Spoken like a truly respectful, caring person
[N.B.: credit @ninjaamajo for the inspo for the article’s title]
Since we now have a writer who is positioning herself (or perhaps more precisely, who is being positioned) to lead a national discussion about reparations, it seems worth looking into how that person has historically framed that issue and how she has previously used her platform to help inform her fellow Americans about it. After all, this particular individual claims to have been reading about and researching the topic of reparations for the past twenty years, so one may reasonably assume there’d be a long trail of intellectual breadcrumbs that she has left along the way.
Twitter proves quite useful in this respect; that is, for collecting information about a person’s involvement in/contributions to a particular discourse over the years. So here, in chronological order, is the history of Nikole Hannah-Jones (a self-professed disciple of reparations studies) talking about that issue on Twitter.
NHJ joined Twitter in March of 2009. The very first mention of reparations from her occurs six years later, in 2015, a full fifteen years into her apparent research on the subject.
Like much of what follows, NHJ’s earliest engagement with reparations on Twitter is largely just a reference/paean to the Coates article on reparations that ran in The Atlantic the previous year. The last tweet simply shares an article by Zach Stafford in The Nation. She then doesn’t mention reparations again for four months, but, when she finally does, it’s (not surprisingly) to shout out the Coates Article.
A full year passes until reparations resurfaces on NHJ’s timeline. And while it no doubt constitutes the most original intellectual engagement with the topic we’ve seen thus far, there’s a pretty weird suggestion that reparations for the government-sanctioned, centuries-long horror of targeted exclusion of ADOS is…financial aid?
Anyway. Another month goes by and she mentions reparations again because of something that someone said to Coates when he was still on Twitter. She then abstains from any further remarks on the topic until February of the following year when she tweets about reparations twice in one day (an all-time high!) and then tells someone to not talk to her about it anymore (a curt dismissal which—as we are all now very familiar with—is signature NHJ).
Silence then ensues on reparations for eight full months. She (again) disdainfully scoffs at someone and tells them to go read a book (as, of course, any respectable public intellectual should naturally do when confronted with an opinion that is at variance with their own). She then shouts out Coates. Again.
Four months elapse, and NHJ reprises her previous year’s tweet about reparations being part of the Republican platform during the late 19th century. The next day she clarifies a point about reparations, and then shelves the issue for another three months, at which point she shouts out the Coates article (which I’m honestly beginning to think she may actually have constructed a shrine to in her house).
June of 2018 constituted the most pronounced level of discussion about reparations, with a total of three (3) tweets. Though it seems this blitzkrieg may have in fact resulted in some serious reparations fatigue for NHJ, because it’s then another three months of reparations-free tweeting.
Picking up the baton again in October, NHJ then rounds out 2018 by tweeting about reparations twice in three months.
What’s also interesting about 12/3/18 is that is the same day when NHJ announces to all of her followers that she’s going to be (re)focusing her attention on a book that she’d been working on about the re-segregation of U.S. public schools.
And it did indeed seem that way. At least for a little while.
Nearly three months pass without any mention of reparations. Not uncommon. Curiously, when she does start talking about reparations again, it is at the exact moment that the #ADOS movement is beginning to attract significant attention from national media. With the #ADOS-led critique of then-Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris gaining traction (a critique that effectively halted her campaign’s momentum with black voters and triggered a much larger discussion about who carries the true cost of being black in America) Joy Reid, Shireen Mitchell, Angela Rye and a host of others all began peddling a demonstrably false accusation that the grassroots movement was a “Russian bot” operation. The Intercept then ran an article about #ADOS, highlighting how the “Russian Bot” dysinfo campaign started by Reid et al conformed with a pattern of behavior by the establishment Left media to neutralize and delegitimize any dissent against the Party’s preferred candidates. NHJ then weighed in on the matter of Harris, distorting the #ADOS critique of her and thus prompting responses from Yvette Carnell, Antonio Moore and the rest of the #ADOS movement. NHJ claims this was the very first time Yvette and Antonio entered into her sphere. Up until this point, she maintains, she never heard of either of them.
But see it’s odd. Because the frequency with which NHJ from this point forward then begins to talk about reparations is so much noticeably greater than it had been for the previous four years. More importantly, the kind of language she begins to deploy in these conversations bears an unmistakable resemblance to the specific framing that the #ADOS movement has developed and refined since 2016.
From about this point on on her timeline, I don’t think a month goes by where NHJ doesn’t post multiple tweets about reparations. And the thing that seems essential to consider as she now persists in repudiating the #ADOS movement when they question her motivation for suddenly stepping into this space without acknowledging the significance of their advocacy, is the specific convergence of the energy around reparations that the movement itself inspired and NHJ’s sudden ‘commitment’ to the issue. Was it simply the right time to get on her grind about economic justice after what we are told was decades of research? Or—one has to wonder—was it simply time to get on her grift when she saw an opportunity to begin siphoning off some energy from #ADOS in late Feb? I think the tweets above provide some insight into that question, and I think they ultimately cast serious doubt on the integrity of NHJ, journalistic or otherwise.
The only thing I will say about Nikole Hannah-Jones is this: I met her in early October of 2018 when we were walking past each other on Throop Avenue in Bed-Stuy by St. Philip’s Church. I stopped to tell her that I seriously admired the work that she had done (and was doing) on school segregation. I told her I was looking forward to attending the talk that she was going to be giving on exactly that subject the following week at Boys & Girls High School here in the neighborhood. Before parting ways I mentioned that I, too, wrote and that I wrote about #ADOS. I asked her if she had heard of Yvette Carnell and BreakingBrown (I didn’t ask if she had heard about #ADOS because, at that time, the movement hadn’t really broken through yet like it would just a few months later in early 2019). Nikole answered that she had indeed heard of Yvette Carnell and that she liked the work that she was doing. So when, today, in 2020, she says something like this…
…it indicates that she was either lying then or she’s lying now. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why she’d have felt the need to lie to some no-name writer two years ago. Now, however, the moment seems ripe for such dissimulation.
Why do we do this? Why? Why do we pat ourselves and others on the back for our weird, Tiësto-like treatment of the ‘meaning’ of the African American struggle for freedom and equality?
Truly, at this point in our discourse(s) of the African American freedom struggle there ought to be an actual DJ air horn that blares right before any non-ADOS person starts talking publicly about what it ‘means.’ The African American freedom struggle has become the remix album of movement politics. There is the “African American Freedom Struggle” (LGBTQ REMIX); the “African American Freedom Struggle” (DACA Edit); the “African American Freedom Struggle” (Democratic Socialist Dub Mix), and on and on. Every group, it seems, gets a shot at reworking it. And so if you want to know why ADOS are so ‘divisive’, or why they get so fractious when confronted with our coalition hokum, you should just ask yourself how the hell you think you’d feel if for the past half-century you were made to sit and watch everyone else remix the meaning of your group’s historic struggle while you and your family stay not collecting a single cent in royalties. Not only that, but you all never even got paid in the first place.
It must be said again and again: the “ever present possibility of universality” is something that has been crudely retrofitted onto the African American freedom struggle by the Left, and it has done this in spite of all kinds of evidence that such a thing is pure fiction. There is nothing universal about the core material demand of ADOS. It’s a debt. That’s it. And whether or not poor whites ‘get free’ too or whatever is utterly impertinent. Sorry. I know we want to put like a campfire-y spin on America paying a specific debt, but I think we need to seriously consider the fact that when we ask ADOS to join hands with us and sing our song of freedom and justice, the hands we’re expecting to receive are ones that—for the past 400 years, at every possible turn—have been denied the chance of actually holding any real economic power whatsoever. And I implore you to think about how enthusiastic you’d be to have people ‘recasting’ the meaning of your group’s struggle—which has been a struggle to wrest the economic power you are owed—if it meant that your child’s hands, too, would be denied possession of that same power.
For those of you who’ve not been sheltering-in-place with a two year-old who is on a media diet high in Disney animated feature films, here’s a quick character sketch of Mother Gothel, the villainess from 2010’s Tangled, a movie that I have now seen like at least one-hundred times over the past three months…
Having kidnapped the infant princess Rapunzel from the king and queen, Mother Gothel has kept her locked away in a remote, secluded tower in the woods. There, she uses Rapunzel’s magical hair in order to preserve her (Mother Gothel’s) youth. Her ‘parenting’ style could best be described as psychologically abusive to the absolute extreme, manipulating Rapunzel with a false origin story while casually belittling her at every available opportunity. The effect is basic Psych101 stuff: essentially saddle Rapunzel with a dependency complex that exalts Mother Gothel in the eyes of Rapunzel while, at the same time, dramatically subduing her will to discover her true identity and place in the world.
Eventually, Rapunzel’s conviction that the world outside the tower contains profound truths about her authentic self is something that overrides her damaged psyche and one day she decides to make a break for it. Upon learning of Rapunzel’s escape and the journey that she plans to undertake, Mother Gothel becomes truly unhinged, spiraling into a hysterical state in which the prevention of Rapunzel’s self-discovery (which necessarily entails a loss of the illusory sway that Mother Gothel holds in Rapunzel’s imagination) becomes paramount. The objective is to find Rapunzel and basically berate her back into being her acquiescent, Tower-imprisoned self and completely subjugate any future assertion of agency. In short, to make Rapunzel feel dumb and ridiculous and totally ashamed for ever thinking that she might amount to something other than a, well, slave.
I bring this up only because yesterday found a great number of Africans on Twitter in the throes of what can really only be described as a Mother Gothel-esque meltdown. And while the catalyst for the outpouring of anti-ADOS vitriol was ostensibly a joke that someone made about the continent’s dodgy WiFi reception, it is very difficult not to understand the astoundingly hateful responses the joke occasioned as rooted in (and conditioned by) something so much deeper and so much more intensely personal—something that is, in essence, akin to Mother Gothel’s felt loss of control when Rapunzel defies her by throwing off the yoke of her supposed authority and declaring her intent to forge her own emancipatory path.
At minimum, what happened yesterday raises a number of interesting questions. I guess the first would be: do Africans simply have uniquely tender feelings about their wireless internet connectivity? Is this actually something about which they are extremely touchy and sensitive? Or was yesterday merely the latest confirmation in a growing pile of evidence that they harbor a real animus and serious contempt for American Descendants of Slavery?
While it might complicate the notion of Pan-African solidarity, we should admit that we really already know the answer. We’ve known it for quite some time—it’s the latter, and yesterday was just a remarkably candid and widespread display of it. Arguably, what we witnessed unfold yesterday was a good thing; it provided an unprecedented glimpse at the giant iceberg of anti-ADOS bigotry that floats beneath surface of African culture, a deep-seated antipathy toward ADOS that we are apparently very keen to import into the country, and something of which a show like CBS’s Bob Hearts Abishola represents only the very tip.
But it’s safe to say that as ADOS continues to stake out its own identity—one singularly tied to the group’s wholly distinct experience of injustice in the U.S.—the more that these underlying attitudes of genuine disdain will reveal themselves; attitudes that have quietly informed (or, more accurately, deformed) modern ‘solidarity’ with ADOS. I would really encourage white people in particular to pay very close attention to this stuff. Because while I know we tend to get a little anxious and uneasy when it comes to seeing certain distinctions between black people, I think you’ll find that a lot of the people whom you just might otherwise assume are down with the cause (particularly the cause of justice in this ADOS-specific, post-Floyd moment) because of their skin color or whatever, are actually way, way closer in temperament and belief to the white supremacists whom you stridently claim to define yourself and your politics in opposition to. To riff on something that Yvette Carnell said recently, what will yield the necessary harvest of racial justice in America is ensuring that we cast our seeds in a soil of nuance and specificity. We absolutely cannot be inhibited in our identification and denouncement of every single dimension of ADOS’s oppression, regardless of whomever promotes it.
I guess I keep wondering how well our national outcry in this moment maps onto the actual problem. How it seems like it should not be one of sticker shock at police budgets, but rather of implacable revulsion at the basic disposability of black life in America.
The pandemic distilled everything for us; revealed plainly the absolute deadly and ruinous precarity that has attended and beset the lives of a people whom for four hundred years have been made and kept uniquely wealthless in the United States. Postcovid, we cannot realistically claim to not know exactly where the major fault line that runs through American society is located. It runs directly through ADOS life. It stretches across centuries. It is always seething with the stress of injustices old and new. It is always accumulating with strain, and it is always underpinning their group’s experience in national life, one singularly defined by constant shocks and devastating, seismic eruptions. How then in this moment can our central demand be to shuffle around some resources within the municipal budget in order to better manage that violent instability?
If you were a part of their group, what would you want right now? Would you want people to be shouting “Reimagine policing”, or would you need people to be out there shouting that we must reimagine the whole obscene and vicious arrangement that continues to keep your family living on the fault line generation after generation? I know which one I would want in this brief window of possibility. Because as obviously desirable as fewer instances of police killings are, there is a very real despair in not fully seizing on this sudden lucidity about the terrible expendability of ADOS life, something that begins long, long before the cops show up to the scene with guns.
This feels like a moment of political re-orientation; like there’s a real possibility for a kind of chrysalis state of transition into which white people in particular can enter and therein re-conceive how we meaningfully participate in fixing race in America. More than anything else, the #ADOS movement—with its core reparations component that breathes real life into a broader black agenda—offers that transformative possibility; a viable trajectory for the multi-generational project of repair we claim to so desperately want. It rightly cautions the futility in trying to retrofit solutions piecemeal onto a community that has been specifically plundered for centuries—solutions that ultimately don’t amount to real change because they don’t compel the release of our group’s two-fisted hold on the spoils of our intergenerational raids.
The murderous genuflection onto George Floyd’s neck, or the bullet-gouged walls of Breonna Taylor’s bedroom, these are expressions of something so much greater, so much more profound than a police department’s surplus budget. They are but one part of how our continual and prodigious failure to bring ADOS out of economic disrepair has rendered their community essentially futureless; which is why this moment needs to cast a net wide enough to actually recover that future. We have a moral and legal obligation to go well beyond reforms that aim to patch up the surrounding public service infrastructure whose limitations in providing for a fundamentally and uniquely economically-demobilized community should be obvious. It is not that we can’t pursue these things simultaneously—we should—but now is not the moment to center the reform; it is the moment to center the transformation.
Almost instinctively we rush to the business of likening all forms of power—be it ICE or the military industrial complex—to that singular manifestation of four hundred years of racialized power in America; a habit which has produced effectively zero material gains for American Descendants of Slavery in the post-Civil Rights era. Why?
Seeing power everywhere and roundly condemning it is not an analysis of power. The startling diffuseness of state power we now behold is conditioned by the persistent lack of focus on how we actually begin siphoning it off in a way that truly transforms. And so now is when we need to let the specific power arrangement that has so uniquely shaped American life—one that is so distilled (and nakedly on display) in the knee-to-neck move that ignited a nation—be what shapes our political demands as the generation of white people that simply will no longer stomach that injustice, that will not be distracted from the Work.
This moment right now is so rich with potential reckoning, the road ahead so fertile with possibility for the sort of sacrifices that our parents and grandparents evidently felt weren’t necessary to make in order to heal the group whose wholesale exclusion from American life is what made possible our families’ opportune place within it. And to the extent that we say no to that arrangement—if we deep down hate it as much as we outwardly profess—then this is our chance to be absolutely leadfooted in driving forward the cause of reparations for American Descendants of Slavery and their black agenda. It is not a time to perform our capacity for empathy, or applaud a victory that constitutes some modest reform. It is the time for a sustained and unvacillating show of awareness that no piecemeal approach will root out the rot of race in our society. The solution is non-optional. Look outside.
In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois declared in his Address to the Nations of the World, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line [and] the question of how far differences in race…will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.”
It is of course evident upon reading this that Du Bois was not talking about any one country in particular. However, it would seem to require a special kind of detachment for a citizen of the United States—a country wherein the color line has so thoroughly and uniquely conditioned all aspects of national life (and done so at such great cost to one specific group)—to not consider that quandary in relation to our own nation. It arguably cries out to us more imploringly, more urgently, than to any place else upon the globe.
H.R.40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—is (for all of its many flaws) at its core an appeal to provide as precise an answer as possible to the subject of targeted exclusion that Du Bois pondered over a century ago. And I would submit that if the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line, then the problem of the twenty-first century for America is the balance line; that is, the sum total of those “differences in race” and how in our country in particular they have, across generations, been made to so rigidly delimit access to opportunity for a specific people. This is what H.R.40, in its most effective form, could survey and scrupulously enumerate. In so doing it would reify what has heretofore remained a dim and notional prospect. It would provide committed grassroots activists with a meaningful legislative lodestone they could then leverage and pressure elected officials, and it would constitute a significant first step on the road to transformational justice.
Yet for as critical as H.R.40 would be in realizing that objective—something that progressives have long and solemnly averred to want—it has historically received about as much interest in being taken up by lawmakers as a hornets’ nest might after being tossed into a room full of highly allergic children. That is, at least, until this past year.
In between the 115th Congress of 2017-18 and the 116th Congress of 2019-20, something unprecedented occurred. Co-sponsorship of H.R.40 surged by an astounding 285 percent, increasing from 35 to 135 signatories. This represents a seismic shift in support for a bill that, as recently as 2015’s Congressional session (a full 26 years after it was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers) could not manage to attract more than two cosponsors. And while analyses of this pronounced and abrupt spike in support for H.R.40 has specifically identified everything from a 2014 Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, to a book by Randall Robinson that was published in 2000, to the bill’s development under the decidedly languorous and doddery aegis of N’COBRA since 2001, such reasoning would seem to conceal more than it reveals.
Virtually unmentioned in the prevailing commentary about the degree of attention that reparations is presently receiving is the movement whose very essence has always been to seek that issue’s fulfillment. The American Descendants of Slavery movement (#ADOS)—cofounded in late 2016 by Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore—has taken the issue of reparations and reinjected it into the mainstream of U.S. political discourse, where it has hit like a syringe of epinephrine to the thigh. #ADOS alone has been responsible for the intensifying groundswell of energy around the long ignored matter of providing reparative justice for the group whose exclusion has served as the very grist of our nation’s great wealth. And for the predictable ensemble of notoriety hunters to attribute H.R.40’s present visibility to anything but #ADOS’s relentless and full-throated advocacy would seem to require a kind of double-jointedness of the intellect along with a bevy of ulterior intentions.
Indeed, much of #ADOS’s criticism of H.R.40 is that, in its present configuration, it is a piece of legislation ripe for the grift. Having been shaped principally by the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and N’COBRA, the language of the bill gores the specific justice claim that is held by ADOS upon the U.S. government and in turn promotes an eligibility criteria so vague and inclusive as to be essentially useless. Moreover, it does this all while auguring a generous payout for the committee and its contractees that would be charged with carrying out the study. As Professor Sandy Darity at Duke University notes, if H.R.40 were to receive a hearing as is—and pass—it would effectively just call the hounds to the quarry.
Dr. Darity has been vocal in his opposition to the designs of these bad faith actors who—while ostensibly beating the drum of advocacy for repair—in fact seem to prefer incubating a nebulous idea of repair in some subcommittee. For whatever reason, they have shown no indication of incorporating the actionable recommendations that Dr. Darity has put forward for inclusion into H.R.40, ones that would ensure the integrity of the bill’s mission and, of course, appropriately remunerate the living descendants of American chattel slavery. Even as detractors of the movement and colleagues have sought to chide and dissuade Dr. Darity from any further involvement and association, he has continued to insist on the righteousness and singular viability of the #ADOS case for reparations. His decades of historical and economic research support that righteousness, and the framework of repair that he has developed would be—if implemented—what transforms H.R.40 from an insulting placebo of justice into a real curative for the group’s economic disrepair.
And to the extent that certain people feel the need to cast doubt on Dr. Darity’s associations in this space in the first place, they would perhaps do better to consider N’COBRA’s motivations for inviting him to speak at their symposiums and appear on their radio shows, using his cachet to boost their ticket sales and listenership only to then, in return, completely disrespect his research by putting his proposals for their H.R.40 bill on ice. That seems, to me, to be an arrangement that speaks to exactly the sort of grubby acquisitiveness in the handling of H.R.40 that Dr. Darity is looking to head off with his edits.
Ultimately, the #ADOS-Darity framework is the only way this thing sees even a sliver of light outside of subcommittee. White Americans will, without question, never support H.R.40 as it currently stands. Nor should we. Because, suffice it to say, those of us who are sympathetic to the cause of reparations have likely arrived at that position through an awareness that the whiteness by which our families derive and share advantage is a direct outcome of other families’ shared history of specific and targeted exclusion. Those families are ADOS. And the very least thing that we can do for those who’ve been excluded from meaningful participation in national life in such an incomparable way is to advocate from a position that it is they alone who we owe. To know who we owe: this is the simplest and most basic prerequisite for a white American who wants to participate in an authentic project of racial justice. It is how we begin, finally, to formulate a real solution to Du Bois’s century-old question.
“She did something every child has done—she tried to put the evidence of her offense away from her. But in this case she was no child hiding stolen contraband: she struck out at her victim—of necessity she must put him away from her—he must be removed from her presence, from this world. She must destroy the evidence of her offense. What was the evidence of her offense? Tom Robinson, a human being.”
— Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
White shame is the most combustible substance in America. And what happened in the Ramble is proof that for a black man to interact with us in any way that presupposes basic equivalence is for them to be thumbing the wheel spark of a lighter.
Consider that a black man’s freest day in America is nonetheless one spent in the menacing company of that shame, a thing which—if God forbid he should excite it—seeks only to completely efface the source of its ignition.
We are post- nothing. As a society, the tendency is now demonstrably only toward further immiscibility, and that is and has always been exclusively a white-driven phenomenon. At least in our lifetime the most we can hope for is that we move closer to being post-delusional about the fact that racism in America is not here to stay, and that to the extent that we don’t want our children living with that chronic sickness there is simply no other alternative but to become politicized in such a way that our voice serves as a single and continuous demand to rewrite the functionality of four-hundred years of racialized power.
Because that’s what Amy Cooper’s phone call was. It was an activation of power that is specific to our group and which is designed and maintained to function solely in our families’ interests. That was an ugly dimension of it, but we are all, every last one of us, common shareholders in the larger enterprise which is very efficient at dispersing and expressing that power in far less obvious, subtly murderous ways.
White people shouldn’t even get to call these women ‘Karen’ without including the word ‘Aunt’. To do so implies a distance from the seat of power that doesn’t really exist for us. We are right there. American whiteness is a family-run operation and the only functional insight to be gained by reflecting on Amy Cooper and her actions is that we really have no choice but to put it into liquidation. To work to dissolve it by advocating for reparative justice. But do not be deluded in thinking that repair will not entail a material loss for you and your family; the creditors always get paid first in a liquidation event, and whiteness is running up a 401-year tab on ADOS.
I’m beginning to think that you can do this with all of them. All of them.
So when the next Progressive of Color appears with their smug and absolutely unctuous ridiculing of race-conscious historical analysis and policy goals, just ask Google to reveal everything that race consciousness in America has made possible in their life.
Like Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor-in-chief of Jacobin who last year chided proponents of reparations for being essentially useless impediments to a progressive future, Zaid Jilani gave an interview earlier this week deriding the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project”, at points literally scoffing at the many, many people whom he feels are so simpleminded as to insist on the primacy of race in shaping U.S. life over the last four-hundred years. It may come as no surprise that—also like Bhaskar Sunkara—Zaid Jilani was raised in a neighborhood in which the black population is estimated to be at 0.01% or less.1
Jilani grew up in Cobb County, Georgia in a neighborhood called Saddlebrook Farms. It was built in ’93, when Jilani would have been around 5 years old. The stone wall that stands at one of the entrances to the subdivision describes it as a “Classic Equestrian Community,” and it is referred to in other real estate marketing lit as a “Swim and Tennis Neighborhood.”2 The homes—which are constructed in the French provincial style of the 18th century—range in price from 640k to 1 million. They typically have 5-8 bedrooms and the kitchens sound Downton Abbeyesque in design.3
It is, in other words, precisely the kind of enclave of wealth one would anticipate finding in the “first tier suburbs” that Rebekah Cohen Morris notes started appearing in Cobb County after white people didn’t “want to risk their children having to go to school with black children.” An educator and anti-poverty advocate herself, Morris details how that history of intense white hostility to Atlanta’s school integration efforts was part of a continuum of ADOS lockout in America that began with slavery and has extended right up into our present, still fixing opportunity and determining today’s winners and losers. Pointing this out, though, is of course something to which Jilani would object. After all, during his Skype appearance on The Hill, throughout which he wore an absolutely simpering and pompous little smirk and looked like a newly whelped mole straining to adjust its eyes to the light, he dismissed the supposedly lazy tendency of some people to “pretend as if every malady in American life is a matter of something that happened between 1619 and maybe, uh, the Civil Rights Act of 1960.”4
That’s quite a statement coming from someone whose family was able to step into a very comfortable and opportunity-rich life in 90s Georgia precisely because of the state’s historically anti-ADOS attitudes and discriminatory state policies. When the Ku Klux Klan staged a motor rally in Cobb County in 1960 to express solidarity with the Cobb County White Citizens for Segregation—who, as historian Mary E. Odem says, “successfully pursued policies [to] separate themselves and their tax dollars” from the region’s American Descendants of Slavery—it’s worth thinking about how it was exactly those anti-ADOS efforts that shored up the property value in the county’s white regions where the Jilani family would eventually settle. Or how later in the run-up to the ’87 referendum on the MARTA expansion (Atlanta’s public transportation system), it was Cobb County residents ginning up opposition and stoking anti-ADOS anxieties with bumper stickers on their cars that read “Share Atlanta Crime—Support MARTA.”
These emphatic remonstrances screened the land on which the Jilani house now stands from what Antonio Moore has coined ‘the contagion’ of property value liability that ADOS, as a bottom caste, were made to be seen and treated as. And as Odem highlights, Northern Cobb County’s fierce defense of its exclusivity (which is to say the total fortification from ADOS encroachment) is not a thing of the past; as late as 2008, residents were adamantly opposing MARTA expansion proposals that would facilitate greater mobility between the area’s urban center and the suburbs. At that time, Jilani would have been a sophomore at UGA.5 And the home in which he’d grown up would have been doing what the shielding of American whiteness had naturally allowed it to do: appreciating by nearly half a million dollars. That wealth—which ADOS were terrorized out of and legally excluded from—is something that Jilani and his family now (and will for a long time to come) very much enjoy.
And so it’s interesting: Jilani has made a name for himself writing, in part, impassioned defenses of the need for historical accuracy in the school curricula. When the GOP proposed revising educational material in an effort to indoctrinate students with more traditionally conservative principles, he took to the Internet and proclaimed how understanding history in a way that corresponds with what actually happened is “the first line of defense for preparing children to be engaged and active citizens in the political process” (emph mine). And when—in another article—he talks about the student walkout demonstration in response to the Ed Boards’ proposals to change the curriculum, there’s a detail Jilani includes about how some of the kids were carrying signs that read “people didn’t die so we could erase them.” Arguably, it is that very same appeal at which Jilani now nakedly sneers.
And while he has extolled the virtue of historical truth informing a person’s politics, he is, at the same time, seemingly very much committed to policing how some people are choosing to engage politically with their truths. From his and his family’s position of such close-knit inclusion into American society—his position of such unmitigated advantage—he berates and heaps scorn upon the very people who for four-hundred years have sought their due for that same kind of access that he had growing up in America, that same abundance of opportunity. And so what does it mean for a person whose whole life is attributable to his country’s instinct to murder and exclude ADOS to then go around giving interviews and writing articles disparaging the idea of insisting on that group’s history being the very marrow of our contemporary political discourse?
Indeed, of those people who’ve died, I cannot think of a death suffered more in vain given someone like Jilani’s eagerness to suppress the centrality of race, of why they died, of what they fought to fix. And if he actually cared about those people—if he actually gave a shit about justice for the group—then he’d know that you don’t go around bleating on about how your politics are so much superior than a politics that actually tries to honor their dead. Truthfully, someone like Zaid Jilani has no actual politics. Not really. It’s a little buffet-style belief template that allows him to breezily invoke damaging rightwing tropes about black families in one interview and then, on another day, write articles posing moralistic Lefty questions like “[H]ow is it we can all start to see that breadth of the American identity so that we can associate people who are non-white with being Americans, too?”
The question sure is rich, considering the speaker and his refusal to accept the idea that Americanness has always been (and still is) whatever’s left over for everyone after you bottom caste a specific lineage. That might be a lot for some groups of people, and it might be a little for some others, but make no mistake, those people who have even just a little of it will fight tooth and nail to deny the bottom caste any share of it whatsoever. So the real question is: how do we make American the specific people from whom Americanness has always been withheld?
It will no doubt aggrieve many who are sympathetic to that project to hear that the answer is through something like a politics of sacrifice; an advocacy that necessarily entails your own loss. It will entail something that—not only will we need to learn why and how we need to make—but which we then will also have to teach our children why and how they need to make it, too, and so on. And any fellow “ally” who is quick to tell you that—even on some small level—they don’t struggle or wrestle with that reality of sacrificing their own advantage is outright lying to you. They shouldn’t be trusted any more than Jilani, who is either simply an idiot or whose deliberate and total absence of humility in the face of his own personal history should inspire fear and rage. Indeed, it is precisely that obvious and blatant disregard for what the group is owed that, when we observe it, should move us past whatever qualms we might have and toward a firm belief in the righteousness of #ADOS politics. Because the kind of politics needed to make ADOS American exists completely outside the little circle-jerk cliques that Jilani so casually moves in and out of. It is a sort of politics that, in practice, looks exactly unlike the careerism that is so obviously at the core of his political commentary, and which—at the absolute most basic level—demands we disabuse ourselves of the false comfort that we can or even should try to circumvent the leviathan that is the lineage-based disadvantage of ADOS, a thing which has made so much possible, for so many people, and all at their group’s complete expense.
n o t e s
1. This is according to the most recent census data on policymap.com. The black people who do live nearby don’t exactly seem representative of the group’s general economic condition, either. Black household income, at the median, is just over 75k. And you’d have to drive several miles until you start seeing a situation where more than .07% of black people are living in poverty. ↩
2. The Saddlebook Farms HOA’s annual fee covers maintenance of the swimming pool and tennis courts. In general, Saddlebrook Farms is almost caricatural in its whiteness and privilege. Blind wine tasting parties are apparently a regular thing, and there’s a Yard of the Month contest, which sounds absolutely tyrannical and anxiety-provoking. ↩
3. Interesting to note here that this particular structural aesthetic refers to the provincial nobility in France who wanted to distance their community from the metropolis they considered “too urban” for their tastes. The very same thing appears to have animated the development of this residential area in Cobb County, but the area’s history doesn’t suggest that the white people were eve remotely interested in using any polite euphemisms like ‘too urban’ to describe their motivations; they pretty explicitly made it clear they didn’t want black people around, which will become apparent in the main text’s next paragraph… ↩
4. For his own high school education, Zaid attended Kennesaw Mountain High, which was founded in 2000 as a magnet school. Ruthie Yow, the author of “Students of the Dream: Resegregation in a Southern City”, describes these magnet programs as “mini ivory towers because of subtle gate keeping that locks out poor children.”↩
5. His sister, who now works for the Pentagon’s top weapons supplier and Fortune 100 company Lockheed Martin, would have been studying at Parsons, an elite art and design school in Manhattan. From there, she would make the not-exactly-lateral move to pursue a Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2014, the New York Times announced her marriage to Gregory Whitten, who works as an “independent consultant to Fortune 500 companies on healthcare, including the pharmaceutical industry, health IT, and both federal and private sector entrants.”↩