as a pure rebuke and outrageous affront to those very people who with absolute glee would see her or him wallow always in the depths of low self-opinion and feelings of inferiority; the simple irrefutable fact of their resiliency a maddening reproach, like that of the crow that a farmer has tried in what feels like endless futility to expel from a crop field and which he thought he’d finally succeeded at until from an iron sky it suddenly alights on the straw man’s shoulder that he’d erected in a corn patch, and whereupon the crow turns its head and blinks and calmly regards the now irate and berserk and red-faced overalled rustic who turns on his heels to go inside his house and load his shotgun which he doesn’t know and will with rue discover still won’t effect his intent.
Perhaps it’s after that because having spent those first two-thirds recurrently coming up against the systemic barriers of injustice and the reach of their group’s history into the present, they’d been told each time by people exactly like John Hope Bryant that it was by their own doing, that it was their slave mentality, that it was purely a matter of their own deficiencies and attitudes that had contributed to and forestalled the success which they sought. But still and only because of that innate remarkable courage and obdurate will they said, ‘I will try again. I don’t get discouraged,’ and so they continued firmly, obstinately in their course of action until they reached that next barrier, that next imposed limit on what their lineage can ever achieve in America, that next one and that next one, until finally after the long series of frustrations they maybe stood in grim stalemate with their idea of what they had expected for themselves, one which they’d carried with them faithfully, conscientiously, and with solemn assurances had told themselves was right and attainable; they came then toe to toe with the miserable fact of U.S. society’s being structured to resist that expectation absolutely. Perhaps it is then because all the while they’d been told—not even told; chided, scolded, deceived and hoodwinked—by self-anointed leaders in their community that there was no such baked-in failure, that there was only bootstraps, and that they must pull themselves up by them, that glib empty simplistic regurgitation of complete untruth, urging them each time back onto a dangerous path, one on which their undoing has been historically conditioned, so that when they do finally meet with that one eventual disappointment, the one that finally penetrates the heretofore impregnable spirit and throws all confidence into a tumult of grief and indignation because there was never another dominant referent proffered for their difficulties than their own inability to transcend a slave mentality; perhaps then—then—they think, at last, ‘Well perhaps I really am no good. Perhaps I cannot after all, and never could.’
The last thing that the insurance man says after John Hope Bryant’s declamation of the black community—and I should emphasize that it is with a hopeful note of open resistance aimed at our speaker that he says this—is, “My response to that, Sir, is that you need to understand your history. You need to have African-American history in the curriculum. Because if you know where you came from, you know where you’re going.”
In a way, what the man says here recalls something that John Hope Bryant himself said three years ago in Chautauqua. “You can’t fix it,” he told the audience, meaning poverty, “if you’re pointing at the wrong thing.”
It was said right after he’d quoted Martin Luther King Jr., which is sort of a touchstone of his presentations. Yet, despite seeking to connect his efforts to the more politicized approach of King, the two’s interpretations of the historical nature of black poverty, and what they’re pointing at for how to meaningfully address it, couldn’t be more dissimilar. For Mr. Bryant, freed slaves and their descendants simply “didn’t get the memo on money,” and are thus woefully ill-versed in the language and the know-how of free enterprise. For Dr. King, black poverty is a product with the imprimatur of the federal government all over it. Which is why—at the end of that speech in 1968—he resolutely concludes on the proper course of action to be taken by saying, “Now when we come to Washington, in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check,” and not something to the effect of, ‘We will overcome as long we have the appropriate financial literacy skills.’ Dr. King wasn’t demanding that black people be given a ‘memo’ on money, because what good is a ‘how-to’ when the ‘with what’ is still unresolved? No, he was demanding the funds because he knew that the actual history of why and because of whom there was no what to how to with in the black community constituted a particular justice claim whose fulfillment was only ever a matter of when.
And so today there is a movement underway that is fully anchored in this specific sense of history and of the righteousness of that demand. Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore are taking the ‘slave mentality’ that Mr. Bryant has used tonight so pejoratively and refurbishing it; turning it into a particular political consciousness, one that does not denote its holding a group back, but rather—because everything in that group’s life, as they argue, must be filtered through a mentality of how they have been economically victimized by slavery and its derivative configurations, and how that has and continues to wholly determine their lived experience—impels them forward with a politically actionable identity and a coherent way of understanding their position in American society.
The racial wealth gap study is every bit a result of this shared fidelity to seeing American black life through the historical conditions that created the yawning divide in economic security compared to white America. The question is why is Colvin Grannum inviting John Hope Bryant—a man who traffics in calumny and deception toward the black community—to speak to those most in need of meaningful help, and not people like Drs. Sandy Darity, Darrick Hamilton, Tom Shapiro and Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, people who can speak so much more cogently to the factors undergirding the racial wealth gap and who—most critically—do so with not a trace of ridicule but a deep and great sense of empathy for the community. These are people who have committed their life’s work to actually helping fulfill the words again found in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s manifesto: “We remove the barriers to opportunity,” it reads, “expel the darkness that eclipses hope, and dispel the shame that stifles our power to dream. We enable the people of Bed-Stuy and beyond to dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?'”
1. Speaking of former U.S. presidents, now might be a good time to mention that John Hope Bryant had served as vice-chairman of President Bush’s (W.’s) Council on Financial Literacy, and later, on Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability (PACFC). He then went on to be appointed chairman of the PACFC’s Subcommittee on the Underserved and Community Empowerment. Which is to say that, whatever you or I might think of Mr. Bryant’s approach to economic uplift—and, full disclosure, I do not think much of it at all—the guy is not exactly a slouch.↩
2. A copy of which I am unexpectedly handed gratis by the woman doing sign-in after I present her my ticket for the event. The complementary copy of the book comes as a doubly pleasant surprise since, last week at a bookstore in the La Guardia Airport, on my way to Ohio for a friend’s wedding, I had been very, very close to buying one in order to keep myself occupied during the two-hour flight. ↩
4. This is something of a big, apparently revelatory utterance during the lectures, and is one of many in the John Bryant stock lecture soundbites. Others sure to be featured during a John Bryant talk are: “We are sitting in a moment in history;” or, if you wake up in the morning and don’t know who you are, then “by dinner time somebody will tell you;” and a Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quote that he consistently misattributes to Deepak Chopra that goes “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Then there are the little aphorisms oft-deployed interchangeably to whomever he is addressing at the moment. For example, the departmental director, or whomever the chairman of the host institute is “doesn’t walk on water, but he/she knows where the stones are;” or describing a person (either in the audience, or someone instrumental in coordinating the event) by likening them to eagles which, we are told, “don’t fly in packs;” and there’s usually pretty much always an announcement to the audience that he’s “from the black church,” which is meant to signal something to the usually all-white crowd but I’m not really sure what, though it usually gets a reliable laugh. I realize that it’s in the nature of motivational speaking to like really lean on these pithy phrases or whatever, but these span four years of John Bryant’s lecturing, and when you’ve heard them uttered over and over again in so unoriginal a fashion they tend to just leave someone like me feeling cold and numb on the inside rather than inspired. We will hear literally every single one of these during tonight’s talk; I would bet any amount of money on it. ↩
5. For an extended discussion on how, in fact, we might come to view the levels of self-esteem of black males as being even more remarkable than their female counterparts, given the manner in which their (black males’) ‘non-being’ completely upends traditional intersectional categories of oppression analysis, please see the mind-bendingly brilliant work of Dr. Tommy J. Curry, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. ↩
6. The county of Chautauqua encompasses two cities, twenty-seven towns, and fifteen villages. It spans over one-thousand square miles.↩
7. It’s at this point in the talk where we are reminded by JHB that there are more poor white people than any other group in the U.S. And I’ll admit that I’m genuinely kind of shocked he said it here at this event. I guess I figured if there was ever a time to bracket the extremely indecorous suggestion that—not only is all poverty essentially the same—but that black people don’t really have a legitimate grievance when they contend that the poverty they experience is discriminatory in nature, because, well, look at all the poor white people. In fact one of the most salient and eye-opening aspects of the racial wealth gap study is how it demonstrates the qualitative difference between black and white poverty; how even the poorest of whites in the U.S. are still appreciably more secure, economically, relative to poor blacks. We need only look at how much more is required of black households to even approximate the levels of wealth that poor white households have, and observe how — routinely — those white counterparts are positionally inferior and much less favorably equipped to be in possession of more wealth. To very quickly run down some of the examples of this phenomenon that gets catalogued throughout the study: a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth than a white family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma; white households with an unemployed head have more than ten times higher wealth than similar black households; white households with an unemployed head have a higher net worth than black households with a head who is working full-time; black households in the lowest 20% of the income distribution have essentially zero net worth, while the poorest white families have on average 15-18k net worth; black non-homeowner head of house have a mere $120 in net worth, while white non-homeowner head of house have hold 31 times more wealth; and white households with a single-parent have more than 2 times the net worth of two-parent black households.↩
8. And tonight’s recipient of the “doesn’t walk on water but knows where the stones are” description.↩
9. Except that “blah-di, blah-di, blah-di” is a phrase deployed specifically to invalidate whatever comes before it as being essentially superfluous or basically trivial. So I’m not really sure why Colvin Grannum even tries to qualify his statement here when it’s pretty apparent that, at least in this moment, he seems to have a palpable air of insouciance when discussing the extremely legitimate grievance of systemic racism and the extent to which it obstructs the progress—economic or otherwise—of the community. ↩
10. I’m here tonight at the event with a very good friend who works at the Lower East Side’s extremely ritzy and chic and celebrity-frequented Bowery Hotel. Which is to say that my friend has handled a good many ‘black cards’ in his years there. When he feels Mr. Bryant’s card, he leans over and tells me that he’s fairly confident that it’s a fake, given the lack of actual heft to the card and the absence of some other design insignia/characteristic which my friend says is meant to separate the real card from a replica, which are, in fact, available online for $30. There’s also the very big question of why anyone in their right mind would pass around their personal credit card at an event full of strangers where basically everyone in the audience has a camera and can very easily and quickly steal all of the necessary information to go out and do some serious damage. ↩
11. In JHB’s world, there seems to exist literally no sense of community apart from the community of plundering, opportunistic, racist capitalists. The community of Bed-Stuy is not worth investing in. The poor community somewhere else where your family lives—and that is victim to the same processes as Bed-Stuy—is desirable only insofar as it is pre-speculatively ripe for extractive practices. I’m sure that, in JHB’s mind, he very much imagines himself as what he often refers to audience members as being: an eagle. Soaring packless in the sky. In fact, in this response, it becomes so totally obvious how very much a pack bird he actually is; nothing so much as a vulture circling with other vultures above a carcass, and feeding with them when the times comes. ↩
12. Just prior to this, the man from the audience correctly, and very politely, pointed out that, earlier in the night, Mr. Bryant had misspoken about a particular data point regarding the racial wealth gap. Mr. Bryant had quoted an article in the Boston Globe that, he said, noted the average black individual in Boston as being worth $7. When the man attempted to clarify the information, saying “That example that you gave in Boston, I think it’s eight dollars as opposed to seven.” Mr. Bryant became visibly angry and petulant, interrupting the man and saying, “No, it’s 7. I got the [unintelligible], anyway…” Well, here’s the article. 8 bucks indeed. Furthermore, imagine being so on-edge and full of conceit and ultra-sensitive to any kind of pushback that a simple, courteous clarification from a person who commuted after work to listen to you talk lights you up. ↩
13. John Hope Bryant is obviously correct in that AIDS is an incredibly serious problem in South Africa. And I’ll go on record as saying I know next to nothing about what might be going on there in terms of the instances of insurance fraud. However, a report done in 2013 entitled “Paying the Piper: The High Cost of Funerals in South Africa,” casts serious doubt upon his claim that the “way of life” in South Africa is for family members to enroll their relatives in life insurance policies so that they can “cash out,” by which he presumably means the family members are using the money as capital to fund subsequent economic ventures. South African funerals are, it turns out, extremely elaborate and costly affairs. Analyzing funeral arrangements after the deaths of nearly 4,000 people who died during 2003-2005, the researchers of the study found that “[South African] households spend the equivalent of a year’s income for an adult’s funeral, measured at median per capita African (black) income.” In the region studied, when an adult male dies, it is general custom to kill a cow so as to be able to feed the mourners at the funeral. The researchers note that a typical cow represents “more than a third of year’s income for half the African population.” And while the South African Council of Churches has repeatedly enjoined the population to begin practicing more “appropriate and affordable funerals,” the price tags have way more to do with long-standing cultural norms and the service’s overall significance with regard to family and community life, than they do — say — just pure conspicuous consumption. So to the extent that there is an inordinate amount of insurance policies being taken out on relatives, far from converting the money obtained from those policies into another investment, the report—with strong evidence to back it up —argues that households are in fact “taking what, in other circumstances, could be productive capital and using it on coffins, meat, and groceries to bury their dead.” Add to this the fact that AIDS in South Africa is so bad that it has altered the population’s mortality profile — with more adults dying in middle-age — and you have a maybe more slightly reliable explanation for why there is a large volume of life insurance policies being taken out, rather than imputing a motive of profit onto people who are insuring a loved one. Just a thought anyway. Or but I don’t know, maybe Mr. Bryant was talking about funeral insurance, which is not life insurance, per se, but is tremendously popular in South Africa. Still, Dr. Erlend Berg, a professor of economics at the University of Bristol also had this to say about funeral insurance in South Africa: “In fact, at least in South Africa, funeral policy holders as a group seem to be dominated by pensioners. These are in their sixties or older, and given the life expectancy of black South Africans it is unlikely that many of them still have parents who are alive. This is a strong indication that those who take out funeral insurance do so first and foremost to cover their own funeral.” Lastly, there’s also this article in The Guardian which pretty clearly demonstrates how insofar as there is an attempt to profit off of someone’s suffering and loss of life with these policies, it is the insurers and not the consumers themselves.↩
14. So here’s yet another big generalizing claim that probably warrants some scrutiny. In a 2007 study published by Oxford University Press, “Are Blacks Really Less Trusting Than Whites? Revisiting the Race and Trust Question,” the authors had this to say concerning the paucity of extant literature that actually addresses the issue of whether black people do or don’t trust each other: “While there has been much research on trust and race,” they write, “no work (to our knowledge) has addressed whether and how race category affects trustworthiness…the absence of previous work offers little guidance for predicting how trustworthiness may vary within vs. between race categories.” Moreover, they note that previous studies employed a standard metric when looking into differences in trust; one which they say — while it sufficiently measured whites’ trust of blacks — “did not predict trusting behavior for any other combination of own and other’s race category.” Discussing the findings of the trust data collected in their experiments, the authors write, “[T]he results of the analysis show blacks engage in more trustworthy behavior than whites…regardless of the race category of the truster, black participants returned an average of 23 per cent more than whites.” They also found that “white participants…trusted other white participants more than they trusted black participants. Yet blacks were more trustworthy than whites toward white trusters.” The question is, then, why is John Hope Bryant so deeply invested in the idea of doubt and suspicion and distrust within the black community? Why does he speak to the issue of race and trust with an air of legitimacy when there is in fact a gaping hole in the actual scientific literature on the subject, and the literature that does exist runs contra to his thesis? What’s the motive for essentially inventing this stuff? Does John Hope Bryant benefit somehow from sowing seeds of doubt as to the degree of affinity and fellowship between black people? And why, again, is someone who is either very uninformed or very dishonest behind invited to speak on one of the most pressing issues in modern America? ↩
15. Nor is it really even to defend the man’s idea, despite its being probably the closest that we come all night to discussing an actual approach to tackling the racial wealth gap (…sort of). That said, I think anyone hearing this idea described—and who also has an ear to the present discussion on reparative justice—would recognize in it a version of the baby bond program proposed by Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton, which the former outlines here, and which he aptly notes is very reparations-lite. One of the big differences—I think— between what the man is proposing and Darity’s & Hamilton’s program, being the nature of the program’s funding, which, in the private insurance realm, seems very fraught with danger.↩
16. It’s honestly difficult to overstate the sneering contempt that John Hope Bryant seems to possess toward the black community and the lack of sympathy for the actual historic nature of its plight. “We have institutions for civil rights, social justice, police brutality,” he says, “whatever’s against us, we can tell you in a second what it looks like. But don’t talk about owning a home, or a business, sending our kids to college, becoming an engineer. Anything that’s tied to aspiration [we say], ‘Oh, naw, naw, we not like them rich people…'” ↩
In the third chapter of the Book of Amos, God sends the prophet before the Israelites. There, in the midst of their impiety, Amos raises the specter of God’s abandonment by asking, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”
That is, if the Israelites—in knowing defiance of God’s decree to live out His Word through fidelity to the scripture—should choose to exist as spiritual exiles, so then in like manner God is bound to regard them; estranged from Him and ultimately from themselves. For in the absence of spiritual fellowship, only alienation and futility.
And so like Amos, who sought by way of interrogation to confront the Northern Tribes with the certainty of their solitary path and its promise of an aimless destiny, the Angela Project poses essentially this very same question to leaders within the Baptist church: Can two walk together, except they be agreed?
Can the leaders of the black church claim to be righteously united in purpose and spirit with a just God when the community they profess to serve is every day made to occupy the most marginal of positions in American society? A community which then, on Sundays, gathers in its houses of worship to hear a sermon utterly devoid of social justice as being a matter rooted in the depths of the divine. Of oppression on earth as being an affront to the God who they are taught to believe has endowed them with certain inalienable rights, and who has thus in so doing sanctified a basic condition of liberty. Can the community ever fully enjoy those rights if the biblical doctrine preached by their faith leaders is not one that is fundamentally animated by an indignation at the obvious incongruence of the group’s lived experience in relation to that ideal?
Or must that doctrine be one that necessarily connects an account of how, for centuries, that group has had those rights deliberately withheld and radically attenuated? A gospel put in the service of revealing and impressing upon the community’s conscious mind that precisely because of that history—and its white-knuckle grip on the present—there is the indisputable fact of particular, material claims being warranted them as a result. And not only the mere fact of them, but of the absolute justice of those claims and the righteousness of working collectively to secure them.
I am here in Louisville, Kentucky where the second annual Angela Project summit is being held. The venue for the event is St. Stephen Baptist Church, pastored by a man named Dr. Kevin W. Cosby. In addition to his role as senior pastor of St. Stephen, he is also the president of Simmons College, the state’s only private HBCU.
When he was four years-old, the Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby was built a makeshift pulpit by a trustee of St. Stephen from which he could practice preaching. Since then, Dr. Cosby has developed a style which he describes as “very targeted to the black experience and to the black situation.”
By his own account, for preaching to have its maximum effect, it must “take seriously the context—the Sitz im Leben—of the audience.”
The Sitz im Leben of Louisville west of the Ninth Street divide is one of extreme poverty and segregation that is impossible to ignore. It is one of the poorest zip codes in America, and where black families like the Wades and the Marshalls—when they tried to move elsewhere—were made to understand was the only section of the city in which they were welcomed to live. Upon their arrival in the city’s white neighborhoods, white Louisvillians got out the dynamite and the rifles and doused crosses in gasoline to be left aflame on front lawns. Joshua Poe, an urban planning consultant in Louisville and presenter at this year’s Angela Project, says that the city was “held up as a model of racial zoning” for the rest of the nation. West Louisville is also an area where, as author Richard Rothstein notes in his book, The Color of Law, “all levels of government maintained segregation.” The city of Louisville’s residential apartheid then prompts Rothstein to wonder: “How long do the memories of such events last? How long do they continue to intimidate?”
Black memory is, for Dr. Cosby, the paramount object toward which his evangelistic energies turn. More specifically, his ministry means to help restore the cultural memory of American descendants of slaves. A memory which, as part of a psyche racked with trans-generational trauma, naturally reaches for—or inclines toward—a kind of amnesiac condition. Of course, this condition advantages those most committed to the ongoing state of affairs with respect to race relations in America. How could it not? Having been brought to a place of un-rememberance—with integration serving as the apparent expiative act which cleansed the nation’s conscience and marked the implicit starting point for black America—then what firm basis is there to call into question the so-called achievements of integration?
Rather, in the absence of black memory, white America is better enabled to hold up and exhibit what it deems as evidence of the success of integration. Often these are a form of self-flattery, imputing to ourselves more good than we have really done with regard to the matter of racial progress, since as the second pillar of the catechism reminds us: true conversion and true penance “does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at…a radical re-orientation of our whole life.”
Still, for the last half-century, America has refused to admit into its purview of consideration the need for such radical transformation. And as a nation supposedly committed to the principles of Christianity, we evince a curiously strong preference for engaging in tokenism rather than meaningful contrition. It is not enough, though, to install certain functionaries, since generally these are persons of a background more consistent with the beneficiaries of our economic system, and not with that of the group whom they nominally represent. A group whose single, defining feature—it must be recognized—is their having been made to founder and fail within that system from the very beginning; not just the feature of black skin, but how that black skin was made to organize American life as we know it today, a whole society stacked on top of, and made possible by, the failure which that black skin came to represent.
And so it is not enough—and in fact serves as a moral detriment to us all—having these spokespeople for ‘progress’ echo the familiar idées reçues about how we as a nation ought to now move past race. To stand up and pronounce on the apparent virtue of colorblindness in a national landscape yet teeming with the stark evidence of its enduring, race-based inequality.
In so doing, they in effect shame black America for the devastating conditions in the community while at the same time they reassure white America that we have done all we could do to atone for the history that in fact produced them.
In truth, our efforts at reconciliation for our atrocities have been scant and partial when measured against the lasting and profound nature of the damage originally inflicted by them. The formal apology issued in 2009 by the U.S. government—doubtless the biggest institutional purveyor of political, legal, economic, physical and environmental violence against black America over the last two and a half centuries—was merely the sackcloth and ashes expression of repentance. And while the congressional mea culpa acknowledges the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws,” it also rejects explicitly any notion that the consequences—the material catastrophes experienced by the victims of those admittedly barbaric and morally fragrant practices—were ever up for discussion: “Nothing in this resolution,” the apology reads, “authorizes or supports any claim against the United States.”
And so the nation has basically contented itself.
Undesirous of making full restitution if it can be avoided, those who hold the purse strings have relied on increased diversity in our entertainment culture, the vaunting of black celebrity, corporate multiculturalism, and representation at the highest levels of politics to help shape societal impressions in a way that vitiates even the idea of a contract of repayment for the vast majority of descendants of slaves who languish in the lowest echelon of society. Moreover, this highly orchestrated mirage of progress has allowed black and white Americans alike to be woefully misled as to what they think are the possibilities and means of access presently available to that group.
In many ways, integration as it was managed served as a kind of mock grand re-opening of America. Where above the threshold a sign proclaiming ‘ALL ARE WELCOME’ was in effect crudely hammered over the one that had always said ‘NO BLACKS.’ And where—because of the economic consequences of the historic exclusion of that community—the prices of the goods inside all nonetheless remained well out of reach.
The apparent impartiality of this new phase in American life was—and in a number of ways still is—premised on a basic denial of black cultural memory. A denial of how powerfully determinant and how powerfully exploitable having a pedigree of chattel property is. The dogged persistence of that singular trait, right down through the generations, amid the building and now calcifying processes of wealth in the richest country in the world. And then, finally, from that place of false renewal, with so much yet needed to be made whole, of suggesting the matter of struggling to extract and wrest the fullest meaning from the fact of citizenship in that country as being concluded.
Pastor Cosby’s concern with black memory recalls a passage from William Faulkner’s novel, Light in August. “Memory believes before knowing remembers,” Faulkner writes, “believes longer than recollects. Longer than knowing even wonders.” Memory, in other words, endures faithfully. Encoded into the collective unconscious and preserving the past that makes up a people, persevering in spite of what knowing thinks it perceives.
For Pastor Cosby, the memory of the black experience—while it may at times be subdued by violence or seized by traumatic neurosis—is surely constant amongst its children, running on as like a stream and containing in it all things antecedental, down through the centuries, nothing of consequence withheld.
So far as all of this is able to be discovered, though, a careful and solicitous custodianship is needed. And it is here—as a kind of warden of memory—where the black church must lead. To, as Pastor Cosby describes, “introduce the congregation to its undiscovered self. To give them the power to pursue what they already know to be true.”
Preachers, then, ought to feel compelled to midwife and foreground memory. To attend to the needs of the community not with scriptural palliatives which encourage the congregation to exercise lenity in the face of adversity—to take heart that justice will be theirs in the eternal—but by cultivating a discipleship of social justice through the scripture, one that is attentive to the memory of the black experience and responsive to the conditions of provocation that have always defined it.
Failing that, the church becomes then—to use an analogy which appeals to the sport that introduced the world to a legend from right here in Louisville’s west end—not a corner in a boxing match, but, at best, a mode of escape.
In de-emphasizing the consequences of that history—by not being the institutional vehicle to foster and develop and encourage a sense of racial identity grounded in that history and memory in order that they might more effectively achieve their goals in America—the church abets the losing bargain drawn up for native black descendants of slaves. A losing bargain because of the profound insuperability of that original handicap; namely, their ancestors having been the principle means by which the nation begat its great prosperity and for which they were in return never compensated. The way that economic encumbrance deliberately denied them resources across generations. An overt prevention of opportunity enforced through acts of terror upon the community. An overt prevention of opportunity which then went on to be tacitly assured by the courts. And finally, an overt prevention of opportunity which was all but guaranteed by the group’s total social and financial undercapitalization and the private biases and discriminatory forces of the free market.
What the Angela Project rightly asks the leaders of the church is, is how it’s possible, with cognizance of that fundamental component of the black experience—an economic exclusion which served as the foundation for unprecedented national enrichment—to not hear, from the Book of Habukkuk, God’s judgement upon it and His warning against its perpetrators: “Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain,” reads chapter two, verse six, “For the stone shall cry out from the wall, and the beam from the timber shall answer it.”
What in those words does not serve as an indictment of this nation’s history? What in them does not readily affirm the justice claim carried forward by the descendants of slaves? What—in the very next verse—could possibly be interpreted as counseling restraint, passivity, inaction, when Habukkuk says, “But without warning, those you owe will demand payment.”
Reparations—definitionally, payment provided in compensation for a wrong or harm done—is central to the Angela Project’s mission in helping to effect meaningful social justice for native black descendants of slaves. It is an example of precisely the type of ‘radical reorientation’ alluded to in the catechism’s second pillar.
In a speech at Howard University in 1965, Lyndon Johnson urged the country closer toward this properly catechetical demonstration of repentance. In what amounts to a genealogy of the ills and deficiencies afflicting the black community, and its anemic lurching of progress relative to white America, Johnson explicitly identifies “the devastating heritage of long years of slavery” and a “century of oppression, hatred, and injustice” as the wellhead of their misfortunes and tribulations.
What Johnson understood was that the observable features of black life in America—the already boiling cauldron of instability, the chronic stress and exclusion—were inseparable from that group’s history of having been economically locked out for centuries. And that every subsequent maldistribution of wealth, every new hoarding of opportunity for white America, would only adjust the flame over which that cauldron sat just a little bit higher. That it was—and still is—not just an abstract matter of presupposing African-Americans as somehow essentially less than, unable to capitalize on all the supposed opportunities this country makes available to them; rather it was how those prejudices came to be concretely expressed within our institutions. Johnson recognized that, insofar as institutional capacity to facilitate positive outcomes for a community is tied to some measure of that community’s economic fitness, then black America’s total scarcity of wealth, coming off of centuries of forms of oppression and discrimination that specifically denied them the ability to create it, had consequently made them uniquely vulnerable in American society. And so he argued, in strongly moral terms, that the only humane and adequate response could not seek to extenuate that fact, but instead must fully confront the magnitude with which those heinous offenses, those abuses of exploitation, had grievously retarded the development of the black community and to then intervene accordingly.
Then as now we are nearing a point of irrevocability. As such we ought to seek out forms of reparative justice—like the affirmative action programs adopted specifically for black America in the wake of Johnson’s address—which evince a full appreciation for the damage done by past injustices. Approaches that seek to make meaningful amends, and to ultimately, as Johnson said, “move beyond opportunity to achievement…to dissolve, as best we can, the antique enmities of the heart which diminish the holder, divide the great democracy, and do wrong—great wrong—to the children of God.”
Not since President Johnson spoke those words has the U.S., reflecting on its sins, made such an earnest effort at full atonement, or so closely approximated the call to conversion and penance as articulated in the catechism, one which says, “The human heart is converted by looking upon him who our sins have pierced.”
In so many ways our gaze has long drifted away from an engaged and meaningful look at black America—upon him who our sins have pierced. It is a disregard that has been encouraged by a steady re-segregation of society. How—in this age of putatively great choice, abundant opportunity, personal agency and racial progress—have we gotten to a place where our public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1973? Is it just that so many black Americans choose to congregate in the inner-cities? Drink lead-tainted water? Do they just spontaneously appear living in abject poverty, the likes of which—as one U.N. official touring Alabama described them—are “very uncommon in the First World.” Are the placement of oil refineries just some hundreds of feet from black homes a thing of happenstance? Does the majority of white America just choose to live more comfortably?
Or is what we see—or rather, don’t have any real need to see, since our lives are arranged to insulate us from, and not bring us into any sustained contact with black America—the pernicious lie at the core of the idea of a post-racial United States? Because to really witness black America is to become unsettlingly and inescapably aware of the vast, and yawning, and manufactured divide that still exists between it and the rest of society.
It is not just to that divide that the Angela Project speaks. More revelatory—and arguably most importantly—it is from that divide; from that place of designated and intended exclusion that the Angela Project undertakes to, as Dr. Cosby says, “Lift a prophetic voice to advocate for black communities and institutions in places of power.”
1 Corinthians 14:29 tells us, “And let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern.” Two such prophets, Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, are here today in the sanctuary of St. Stephen Baptist Church. The latter, arrived from LA and normally seen in a fitted Dodgers cap, is today positioned at the lectern and surrounded by several charts and graphs projected onto wall-mounted screens, all of which detail our moment of historic inequality in relation to black America, that group which doubtless bears the brunt of that disparity. “This is America,” Antonio tells those in attendance, “and to have never seen America like this is a travesty.”
The America of which Antonio Moore speaks—insofar as it tells itself a story of improved race relations, or of a steady and continuous march toward ameliorating the material, social, and moral conditions of the civic organism—is one that demonstrably lies to itself every day.
What Antonio describes—and what these charts attest to—is how it really isn’t anachronistic at all to speak of slavery existing in the present. And that if it seems long since that time of the plantation—the cradle of black exclusion in America—if we seem far removed from that period, that’s more attributable to our actual physical isolation from black people, and the realities of their lives, than a positive assertion of our evolving attitudes and behaviors on race, tolerance, and cooperation.
To maintain that slavery ended hundreds of years ago, and that nothing of that sort inhibits black people today, is to reveal an inability to interpret reality beyond the absolute literal. To be in possession of a mind that can only conceptualize enslavement physically, as in actual hand-stocks and neck-irons clamped onto black bodies and not as a condition of basic economic immobility imposed from without.
Because that is exactly the circumstance of black America today. Nationwide, the middle black family’s net worth is $1,700 before depreciating assets. In Boston, black people have a net worth of exactly $8. In Antonio Moore’s hometown of Los Angeles, the black family is worth $200 liquid. Those primitive devices of oppression have since just been re-packaged in new, less obvious forms. They may be more discreet in their aims, but the desired outcome has always remained the same: to keep black people on the bottom, and to prevent them from ever becoming equal members of society. “That’s not the story we tell ourselves though,” Antonio says, “We like to remember slavery as a period of time.”
But to invoke Faulkner once more: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And no group in America so acutely experiences this continual rupture of the past into the present quite like descendants of slaves. At the same time, though, they are told that this resurgence of injustice is a product of their imagination. How, then, to account for it when it happens? How to experience is but as a profound isolation, inexplicable and suddenly encompassing?
Yvette Carnell begins her speech by mentioning how the Breaking Brown project—which she founded in 2014—has “allowed [her] to have a proximity to native-black descendant of slaves’ pain.” She sees it “from all angles,” and recognizes how many in the community, especially in the younger generation, “understand something intuitively” about that pain; something they feel very deeply, but which they maybe can’t quite articulate because of the insistence in our society that—for descendants of slaves—history is a weak or false premise from which to argue their grievances. And so, unable to get ahead, they’re left feeling some gnawing enigma as to the reason why; a vague, nihilistic futility in relation to their future, and an urge to turn to self-medication.
The recent eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, delivered by Pastor Jasper Williams, demonstrates how quickly religious leaders in the community can be to rebuke the consequences and the symptoms of black people having been excluded from America, while remaining deeply reticent on the systemic inequalities that are at the root of these expressions of instability. It’s worth considering what spiritual toll this contemptuous haranguing has taken on the community. How has this manifested in the younger generation’s attendance in church when the institution largely doesn’t speak to that feeling of estrangement they experience in any meaningful way? Yvette Carnell pauses a moment at the lectern before directly challenging the claims and usefulness of such cultural pathology preaching: “If you’re going to wear a cross around your neck and claim to be a pastor,” she says before a congregation in which there are many clergymen in attendance, “I don’t need you to do that in a way that blames the oppressed. If you get up to speak for me, I need you to speak about Justice Jesus.”
Where the church and other black institutions falter in this capacity, Breaking Brown proceeds. It is a project of rehabilitation and furtherance grounded in a belief that while self-medication will numb the pain, self-definition will ultimately transform it. “At a certain point,” Yvette says, “we’re going to have to ask ourselves about the power of self-definition and why we refuse to define ourselves.”
The consequences of that refusal were presciently described by Harold Cruse in his book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. “As long as the negro’s cultural identity is in question, or open to self-doubts,” Cruse writes, “then there can be no positive identification with the real demands of his political and economic existence. Further than that,” Cruse continues, “without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. He is left in the limbo of social marginality, alienated and directionless on the landscape of America.”
Now, just like then, there is a pressing need for descendants of slaves to self-identify in some politically relevant, actionable, and culturally-specific way. Arguably it is even more so urgent today, since from the time Cruse first issued that damning characterization of their fate, the cultural identity of black America has only been further diffused, confounded and made indistinct. And it is at this critical and precarious moment in the group’s history where the respective, but highly complementary projects of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore aim to intervene. Together they are working to provide a conceptual apparatus through which the pain and exclusion of being native-black descendants of slaves is rendered knowable—able to then be acted upon and in the interest of eradicating. Together they are working to—as the only viable way forward—recall the community to its singular identity: “It is not about color, or melanin,” Yvette says, “It’s about lineage. Lineage is everything.”
At the Sunday worship service at St. Stephen, the Reverend Jesse Jackson delivers the sermon. Slowly, quietly, and in a tone full of musing he asks the congregation, “How many of you remember your grandparents? Raise your hand.” Virtually all those present raise their hands. “Great-grandparents?” he says, “Raise your hand.” And about half of the hands that had been held up in the church are lowered. “Great-Great-Grandparents? Raise your hand.” The number of hands dwindle further. “Great-Great-Great?”
In response to this last question there’s a smattering of laughter from the congregation that ripples through the sanctuary. No hands are raised.
“That’s five generations,” Reverend Jackson says. And pausing afterward, he removes his glasses. “From Jesus to David it’s forty-two generations. He has quoted forty-two generations and we can’t quote five.” The sanctuary, in this moment, is very still, as the import of what the Reverend is saying becomes apparent. “Jesus refers to what Moses said, what David said,” he continued, “and we can’t go back five generations…”
The message is at once obvious enough. The memory of black America—a memory starting from the present and reaching back through the generations all the way to when Angela, the conference’s namesake, first stepped off a slave ship and onto American soil at Point Comfort, VA—is indispensable to the community’s future survival and eventual liberation.
Dr. Kevin Cosby, Yvette Carnell, Antonio Moore and the Angela Project are all seriously engaged in setting the black agenda in these next stages of the freedom struggle. They are doing so with an eye turned fully toward that memory and all that it contains. The question with which we leave off this weekend is whether other leaders in the church will stand in solidarity with that mission, lending it the institutional weight of the church, or whether they will instead assist in a fate befalling the black community which they have doubtless read about before, one found in the Book of Hosea, chapter four, verse six, which warns, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”