Consider the Mule: Antonio Moore & Marianne Williamson in Conversation

Say you are taking a test.

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

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

a.) Conservative

b.) Liberal

c.) Progressive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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