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Sackcloth and Ashes: Toward an Authentic Atonement for Black American Exclusion

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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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Free Refills: The History of Black Ownership of McDonald’s and the Endless Profit Supply of the American Inner-City.

In so many ways, to celebrate Jade Colin’s being the youngest black woman to own a McDonald’s franchise is to—at the same time—celebrate the company’s long history of explicitly using blackness to extract maximum profit from the community at large. A practice which—like virtually every exploitative venture carried out on black America—was helped along with the financial backing of the U.S. government.

In 1969, McDonald’s found itself squarely in the crosshairs of civil rights activists who were demanding a greater presence of black ownership of its franchises located in the inner-city. In Cleveland’s east side at the time, there were four McDonald’s restaurants, all of which were white-owned. After McDonald’s refused to consider licensing to African-Americans, a coalition of black nationalists and other activist groups in the city organized a boycott against those franchises. All four subsequently closed.

Negotiations were later opened up by the city’s mayor, Carl Stokes, who mediated between Operation Black Unity—a black nationalist group—and McDonald’s. The outcome of the discussions was that McDonald’s agreed to begin selling its franchises to African-Americans.

In Hough—one of Cleveland’s most riot-devastated neighborhoods—a 1.5 million dollar federal grant obtained by the Hough Area Development Corporation for community revitalization efforts, allowed the organization to purchase two of the formerly-closed McDonald’s franchises and staff it with residents from the community. And while those restaurants eventually closed owing to their unprofitability, the pressure applied by Cleveland’s black activist groups appeared to have effected a much broader shift with respect to how McDonald’s viewed black-ownership of its franchises. Most notably, it prompted McDonald’s Corporate to try and get out ahead of the possibility of similar protests like those that took place in Cleveland to start propagating in other urban centers where there were locations, and to forestall that possibility by pursuing a much more aggressive licensing program for African-Americans. As Chin Jou, author of the book, Supersizing Urban Americaand someone to whom it must be stressed this article owes a great intellectual debt—says, “After the riots, the office convened a group of franchisors to sign pledges to recruit African-American franchisees”

By 1972, almost 10 per cent of the company’s franchises were owned by African-Americans. In Cleveland in 1980, the city’s black-owned McDonald’s had gone from zero just eleven years earlier, to sixteen. And by the mid-1980s, of all black-owned chain restaurant franchises in the U.S., black ownership of McDonald’s accounted for 50 per cent of that total.

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In large part, these franchises were the result of McDonald’s having taken advantage of small business loans which the government guaranteed to companies who—like itself—were looking to open up their doors in blighted urban centers with an apparent intention to help promote economic growth and revitalization in the area. However, given the sizable figure which African-American patronage of all fast food restaurants accounted for during that time—about 15 per cent—it’s not hard to imagine that the massive building out of black-owned McDonald’s franchises in the inner-cities was understood by Corporate primarily through a calculus of how to maximally and most efficiently extract the community’s resources, rather than as a noble capitalist project of promoting minority business and, thus, economic development in the community.

This anti-black stratagem by the business is perhaps most observable in the phenomenon of black franchisees who sought to expand outside of the inner-city and who were then denied purchasing McDonald’s restaurants in whiter, wealthier areas. In other words, being deliberately locked out of access to greater wealth via white America’s most preferred discrimination instrument: redlining.

As John T. McDonald III, the Los Angeles director of the N.A.A.C.P., told the New York Times in a 1984 article, “We are very concerned about what seems to be McDonald’s redlining in the Los Angeles area, and we are collecting information nationwide . . . We want to see blacks getting their fair share, both as suppliers and as franchise owners. Right now, out of 137 black franchise operators nationwide, only one is in a white area.” Similarly, The Advocate-Messenger reported how the New York chapter of the Black McDonald’s Operators Association had written to the New York regional vice president expressing strong grievances over how black McDonald’s owners are predominantly kept within ghetto areas and denied permission to expand as quickly as are their white counterparts.

In The Business of Black Power: Community Development, Capitalism, and Corporate Responsibility in Postwar America, Nishani Frazier details how even those locations which were nominally black-owned concealed the opportunistic partnering practices that frequently occurred throughout any number of McDonald’s franchises operating in the inner city.

Herman Petty—the first African-American to purchase a franchise—in fact did not outright own it. Instead, Frazier notes, Petty was “part of a ‘salt-and-pepper’ ownership arrangement in which a white owner profited while the black owner maintained the bulk of day-to-day operations.” This approach to partnership was undertaken entirely with an eye toward shoring up profits following white flight out of the city. McDonald’s—with the help of “token Black representation”—would be able to ensure that existing franchises in these once-white locations could adjust and flourish, having suddenly found itself surrounded by “a community it had not initially intended to serve.”

Though unexpected, this customer would prove to be the most favorable to the company’s bottom line. The permanence of poverty in the inner city made for fertile ground on which to develop restaurants that offered cheap, addictive, industrialized food. The proliferation of fast food establishments in the ghetto is the natural result of a core business ethos of anti-blackness and an indifference to deep, structural inequality. And it is as much an outcome made possible by federal dollars and exploited policy as the consumer base itself whom they’re there to poison.

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With this dependable revenue stream provided by an abundant supply of poor customers, the fast food industry was positioned to be the beneficiaries of the unique sets of problems afflicting low-income areas, a fact which underscored for those at the top of the corporate structure the importance and necessity of expansion within the inner city. And if all that was needed to secure federal loans and defray some of the risk in capturing more marketshare was an essentially superficial presence of black ownership, then certainly the McDonald’s executive staff could concede a symbolic and utterly cynical gesture of installing African-Americans at the helm of some of its franchises.

Given this history it is extremely disconcerting to witness the number of black media websites heaping praise on this apparent triumph of a young black woman ascending into the corporate ranks of a company that has routinely used black figures to reap the tremendous financial reward offered by black instability in America’s cities. In a geographic analysis of fast food locations in relation to race that appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers discovered that in Jade Colin’s own area of New Orleans, “shopping districts in communities that were 80 percent African American averaged six more fast food outlets than predominantly white areas of the same size.” This spread of fast food restaurants is part of an historic assault on both the health and pockets of black America, and there’s arguably nothing too respectable or empowering about abetting that phenomenon.

Fortunately, new black media outlets like ToneTalks and Breaking Brown are consistently bringing this history to light and reorienting the conversation away from one of apparent #BossMoves, and toward one of #StringPuppetsOfWhiteCapital. This is not, as many tend to interpret, a necessarily cynical position that suggests a kind of defeatist or helpless outlook on the situation for black people in America. Rather, it is one that insists on taking a full account of the story in order to expose the very real limitations of popular Do For Self black business narratives, and the inability to be made whole absent the sort of politics that identifies and frames that oppression around the involvement of the federal government and its colluding with private enterprise to condition the broader failure of the black community.

Critically—and perhaps more optimistically—it is only through this wide-ranging and comprehensive reckoning with the history of racism that descendants of slaves can organize around a specific justice claim and advocate for the kind of policy that can redress those wrongs and help overcome those constraints. Because insofar as the youngest black person to ever own a McDonald’s franchise registers as a truly meaningful step forward for the community at large, Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore are rightly working tirelessly to ground exactly this sort of propaganda as in fact being the oldest of traditions in America’s manufacturing of black disadvantage; demonstrating how it is arguably not “making” history, per se, as TheBlackProfessional.com reports, so much as it is simply participating in a history that is entirely fraught with anti-black racism.

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Sleight Success: AEI & Black Men in America

Earlier this week, the Trump administration staked out a position on affirmative action policy that, in effect, seeks to strongly discourage the practice by introducing the spectre of litigation and defunding for schools that may be shown to use race as a criterion in their admissions processes.

For conservatives like Edward Blum—a visiting fellow at the right-wing think tank, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)—the administration’s stance is presumably a welcomed one. In a 2016 op-ed for The Washington Post, Blum argues that the university is “more than the sum of its ethnic parts. It is comprised of individuals — some black, white, Asian and Hispanic — who should be admitted or rejected without their race or ethnic heritage making any difference.” He laments the Supreme Court’s upholding of affirmative action policies as “unfortunate.”

Beyond Blum, the AEI has, in general, been consistently critical of race-conscious admissions policies and their apparent infringement on constitutional principles of equality.1

It should come as no surprise then that throughout all 31 pages of the AEI’s recent reportBlack Men Making It in America, the words ‘affirmative action’ appear exactly zero times. Absence of the term notwithstanding, the report—which aims to identify the primary ways that black men in America might replicate the success of a previous generation of black males—nonetheless manages to provide some fairly textbook examples of how affirmative action initiatives have historically served as the major catalyst into the American middle class for black men.2

The report achieves this unintended demonstration of how foundational affirmative action policy is to black America’s economic footing via its own flawed methodology. As Antonio Moore has rightly pointed out in his eviscerating critique of the study, the researchers looked exclusively at a very narrow—and by no means generationally insignificant—group of black men in order to derive their conclusion; namely, black men who were born between the years 1957-1964.3

More properly periodized in relation to U.S. wealth, those crucial years mark the tail-end of the boomer generation whose access to the American middle class was in many ways wholly unlike any that had preceded or followed it. Black men who were born during this era—and who would then grow up to be representative of the AEI study’s ‘success’ stories—did so in a milieu of unprecedented social mobility for descendants of U.S. slaves. That ability to be upwardly mobile during the latter half of the 20th century was something that was largely aided by a number of civil rights gains; victories which critically resulted in the federal government—whether through codifying into law, or incentivizing employers and school officials via disbursement of federal dollars—creating targeted and race-specific initiatives intended to open up access to education and employment within black America, and thus, to offer improved chances at economic stability for members of that group.

Nowhere in the study are the effects of these initiatives more apparent than in its analysis of positive outcomes occasioned by service in the military. For the group of men under observation, service in the U.S. military was linked to the most dramatically increased odds (about 72%) that black men might gain economic stability by the time they reach midlife. And while the report takes pains to frame those pronounced outcomes as having derived in large part from things like the military’s “marriage-oriented culture” and its emphasis on “virtues such as duty, responsibility, loyalty, and perseverance,” it was doubtless in the military’s ability to “provid[e] stable work, good healthcare, housing, and opportunities for advancement” that disproportionately helped shape those eventual outcomes and serve as avenues to the middle class.4

Importantly, access to these social welfare opportunities was, at root, a result of how—in the latter part of the 1970s—the U.S. military had begun a vigorous application of affirmative action policies in both its recruitment and promotion among its ranks. A 2013 New Republic article describes the history: “In part through aggressive integration goals imposed on unit commanders and heavy minority recruitment at the service academies, officer candidate schools, and ROTC programs, the military transformed itself from a heavily segregated, race-riot-burdened institution in the early 1970s to a widely-praised example of successful racial integration by the late 1980s.”

The role of timing coupled with black activism in relation to the study’s conclusions cannot be overstated. Particularly with respect to military service being causally linked to economic success later in life, those black men who were born during the years 1957-64 would have reached legal service age during the mid to late-70s, a time when they would have been precisely the most sought after candidates for recruitment into the military and, thus, the beneficiaries of all of the institution’s social welfare programs.

The authors of the AEI report would prefer to gloss this and simply conclude with the following platitude: “As this report shows, young black men who believe they are captains of their own lives are more likely to do well as they reach midlife.” In fact, what the report demonstrates most clearly is the generational specificity of a group of black men whose prime working years dovetailed with a government that was responsive to the historical disadvantages of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the role of the country’s pervasive discrimination in refusing economic opportunity to its black citizens in a way that more modern administrations are simply not.

If the AEI was genuinely interested in the replicating outcomes of success in black men in America, they would full-throatedly advocate for the features of economic stability like those offered in the modern military welfare state (near-universal coverage in housing, healthcare, childcare, family counselling, legal assistance, education benefits) to be made available in a broader context of society.5 Moreover, they would need to come to terms with the most salient—but unspoken—finding of their own study: the singular importance of affirmative action policy in helping to effect those improved odds of economic well-being for black men in America.

In an era of tremendous economic precarity—and with what little recourse to systemic racism that currently exists being either too diffuse to meaningfully impact descendants of slaves, or simply being fed directly into the buzzsaw of the conservative courts—it is unconscionable to encourage the mentality in those who are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us that they can improve their lives merely by enlisting in the military and espousing certain values of personal responsibility and discipline. Even the study’s more precise efforts in describing how the military’s robust welfare programs had promoted economic stability in the black males they studied reveal only a partial picture, as it omits mention of those race-specific initiatives that provided those men access to acquire those benefits in the first place.

All of this is to say there are in fact valuable lessons to be found in the study. Acknowledgement of those particular lessons, though, would likely make the AEI squirm in its proximity to reparative politics. After all, that success achieved by the cohort of black former service members, which the study extols, is fundamentally made possible by the military’s affirmative action efforts, the results of which veteran sociologist Charles Moskos—writing for the Washington Post in 1995—describes as being without match: “[N]owhere else in American society has racial integration gone as far or has black achievement been so pronounced.”

Perhaps if the report didn’t ignore the vast differences in access between the black baby boomer generation and black millennials, and didn’t self-consciously avoid mention of the importance of instruments of opportunity like affirmative action in effecting positive outcomes for the former group—while the latter has languished in a policy climate of colorblindness—then we could begin to move from propaganda to actual progress.


1. Moreover, they frequently label the claim that AA policies actually benefit the group(s) for whom they’re intended as spurious. It’s a conclusion they reach by looking at studies that show how a vast number of AA recipients at elite schools tend to come from the top half of the income distribution. And to be honest, AA policy has been so totally warped and corrupted and expanded from its original intent to specifically redress the sheer dearth of disadvantage faced by descendants of slaves, that AEI’s position—in this particular respect—is probably really not all that inaccurate or arguable. Other such claims, like that AA policy engenders in minority high school students a ‘coast’ mentality—since they can simply rely on their race to secure entrance into college—are far, far less persuasive. 

2. In one glaring example of what the report recommends will be required to bring about economic success for today’s black males, the authors write how “schools and colleges need to do more to identify, recruit, and support young black men so they are accepted, attend, and graduate from four-year colleges and universities in the US.” This basically ringing endorsement of what is literally, by definition, affirmative action policy, is symptomatic of the report’s most curious phenomenon; that is, an obsessive avoidance of using the term affirmative action itself while simultaneously—at virtually every turn—bolstering the case for its necessity.

3. A perhaps entirely more accurate way of putting it is that the researchers began with a specific conclusion in mind (e.g. that black men in America are successful), and then very selectively chose a group whose highly particular set of opportunities and outcomes would function to prove their thesis. Basically conducting what any professional with a lick of integrity and honesty would describe as the exact opposite of good scientific-sociological research.

4. In contrast to ‘affirmative action,’ the word ‘marriage’ appears a total of 46 times in the report.

5. If those programs don’t ring an ideological bell, here’s Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of Nato forces in Europe being quoted in the New York Times placing the organizational structure of the military in its proper place on the political spectrum: “It’s the purest application of socialism there is.” And to the recommendation that those benefits should be extended to the general population, the authors of the study might respond in a manner predictable of conservatives; namely, that those entitlements are earned through hallowed service to the country. But given the fact that the ancestors of U.S. native blacks effectively built this country—the world’s richest nation—for free, I’m really struggling to come up with a more apt definition of ‘service’ to the country.

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Uncategorized

We’re All Immigrants Anyway: Descendants of Slaves and the Leveling of Social Justice

With respect to photography of children suffering in the midst of a humanitarian atrocity, we’ve already developed something of a canon. Or maybe since our world leaders seem to promise—if nothing else—an interminable supply of evermore vivid, evermore gruesome political horrors always to come, we’re forced to be more precise and describe it as an ‘open’ canon.

The image taken last week of the sobbing Honduran toddler at the U.S.-Mexico border is of course already iconic, already history-bound. She stands beside the border patrol vehicle, about eye level with its dust-caked tire. She is half-lit by some adjacent convoy’s roof-mounted LED beam, half-obscured in the penumbra cast by the border agent who is engaged in detaining her mother. The child’s face is upturned, wrung in anguish and confusion, watching it all happen.

It’s hard describing her expression in any way that doesn’t necessarily minimize it, since precisely what’s animating it is probably some nameless dread at watching your parent maybe about to be taken away from you. She is two, wearing what looks like rolled-cuff Jeggings, which is maybe something your own two year-old daughter or niece would wear.

In a certain way, the image of the Honduran child sort of breaks with the tradition of canonical humanitarian photojournalism. Routinely, the depictions of ruin and misery in these photos, while being the handiwork of the U.S., have as their settings some very distant regions of the world, at least from the vantage of a U.S. citizen. A brief, by no means comprehensive survey might include the naked Vietnamese girl running away from a napalm blast. A skeletally thin Sudanese boy collapsed on the way to get food, lying face down in a burnt-out savanna, a vulture abiding in awful, menacing calm just some feet away. The Syrian boy seated in the back of an ambulance, completely ashed in the pulverized debris of Aleppo. Another Syrian child—a drowned corpse—washed ashore and prostrate in the lapping surf of the Mediterranean Sea.

The U.S. presence in these images is generally more of an ambient thing as opposed to an observably dominant, front-and-center one. And it’s maybe in this respect especially where the Honduran girl at the border photo appears to take on new valency for most U.S. viewers. Here we have presented the same historically annihilative hand of the American government, but unabstracted, unproxied from the foreign dictatorship it installed to open up new economies in one of its client states and which, to the surprise of exactly no one, went on to starve, falsely imprison, torture, disappear, chemically assault and otherwise generally deprivate and massacre its people. This is a sort of rare cameo by America in its own long-running, worldwide production of misery, death, separation and sorrow, here seen fully operative in the act of corralling migrant families and dividing up the children from their parents right here on the bone-dry, loamy soil of McAllen, Texas.

A lot of commentators have moved swiftly to remind people that it is in fact not a cameo appearance. Rather it is just a reprisal of a very familiar role. To use but one of these sources, Shaun King, writing for The Intercept, says, “You’d have a hard time finding an extended period of American history where children and parents of color weren’t forcefully separated from one another by the white power structure in this country. It’s woefully and painfully normal . . . This nation has mastered separating parents and children.” Describing the complacency which society has historically been inclined to assume in the presence of such damning exercises of abject cruelty, he offers a fairly 101-ish, Postcolonial Studies account of the phenomenon’s ideological underpinnings: “Whenever a group of people suffers unspeakable horrors and oppression, the people in power first reduce and dehumanize them — making it such that the conscience of the people in power is fully at ease during the oppression.”

He’s not wrong, of course.

It’s discomfiting but not all that unreasonable to think that part of what accounts for the basic intensity of effect that these photographs produce in a western audience is conditioned by the fact that up until that moment when we observe these people—these, in fact, humans—they’ve long existed for us as something conceptually less than that. Then a photojournalist captures and recoups something undeniably lost in the discourse, lost in the nightly news anchors’ bland utterances regarding the catastrophe. And in so doing the photojournalist provides an immediate and compelling motivation to now attend to the humanity in a situation where its complexity, its distance, its spun narrative, would otherwise threaten to totally remove that element from existence.

Though to take the present moment, an unfortunate thing seems to end up happening in the headlong rush to historicize what’s happening to the Honduran toddler and other migrant families at the border. In trying to ground our indignation in a more complete understanding of how, in fact, throughout the course of U.S. history, splitting apart families within marginalized groups has been fairly procedural stuff, that same logic of dehumanization—that easing of the conscience, to which Shaun King referred—ends up getting reproduced in the most familiar, nefarious and traditionally-U.S. way possible. That is, through hitching the history of African-American oppression onto another group’s social justice struggle and ignoring the singularity of the former’s experience. In this latest coupling, the discussion of putatively ‘like’ policies that have long functioned to break up families in America neglects to mention the economic imperative—and its enduring, devastating material impact—behind rending apart the black family and preventing its equal status in a nation that their ancestors effectively built for free.

To the extent this unique aspect of black oppression is not outright ignored in the discussion, it’s nonetheless bracketed for the purposes of promoting the idea of a uniformly oppressed and victimized community of color, one that by default erases the specific justice claim held collectively by U.S. Native Black Descendants of Slaves. It’s precisely because of this erasure that we have no difficulty citing slavery and the auction blocks as an antecedent to the Trump administration’s border policy of separating families. Doing so requires rather little in the way of an actual, unequivocal commitment to a politics of reparative justice. What we seem to have a lot more difficulty with is being able to acknowledge the critical way in which the two are in fact very different; how those original fracturings of the black family were an integral, indispensable part of the development of an economic system that has since demanded—and primarily run on—the consequences of that instability reverberating throughout black America for centuries.1This is what it means to necessarily subaltern Native Black Descendants of Slaves by suggesting that the separation of families occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border is in essence an extension of the same ideology that determined their (U.S. Blacks’) particular history. Because as long as we continue to discourage, or find new and different ways to not look at black America as a uniquely deficient economic group as a result of specifically discriminatory government policies and state-sponsored terrorism, it’s almost certain that we will be prevented from ever fully humanizing them as victims because we fall so dramatically short in accurately understanding their condition and what it will require from us to meaningfully ally with them in their struggle.

In the Trump era—presumably because it’s been a while since such bold and naked expressions of xenophobia have been on display and informing public policy—there’s a bit of ostensibly conventional wisdom floating around that we, as a nation, are in fact all fundamentally alike in our shared, immigrant ancestry. And so to repudiate a group based purely on the grounds of their ethnic background is to simultaneously reveal yourself as a categorical hypocrite in addition to being a bigot. Shaun King, in that same article, makes it a point to remind the audience of this precept: “[E]veryone here but Native Americans,” he says, “are all descendants of immigrants themselves.” Carefully qualified, that statement nonetheless rings wildly and empirically false, omitting mention of the fact that there is one other group in this country who does not descend from immigrants. That group is the descendants of slaves, whose ancestors (it should be obvious enough) did not come here on their own volition, but were violently captured from their original homeland and cargoed here in the hulls of ships to be consigned to a life on American soil as providers of free labor and the principal capital for the profit engine of the globe’s richest economy, a system from which their deliberate exclusion was promised; an unimaginably wretched condition and fate and—most importantly—one for which they were never given full recompense, which resultantly has hounded and permanently obstructed their efforts at full, equal participation in American life.

We tend to get sort of amnesiac about that fact in our rush to conceive of ourselves as all basically glorified guests here anyway. And that—conceived as such—our real progress as a society can and should be indexed to the position of other groups who are also coming to this country simply seeking a better life. Perhaps, though, a more exacting measure—a more honest and true index—should be the position of the group that was dragged here against its will in order to make a better life for everyone but themselves. And if we take that criterion as our calculus, then really, where are we?

To relate this question to the complementary projects of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, and the work of economists and scholars like Sandy Darity, Tom Shapiro, and Darrick Hamilton, we have long foundered in our aim of civic progress. And somewhat in contrast to the more remote, intangible, or difficult-to-really-mentally-grasp suffering that we hear of or read about in the geopolitical situations of refugees and migrants, the complete privation of black America—the sheer and utter material want of an entire group of citizens on the verge of economic collapse—is too all around us and too tied up in our own history to require photojournalists to really bring it home. It’s been home. It’s a short bus or car ride away for most people in American cities. We need only to look around to observe it. But without the critical analyses like those of the aforementioned individuals, just looking around or driving through is a mode of engagement that cannot possibly compel or really even allow for an understanding of the sort of necessary and urgent scale of response to fundamentally remedy what should arguably be our most pressing domestic concern. And the information—the data—that informs all of their respective and ultimately correlated and cooperative efforts on contextualizing this condition of black America within a framework of a government-made humanitarian crisis, is the only way to coherently read the situation, bring our consciences into focus, and properly formulate and mount an effective moral and material response.


1. Mass incarceration—also commonly cited as an analog to the gruesome policy of dividing up families at the border—seems to suffer from the same instinct to uncouple the practice of locking a bewildering abundance of black men in cages from a more nuanced discussion about that practice’s specific place in the shoring up of the economic legacy of slavery.

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Antonio Moore, Black Politics, Breaking Brown, Uncategorized, Yvette Carnell

On Africans ‘Figuring Out’ How To Be Economically Black In America

When Mkawasi Mcharo Hall, an African immigrant from Kenya, was teaching in New York City, she played this game with her “mostly black” students where she wrote the word “Africa” on the board and then had them call out whatever words came to mind.

The students’ responses left her bewildered.

“[T]he volley of uncensored words the students contributed,” Hall says, “were all negative.”

She had just recently arrived in America and was dismayed to discover the overwhelmingly dismissive attitude toward a people with whom she believes black Americans should find a natural affinity. Having come from Kenya, she was, at the same time, also aware that “black [American] identity [is] equally troublesome for many Africans,” and wondered whether these attitudes—which in her mind were self-defeating, solidarity-defying, and served only to frustrate the need for a unifying identity in overcoming their ultimately interrelated struggle—could ever be reconciled.

That’s the central question that Hall explores in her recent CityLab article, Fortress: ‘Black in America’: Closed to Africans?, a personal reflection on the writer’s experience of being an African immigrant in the U.S., and her anxious, multi-city search to find a “feeling of being stitched into the tapestry of the black identity.”

That feeling, described less abstractly, is one of group-belonging. And for Hall—who came to America with the belief that common ancestry is something that de facto confers one’s rightful place inside the group—it was a feeling she believed she’d doubtless be met with among native-born blacks.

However, after a set of experiences in black America that only reinforced for her the “complexities of American race relations,” and the limitations of having understood racism as a “concept that existed only in books,” Hall eventually had to concede that the “shared historical and cultural experience” of black America is something that ultimately places the African immigrant at a remove from ever fully identifying with the particular struggle(s) in the day-to-day realities of native-born blacks.

And while she is certainly correct in suggesting that the primacy of native-born blacks’ ‘shared historical and cultural experience’ (i.e. one defined exclusively by being the victims of American racism) precludes any easy claim to group identity by outsiders, Hall frames the distance imposed by that experience as being a predominantly social, or cultural, one.

“I watch and learn and laugh the loudest when I catch that one joke that almost got away, just to make up for all the others that went right over my head,” Hall writes, as she gazes from the outside onto what she calls the “inner sanctum of blackness.”

Insulting enough should be the implication that one’s ability to truly identify with native-born blacks is apparently through some being-in-on-the-joke aspect of black identity and American racism. Far more problematic, though, is the way in which Hall fundamentally misunderstands—or deliberately ignores—how the function of that racism as it relates to native blacks in American society has always been to effect a particular economic outcome.

Racism in America does not, as she argues, operate as simply a “caste system [that] puts melanin-rich humans at the bottom of the social hierarchy.” To describe it in those terms is not only a dishonest assessment of the actual, observable variation in melanin content that appears throughout the most subordinate group in American society, it evinces the sort of impoverished conception of U.S. racism that could only come from a member of a group whose arrival in this country postdates centuries of the most economically destructive policy geared specifically toward native-born blacks.

From slavery to Jim Crow, red lining and discriminatory federal loan policies, all the way up to the contemporary models of black disadvantage manufacturing like mass incarceration, the story of racism in America is not one of merely being perceived as inferior because of skin color, as Hall suggests. It is fundamentally one of native-born blacks being made inferior, lesser than, and deficient in the most dramatic and enduring sense possible. In the context of American society, this meant enacting laws and terrorizing that group out of the opportunity to create wealth, and—as naturally follows from that condition—permanently assuring native-born blacks’ compromised ability to participate as equals in American social, political, and economic life.

Hall’s overly simplified—and easily disproved—calculus on racism and social positioning crucially omits the ways in which a person’s place in the social hierarchy of U.S. society directly corresponds to their economic condition. The economic condition of native-born blacks is, and has always been, one that was designed to be the most destitute of opportunity, the most resource-deprived, and the most unstable. She affirms as much when she recognizes the singularity of the ‘shared historical experience’ of native-born blacks; namely, the centuries-long exclusion from wealth-building opportunity. However, she elides any discussion of that aspect of their experience for the sake of her argument that foreign-born blacks are, as a group, as socio-economically dislocated as the native black community by virtue of their black skin.

In fact, no.

All of the available data indicates the sheer fallacy at the core of that claim. To use but one example, the pronounced disparity in rates of admission into colleges and universities among native-born blacks and African immigrants is one which is frequently cited in order to demonstrate the systemic obstacles faced by the former group.  Those hindrances—as Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier wrote in a 2004 op-ed for the Boston Globe—are decidedly absent among children of African immigrants: “Like their wealthier white counterparts,” Guinier writes, “many first- and second-generation immigrants of color test well because they retain a national identity free of America’s racial caste system and enjoy material and cultural advantages.” In that same vein, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, points out in her study, The Admission Legacy of Blacks, how the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 limited visas to “exceptional professionals.” The ways in which such a proviso more favorably positions foreign-born blacks to succeed in America relative to their native-born counterparts should be obvious enough.

Beyond the imprecise understanding of racism’s function in America, Hall’s argument completely fails to take into account how African immigrants—while apparently having a ‘troublesome’ relationship with black identity—have traditionally felt little to no compunction about being the beneficiaries of policy crafted specifically to try and meliorate the consequences of that black identity in American society. And whether it be through African immigrants fulfilling affirmative action requirements, corporate diversity initiatives, or minority set-asides in government contracts, the protest movements of the civil rights-era have seemingly paved the way for a group of foreign-born blacks and their children to capitalize on the gains won in the name of native-black descendants of slaves. This warped outcome is owed to precisely the kind of mentality—like Hall’s—that prefers to see all oppression of black people as essentially equal, and which then encourages those victims to adopt a shared identity based on skin color. That identity is one that assumes exactly none of the tension that has marked the relationship between native-born blacks and African immigrants in America’s resource-driven society, and is one that is wholly disinterested in the obvious fact that not all melanin carries the same historically specific consequences.

To the extent that Hall is able—or willing—to acknowledge that fact, she nonetheless clearly extols the virtues of a black politics that identifies all black people of the world as collectively responsible for each other’s uplift. She cites the ways in which “[t]he black American has been actively engaged in emancipation on the Motherland,” and uses this to encourage her fellow African immigrants in the U.S. to act in kind and to take up the cause(s) of native-born blacks. “Melanin identity goes beyond skin,” she writes, “It courses through our separate histories and through a collective unconscious that causes blacks to reach out across continents for each other. It is wise for Continental Africans to figure out how to become black politically and economically in America.”

The fact is, though, a person cannot become economically black in America. This is the whole point. It is not something a person can “figure out” how to be; it is something that a person is made to be. Being economically black in America was figured out for native-born blacks from the very outset of the United States’ trajectory toward its status as the richest country in the world. It was then something that was continuously reconfigured throughout the country’s ascendancy in order to guarantee that the failure of being economically black in America would continue to perform that same function so that the rest of capitalist America might have the opportunity to succeed. That is, in effect, what it means to be ‘economically black’ in America.

And so despite Hall’s directive to her fellow immigrants to exercise allyship with native-born black descendants of slaves—to become politically black, as she says—it’s extremely difficult to see how without that group’s insistence on a separate identity of native-born blacks—and of what is owed to them as a result of having borne the consequences of being made economically black—African immigrants can participate in the sort of political advocacy that will meaningfully bring about their material uplift.

“Let there be only lineage,” Yvette Carnell of Breaking Brown once said. And if that command feels prophetic and almost biblical in nature, it’s because the story of native blacks in this country is also fundamentally a creation story. As a group, in respect of origin, there can be no doubt that they were a people who were principally created on American soil; dragged here for the express purpose of being used as chattel slaves to churn out profit for a national—and then eventually globally dominant—economy.

Following centuries of laboring in that wretched condition—and several decades of an all but equally degraded existence as victims of lynch mobs, convict leasing, and being forced to live in crowded urban slums amid abject poverty—they have since struggled from an unfathomable disadvantage to try and create for themselves an improved status, one more in keeping with the basic promise of freedom and well-being that is supposedly conferred upon all citizens of this country as a matter of right, but which in fact all observable evidence seems to confirm only follows from one’s economic means of securing them.

As both Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore continuously emphasize, it is lineage and lineage alone that unites native blacks in both their history and present state of being excluded from acquiring those economic means. And as we enter further into an era of national decline in which opportunities for prosperity are steadily receding from the reach of working class America, it is now—more than ever—urgent that native blacks heed their call to recognize how lineage must form the foundation of the group’s political identity. Only that will illuminate the way forward and enable them to create their next chapter in the struggle for reparative justice. Because before native blacks can, as a group, meaningfully make themselves—before they can be asked to identify with and take up the separate plight of the global black—they must be made whole in return for how in the same way they were originally made incomplete.

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Uncategorized

Not Mine: The Povichization of Ideology and the Transactional State

Yes but how to pneumatically bolt pistol the skulls of a recalcitrant American populace so that the free market can proceed with its requisite bloodletting?

That being a slightly more figurative version of the question—forever worried over by neoliberals as they try to engineer a fully market-oriented society—that Philip Mirowski attempts to answer in his article, “Neoliberalism: The Movement That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” which appears in the spring 2018 volume of the quarterly journal American Affairs.

As Mirowski shows, there’s been a constant tension between what he terms the “Neoliberal Thought Collective’s” belief in the market as an “information processor more powerful and more efficacious than any human being was or could ever be” and the public’s natural and basic resistance to the highly unpalatable idea that, in a society wholly ordered as such, humans are fundamentally classifiable as mere subjects in a defined and well-managed process. So they’re told.

Or rather, not told. Because that is the whole point. The very illiberalness at the core of the neoliberal project—its recasting of ‘freedom’ to mean, as Mirowski notes, “the freedom to acquiesce to the imperatives of the market”—forecloses on any real discussion of its true aims to the masses it means to atomize and sort into useful instruments of various market economies. Its actual agenda is one that must be constantly sublimated and abstracted out of the public consciousness: “The elusiveness of neoliberalism,” Mirowski writes, “ultimately stems from denials that neoliberals themselves have made about their efforts.”

In a lot of ways, reading Mirowski’s essay calls to mind The Maury Povich Show. In particular, the show’s singularly degenerative contribution to U.S. popular culture: the paternity reveal.

Even casual viewers of Maury will recall—I’m sure—the segment’s unmistakable production aesthetic: the frenetically spliced footage of the Possibly Father, shot from about five or six slightly different angles, standing by himself in the pitch black backstage area, next to a lone ladder or a bunch of set boxes. Maybe he’s outside of the studio leaning against a wall, ice-grilling the camera that zooms woozily in and out on his face. Unfailingly there is the delivery of his impassioned and often angerlaced monologue of his absolutely non-filial relation to the child.

In the Mirowski essay, the neoliberal emerges as a similar Maury-esque figure, one preoccupied with repudiating in name what they’ve doubtless helped conceive. As Mirowski writes, “While we can fairly well identify the roster of who should be acknowledged as a part of the [neoliberal] movement…we are confronted with the fact that, in public, they themselves roundly deny the existence of any such well-defined thought collective, and stridently resist the label of neoliberalism.”

The label of neoliberalism here being like the dribbling toddler, gnawing on a nubby teething ring in the studio’s green room and looking blankly and sort of sad-eyed into the camera that feeds the video out onto the TV monitor on the stage over Maury’s left shoulder. See Cory Booker backstage with his arms folded across his chest, fervently wagging his head as the control room rolls a montage of the toddler throwing tantrums in a Bain Capital onesie. A dramatic celluloid burn effect to a stankfaced Kamala Harris, backlit underneath a tall studio light, reacting in total disavowal to a side-by-side comparison shot of her next to one of the toddler, its arms outstretched, gleefully receiving a new toy from Steve Mnuchin. Joe Biden, filmed close-up in slow shutter speed, brooding through a chainlink fence, glowering into the camera. Biden in total disbelief as Maury unseals the manila folder containing his role call votes in the U.S. senate.

But while the pack of leading 2020 Democratic hopefuls certainly offers a useful set of examples regarding the habit of neoliberalism’s most abiding practitioners to deny its existence, Mirowski stresses how this disconnect between doctrine and identity is anything but a recent development. It must be understood, rather, as a permanent feature of the “Neoliberal Thought Collective,” one which has been evident since the movement’s ideological inception, which he locates over half a century ago at the Mont Pèlerin Society’s inaugural convention in Switzerland in 1947. Moreover, Mirowski’s primary aim is to show how, despite the apparent referentlessness of the concept, its seeming non-status, something very recognizably like neoliberalism has become deeply entrenched in daily American political and cultural life. A predominance which—given the predictably hard sell of its antidemocratic and coercive, dehumanizing logic—is all the more slick and impressive.

What accounts for this sleight, for Mirowski, is the Thought Collective’s prescribed nostrum to sequester personas; the private, which would in effect always be working to tinker policy so that the interests of business are not overtly threatened and can ultimately be made to advance apace, and the public, a persona with endless feel-good bromides to buoy the spirits of the masses while their material conditions worsen, encourage complacency, and distract from the structural task at hand. To highlight the point, Mirowski quotes from a 1973 private correspondence between Milton Friedman—a ‘classical liberal’ and free market acolyte—and conservative Pat Buchanan: “We are talking at cross-purposes,” Friedman writes, “because of what I regard as the important necessity of keeping clearly separate the long-run ideal goal and the tactical steps that may be appropriate in moving toward it.” Forty-three years later, during the 2016 presidential campaign, that macro-strategy’s exigency to the neoliberal project is still just as evident. Described in extremely Friedman-esque terms by Hillary Clinton in a famously leaked speech to top banking executives, she explained the neoliberal position: “If everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So you need both a public and a private position…You just have to sort of figure out how to—getting back to that word, ‘balance’— how to balance the public and the private efforts that are necessary to be successful, politically.”

The implication is obvious enough: the more politicized a society, the greater the threat to the operation of laissez-faire liberalism. Paraphrasing Will Davies, Mirowski provides a concise description of how—maybe to the surprise of many Leftists—neoliberalism avoids the disruptive forces of the former: “[Neoliberalism] depend[s] upon a strong state to pursue the disenchantment of politics by means of economics.” The suggestion here of a muscular state actually abetting neoliberal doctrine and policy should raise some eyebrows, since a climate of unfettered free enterprise (it is basically accepted prima facie) generally entails a bloodless state that is institutionally incapable of intervening in today’s financialized economy.

However, it is precisely this discrete mobilization and repurposing of the state—that while carried out in concert the co-project of inuring the general public to the idea of its inefficacy—which Mirowski argues conforms exactly to the duplicitous nature of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. For Mirowski, the ability to replace public schools with vouchers, fill the prisons with inmates, conduct surveillance on citizens, arrange investor-state dispute settlement schemes in international trade agreements, bail out the banks, and pass Citizens United, all attest to—and require—”an extremely strong state.”

Mirowski’s claim is provocative and compelling, and he’s not the only one making it. Citing many of the same examples (policing the working class, bailing out large firms, and opening up overseas markets through military action), William Mitchel and Thomas Fazi also argue in their article, Make The Left Great Again, that neoliberal economic policy “require[s] the presence of a strong state.” It seems, though, somewhat questionable—at least strategically—for the Left to talk about the state today in these terms: weak/strong. These are, after all, pretty ideologically loaded descriptors, and for any Leftist to offer an account of the contemporary state as ‘extremely strong,’ without appending a serious qualification to that portrayal, seems very disingenuous.

Far worse, described as such, it seems readymade for the Right—a group that wants nothing more than to shrink government—to exploit in their argumentation. If in a capitalist society a strong state that can genuinely defend the public’s interest against free enterprise’s endless glut-drive, but is being framed as actually enabling it, then it’s unclear how that distortion furthers anyone’s agenda except the libertarians who actually do want to remove government from the lives of U.S. citizens.

Provided the decisive and outsized role that private equity plays in all of the aforementioned examples of the ‘strong’ state (from private firms running charter schools to privatized arbitration under ISDS in international trade agreements), then perhaps the more apt descriptor of the contemporary state is—quite simply—”bought.” And if a way forward out of neoliberalism in part involves a repoliticization of the public in order to properly recognize—and popularly contest—the current misuse of the state’s regulatory apparatuses, it would seem a considerably more galvanizing indictment of the system that its leaders have simply commodified and sold off the state at the expense of the working class, rather than argue that they have discretely made it ‘stronger.’

 

 

 

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Checks and the City: Cynthia Nixon’s Reparations Proposal & the Not Exactly Productive Response.

Ever see a horse grazing tranquilly and then a nearby tractor suddenly backfires?  Even before the echo fades the horse has like basically teleported to the opposite end of the pasture, and chances are slim it’ll wander back anywhere even remotely near the noise so long as it thinks there’s still a threat there.

A politician’s startle-reflex is sort of similar.  And, after this week, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Cynthia Nixon’s eagerness to talk openly about reparations has waned a bit.

Which is too bad because there’s a sort of comet-like infrequency to the appearance of the word ‘reparations’ in mainstream American political discourse.  To the extent that it gets talked about at all, it’s for the most part a rote observance of Left orthodoxy (i.e. how it is fundamentally incompatible with building an electorally-competitive Left) rather than in terms of what such a targeted effort might actually accomplish, the basic moral imperative, and how—given the profound difference in quality between white poverty and black poverty, and the desire for even the most tolerant of poor whites to simply not want to be near the bottom stratum of society—universal programs without reparations may in effect end up preserving one of the most disgraceful and degrading features of American society: its racialized hierarchy.

This was how it played out in 2016, the last time a high-profile political figure was asked to weigh in on reparations.  Bernie Sanders—then running to be the Democratic nominee—voiced his opposition to the idea, citing its appreciable potential for divisiveness among the imagined coalition, and the virtual certainty that if such a proposal were actually put forward for consideration it would summarily come up against a congressional impasse.  Sanders’ remarks were met with a number of black activists and intellectuals who were all quick to take umbrage with, and denounce his position, seeing it as either confirmation of (or that which portended) the candidate’s more general inattentiveness to the nation’s ongoing and pretty-much-worsening-by-the-dashcam-recorded-execution-of-black-people racial justice issues.

This time around reparations found a spokesperson who is clearly much more sympathetic to the idea.  Cynthia Nixon—a prominent candidate in New York’s gubernatorial race—was speaking to Forbes magazine and remarked how she’d like to see business licenses in the emerging cannabis industry prioritized for the drug war’s principal victims, and that doing so could be “a form of reparations.”  Reaction, again, was swift and declamatory.  The #BlackLivesMatter chapter of Greater New York has demanded that she apologize.  Al Sharpton got onto Twitter to inveigh against the recommendation.  And current NY County Democratic Party Chairman Keith Wright said that Nixon should “cease and desist.”1

Seemingly prompted by concerns over her insufficient understanding of what reparations is meant to address—that is, the near total scarcity of wealth among Native Black Descendants of Slaves owing to sustained discriminatory policies over hundreds of years—critics rushed to check Nixon’s admittedly inelegant deployment of the term this past week in the narrow context of criminal justice reform, and to chide her for mislabeling what ought to be a more comprehensively-conceived and directed effort.  And while there’s no doubt lots of merit to that argument, it’s difficult not to see the mass incarceration of black males in the U.S. as anything other than a modern example/extension of the sort of policy that has always been aimed at perpetuating the economic underdevelopment of the black community, precisely the sort of thing that reparations is definitionally meant to redress.2

Moreover, a somewhat clumsy handling of the term probably shouldn’t be misconstrued as an entirely corrupt intention, or seen as a cause for raking a candidate over the coals and demanding they issue a public apology for a proposal aimed at economically benefitting black people.  That response seems much more likely to frighten a politician into avoiding any further discussion of the subject rather than encouraging that politician to reevaluate their position based on the available facts, and to move toward a more exact understanding of who gets reparations and why.3

What Cynthia Nixon proposed would no doubt be insufficient given the staggering divide in the U.S. racial wealth gap.  That’s a fact.  But it seems more than a little irresponsible on the part of people who are supportive of reparative policy to upbraid someone who is evidently sympathetic to pushing that agenda forward, rather than trying to engage with and show that politician all the very apparent ways in which their idea—though crucially needed—is conceptually deficient.

Beyond that, suggesting—as #BlackLivesMatter of Greater New York has done—that regulatory efforts aimed at assisting black businesses in the cannabis industry do a “disservice to our community…and play[s] into harmful stereotypes of African-Americans as drug users and dealers” seems to allow an overweening concern about a statistically false rate of racialized drug use and dealing to stand in the way of policy that might actually economically benefit the very communities that they claim to advocate for.

Hopefully there will be more opportunity up the road to revisit the issue more thoughtfully, and to then move a candidate toward not only the matter of who gets reparations and why, but—critically—how.  Specifically, as it relates to business licenses, prioritizing access to industry should be understood as a very minor and ultimately inadequate measure given that Native Black Decendands of Slaves are far and away the most capital-deficient group of people in the United States, and how—because of that—banks can compound difficulties for business owners who will inevitable require funds to operate and stay competitive, and engage in all sorts of highly unethical lending practices, should they choose to lend at all.4

Importantly, a meaningful dialogue on reparations can help to demonstrate how the conditions that led to this extremely precarious, and in a way almost helpless, economic situation for Native Black Descendants of Slaves were not ones that occurred by accident or by chance, but rather by deliberate design.  And that because that economic situation finds in the U.S. government its original manufacturer, it is to that entity which claims on that uniquely defective product of black America must be answerable.


1. Keith Wright being, of course, a total fucking shill

2. The obviousness of which cannot be overstated. And in case you’ve been inside of a sensory deprivation tank since 2010, please refer to Michelle Alexander’s sensational The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness for a pretty much unassailable argument on how the prison-industry complex amounts to a white supremacist institutional achievement pretty much on par with the southern plantation

3. That Cynthia Nixon does need quite a bit of help in this ‘who and why’ area is particularly apparent, having invoked the highly dilutive ‘people of color’ catchall in what must be an always historically and lineage-specific conversation about reparations. 

4. Which is of course just *one* of the consequences of lacking capital.  To that end, though, here’s a rather, um, stark example of what’s required to obtain a loan even when you’re a(n extremely connected and obscenely qualified) black business owner.  Pierre Sutton, whose father was the Manhattan Borough President, principal owner of the Amsterdam News (a leading Black newspaper in New York), and an owner of a cable television company, had this to say on his ordeal in trying to secure financing:

“We didn’t have access to capital.  We didn’t.  We had an opportunity to purchase but we were unable to find a bank that would back us in [1971].  In fact, we went to some 30 banks in New York looking for backing and this was to buy an AM daytime radio station in Harlem . . .(W)e were fortunate in that one of our shareholders had saved the life of Bunny Berkley, who was then the [child of the] Chairman of the Board of Chemical Bank, and that’s how we got additional financing.  But it was just dumb luck.  He [the shareholders] was a counselor at summer camp and he had saved the life of the [child] from drowning, saved the life of this man’s child.  It’s kind of extreme access.”

Compare this to Jeffrey Hutton, a white, small radio station owner, whose experience with his bank was a dramatically different and basically pretty breezy-sounding one:

“I went down to the bank [in 1983] and got a loan.  And they gave me a loan based on two criteria.  Number one, the collateral I was able to put on the table, and number two, my personal credibility because I was employed as vice president of a local hospital in town when I went to my bank.  And so as a result, I was what they call an upstanding citizen of the community, and you know, served on a United Way board and things like that.  So they were really, as I was told later on, they were loaning the money to Jeff Hutton because of Jeff Hutton, not necessarily because they thought that this business venture was going to fly and make money.”

And here’s Dorothy Brunson, a broadcasting pioneer in black-owned television stations, discussing the kinds of lending disparities that exist for African-Americans as a result of their creditworthiness:

“Every time we’ve had to borrow money, we’ve had to borrow it at 15%, 16% interest rates because the history and the growth of the station and the level of profitability was not there in thee early stages.  So people still look at us as high risk. . .And so you, you’re constantly paying extra dollars to be able to do the basic things that most people can do with 5 or 6 or 7% dollars, and the same dollars would cost us 12%, 15%.”

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