Weeds Don’t Grow in Well-treated Soil: A By-No-Means Comprehensive Look Back on the ADOS Conference

I want they conference center to be empty come October. And if it’s not empty, I want them to be so confused, they don’t know what the fuck they doing.

— Talib Kweli, seven months before the inaugural (and sold out) ADOS Conference


I saw a lot of things at the inaugural ADOS conference. I watched as the day opened with Rep. John Yarmouth striding head first into a wall of reproach after ham-fistedly deploying the one-oppression-fits-all term, “people of color” (which, because that term so totally cooks out the specific justice claim that informs literally all things ADOS, is sort of like showing up at a conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and referring to the victims of Nazism—and those who are thus entitled to compensation—as ‘people of faith’).

I saw Marianne Williamson in retrograde. Someone who, in the waning days of her candidacy, would rather go down vowing to negotiate the debt owed to ADOS (from an already very low opening bid) than use every remaining breath of air that campaign still has to sear a meaningful number into the Left’s discourse of repair. Reparations is, after all, the issue that has served as the primary rudder of Williamson’s campaign. It’s what’s been responsible for really propelling it into (relative) prominence. Which is why for all the rhetoric about how her presidency will harness the righteous opposites of those forces that Trump successfully exploited in his 2016 bid, it’s so peculiar to see Williamson already signaling a kind of uninspiring surrender to those very same cynical forces when it comes to the issue of justice for ADOS, when it comes to what she feels will ultimately determine how whole we make the group. As she often does when the issue of cost rears its head, Williamson availed herself to this bit of apparent wisdom: “With vision, you must never compromise; politics is the art of compromise.” I’m not really sure what effect that’s supposed to have on audiences. It starts out kind of inspirational, but then basically devours itself. All I can say is that what I saw at the ADOS conference was a sanctuary full of people who were clearly past the point of getting excited about (let alone throwing the weight of their vote behind) a candidate who seems interested in focus-grouping their reparations; who posits a scenario in which, with the right haggling, ADOS will get a little something in exchange for the everything that’s been stolen from them (an everything which—it should be remembered—has been used to make the whiteness that a candidate like Ms. Williamson has never not known and enjoyed).1

I saw Dr. Cornel West both bear witness and testify to the spirit of affection and intense, genuine concern for one another that has, since the outset of the ADOS movement, so obviously and powerfully pulsed from within it. This is apparent enough online; in person, it’s really a whole different thing to behold. And I quickly realized how utterly impossible it would be for me to actually put that particular attribute of the conference into words. So I’ll just include this thought that I jotted down in the margin of my program while observing the crowd interacting during one of the breaks: Witnessing for about the three-hundredth time this weekend how it is apparently definitely possible for one’s first encounter with another person to feel—at the very same time—like a long anticipated reunion. 2

I guess maybe that comes close to capturing it, but I honestly don’t think—unless you were actually there in that room or on that lawn outside St. Stephen earlier this month—that you can really understand just how deeply connected ADOS are with one another, or really get your head around the sense of harmony and union that so totally pervades this movement of a people in lockstep toward justice and restitution. In fact, the only word I think I heard more than ‘justice’ that weekend, was ‘family.’

Which is to say I saw no confusion at all. Instead, what I saw so plainly among the attendees there in West Louisville a few weeks ago was the complete and total absence of that quality. I saw people who had come together with an absolutely precise sense of purpose, an exactly defined awareness of just who they are, of all that their group has built here, and all that is owed them as a result. I saw what America has tried forever in vain to vanquish, or at the very least avoid dealing with. I saw what, despite that, has always endured, and what now with #ADOS seems to have found its way across centuries to its most promising and formidable expression yet. What I saw, in other words, was the abject failure of the ridiculous and contemptible ‘mission’ set forth in this essay’s epigram. And I don’t just mean that I saw the failure of that now, at this particular juncture in the fall of 2019. I don’t mean that I saw just one person’s failure. What I mean to convey is that I believe I saw the complete and outright permanence of that failure. Because #ADOS has, from day one, worked tirelessly to purge confusion from within the group and to nurture in its absence a terrific and fearful clarity as they move forward. And with the unmitigated success of the inaugural ADOS conference serving as a backdrop, what that epigram reveals is how all that comes against that vision does so only in vanity, only briefly, before fading back into darkness. Weeds simply don’t grow in well-treated soil.

1. And this is not to go in on Williamson or whatever—someone who has displayed some actual guts. But like, there’s a real difference between simply putting the ball down on the field, and actually moving it purposefully toward the end zone.

2. This wasn’t just the vibe in the context of conference attendees meeting Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, either. A duo who are honestly such a presence in ADOS households that it probably really does feel like a reunion. This was just ADOS meeting other ADOS. But, speaking of Yvette and Antonio, I watched them both forego what seem some pretty basic human functions/needs (bladder emptying, thirst, hunger) over the course of several hours in favor of mingling with the crowd and making sure that everyone there was aware of just how much their presence in Louisville was appreciated and valued.

Consider the Source: Some Remarks on Whiteness, Delivered at the Inaugural ADOS Conference

I would be sorely remiss in not first and foremost saying what a tremendous sense of gratitude I feel in being here with all of you today. It is a rare gift for a writer to be working at a time of what feels like transformative possibility within the nation. Perhaps rarer still is when that possibility belongs to the group to whom that writer, as a white American, has come to recognize he owes the sum of his experience as a citizen. And while part of what I intend to talk about today is how I gained a sense of that indebtedness to ADOS, I’ve also been asked to weigh in on the prevalence of its inverse; that is, why aren’t more white people—who profess a commitment to economic justice—standing with ADOS in their bid for recognition as a uniquely disadvantaged group, and its attendant justice claim for reparations.

The answer to the first question is simple. I merely had to listen. To listen with what Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby often refers to as ‘courageous ears.’ When William Faulkner was once asked to describe his writing process, he responded, “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” From the very beginning I have gone off in similar pursuit of the #ADOS movement, convinced that it has just as much (if not arguably more) to tell white America about itself than it does actual ADOS. As for why more white people have yet to heed that message, I am decidedly less sure. As literally no one seated in this sanctuary today needs reminding, the white American psyche is a puzzling thing. And I’m really not so sure that my lifelong membership to the group puts me at any kind of advantage in probing it for certain truths on why it bends in the especially mystifying way it does when the question becomes how we substantively address the group-specific damages stemming from—and very much subsequent to—chattel slavery.

Indeed, if anything, insofar as my writing about ADOS over the past few years has afforded me a little distance from the white psyche, I have come to appreciate just how limited it is in its ability to think about whiteness in a way that can begin radically undoing all of the inequalities it has been made to contain. And what I wish to suggest today is that the only way of overcoming that dilemma is for a white person to bracket whatever skepticism he or she might have about being told something truly and profoundly unsettling about themselves, about all that their experience as a white person in America entails. And to understand that the only way to really see whiteness for what it actually is is to sincerely listen to the one group who has only ever existed outside of it. The group who, precisely because they’ve been shut out so completely, because they’ve been made to be set apart and to observe whiteness from a vantage point well beyond it, thus knows it in its brutal and ill-gotten totality.

That vantage belongs to ADOS and only them. And it reveals a view of all that access to whiteness makes possible in the United States. Of all that’s derived from their group’s deprivation and ruin. The chief proceed of which has always been wealth; that cornerstone of stability, that basic building block of mobility that we continue to go to flagrant lengths in order to ensure they, as a group, never realize.

And I invite you, white people, to imagine your own capacity for restraint in such a scenario where this fullness of possibility has always rested on your being denied it, and to then measure that against what ADOS has been made to endure for centuries. I invite you to consider life from this place of thoroughgoing exclusion, and from there speculate honestly on your ability to be patient for progress. To tolerate over and over again the tiring rehearsal of your liberation. Of entering into coalitions only to find that, in the end, while your efforts have helped other marginalized groups secure a foothold in whiteness, your group itself remains conspicuously unmoved from the wretched terrain of its exclusion. Your group alone remains bound to that bottomland where all the failure and disadvantage goes that America has always needed to be diverted somewhere away from whiteness in order to make and preserve its meaning, its advantage, its normalcy.

Imagine for a moment that your group abides where all that failure and disadvantage pools and collects. And then imagine also having to live with the knowledge of this awful truth: that while your ancestors gave their lives in defiance of being consigned to occupy that place—in defense of the belief that their exclusion would not be your inheritance—their martyrdom seems nonetheless to have amounted to an implausible and tragically outrageous thing: merely the moral capital for everyone else’s campaigns of inclusion, ones in which your own persisting and obvious lack of incorporation into U.S. society seems to register, at most, an incidental concern. And while this cause or that cause might pay lip service to the severity of your group’s plight, they in practice empty it of its core, essential component: the imperative of advocating for targeted economic repair. As such, they proceed without ever really challenging what it’s starting to seem to you (and it seems maybe only you) inclusion in America is actually based on: complicity in maintaining the state of your group’s disrepair; a history of accumulated disadvantages that other groups can leverage to merge into American normalcy ahead of you, to then begin further contesting their place in the supremacy over you.

I invite you, white people, to envision yourself natural objecting to the ongoingness of this arrangement, only to then be given a stern lecture about how it’s all the same struggle. A sharp talking-to filled with that palpable disdain that your desire to put forward an agenda of self-interest always elicits in your apparent allies—allies whose quote unquote solidarity is so conditional and subject to such rigid terms that deny your individuality and your experience, that it less resembles cooperative movement politics than it does an abusive relationship.

At what point do you not really start to wonder about that? And how do you not begin hearing in it every confirmation that nothing will change? That the arrangement is the arrangement, and it will be made to continue.

I ask only that you seriously contemplate how long you feel you could possibly stomach this. How long do you personally feel you could subdue what would be your absolute burning awareness of those injustices? Of everything that’s been stolen from you, and then openly displayed elsewhere—to be at everyone else’s disposal, but never your own.

Of course, you can’t ever really do this. I can’t, anyway. And it’s not that I haven’t spent a great deal of time trying to be extremely conscious of the terrible realities of ADOS life. Or that I’ve not tried to be very, very disciplined in understanding my life in relation to theirs. But I would submit that it is truly impossible for you or I as non-ADOS to ever really even come close to appreciating what the oppressiveness of that existence actually feels like. Of belonging to a group who day after week after month after year must navigate a constant series of barriers meant to affirm their membership in a caste. For all practical purposes, you and I—as non-ADOS—exist in an entirely alternate dimension of American life than the one they inhabit.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t persist in trying. Or that one will find little utility, or occasion for personal betterment, in the exercise of trying to imaginatively identify. The point is that such flings at empathy—however noble—are ultimately immaterial to the discussion of ADOS. Because it seems to me that it’s much less about understanding our life in relation to theirs, and more about understanding our life as entirely shaped by theirs. It’s about understanding the group to which we belong—with all its social, economic and political cachet—as being an end-product on the assembly line of ADOS disadvantage and their deliberate underdevelopment. And insofar as we profess to prize fairness, justice, and healing commensurate with the hurt inflicted on the ADOS community, then I would argue that everything—absolutely everything—depends on being able to make that leap from understanding our life in relation to, to understanding our life as shaped by. Because it is at that point, and only that point, that we actually begin to properly identify the true nature of whiteness in America. It is, at its root, a debt.

And in this framework, the phrase ‘check your privilege’ actually starts to mean something in how we as white people participate in bringing about meaningful justice for ADOS. Because that privilege of whiteness in fact corresponds to a definite and mounting sum of money—a sum payable to ADOS. It is a measurable asset, established with chattel slavery and which, ever since, the U.S. government has held in a kind of living trust, apportioning and distributing it to whomever it deems eligible beneficiaries. And in doing everything it can to ensure that selection process operate on a principle of ADOS exclusion, that government has underwritten the consolidation of social, economic and political capital within whiteness. It has facilitated the generational transferences of those sources of advantage and mobility, and so further consolidated them within whiteness. The result for ADOS has been a gutting of possibility that is so total, and so uniformly wrought throughout the group, that they will perpetually occupy the bottom of society in the absence of a reparations package whose dollar amount figures in the trillions. That is not alarmist hysteria, that is simply math. And all this so that the whiteness we enjoy might prosper.

What to the rightful claimants of that debt is our empathy? Our tortured senses of ourselves? What value to them is our hand-wringing reluctance in being a principal beneficiary in an economic system whose bounty is built off the theft from their group? And while we can and should talk about a world beyond a system that incentivizes and rewards the exploitation of any group, the idea that we as a country can help usher in a new paradigm of egalitarianism without first repairing ADOS is one that is utterly at odds with that vision’s fulfillment. For all the lofty pronouncements about the ‘impossibility’ of reparations, what’s truly lofty is the notion that there isn’t a basic, inevitable component to our progress as a nation that will require a very stark and wincingly honest reckoning with how we put to right our ill-gained inheritance as white people.

We cannot, in declining to act for economic justice specifically for ADOS, simply shunt the curse of that log dereliction onto our children. The work of repair must begin now, must being to be laid by us, and must be conceived as a multi-generational project of justice guided and governed not by a sense of empathy alone, but—more importantly—the knowledge that it is a debt, a debt which, until the balance is fully discharged, will find each new generation every bit as answerable for the abuses suffered by the ADOS community as the slaveholders themselves.

Opponents of reparations say that we can’t live in the past. Well, that declaration mistakes the nature of our past absolutely. Because to exist in a pre-reparations America is to naturally invite the past to dwell in us. It doesn’t matter whether you feel personally responsible. It doesn’t matter whether your ancestors came here ‘after’ slavery. What is ‘after’ slavery? There is no ‘after’ slavery. With an event of such massive economic consequence and unique legacy in America there is only before and after reparations.

White allies of ADOS, present and would-be, we are called today to help cross that divide. We are called to repair.


Beating the House: #ADOS, Reparations, and Liquidating the Debt of Whiteness

With respect to the singularity of the ADOS experience in the United States, our political discourse has thus far proven itself capable of accommodating exactly one truth: the group’s ancestors were not immigrants. And however salient the caveat may be that ADOS’s ancestors were not among that category of people who voluntarily opted into America, when beyond it declarations of convergence and equivalence crowd out a space for further contrast between those legacies of the groups that arrived here as immigrants, and that of the group that was brought here as captives, what’s achieved is not so much a recovery of truth—which is what the affirmation of that initial capital-D Difference ostensibly sets out to do—but a covering up of the scope of that truth, a papering over of the sweeping implications of the dramatic and enduring Difference that was forged specifically for ADOS in the crucible of our nation’s beginning.

Indeed, there’s no real courage required to simply (though always solemnly) aver that ADOS didn’t choose this place, because the speaker seldom if ever aspires to have us behold the more appropriately panoramic view of the sprawling impact of that Difference: how that first choicelessness in matters of national life that had characterized the group as chattel property likewise came to characterize their children and their children’s children and so on, even as they exist as apparently free and autonomous men and women, invested with the full rights of citizenship. In our present political moment, courageousness would—maybe above all—be not getting squirmy and irresolute when that panoramic view reveals how the transmission of that Difference through the generations has always provided a space through which the globally disadvantaged could gain access to a piece of American possibility in a way that has never been permitted to ADOS; a space through which centuries of group-specific material theft could be sublimated into (and perversely celebrated as) an ethos of freedom and opportunity for all.

And so is it any wonder that after four-hundred years of the kind of targeted oppression that makes possible (that makes certain!) a situation in which ADOS are being socio-economically lapped by groups that have been here for a mere fraction of the time as they have—a time during which ADOS has been engaged in a tooth and nail fight for inclusion and authentic belonging—that they wouldn’t feel content with just having an asterisk next to the country’s slogan of Immigrants Built This? One which utterly fails to acknowledge how those other groups’ contributions—however valuable they might be—were ones that were made entirely possible by the wholesale extraction of agency and denial of access of their group, the ones who really did Build This. Do the critics feel that ADOS are not human enough to feel narked by that? Are they so unjustified in pointing out the specific contours of their oppression?

Because what #ADOS has always understood is that advocating for authentic repair and for what they are owed as a group necessarily requires the development of a new vocabulary of comparison, one that is actually capable of revealing how the production of their particular group’s failure has been, for the U.S., a project of some considerable upkeep since its inception.

Predictably, the response to #ADOS’s bid for recognition as a uniquely disadvantaged group in America—and the attendant demand for reparations—has been a policing of that endeavor to the extreme. And since that new vocabulary of comparison is one that unsettles otherwise fixed notions of marginalized identities—notions which ultimately hold very little promise in resolving (or even attempting to account for) the fact that while the composition of blackness in America has grown more rich than ever, ADOS alone remains its poorest expression—the movement has been labeled as ‘anti-immigrant’, ‘xenophobic’ and ‘nativist.’ Such reproach, however, signals nothing so much as a complete unwillingness to deal in good faith with the historical situation of ADOS having been made to occupy an always subordinate position in society relative to recent arrivals, and a total disinclination to honestly grapple with the matter of how or why that situation has been made to last right up into the present. It is a mentality that simply cannot allow for any significance in the group’s attitude toward immigrants as being not at all grounded in their coming to America from a different place, but rather their coming to America from an altogether different history—a history that #ADOS has, it bears mentioning, never once argued does not entail the immigrant’s own experience of marginalization and basis for pursuing justice, but which is one that is necessarily separate from, and non-contiguous with, the history of sprawling disadvantage wrought in this country specifically for ADOS by the manufacturers of white hegemony in America.

And this is the point: the charge of #ADOS being ‘xenophobic’ or ‘anti-immigrant’ seems to—in a way that is strangely at odds with its apparent intent—perpetuate some pretty foundational attitudes and assumptions of traditional American white supremacy; namely, that there is no validity to be granted the perspectives of American descendants of slavery when it comes to their oppression, and that they, as a group, shall have the terms of what is and is not systemic American racism set for—and in no way defined by—them, its principal victims.

But if what it means to be white in America is simply the absence of what it has meant in a material sense to be ADOS—if that is Normal—then immigrants who merge into America from a position outside of that history enjoy a very straightforward advantage in becoming Normal. Certainly the well-documented disparity in outcomes between the native-born black community and the foreign-born attests to that proposition. And maybe in rushing to rescue the immigrant from his or her customary fate as scapegoat for misplaced anxieties and grievances—the victim of a reactionary lashing out that is exactly the sort of thing that critics of #ADOS feel white supremacy in America needs in order to fracture solidarity and sustain itself—those individuals are overlooking the ways in which they might be providing in fact more of the only thing that white supremacy in America actually does need to survive, some more of that thing that the immigrant has him or herself probably always recognized and has presumably by sheer natural instinct for survival as an individual competing for position in a society with limited resources sought to leverage; that thing, namely, is for the Difference and absolute abnormality of the blackness that was chattel slaveried into the ADOS lineage to endure in meaning, a Difference to which they and only they were subjected.

You can read all the hatred and irrationality that you want into a stance that rejects the continuity of that scenario. But shouting at them that they are ‘xenophobic’ and ‘anti-immigrant’ won’t change the fact that much of what animates and impels ADOS’s present uncompromising assertion of their Difference is exactly that same aforementioned sheer natural instinct for survival that has, heretofore, led immigrants to exploit it. Because even in our most generous conception of what’s possible in America today, the disease of Difference which the country developed for and infected ADOS with in order to inoculate its white population from capitalism’s indiscriminate and ruthless need for failure somewhere in the system, has in turn produced an obviously terminal state of affairs for the group. We live in what is now effectively the United States of Wealth Transfers. And for all the promise of racial justice that supposedly inheres in the universal policies being put forward on the presidential candidates’ campaign trails (policies for which ADOS—in not receiving them with rapturous delight—are being chided by their supposed comrades and shown the most extreme demonstrations of contempt), the fact is that we have so completely and uniquely gutted possibility for ADOS in this country that anything less than reparations at this point will essentially function as a mere restructuring of the tremendous debt we owe them for our, at bare minimum, being able to participate in American life in a recognizably Normal way. And one of the absolute biggest fallacies being sold to the national audience from up on those debate stages is the idea that by not paying reparations to ADOS while we pursue a suite of class-based redistributive policies, we will not, in turn, be restoring some liquidity into a white supremacy that then could (and absolutely will) claw its way back from a place of lesser influence to continue its normal operation of producing evermore ADOS failure. It is a belief that history tells us is wildly and frighteningly out-of-touch with what actually happens when whatever universal or quasi-socialist initiative reshuffles the cards of opportunity and access in this country: ADOS is still dealt a losing hand. The house—which is to say whiteness—always wins.

Doubtless #ADOS will continue to be lazily and erroneously portrayed as an intolerant mob that is pushing a white supremacist agenda—a group that is ensuring the house continues to win. But for a movement that has worked so tirelessly to in fact promote an understanding of whiteness in America as being an expression of the cumulative debt owed specifically to ADOS—and through those very efforts having made it so much more knowable and assailable as such—that certainly seems like a real curious accusation; particularly since reparations, which would function to liquidate that debt, would (by ADOS’s own definition!) also function to liquidate whiteness. One is left wondering how it is, then, that the supposed agents of white supremacy are out here committing their whole beings to getting a critical mass to rally around the fact that their identity is the most damning and actionable indictment against it?


When the Utopia Becomes the Imperialist’s Pied-à-Terre

Not to be too cynical or whatever, but when she wasn’t otherwise occupied with satiating the hunger for performative reflection on matters of historic racial injustice last week in Ghana, Nancy Pelosi’s itinerary suggested a rather portentous truth; namely, that the only thing foreseeably “Pan-” about Africa is U.S. military hegemony on the continent.

It is, of course, worth mentioning that the primary political objective of #ADOS, if attained, would dramatically and materially impinge on the wherewithal needed to see that fortress-building enterprise through, and would not be insignificant in helping de-realize the continent’s becoming one big assembly plant of global destruction, sorrow, and death.