The Glass Ceiling’s Smudge

Because Hillary Clinton’s always been one of capitalism’s most ardent, enthusiastic and prominent defenders. Because Hillary Clinton appears to genuinely love and believe in free market capitalism. Because of this, a person might remark on there having been a very, very tiny element of pathos in her acknowledging the other day how such a commitment to that economic system “probably” hurt her during the election.

The pathos is maybe like that of watching an enfeebled Magneto at a dinner party, dejectedly juggling his silverware with his mind for his fellow table guests and sighing to them about the scope of his dominion in the pre-thermoplastic days, or lamenting the impending Super Wood transition. The people sitting at the table clap at the spinning cutlery. But it’s a sad applause, weak and sparse, then gone. Magneto disconsolately twirls some spaghetti with a levitating fork and brings it to his mouth to feed himself. He takes a long swallow from his fourth glass of Spatbürgunder. The guests all avert their eyes downward at their plates and grope at something else to talk about.

Magneto is, though, a far more sympathetic figure in decadence than Hillary Clinton. Just watch the clip. It is vintage HRC. Which is to say, not a tragic supervillain. Not an anti-hero. Just a supervillain. Just anti.

Just a sort of vaguely cadaverous looking woman in a summerweight scarf or like, maybe it’s a linen neck cravat spooled over what could be an extrication collar she’s so unnaturally rigid-looking from the shoulders up. Just a general, faint aura of despondency while fielding—from an obviously giddy-headed, sycophantic, hashtag-still-with-her type of creature—the question of whether or not her clapping her pom-poms together and doing toe-touch jumps for capitalism during the height of fucking income inequality “hurt” her.

Then the response. And it’s like we watch as another, more insufferable Hillary hatches out of that Hillaryshell.

The lording of that pragmatism, the basic imperiousness. And of course—as always surfaces whenever she’s asked about the factors that may’ve occasioned her participation trophy in the 2016 presidential election—a just barely suppressed, roiling, seething, rage-contempt coupled with a beyond-weary frustration at whom you’ve just gotta suspect will forever be the one thing she’ll clutch onto as the reason that she actually lost the thing: that is, the lunatic and slobbering mob-republic who all—she seems to think—packed a lipper of Skoal and went into the voting booth to hand over her cache of bombs and missiles to a game show host. An addleminded, Big Bird-physiqued, political fucking neanderthal who managed to capture the country’s vast interior because his opponent was too busy workshopping insults about those very same people in front of the chic donor crowds in the Hamptons to go and visit fucking Wisconsin.

Because it was how Hillary Clinton went about answering the question on the consequences of her pro-capitalist stance that’s arguably far more revealing of what may have actually discouraged U.S. voters from supporting her.

Her answer naturally made no sincere attempt at acknowledging the very real ways in which capitalism has absolutely devoured and razed opportunity throughout the American working class. How it fully siphoned off what it needed of their labor and then left many of them and their families to simply languish in poverty in the country’s now gangrenous regions of dead and used-up industry. To say nothing of the capitalist wasteproduct that is the inner-city. And how here in the U.S. that economic system was deliberately racialized in order to manufacture black failure and consolidate all of capitalism’s lossmaking into one primary group of darkskinned people. Or how the preservation and continuation of that racialized failure was to then be strongly incentivized at every level by capitalists in their beloved system’s rapacious, centuries-long development. Nothing of its terrific adaptability and its demand for evermore failure; everfurther accentuation of the divide(s). And how so now that system’s bottomchurn is becoming a little bit white even, too.

Only a disdainfully amused commentary on the stupid, screaming, careless hordes who failed to appreciate—even consider—the nuance of her position on capitalism. “Appropriate regulation.  Appropriate accountability.” Those aspects that she stresses went unheard.

“That probably gets lost in, ‘Oh my gosh! She’s a capitalist!” Hillary scoffs in the clip.

Ignorant, clownish rustics. The apparent swathes of left-of-centrist Democrats all standing abreast of one another outside the Iowa caucusing locations, stamping their spears on the ground in unison and chanting “Marx! Marx!” and drowning out the gentleness and mildness that Hillary’d been trying to communicate she would have restored to the capitalist system.

Vintage HRC. A fling at being direct and upfront, but almost instinctively, unavoidably, offensively evasive and disingenuous where it matters most. Responding to a question about your position’s maybe being well out-of-step with the party’s base, and not feeling the need to account that beyond ascribing a baffling thickheadedness and blunt recalcitrance to opposing position holders, is exactly the sort of rote and insincere political dialogue that U.S. voters have come to expect from basically all elected officials, but one which Hillary Clinton is especially apt at deploying.

Maybe in defeat it’s even harder to fake empathy. Probably. Nonetheless, it’s astonishing to observe someone whose political mind—hailed as legendary throughout the beltway!—routinely fails to do that one very basic thing, which, after all, was something that even Donald Trump—in his awful, fucking clumsy doddering lurch toward the presidency—could apprehend was necessary in order to win the election.


Give Me Some Wheels: Breaking Brown and Overcoming the Black Media Crisis

The accusation that either Yvette Carnell or Antonio Moore have been somehow deficient in providing a solution for the black community is a lot like complaining about a gas station attendant who, after filling up your tank, didn’t then convene a meeting with multiple agencies to coordinate municipality-wide road closures and personally escort you on a swift and hassle-free route of passage toward your destination.

In the analogy, it’s important to recognize what a veritable desert black-owned media has become in the U.S. since the 1970s.  And how on a very basic level, the existence of an entity like Breaking Brown—by which information and matters relevant to the black community can be promulgated and discussed—is a vital, agenda-creating plank of the multi-institutional structure that, if full equality is to ever happen, will most certainly be the thing that produces it.

As Antonio Moore, co-author of a recent report which effectively laid to rest the persistent myths surrounding the racial wealth gap, had noted back in 2016: “Joseph Torres and Derek Turner of the media watchdog group Free Press put the current grand total of black-owned and operated full-power TV stations in the United States at zero.” Also declining apace has been a national black-owned radio presence, which, over an 18-year period— from 1995 to 2013—saw a 53 per cent decrease in company ownership.

To understand how this relates to one of Breaking Brown’s central arguments; namely, the essential role of government in creating opportunity for black businesses to be successful by protecting them from being shoved out by larger capital holders’ ever-expanding capture of marketshare, it’s significant to note the year—1995—in which the national presence of black-owned media began to vanish.

The decline coincides with a landmark Supreme Court case, Adarand vs. Peña, in which a minority-owned business had been awarded a subcontract for a guardrail construction project along a highway.  Adarand, a white-owned business and the lowest bidder in the guardrail project, argued that the Department of Transportation—which had offered the primary contractor of the highway certain financial incentives if they subcontracted to disadvantaged (i.e. minority-owned) businesses—violated equal protection under the unconstitution.

The Court sided with Adarand, maintaining that “these programs stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are ‘entitled’ to preferences.”  And so going forward, the Court’s notoriously difficult-to-meet standard of “strict scrutiny”—which had heretofore applied to (and hampered) local and state affirmative action efforts—would, for the first time, also be applicable to federal affirmative action programs.  Consequently, this ruling then directly challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s having established race-based provisions in its competitive bidding procedures for obtaining broadcasting licenses, a decision which was intended to help “disseminat[e] licenses among…businesses owned by members of minority groups and women.”

According to a 2000 reportWhose Spectrum Is It, Anyway? A Historical Study of Market Entry Barriers, Discrimination and Changes in Broadcast and Wireless Licensing, “From 1978 to 1995, the FCC granted approximately 356 tax certificates to promote minority broadcast and cable ownership (287 radio, 40 TV and 30 cable licenses).”  Post Adarand, though, the FCC did away with all of its race-based provisions in competitive bidding, and those credits and deferrals on capital gains taxes that had once been available exclusively to members of minority groups were now made available to all small businesses.

The effect—like all colorblind policy in America—was to simply abandon to their fate black people whose unique history of centuries of wealth exclusion made them disastrously ill-equipped to withstand such exposure to the brutal forces of the market, and to couch this new form of anti-black discrimination in the race-neutral language of equal opportunity.

This legislative pivot away from race-specific corrective measures, and toward an apparent principle of impartiality embedded in the constitution, ensured the vitality of an economic system that to this day depends on the legacy of race-specific punitive policy being left intact.  That legacy—a vastly economically-underdeveloped class of people as a result of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining—is the successful design of  U.S. capitalism’s permanent underclass, the repository and source of its necessary failures.  And while an earlier phase of American capitalism required a fantasy of race to crudely and murderously forge this group, its latter and contemporary phase merely needs that group’s descendants to remain mired in the swells of economic privation.  To be—in other words–overwhelmingly represented and pooled in the category of high financial risk: the modern, ‘race-neutral’ disqualifier for access to wealth in the Adarand-era, wherein the discourse around policy became fully unanchored in the wealth-depriving realities of the past.

Greg Davis, a black radio station owner and industry veteran, speaks to how those historical realities—even if one is able to overcome the initial barriers to access—make obtaining the capital to then invest in the company a grueling endeavor and a stark reminder of how blackness in America signals, above all, financial liability:

“I found it extremely difficult—and even with my 25 years in the business, and even [with my] proven record [of] having been there for 12 or 15 years—it was still very difficult to get conventional financing.  So the cost of capital has always been a very strong deterrent for minorities participating in the broadcast industry…I want that to be very clear: that it’s not only the accessibility, but it’s also the cost of doing business. It’s been extremely difficult for us to come ahead.”

James E. Wolf, Jr., another black radio station owner who secured a broadcasting license in 1983 and who eventually sold his business, has a story that’s also consistent with the obstacle of capital acquisition being a matter of perceived credit unworthiness.

“(W)e tried unsuccessfully so many times [to raise capital]. . . . (T)hese are the pressures really that made me actually sell at this time, you know. It’s because I just got tired of begging people, even though you prove yourself over and over. I’m on the Chamber [of Commerce’s] Economic Development Board. I’ve won the pinnacle award of the Chamber of Commerce. I’ve won the small business award. I’ve won every large award—industry award—that you can win here, but I’ve never proved myself to banks.”

For Mr. Wolf, the reason is obvious: “The color of the skin I am in is the problem. It has been and still is.”

In this light then, the ‘badge of inferiority’ is not a thing ‘stamped’ post-factum by the programs aimed at ameliorating the legacy of being black in America, as was suggested in the Court’s Adarand decision.  The badge of inferiority—which is to say what black skin was made to economically signify in America—was branded onto slaves and their descendants as an economic necessity from the nation’s very inception. Crafted as such, race became the most prevalent and observable feature of what poverty and instability look like in American society, rather than—as it must necessarily be understood in order to fully eradicate the divide—the conceptual tool behind those conditions.

It is in this framework that the sheer paucity of black-owned media—that is, how virtually all of what black America watches, listens to, and reads on a daily basis is all increasingly being curated by and manufactured from a non-black perspective—is entirely correlated with decades of government deregulation and the legacy of capital-exclusion.  Critically, this deregulation is undergirded by the insidious idea that by giving preferential legislative treatment to a group of people who were for so long the victims of explicit, discriminatory policies, we sustain and keep alive certain notions of inequality rather than work to materially close them.  As a black-owned media company, Breaking Brown stands as not only an actual entity in opposition to the collapse of its kind, but as a vehicle that can work in concert with other black institutions—ones that also recognize the complete impoverishment of modern efforts at improving the material conditions of Native Black Descendants of Slaves—to intervene in the apparent collapse of the black community more broadly.

For those critics of Breaking Brown who characterize its position on the need for reparative justice as beggarly—that is, insofar as black institutions are pipelines into the community, then government must be understood as the primary valve through which subsidies and policies flow and fundamentally decide whether those institutions are able to adequately provide their services for the community—or that such a position is somehow unbefitting of a group of people who were for hundreds of years deliberately deprived of securing the chief means to make a dignified life in America—access to wealth—it’s worth considering the words of Erskine Faush, a black television station owner who acquired his license in 1989:

“. . . (I)t’s that access to capital. It’s that barrier. And, you know, you’re not necessarily looking for preferential treatment—and, yet, I could make a strong case to justify some [of it] because of past practices in the marketplace. I could make a strong case for that, but I won’t do that. What I will say is this: that once you remove the barrier that’s there, without help, you cannot move.  And that’s the one of capital.  You know, everything else, once you do that—give me the wheels to put on my chariot.  Do you understand what I mean?  I’ll drive it. I’ll run it.

“I don’t mind getting in the race with anybody else at any other level.  And let it be on initiative, your drive, and all those things that you ought to have to be a good, viable business enterprise, you know.  You don’t have to do that—you don’t have to go out and get the business for me.  I’ll go get it.  Do you understand what I’m saying? But the one thing I can’t get over is the fact that I’m starting at the starting gate and I’m expected to make the chariot go and there are no wheels on it. Give me some wheels and I’ll get at the race line with everybody else and line up, and let’s see who can run to the finish line.”


The Color of Law & The Continuum of Native Black Lockout.

Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, recounts—among many other examples—the successful re-segregation efforts that took place in the city of Helena, Montana. It is but one of a great many other instances the book uses to describe how, during the 20th century, local and federal government enacted policies specifically intended to place black and white people in isolation from one another. The detrimental consequences of these efforts with respect to Native Blacks in this country cannot be overstated. They unquestionably constitute an essential component of the now yawning racial wealth gap, as whites—who previously lived in mixed communities but were afforded access to homes via FHA loans that were denied to African-Americans—clustered together in the suburbs. As black communities were left to languish in the wake of this re-segregation, The Color of Law shows how the present ills of urban black America—contrary to the claim of a pathologized blackness—are a direct, functional disorder of the racist handiwork of the real estate industry, state courts and the federal government.

What becomes apparent when looking at Helena—while never exactly being a very dense African-American city—was how the black community that was there had in fact prospered in a milieu of integration. There was an “established middle-class,” Rothstein writes, an African-American police officer patrolled one of the town’s wealthiest white neighborhoods, and there were “black newspapers, black-owned businesses and a black literary society.” However, as anti-black attitudes began metastasizing throughout the country, whatever harmony and stability had existed was soon shattered as African-Americans started being “systematically expelled” from Helena and other predominantly white communities. Between 1910 and 1970, the city’s black population declined by 90 per cent as a result of white mobs terrorizing the black community—abetted by local law enforcement—and anti-miscegenation laws.

To look at Helena today, one observes what seems to be a town that has—despite its  unconscionable history—made progress in its  stance on anti-blackness. After all, this past year, the city of Helena elected Wilmot Collins as its first black mayor. Collins is a 54 year-old refugee from Liberia who came to the United States at the age of 31, and is someone who, we are told, has “the most American of stories.” Presumably—for someone who is unaware of the specifics of Collins’ story—this language is meant to indicate and emphasize his embodiment of the idealized refugee experience; his ascendancy from the archetypal destitute arrival to his eventual attainment of the highest-ranking position in a municipal government. However, as with the preponderance of those “most American of stories,” a closer look at Collins’ actual experience shows how describing it in these terms conceals more than it reveals. Moreover, to conceive of Collins’ election as constituting some kind of meaningful leap forward for race relations in Helena, Montana is to misunderstand the utterly devastating legacy of the coordinated assault on black life that The Color of Law describes having taken place in the town, and on black America more generally. Those deliberate actions of re-segregation guaranteed the kind of instability that precludes any community-based, agenda-driven politics, and which could only ever allow for a future scenario in which a black candidate who “never felt that his race was a factor” might win the mayoral race.

It seems there could not be a more perfect expression and realization of the government project to keep Native Blacks at the bottom of society than to systematically engineer their place there and then have as mayor a feel-good symbol of blackness, and America’s enterprising spirit, say that his win was “not about race or anything.” Certainly, by now we must understand such a familiar proclamation as code for—and reassurance that—his tenure as Mayor will, too, not be “about race or anything.” However, a bit of digging on the Internet reveals just how powerfully race has in fact operated in Collins’ own “most American of stories.”

In 1984, Collins’ wife, Maddie, had been a Liberian high school cultural exchange student living in Helena. Her host family was a white family named the Nachsteims—Bruce and Nancy—a couple who would prove absolutely integral to both her and Wilmot’s futures. In 1988, Maddie graduated from Helena High School and returned to Liberia, which was then mired in a civil war. After fleeing the violence to Ghana with Wilmot, Maddie placed a telephone call from a shelter there to the Nachsteims and explained to them her situation. The Nachsteims quickly strategized a plan to get Maddie back to Helena. “The only way we could get [Maddie] into the U.S., was if she applied for a student visa,” Joyce Nachtsheim said. “So we explained to Carrol College what the plight was, and the college said, `We will pay for it, don’t you worry.’ It helped us tremendously, and so Maddie came on a student visa.” Maddie received a full scholarship to Carroll College, where she would study nursing.

Maddie arrived pregnant in Montana in 1992. Wilmot had to remain in Ghana. Immediately, the Nachsteims set about trying to reunite her with her husband as expeditiously as possible. Bruce Nachsteim—who was a former FBI agent—contacted state Senator Conrad Burns and Senator Baucus, along with Congressman Pat Williams to initiate the process that would eventually bring Maddie’s husband over to Helena. “I talked to everyone who was anyone,” he said. In the interim, Maddie gave birth to a daughter in a hospital that, according to Nachsteim, “didn’t charge her anything…everyone pitched in to help this African girl from a war-torn county whom they had no connection with. It was really very spectacular.”

Throughout, Nachsteim continued “trying tirelessly” to get Wilmot to the United States, and in 1994 Wilmot finally secured a visa to come to Montana. Here’s a description of his arrival in Helena from a Public International Radio article:

“When [Wilmot] first arrived to Montana in 1994, the community had already rallied around his wife, who arrived more than two years earlier. He got off the plane to find a welcoming party put together by students at Helena High School and members of The First Lutheran Church. They held sheets of paper that together spelled out ‘Welcome home Wilmot.'”

As much as the media would like to wrap Collins’ story in the mythos of American opportunity that we’re repeatedly told is available to the very least of us, a scenario like this is inarguably atypical of the experience of an average refugee. And insofar as we take Collins’ story to be emblematic of a certain notion of opportunity and improbable success which is only accessible here in America, it’s important—it’s essential—to note how Collins’ success is one that is predicated on, and made completely possible by, proximity to whiteness. Without the Nachsteims, there is no Mayor Collins.

This imperative to be afforded the opportunities occasioned by proximity to whiteness is what the Breaking Brown project has repeatedly stated is one of the absolutely critical ways that the United States government can begin providing adequate redress for the economic devastation that has defined black life in America since the arrival of the first African slaves in the 17th century, and which is catalogued at length and in vivid detail in the pages of The Color of Law.

Indeed, the very fact of Mayor Collins’ election in Helena takes on a particular valence in light of Rothstein’s account of how the city was able to all but completely vanquish its black community in the mid 20th century. In many ways, Mayor Collins—who is already using his platform to extol the virtues of refugees and other immigrants—represents a new point in the continuum of black disadvantage that was being established during re-segregation. Breaking Brown has demonstrated at length the detrimental effects of the non-U.S. citizen labor stream on black workers (and U.S. labor more generally), and the need to prioritize jobs and protections for American workers and to shore up the wage floor. And so what does it mean to have a black Democratic mayor now advocating for the replacement to native blacks? Not just in the labor market, but also as potential affirmative action slots in higher education, and the many other ways in which the ushering in of new diversity functions to assist the United States in continuing to mask the predetermined, inevitable failure of African-American Descendants of Slaves—and by extension, the United States’ failure to heal the wound that it inflicted centuries ago and then proceeded to keep open? What does it mean to understand the sort of race-neutral politics of Mayor Collins as that which filled the vacuum left in the expulsion of Helena’s native black community? What , we have to wonder, in those intervening years could have been different—in Helena and elsewhere—if the government hadn’t ordained and done everything possible to keep Native Blacks at the very bottom of the social order?


How “Breaking Brown” Exposed a Fraud: Observations From a Dusty Follower

The petite empire of Dr. Boyce Watkins is presently experiencing a bit of a legitimacy crisis.

This past week, a 2017 video surfaced in which Charles Wu—precisely the sort of execrable creature you’d expect to find writhing and wriggling around in the wet soil when you lift up the stone of the Marketing Copy world—could be seen videoconferencing with a colleague and congratulating himself on having stumbled upon what’s probably the most basic and elemental principle of marketing: emotion sells products.

In recounting his experience trying to develop a marketing concept for Dr. Boyce Watkins’ line of financial literacy products geared toward producing black wealth, Wu appears at an utter loss to be able to describe the actual products themselves as anything other than painfully ordinary, uninspiring, and offering effectively nothing beyond what is already available in the market. On the other hand, Wu becomes absolutely gleeful—literally giggling at one point in the video—talking about the moment he realized how, despite the products’ innate shortcomings, there exists a rich source that can be tapped into to reliably drive sales. That source is Black desperation.

“This was exciting for me as a copywriter,” he says, describing what must be the obvious thrill of realizing for oneself the long and profitable tradition of “selling hope,” as he puts it, to African-Americans. “We basically sell [Boyce’s products] as religion,” Wu continues, and in doing so, he not so subtly implies that the target consumer here is one whose exceptional and very real condition of economic desperation must be understood as highly favorable to exploitation. And that insofar as he can effectively use Boyce Watkins—and get his products to represent a particular idea of salvation—then they both stand to be the beneficiaries of that very desperation.

Despite his evident giddiness at the strategy, there is absolutely nothing less innovative than what Wu here describes. And to be honest, since Wu has opted to make a living writing marketing copy, it’s pretty unreasonable to expect him to have anything other than the most patently empty, predatory, and foul conception of human beings as things that exist only to sell stuff to. “They buy [Boyce’s products] just to feel good,” Wu says smugly, in a self-satisfied tone that reveals not only how enamored and impressed he is with his supposed savviness and mastery of the African-American “market,” but also the total disdain he possesses for the very people who comprise that “market.”

None of this should register as a shock. What should, and rightly has, excited loathing and disgust among a lot of people is how that attitude of basic contempt for black America has been easily and nefariously packaged in a very pro-black, public-facing component: a readymade, African-American financial ‘guru’ who goes out into the community and tries to sell them on the idea that by investing in his products, it will lead to a financially-secure and thus liberated future for themselves and their children.

This idea of black advancement—of black liberation without an attendant political component that can provide a sound foundation for even the possibility of meaningful black economic empowerment to occur—is one that is the very antithesis of what Yvette Carnell is advocating as a way forward for the African-American community in her work over at Breaking Brown.

In the aftermath of the video, Yvette Carnell has pointed out how the business relationship between Charles Wu and Boyce Watkins is in effect little more than the two having entered into an agreement to prey upon the extremely desperate situation of black America. She has rightly raised the critical question of how the African-American community should regard someone who publicly promotes an individualistic course of black self-determination, but whose private business dealings nonetheless involve, and depend on, a multicultural cast of capitalists whose very presence appear to give lie to Watkins’ notion of black self-determination. What does it mean, Breaking Brown asks, to give what little money exists in the black community over to a businessman whose own consulting firm sees him as being merely a cipher of black hope? Boyce is just a “character,” Wu says, a “pitch guy…my info-product guy.”

This juxtaposition of ideas—one that tirelessly pursues the claim of economic justice for the entire African-American community, and the other that explicitly rejects any such claim and encourages those people who are overwhelmingly the biggest victims of the economy (and thus the least equipped to endure its shocks and trappings) to try and build wealth for themselves in it anyway—is in many ways the central ideological choice facing black America today in their continued struggle for equality.

The deficiency of the latter choice should be obvious enough, as Breaking Brown has exposed the major contradiction of white capital being at the controls of an ostensibly black capitalist enterprise, and how this arrangement ultimately serves the interests of business by manipulating the emotional fragility that exists in the African-American community. Moreover, that fragility must be seen and understood as existing as a result of precisely the absence of the sort of large-scale, agenda-driven political activism that Boyce Watkins would have his community believe is an unnecessary corollary to obtaining financial security. In fact, as Yvette Carnell has been consistently educating her audience through the Breaking Brown project, collective politics is not so much a corollary as it is the very precondition for meaningful black economic advancement. And that the hidden costs of the community becoming or remaining depoliticized—seduced by the illusion of financial stability without having to do the very difficult but essential work of politically organizing around a black, reparative agenda—ensures their being targeted by opportunists and their willing utility in perpetuating their disadvantage.


The Imperative of Reparations in Addition to Universal Programs.

It didn’t take too long for a Leftist to object to the share of attention being given the black voters of Alabama who last week swung the election in favor of the Democrats. In his article, “The Doug Jones Victory Belongs to the People of Alabama, Not Just African-Americans,” Benjamin Studebaker asks, “How do we think we make the 30% of white Alabamans who did vote for the Democrat feel when we give all the credit for the Jones victory to African-Americans?” I don’t know? Maybe we make them feel that as a group they were significantly less responsible for neutralizing a fucking theocrat who at the time of the election had an octet of women accusing him of sexual assault and child molestation? Because that’s just what the white Democratic vote was in this case. It’s an observed, numerical fact. And insofar as media coverage has attributed Moore’s defeat largely to African-Americans, it’s just reflecting and expressing that general truth. The white democrats’ role in this particular special election was a helpful but empirically small accessory to the much larger black democratic vote. And if this faction of the Left that Ben represents involves becoming nervous and uneasy about white people maybe getting a bit bristly when that reality is pointed out—or if the suggestion here is that we be good little Leftists and observe the political orthodoxy that instructs us on how the only way our side can be electorally competitive again is if we omit any mention about the many ways in which African-Americans deserve particular attention, then I say that the coalition is fraudulent and disingenuous. If we can’t even rightly credit black people for the basic fucking miraculousness of what they were able to accomplish last week in Alabama—particularly in spite of all the barriers that state has put in place precisely to render the black vote inconsequential—without getting all squeamish and worked up over how that mere acknowledgement might chaff at whites’ egos, then the Left shouldn’t be surprised when black people take a pessimistic view of the political project and assume that other interests precede and rank theirs.

Because that’s what people like Benjamin Studebaker are in fact saying when they shush other people for talking about black people: that the coalition only holds together insofar as that particular history of African-Americans, and its legacy, is suppressed or understood as necessarily ancillary to the allegedly uniform condition of suffering among poor people in the U.S. That condition, though, is not uniform; and there’s plenty of information out there to dispute the idea that it is or ever was. To take Alabama alone, Lowndes County—which recently made international news for the area’s hookworm epidemic—has a 4.1% white poverty rate compared to the black poverty rate of 34.5%. In Perry County, the white poverty rate is 8.1%; the black poverty rate, 32.7%. Wilcox County is the poorest county in the state, and the county with the starkest difference of poverty rates among whites and blacks, which stands at 8.8% and 50.2%, respectively. Similar numbers are found in Alabama’s Marengo County (5.6% for whites and 40.8% for the county’s black residents). And lastly, Winston County, which has the state’s highest white poverty rate (23%), is still almost three times less than the county’s black poverty rate (63.2%).

All of which is to underscore just how obtuse a statement is like the one Studebaker makes in the article when he writes that Alabama is poorer “not just because of [the] large African-American population [but] because even its white people are poorer.” And while that’s obviously true, the fact that a supposedly committed egalitarian can regard the markedly pronounced levels of black poverty as being of a kind with the state’s white poverty should signal a crude and deliberate attempt to completely minimize the particular justice claim that African-Americans have in this country.

You can’t look at Alabama as just poor. The quality of that poverty is brutally different with respect to black poverty, and it’s different because of a very specific reason, which, as Kristina Scott, director of Alabama Possible notes, is “the legacy of slavery.” Nonetheless, Benjamin Studebaker would have us believe that “We can talk about [the causes of Alabama’s white poverty] . . . without in any way reducing our concern for people of color both in the south and around the country.” Well, it seems to me that—given the sharply differentiated figures between white and black poverty—talking about white poverty in isolation—or even talking about poverty in general—is necessarily limiting one’s concern for meaningfully addressing black poverty. And this isn’t just in Alabama. In all but one of the nation’s top ten states with the highest poverty levels, black poverty rates are double—and in many cases almost triple—that of white poverty.

So rather than Benjamin Studebaker asking us to pause and reflect on the potential for injured white feelings when we process basic numbers and reasonably identify African-Americans as the source of the Moore defeat, he should ask himself how he’d feel if he was one of the 73% of Lowndes County residents whom a study by Baylor College of Medicine and Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise recently reported “had been exposed to raw sewage washing back into their homes as a result of faulty septic tanks or waste pipes becoming overwhelmed in torrential rains.” It would be hard to imagine Ben Studebaker not finding a different and perhaps more nuanced appreciation for the situation of black poverty if his own feces wasn’t rapidly and expeditiously shunted to a place far, far away from him via an efficient and well-functioning plumbing and sewage system. If it, instead, resurfaced just out in his front yard. Or if not him, then his family or his friends or his neighbors. Because that’s black life in Lowndes County, Alabama.

At the very least, he should spend some time worrying about how a lot of those poor white people who voted for Moore and Jones—those people who’ve also been “disadvantaged and exploited by our economic system”—have historically used the footholds afforded them by federal anti-poverty programs to get further the hell away from poorer black people. Maybe he should worry about how race-blind programs in an age of widespread black generational poverty as a result of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining and mass incarceration might promote and facilitate that behavior rather than solve it.

And that’s not me engaging in what Ben calls an “intellectually and politically lazy tendency to ridicule and bully white southerners.” That’s the fundamental reality of America’s class structure. Some of those Jones voters—and maybe even some of those Moore voters—might very well be decent and good-hearted and non-racist people. Maybe. But I guarantee that all of them who are poor don’t like the condition of poverty and don’t like being around people who are at the very bottom of the social order. And what that means here in America is that they don’t like being around the black people who’ve been relegated there for hundreds of years. And—goodheartedness be damned—the minute those white people can get as far away from black people and their proximity to the social bottom as their finances will allow, they will.

And this is where the political imagination of Leftists like Ben Studebaker—for all of their thorough and incisive analysis of the catastrophes wrought upon the poor—appears to seize up: at the critical point of triage. They name the disaster. They describe the tyranny of a system developed to further enrich those who control it. They readily apprehend the crisis and the urgency of intervention. But beyond that, the conceptual response becomes cautious and sober. And the overweening concern about the limits of electoral possibility—which tends to manifest in a need to dishonestly frame the crisis as something that hasn’t inflicted its damages within the working class in a massively uneven and racialized way—already begins to corrode a politics of meaningful justice.

By ignoring the differences between white poverty and black poverty, it preserves the basic racialization of the class structure, even as it proposes to be able to offer the only means to dismantle it. And by actively trying to focus the conversation away from black Alabaman voters, like those in Lowndes County who came out to carry Doug Jones to victory, what you’re effectively looking to do is deny them something they can now cash in, politically, to maybe get some specific assistance that might help actually narrow the poverty gap. Until that happens—until the poverty rates in America are actually brought more closely together to resemble one another—the enduring disparity of the economic situation between the races will fail to be solved by universal policy alone. At best, that sort of policy—without inbuilt reparations for African-American Descendants of Slaves—can provide only a transposition of the current social arrangement, in which an interval of inequality would still exist between the races, only at a slightly different pitch. Those of us in the Left who profess a genuine commitment to justice should be very critical of, and even indignant with, that arrangement, since as long as there is a bottom stratum of society made up of black people, the conditions for meaningful equality among this country’s citizens cannot rightly be in place.


The Road to What’s Owed: Breaking Brown’s Next Institutional Step

Over a century ago today, an African-American reverend named Alexander Crummell stood before a congregation in Saint Mary’s Chapel in Washington D.C. and preached the following words in his Thanksgiving Day sermon:

I see nought in the future but that we shall be scattered like chaff before the wind before the organized labor of the land, the great power of capital, and the tremendous tide of emigration, unless, as a people, we fall back upon the might and mastery which come from the combination of forces and the principle of industrial co-operation. Most of your political agitation is but wind and vanity. What this race needs in this country is power — the forces that may be felt. And that comes from character, and character is the product of religion, intelligence, virtue, family order, superiority, wealth, and the show of industrial forces. These are forces which we do not possess. We are the only class which, as a class, in this country, is wanting in these grand elements. The very first effort of the colored people should be to lay hold to them; and they will take such root in this American soil that only the convulsive upheaving of the judgement-day can throw them out.

Religion, intelligence, family order and wealth. It is these qualities which Crummell argues comprise and determine the character of a people. Or, put another way: the church, school, family and business. And what may at first glance seem like the sort of self-empowerment rhetoric of character so often used while dangling the country’s meritocratic fallacy, carrot-like, before the noses of those people who’ve been made prodigiously handicapped, what in fact those collective structures are capable of doing is shaping behavior and enabling an expansion of individual action to help effect outcomes for the community. The collective structures of which Crummell speaks are, simply, institutions. And by his configuration of power, then, it is through the institutions of a people that power must be pursued.

Anyone who has stayed abreast of some of the moves that Breaking Brown has made over the past couple months while it has been on hiatus is aware that—while the content of the show has ebbed—host Yvette Carnell has been anything but idle with respect to her efforts in pushing ahead with the show’s central mission of helping to secure racial justice for African-American descendants of slaves. Moreover, it appears that what is informing the next step of the Breaking Brown project is precisely a conviction in the institutions of the black community as being a powerful and influential vehicle for advancing their interests on a larger scale.

In September of this year, Yvette Carnell gave a speech at the Angela Project conference, the primary objective of which is to revitalize an historic element of activism in the black church, and press that into service of obtaining reparative justice. In that speech, she deftly makes the case for the particular justice claim that African-American descendants of slaves have as citizens of this country, why that claim must be pursued relentlessly if there is to be any hope of meaningful uplift for them as a people, and the clarion call that the black church must heed in lending their institutional weight to the cause of helping their community get what is owed them and on the road to healing.

This pivot by Breaking Brown to engage a major institutional channel committed to vaulting the issue of reparations is an astute, potent, and very strategic move. It’s a move that accords with Breaking Brown having long cautioned the black community of involving themselves in what can amount to a political side-project; namely, toiling in trying to tease out some of the stitched-in racism of certain white institutions instead of applying themselves collectively to strengthen and prevail upon those institutions whose sole reason is to provide and advocate for them to do just that. 

In the aftermath of the black community having been consigned to instability as a result of the white institution of slavery, it is arguably the detachment of certain black institutions that has played a role in facilitating their languishing in that condition. And so the cause of reparative justice is no doubt greatly amplified and advanced with the informed involvement of those institutions. However, as Dr. Kevin Cosby and Antonio Moore discuss on the latter’s recent podcast episode, “If Middle Black Family Hits Zero Wealth, Does It End The Black Church?”, the ability for black people to be made whole is intimately bound up with the question of the black church’s ability to itself weather and survive the diminishing economic status of African-Americans, which if it continues apace, threatens to completely tank in a mere three and a half decades.

These two struggles are indeed very much interconnected, and for the church to meaningfully re-engage politically, and advocate on behalf of its community, requires as a pre-condition the community itself being prepared to re-engage politically. That Breaking Brown has spent several years now laying a foundation for this political re-engagement in the black community to take place again attests to the breadth of vision and political acumen of Yvette Carnell as she now prepares to couple the project with what, as Dr. Cosby himself contends—if the institution of the black church is true to its historic mission—is “urban America’s last hope.”