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Owning History: Carmen Twillie Ambar, Oberlin College, and Bringing Dark Corner to Light

This past September, Carmen Twillie Ambar began her role as the 15th president of Ohio’s Oberlin College. And—as tends to happen when someone from the African-American community ascends to just such a position of prestige—her biography quickly became the subject of virtually all of the articles that were covering her recent high-profile career move.

Mrs. Twillie Ambar is the college’s first African-American leader, a distinction which—for many onlookers—signals incontrovertible proof of cultural progress. The sort of capital-O Overcoming narrative which (for obvious reasons) is a feature of much of the writing that comments on any black person in America’s major achievements, is again in the case of Mrs. Twillie Ambar relied upon to transform what would otherwise be a fairly unremarkable act of administrative succession into a triumph of the human spirit and a fulfillment of progress with respect to American race relations. Here is one writer’s (herself a student at Oberlin) particularly rapturous response to learning of Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s appointment as president:

“A bit of balance has been restored in the universe. I lost one great president, and now I’ve gained one much closer to home. This is not only a victory for the college or for students of color, but a victory for Black women…Us Black and Brown people are sacred. When we are born, we lose our individuality; we are woven into the fabric of our ancestors–All the kings, queen, empires, civilizations, triumph, suffering, and bloodshed that has come before us and will come after us. This is our legacy. For the college to elect–for the first time–a Black woman into its highest position is its first step towards finally honoring that legacy.”

Less ecstatic coverage—while not necessarily attributing Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s presidency at an elite liberal arts school to enacting cosmic equilibrium—nonetheless strives to emphasize her background as being one that is entirely rooted in the African-American experience; that is to say, in a condition of oppression, injustice, and basic non-opportunity that really underscores and brings into focus the magnitude of her career achievements, of which her presidency at Oberlin is really just the latest in a long line of impressive administrative tenures. Readers are consistently reminded that Mrs. Twillie Ambar is just a “handful of generations removed from slavery,” and that her father, Manuel Twillie, labored tirelessly for most of his life in the field as a “cotton picker.” 

But this foregrounding of ancestry is not just a convention in the journalism that aims to contextualize Twillie Ambar’s successes. In the remarks that she herself delivered during her introductory ceremony at Oberlin College last May, Twillie Ambar asked the audience there to “just imagine the Deep South, the heat,” where she said her father would “look up at the hot beating sun as he was out there picking cotton and he would say to himself, ‘I don’t know what I want to do but I know I don’t want to do this.’”  

It’s a compelling image, and one that—elsewhere—surfaces fairly often in her personal musings on her improbable trajectory. In a 2016 essay for Inside Higher Ed, she writes that her father had been “plowing behind a mule since he was six,” living in the “black section” of Colt, Arkansas, a place referred to as “Dark Corner.” She says that his family’s circumstances were so lowly that he might have been given “a few nuts for his Christmas present.” And during a 2017 interview with The Chronicle Telegram, she wonders, “[W]hen my dad was standing there in that cotton field, could he ever have thought that his daughter would have the opportunity to be president of Oberlin College?”

A listener would have to be somewhat insensate not to be genuinely moved by the story that she invites you to consider, one in which her parents persevered (as she also remarked in her Oberlin introductory address) “against all odds.” But a deeper look into Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s ancestry appears to raise the question of exactly how total those odds actually were. And how—as is common with so many who occupy the ‘first African-American’ of x category—the fact that she and her family appear to have been the beneficiaries of circumstances extremely uncommon in black America is something that seems to be carefully omitted from her family’s history in favor of promoting the uplifting (if artificial) idea of individual agency in the face of great adversity; a sort of partial telling of one’s pathway to success that ultimately works to encourage the societal misperception that, insofar as black people can’t seem to transcend their station, it is a matter of personal attitudes and behavioral deficiencies and not the profound headwinds of group-based wealth scarcity—the true ‘all odds’—that are endured by most American descendants of slaves, and which by and large confine them to a life of nonexistent opportunity. 


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In a taped interview that took place in 1995 for the oral history project, Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South (a copy of which is now archived at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture), a woman named Delores Woods provides an account of some of her experiences in the South during that time for the interviewer, with one caveat: “You know, like I say, I was kind of sheltered by living in a black community and they all land owners.”

The African-American community Mrs. Woods was referring to was in a place called Caldwell, a small town located in St. Francis County, Arkansas. In 1899, about forty years before she was born, Bishop Henry M. Turner—the leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—had declared that Arkansas was “destined to be the great negro state of the country. The meagre prejudice compared to some states, and opportunity to acquire wealth,” he reasoned, “all conspire to make it inviting to the colored man. [Arkansas] is the state for colored men who wish to live by their merits.” 

It was perhaps that promise of opportunity—that meritorious idea—that had first attracted Delores’s uncle to the area. He’d arrived from Mississippi, and his brother—Delores’s father—soon followed. There, he married Hula Gillam. Hula had been raised by her grandparents, who’d owned farmland in Arkansas. In addition to the crops produced on that land, Delores tells the interviewer, her great-grandparents “sold milk and butter, and…eggs and chickens.” They “had their own little food orchard” and “raised their own garden…they basically raised all the food that they ate.” 

Delores’s mother and father—who’d sought to buy their own cotton farm in St. Francis County—were driven to live a life of similar self-sufficiency: “They raised their own corn, and own vegetables, and own hogs, and own cows,” Delores says, “and we killed our own meat and we had our own vegetables in the freezer. At that time they made what they called lard and they had that.” Delores also says how her parents had resolved to not take on any debt: “My mother said if we need to buy baking powder or salt or flour—something like that you didn’t raise—she would go out and chop by the day—a day—and get that 35 cents or 50 cents a day. And that’s how we lived.” In due time Delores’s father was able to buy the family a farm; it adjoined another plot of farmland owned by his brother.

Meanwhile, her paternal grandmother—a woman named Dinah—would often come to St. Francis County from where she lived in Mississippi to visit her son. Slowly, in a kind of piecemeal fashion, she relocated herself to St. Francis County: “And so what she did,” Delores says, “she had—I got that trunk now—she had a big old trunk and she put all her stuff in it and she came out like she going to visit her son, but then when she go back the trunk is empty. So she go back and get some more stuff, and she moved all her stuff, and then so she got on out here.” Eventually, Delores says, Dinah was able to “save up her some money and then she bought her place.”

On all her family’s properties in Arkansas—her great grandmother’s farm, her grandmother’s farm, and her parents’ farm—Dolores and her eight siblings worked chopping cotton. “If we get through with our farm,” she says, “[other black people] would hire us.” And so during the interview, whenever the exploitation and mistreatment of sharecroppers that was widely practiced during the time is brought up, Delores is repeatedly very upfront about how—because of her family’s extensive property ownership, and that of the local black community—she was relatively insulated from those sorts of experiences. “And of course, I don’t know if it ever was going on in the community where I was because, like I said, all those people down in [Caldwell] for like four or five miles owned their own property and they were kind of big people because in those days—in the thirties and the late twenties—they had their own T-Model Fords and A-T Fords.”  

Delores’s family was some of those ‘big people.’ And in addition to possessing a kind of shrewd acumen for business—for, as Delores says, “[knowing] how to save a penny if they got a dollar”—they also “all had the attitude,” by which she means that they all seemed to share as a kind of familial trait a definite inability to suffer the frequent demonstrations of contempt and antagonism of bigoted whites who expected black people to behave obsequiously before them.

Delores hadn’t worked for a white man until, as she says, she was “probably ’bout 16 years old.” And when one eventually did hire her to chop cotton—and then tried to short her on her earnings for the day—she proved to not be easily intimidated or cowed into making allowances for white people which she knew to violate fairness: “I said, no you don’t owe me that. You owe me some more, so and so. And I read my figures off to him just like I carried them. And he kept arguing and he wanted to make me say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’  And I would not say yes sir and no sir. I can talk to you all day and I’d never say yes and never say no…I’d say it as a kid. Give me my money.” After that incident, Delores quit and went to work someplace where she could make “more money and [be] in the shade.”

Before Delores’s grandmother, Dinah, had moved herself out to St. Francis County, the “boss man” back in Mississippi had once instructed her to go with her newborn child out into the rain and “get the cows out of the cotton, ’cause they done got out,” she responded matter-of-factly, “My baby’s young. I’m not going out there getting in the cotton.”

That baby would grow up to one day hold a knife to a white man’s throat who’d tried to attack his brother. He also “toted the shotguns in order for the black people to be able to vote when they go down to vote, cause [whites] didn’t want them to.” His name was Allen Twillie, Delores’s dad, and Carmen Twillie Ambar’s grandfather.


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When Delores’s youngest daughter was in college, she did some research on the family name. What she discovered helped explain, for Delores, what had always enabled the Twillies to—as she says—”[know] how to maneuver and how to get by” the way they had, and why they didn’t “take no mess” from whites who looked upon them with arrogance and disdain. 

“[My daughter] did some studying of history, a looking up your name,” she says, “and when she went back and researched it she found out that the Twillies were never slaves. And so I guess that’s why they always had the high-strung attitude with [whites].” When Delores relayed her daughter’s findings to her mother, she seemed to meet the news merely as confirmation of what she’d already surmised: “And so my mother said, she said ‘Well, I had always figured that out that they were never slaves because the attitude and the way that they did about people and the way that they were able to get by.'”

The Twillies were “Frenchmen,” according to Delores. “It was two brothers of ’em”, she says, who first came over from France to the United States by ship. “So if you run across any Twillies anywhere,” she tells the interviewer, “they all kin to us.”


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“Nothing changes lives and family trajectories more profoundly than a college education,” Carmen Twillie Ambar, kin to those two Frenchmen, wrote in her essay for Inside Higher Ed. “I’ve seen it in my own family. Those ‘plow to the end of your row’ and ‘stand tall’ parents of mine graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock. They went on and got advanced degrees. Before long, their children did as well. No more Dark Corner.”

But what was Dark Corner, really? It sounds pejorative, but—to hear Delores describe it—Dark Corner was a vibrant, relatively prosperous and cooperative community of black landowners. “I’ll say our black community, if somebody got sick or unable to handle their crops or like they wadn’t going to get it out, when the other people would finish theirs, they all go over there and give him a day,” Delores says, “I mean give him a day. Just chop his cotton out or plow it out. And if he was sick, then they would just go over there and work that crop out.” When someone in the community was building a house on their land, Delores says, “all the men in the neighborhood [would] go and help build the house and the women would cook the food for taking down there ready to eat. And they’d build that house.” And so contrary to the implication that Dark Corner represents a kind of inferior or undesirable former state of affairs for the black family—where progress is understood as away and removed from—it seems maybe more appropriate to adduce what Dark Corner was as a source for what a family such as the Twillies would have required in order to have the opportunity to succeed in America. In this light, it’s not so much ‘no more dark corner,’ as it would seem to be ‘nothing more without Dark Corner.’1

But actually recognizing the trans-generational advantages conferred upon a person whom descends from a class of landowners is to sacrifice the usual outpouring of accolades that we bestow on anyone—but especially an African-American—who spins a compelling self-creation mythos, one whereby a person bootstraps him or herself into a better existence seemingly by dint of an indefatigable spirit coupled with good decision-making skills. And while in Twillie Ambar’s case this has made for good media fodder so far, the complicating fact remains that the cotton row on which her father was plowing was set on sprawling acres of family-owned land, some of which had been in the family for generations.2

For much of black America—a group with an already very low wealth position—the suggestion that enrolling in college and obtaining a degree is the most prudent course of action for effecting a more favorable trajectory of a person’s life is simply empirically untrue. As demonstrated by the recent report, What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap—put together principally by leading wealth economists and scholars Sandy Darity of Duke University and Darrick Hamilton of Ohio State University—”[a]t every level of educational attainment, the median wealth among black families is substantially lower than white families…Moreover,” the authors write, “on average, a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth than a white family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma.” Critically, when evaluating predictors of “both college attendance and college completion,” the authors of the study note that it is the level of “family wealth” that is a decisive variable. 

For Twillie Ambar, there is strong evidence to suggest that it was precisely this factor—her family’s wealth—that opened up the possibility for their later impressive achievements. And there’s no reason to think that, in the present era of extreme wealth inequality, such contingent access to opportunity would be any different for other members within her community, the preponderance of whom are the products of discriminatory government policy that denied their ancestors wealth-building pathways.

And so what seems required, then—insofar as the institution that she now leads professes social equity to be one of its fundamental values—is a commitment on some level to a political agenda that aims to make that sort of access available to American descendants of slaves as a matter of justice. However, looking at Oberlin’s record on racial justice—particularly the former president’s refusal to even negotiate with a list of demands submitted by the college’s black student union in 2016—there’s certainly reason to be skeptical of the institution’s appetite for meaningful action backing any such pledge.3 Will Twillie Ambar be different? Her disinclination to provide a fuller picture of the ways in which she was the beneficiary of an extremely atypical set of circumstances—and the specific reasons behind why and how so many in her community as nowhere near as fortunate—should caution those who would rush to equate a black face in a position of power with a fidelity toward doing whatever they can in order to help lift up the rest of their group.4 

But perhaps in her capacity of president of a college that, in all likelihood, doesn’t necessarily assume their applicants are generally burdened by the inhibiting realities of the wealth-deficient, there is no real need for Twillie Ambar to imagine herself in relation to the rest of her specific group. In fact, that disassociation is probably incentivized by the various dicta of contemporary higher ed; namely, creating budget surpluses, increasing endowments, and operating revenues.5 And anyway, does she really even owe anyone a fuller account of her background? 

Arguably, yes. And the reason why is because it’s the very idea of that history that both the college and Mrs. Twillie Ambar leverage to underscore the significance of her appointment as president, to connote and legitimate the degree of import that her particular honorific as president represents. No one would doubt that the farm labor done by her ancestors was difficult, or that as black people living in Arkansas they were made to suffer that insolent pride of southern whites. But as immigrants and landowners, the Twillies were able to live above that most systemic and enduring and punishing legacy of slavery, the wholesale exclusion of wealth-building opportunity. And so to create the impression that she’d been able to overcome—by the sheer determination and the industrious pluck of her parents—the deep, structural adversity that hamstrings and enervates virtually the whole of the African-American community is to at the same time trivialize and exploit that adversity, a grave condition of victimhood, and one that stands in dramatic contrast alongside her family’s actual lived experience which—as even her own aunt concedes—is but a kind of partial likeness of that utter hemming in of opportunity, that carceral-like existential counterpoint to white life.

And so when Mrs. Twillie Ambar says, “Part of my job as president is to show our students that people from all backgrounds can be seen as leaders and can be successful,” there really ought to be some pushback on that very notion, one which relies entirely on a glossing of significant components of her own background. In fact, as the first African-American president of Oberlin, rather than simply stand as symbolic reassurance for the rest of America—where the impression is that we’ve completed the work of fixing the enormously disadvantaged background out of which the group she apparently represents comes—the more important part of her job should perhaps be to testify to the appreciable differences in access to opportunity that exist within the black community, and to show how those function to demarcate who among them gets to even be considered for those leadership positions in the first place.


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Ultimately, all of this may be perceived as simply trying to label Mrs. Twillie Ambar as some kind of imposter or fraud, or that there’s a suggestion that her authenticity as the college’s first African-American president is up for debate. In fact, no. Mrs. Twillie Ambar is obviously an African-American woman. And to the extent that she and the rest of society genuinely understand her family’s position and experiences as the fullest embodiment of what it means to be black in America, then she will continue to be thought of as exactly as authentic as the culture will allow. But this is precisely the point. If we are to ever really reckon with American history—with the lack of access to opportunity that actually pervades the lives of U.S. descendants of slaves, and meaningfully grapple with the reasons why—then there desperately needs to begin to be a space opened up in the intellect that can accommodate a more nuanced and thorough understanding of the specific ways in which Mrs. Twillie Ambar is very much an aberration from her group, and how there are seriously harmful implications for other members of the community (and for our collective sense of national progress, more generally) when any black person in a position of power misrepresents his or her history by identifying it with one that was in fact totally different both in its nature and consequence.

The concern for creating this consciousness is nowhere more apparent than in the projects of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, who for years now have been arguing that if our institutions are genuinely committed to achieving equality—to making the necessary structural adjustments that will produce equal if not advantageous outcomes for some members of the black community; where descendants of actual slaves can be elevated into these kinds of top leadership roles—then one prerequisite is that both black and white people alike be equipped with the full knowledge of how the caste-bound condition of American blacks hinges absolutely on a fractured and diffuse sense of their ancestry; rather, there must always be a recognition of the uniquely American centrality of wealth-scarcity to the group’s lived experience and the ongoing failure of government since Reconstruction to make them whole. 

In a certain sense—insofar as that period immediately following the Civil War contained in it the promise of laying the groundwork for promoting wealth creation in the black community via land redistribution—the Twillie Family (bracketing the issue of French immigrant ancestry), as black members of a propertied class, offers us a striking vision of what may have likely been a wider phenomenon of the possibility of upward mobility for black people in U.S. society. From the immediate family of Carmen Twillie Ambar—who are college presidents, high school principals and cosmopolitan artists—to her aunts and uncles and cousins—who are a collection of attorneys, teachers, real estate firm owners6, university department chairpersons, and management consultants—they are a solidly middle-upper class unit

And here then in the Twillies you can recognize in miniature what it seemed America feared—and maybe still does fear—above all. The reason why Forty Acres and a Mule had to be blackcoded out of possibility. Because you see a constellation of successful black individuals who, in the nature of family, are adjoined in yet a larger, evermore stable system. And then if other families like them are also prosperous, then that stability spreads outward into a whole robust community. A community whose members aren’t made to wait for opportunity to be contingently granted them inside that idle and tyrannical-like oppress of dependency, but rather is structured in a way where whomever in it can go forward and try to fashion that opportunity for themselves. A group who, in short, has meaningful access to the set of opportunities that white America has been allowed to hoard among itself from the beginning. And you see then how the absolute anxious, phobic dread of that possibility of economic displacement—maybe not even displacement but even simple correspondence—has impelled the country to go to such awful and heinous lengths to deny black America not just wealth but even just this basic familyship—sold them, lynched them, impoverished them and caged them to fragment that simple, foundational unit of innate empowerment. 


NOTES

1. At the risk of being too cynical, these terms—’Dark Corner’ and ‘cotton picker’—seem deliberately deployed without context in order to elicit a certain emotional response from people. The average U.S. reader or listener—especially at this remove from history— is likely going to auto-associate ‘cotton picker’ specifically with slavery and not as part of the production, processing and distributing of that crop as carried out by a class of black landowners. Similarly, without the right info, a town referred to as ‘Dark Corner’ resonates in the ear with certain negative connotations as well; namely, the sort of extremely poor, abject conditions that result from segregation and the absence of capital ownership in the community. That both of these terms refer to something fundamentally different in the actual Twillie family history does raise question of whether they are being used somewhat exploitatively in an effort to heighten the emotional appeal of the story.

2. According to public county data for St. Francis County, Arkansas, two parcels of land—each forty acres—are listed to Allen Twillie, Carmen’s grandfather. The parcels—all acreage of which was zoned crop production, save for two acres that are zoned for house lots—sit off to the side of a long stretch of roadway named after the family, ‘Twillie Heights Rd.’ The land on Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s great great grandmother’s side lays right alongside the road as well. And in looking at recent data on land valuation in St. Francis County, it would appear that all that Twillie-owned land may provide a useful advantage in helping to potentially capitalize further ventures: “The average price ($4.2 million) of land and rural property for sale in Saint Francis County,” according to Land and Farm, a top-tier rural property marketplace, “was higher than the Arkansas state average for all land and property listed for sale.”

3. And it shouldn’t be beyond the pale to suggest that this most recent installment of an African-American in the college’s top position might have been a decision that was, at least in part, motivated by the board of trustees’ PR concern with its image after the former president’s public misstep and somewhat out-of-touch response to those demands. This is not to cast aspersions on Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s actual qualifications for the job; it’s just a pretty basic observation . 

4. We need only look at what happened to black wealth in the U.S. during the first African-American president’s tenure to gain some better insight into the disconnect between minorities in power and the interests of the group that they really only seem to nominally represent.

5. All of which—as Mrs. Twillie Ambar’s record indicates—she is quite successful at. Cedar Crest College, the institution over which she last presided, saw its endowment rise 92 per cent during her tenure. The college also had three straight years of budget surpluses and net assets under Twillie Ambar grew by 35 per cent.

6. Twillie Realty is located in Little Rock, AR. Jacquelyn Twillie is the principal broker. The firm has been operating for 13 years and grosses 500k-1MM in revenue, annually. 

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The Night John Hope Bryant Came to Town: Chautauqua, Bed-Stuy, and the Empty Charlatanism of Preaching Hope to Black Poverty

A few months ago, John Hope Bryant—whose website describes him as a ‘thought-leader on economic empowerment and financial dignity’—stood onstage at an event in Memphis, Tennessee and told the audience that “there are more poor whites in America than anybody else, then and now, so this is not a minority issue, by the way.”

‘This’ is U.S. poverty. And the ‘then’ to which he refers—having cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign as an apparent precedent for his own project of economic liberation—is 1968. And while that campaign was in name and spirit an inclusive movement, its principal organizer was—even in that very same year—publicly making the point of how the country’s poor whites, unlike black people, had in fact been the beneficiaries of numerous government initiatives designed to help lift them out of poverty and promote prosperity: “But not only did they give the land [to whites],” Dr. King said, “they built Land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that; they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that; they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that; today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man he oughta lift himself by his own boot straps.”

In describing the American capitalist class’s evolution as one of peasants having become the owners of the means of production in the country’s premiere industry only with the critical assistance of government policy and expenditure, Dr. King was doing more than laying bare the pretensions of that group to vaunt themselves as ‘self-made’ individuals. By—in that same speech—noting how freed slaves, left destitute after having been made to spend centuries in a condition of human chattelhood, were explicitly refused any such policies of economic advantage during that time, Dr. King was pointing to the discriminatory underpinnings of the racial wealth gap; a phenomenon which, as he makes clear, was manufactured with the help of public policy at the federal level.

Since 1968, the disparity in wealth between that which is held in white America and that which is held in black America has only persisted and intensified, often abetted by the same kind of racially-biased policy to which Dr. King alluded as having first deprived the black community of wealth-creating opportunities following emancipation. In the relatively short period of time during which John Hope Bryant has been touring the country and promoting his strategies for economic uplift, the racial wealth divide has undergone an unprecedentedly sharp expansion. The median white family—which in 2010 was worth 16.5 times as much as the median black family—is now worth a staggering 68.5 times more. Nonetheless, when Mr. Bryant is out on the lecture circuit talking about the African-American experience in this country and the need for economic empowerment, he insists before his audiences that “pigmentation of skin has nothing to do with anything other than where the sun was thousands of years ago.”

And so as someone whose body of work betrays this kind of rigor and commitment to disentangling and oversimplifying race and poverty in America, John Hope Bryant would seem to be a curious choice to have been invited as a speaker at tonight’s event, “Bridging the Racial Wealth Gap,” one in a series of weekly colloquia held in Brooklyn entitled “Wealth Building Wednesdays.”

After all, given his own calculus—one in which whites are victimized by the economy in vastly greater proportion than any other group—it seems like it may actually come as something of a surprise for Mr. Bryant to have learned that the racial wealth gap even exists in the first place. Or that maybe he has the positions of the gap’s constituent groups backwards.

As an audience member, I’m admittedly anxious to see whether—insofar as he concedes to the empirical proof on the deep divide that exists economically between black and white America—he’ll nonetheless assert the importance of understanding that those skin colors have really only ever functioned purely as adaptive traits throughout the whole course of history. Or will tonight’s discussion necessitate slightly tighter parameters than geologic time? Will there be a more precise attempt to focus on the in fact extremely dynamic role of that accident of solar influence at certain latitudes; a more exacting look at the history of how it was used to justify and perpetuate all forms of brutality on a specific people—not least of all, economic.

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A spray-painted advertisement seen on Dekalb Avenue in Bed-Stuy. Many would correctly argue that the outcome of the scenario posited above has—from the beginning—only helped to further marginalize black people out of wealth-building opportunity. In this particular neighborhood’s context, it takes on a whole new valence, and you sort of can’t help but walk by it and wince.

Because it would, in a way, be truly obscene for our speaker to not recognize the totally context-altering location of tonight’s event—the historically-black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant—and shift the usual terms of his discussion on inequality accordingly. To fail to fully appreciate the neighborhood’s vivid legacy of racialized poverty; how its history epitomizes the post-emancipation imperative to, as much as possible, preserve the wealth-depriving aspect of institutionalized slavery, an aim realized most fully in the anti-black discriminatory residential zoning practices carried out in concert by governmental and real estate agencies who, together, literally grafted economic failure onto entire portions of the city, and who—in so doing—effectively quarantined whatever societal maladies would follow and ensured that they were given a black face.

Of course what has since followed has been the predictable—though no less atrocious—outcomes of the logic of exclusion and extraction, two processes which, for so long and to such a great degree have characterized not just Bedford-Stuyvesant but American black life in general, that it would seem almost impossible to attribute the racial wealth gap’s very essence to anything other than their crippling effects.

But you’d be surprised with what John Hope Bryant can come up with, especially when he is speaking to crowds in a setting wholly unlike tonight’s.

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Two young men in Bed-Stuy, photographed at the corner of Lexington and Marcus Garvey. When asked if they would mind their picture being taken, they generously obliged and then, throughout, playfully argued over who was more photogenic.

I first listened to John Hope Bryant speak three years ago on July 3rd at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York. His presentation was sandwiched between a culinary ambassador for the U.S. State Department—who was there to promote his book, For Cod and Country, which details the author’s approach to consuming marine life sustainably—and the Korean-American novelist, Chang-Rae Lee. The theme for all of the afternoon’s presentations was “With Economic Justice For All.”

Chautauqua is a small town in Southwestern New York state. It is, by car, about an eight-hour drive from Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Institution has been around since 1874, and—as a speaking venue—has a certain cachet when it comes to where one makes the rounds on the national lecture circuit. Four sitting U.S. presidents have visited the Institution and given speeches in its open-air amphitheater.1  It is situated just inland from Chautauqua Lake amid an almost comically-picturesque surrounding. Rows of sailboats docked thirty abreast, all nodding gently in the surf of the lake upon which, in the evening’s dying light, a lilac sky’s reflection lays still and continuous on its surface; a deep, serene blue, which further out bleeds to violet before inclining to a soft blush of pink at the horizon, fusing with the now gone sun’s last refulgent burst of vermilion.

I could probably squander the rest of this ink cartridge trying to describe Chautauqua’s natural beauty and I think still fail to sufficiently convey the sort of omnipastoral quality that envelops and obtains in just being there. The splendor—especially if one has been doing a good deal of living in the city—is so inescapable that it’s almost claustrophobic. So I won’t even bother going on. Plus, the Chautauqua video brochures that are available online do a much better job of imparting its resplendency and scenic glories, if so interested. Suffice it to say that Smithsonian Magazine, in its 2014 April issue—the year before John Hope Bryant went there to speak about economic justice—named Chautauqua the number one “Best Small Town to Visit.”

2014 was also the year in which Bedford-Stuyvesant was named by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as the number one neighborhood for new HIV diagnoses and highest recorded levels of lead in the tap water. Bedford-Stuyvesant also that same year ranked number one in the borough’s homeless student population and unemployment. Its poverty rate today is 33%, and it is one of the five neighborhoods in all of New York City that—together—supply one-third of the city’s total prison population.

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It is exactly the sort of low-wealth neighborhood that Mr. Bryant had asked the audience that day at the Chautauqua Institution—in a town where the poverty rate is 5%, and where the white population is 94.2%—to all close their eyes and envision along with him. “Here’s what you see,” he said, “A check cashing store, next to a pay day loan lender, next to a rent-to-own store…next to a liquor store.”

After setting the scene, he paused for a second and then told the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not racism. That’s not even discrimination. It’s target marketing. They’re literally targeting a 500 credit score.”

Needless to say the type of thinking it takes to keep those two things isolated—to insist on the mutual exclusivity between something like credit scores as a criterion for discrimination, and skin color, and that we wrongly ascribe the latter’s anti-blackness to the former’s essentially colorblind business model—is precisely the sort of mentality that has enabled the continuum of wealth lockout and exploitation of the black community to reach well into our present without much real interruption since slavery. Once descendants of slaves were accorded consumer status in the markets, anti-black discrimination had a whole new conceptual apparatus with which to play: new language, new categories, new ways of looking at the ancient hierarchy. And it was through this new paradigm which it gained ever-greater fitness for maneuvering to shore up the already deleterious economic condition of the community following slavery and Jim Crow and to cement the profound disadvantages of what may have been an emerging rival group within the free enterprise system.

So despite trying to frame the ubiquity of predatory businesses in a place like Bed-Stuy as being a landscape that is basically natural to areas of  poor credit and not race, the fact is that because of the history of complete economic subjugation of slaves—and how in the absence of some radical redistributive measures that privation is being allowed to fully bore its way down through the generations of its victims—whatever non-explicitly racist scheme of classification a person or business might use (low-income, bad credit, high crime) to establish and guide procedure (or, in the case of John Bryant, to frame a discussion about exploitation) that organization or person is simply doing polite racism and ensuring how totally naturalized and deep and basically in-built the racial inequality is and will continue to be in every aspect of U.S. national life.

Chief among these aspects of national life—and the one from which the stability and ability to participate meaningfully in all others traces back to—is wealth. And it’s presumably that relationship which we are all here tonight in Bed-Stuy to talk about. Afterall, as Yvette Carnell of Breaking Brown has said, “The tool to compete, in this era, is wealth,” before she asks rhetorically, “What do you do if you don’t have it?”

In skimming Mr. Bryant’s book, The Memo: Five Rules for Your Economic Liberation, which was available for purchase at the event’s sign-in table2, for an answer to Yvette Carnell’s question, it seems reasonable to assume that he would probably recommend that the wealth-deficient recite a litany of affirmations about their own self-worth. On page 30 of The Memo, there is a kind of graphic representation referred to as the HOPE doctrine. It contains all of the things supposedly needed to move one’s life a more wealth-positive direction, and “high self-esteem” and “high confidence” account for fully 50% of that transformation.3 The graph also includes “Aspiration,” “Role Models,” “Environment,” and “Opportunity” as the remaining ingredients a person needs to obtain greater wealth. Conspicuously absent from the graph is actual money. However, this may not come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has listened to John Bryant speak before, since he himself is on record as routinely saying, “Wealth has nothing to do with money.”4

Again, sitting here with this in mind while we wait for him to take the stage—his insistence that these things (skin color, wealth; these literally constitutive elements of the racial wealth gap) have “nothing to do” with anything concrete in their function—I have to wonder if we are going to leave here tonight all having been told that the racial wealth gap is essentially an inequality of attitude? That the racial wealth gap boils down to how white people just basically have ten times the amount of self-confidence than do black people. Or if maybe after this event we’ll read headlines like this one that appeared last year in The Guardian: “Median Wealth of Black Americans ‘will fall to zero by 2053,’ warns new report,” and understand it to mean that by 2053 black Americans will have no self-esteem.

More importantly, does anyone in the John Hope Bryant camp even think to do some basic investigating into the big, obvious claim that—in the context of something like ‘the racial wealth gap’—jumps out when you define wealth as positive self-perception? The big, obvious claim that jumps out any time he talks about poverty and says something like he had said back in Chautauqua: “That’s the African-American experience…because of slavery…we had our confidence literally beaten out of us,” or his claim that “The legacy [of] two-hundred and fifty years of slavery…and one-hundred years of Jim Crow…was that you, as an African-American, may have a suit and tie on, but you feel like crap.” Namely, is that even true? Are black people, as a group, empirically deficient in self-regard? Why would anyone accept that assertion uncritically? Afterall, insofar as John Hope Bryant has any credibility to speak to the racial wealth gap, one might reliably assume that his diagnosis of the problem could withstand a little scrutiny.

Alas, a quick search brings up three relevant studies which all directly contradict the proposition that the black community suffers from low self-estimation, one which—it bears repeating—Mr. Bryant needs to be true, lest his whole epistemic foundation and paradigm of poverty be undercut.

The first study was carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Their study, Self-Esteem Development from 14 to 30 years: A Longitudinal Study, examined self-esteem development in subjects from adolescence to young adulthood over the years 1994-2008 and found that “Blacks have higher self-esteem than Whites do during adolescence and young adulthood.” The second—a 2011 study published in The Journal of the International Society for Self and Identity—demonstrated how, among U.S. 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, “African-American students score highest” across all groups (Whites, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics) in the category of self-esteem. The study also notes that “the findings are highly consistent across 18 annual surveys from 1991 through 2008, and self-esteem scores show little overall change during that period.” Lastly, a 2002 paper published by the American Psychological Association showed “blacks scored higher than whites on self-esteem measures,” and “blacks’ self-esteem increased over time relative to whites.” Elsewhere, one of the study’s authors, Dr. Jean Twenge—a professor of psychology at San Diego State University—pointed out that “research shows black women score higher on self-esteem than women of other races and ethnicities, which may seem surprising,” she notes, “given the long history of prejudice and discrimination they have faced.”5

Certainly it may give Mr. Bryant pause, since it would seem to—at the absolute very least—complicate the basis of his argument he’d deployed onstage in Chautauqua to explain to that very wealthy community not only poverty in a general sense, but black poverty, specifically: “African-Americans are one of two groups in America who’ve had their self-esteem devastated, their confidence devastated.”

And so one has to naturally wonder why he might be so invested in this narrative of negative self-evaluation being endemic to the black community? There would seem to be an almost kind of contempt that you have to have for a group of people when—in the face of incontrovertible evidence of its not being at all the case—you would maintain positively that the problem is their mentality and attitude. The only types of people I know who contrive to convince a vulnerable person of their low self-worth are basically extremely insecure sociopaths who make sport out manipulating other people for some sort of personal gain.

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Margaret, a thirty-year Bed-Stuy resident with her dog.

This past April, a seminal report on the racial wealth gap, “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap,” was published out of Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Equality. With great vim and incisive analysis, the report goes through and methodically explodes the most common misconceptions surrounding our present discourse on what drives the divide, and thus serves to contribute to the adulteration of our conceptual approach(es) to substantively closing it.

Among the report’s authors are Dr. Sandy Darity—a Duke U. professor of public policy, African and African-American studies, Economics, and basically veritable giant in the field of generational wealth studies—Professor Darrick Hamilton—a man whose present academic appointments are honestly so impressive and numerous that he would seem to be able to be in multiple places at once—and Antonio Moore—someone who is so verse in the data on wealth disparities in the U.S. that it would seem to literally be the air he breathes.

In all of the report’s 67 pages, the words ‘confidence’ and ‘self-esteem’ appear exactly zero times. Wealth is discussed throughout the report not in the sort of vague and abstract language of attitude of mind found in the HOPE doctrine, but rather in concrete terms of how it actually functions: as a fundamentally generative asset which, depending on the initial endowment, determines by greater or lesser degrees a person’s ability to secure their next asset. The report puts it more concisely: “Literally,” the authors write, “it takes wealth to make wealth.” Furthermore, the authors are always forcing the reader to confront the historical reality of how “blacks largely have been excluded from intergenerational access to capital and finance.”

That intergenerational lack of access to capital and finance—and the resultant dependency on highly-exploitative financial services that tend to sabotage wealth-building efforts—loomed over (quite literally) a conversation that I had earlier this week with Margaret, a 70 year-old woman who has spent the past 30-plus years living right at the border of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill. She was out walking her dog when I approached her to talk about what it’s like living in the neighborhood.

“Everything in this neighborhood is new,” she told me. “But the liquor store’s always been on the corner. Everything else is new.” After she said this, Margaret turned around and looked up at the Apple Bank behind her. “That wasn’t Apple Bank back then,” she said. “It was something else. I can’t remember what it was…”

When I got home later that night, I went to my computer to look it up. It turned out that the building had been an Emigrant Savings Bank, a financial institution which—in 2016—was found by a federal jury in Brooklyn to have “aggressively market[ed] toxic mortgages” to black homeowners with poor credit between the years 1999-2008.

The next time I saw Margaret I told her about Emigrant Savings Bank and the verdict that I’d read about in the case involving their predatory loan practices. I also played for her the part of John Hope Bryant’s talk in Chautauqua where he tells the audience that these kinds of abusive, extractive practices don’t constitute racism; that they’re not even discrimination.

“Naw,” she said after listening to him. “Bull. Bull crap. Oh, please…”

Margaret’s sentiments pretty accurately reflect the data that was submitted in testimony given by the plaintiffs’ attorneys during the trial, wherein it was shown that even when applying variable controls for credit scores, income, and education levels, STAR NINA Loans (the type of predatory finance instruments offered by Emigrant that allowed prospective borrowers to apply for the loan with No proof of Income and No proof of Assets) were still 32% more likely to end up in majority African-American neighborhoods.

In walking around the neighborhood some more with Margaret and talking about the number of homes up for sale—and how a large portion of them are being converted for use as rental units—it was hard not to be reminded of Darity et al.’s assessment of the basic ontology of wealth; namely, that wealth begets wealth, a point that is driven home in about a hundred different ways throughout the report. As Darrick Hamilton observes, “It provides people with the necessary capital to secure finance and purchase an appreciating asset, which in turn will generate more and more wealth.” When Margaret and I were later saying goodbye, she mentioned a recent sale in the neighborhood that embodies Hamilton’s point exactly.

“I know the guy who owned Piro’s funeral home,” she told me, referring to Richard Costa—CEO of Clinton DeKalb Realty and two formerly active corporate entities specializing in funeral services—and a property which, according to an archived Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Map, is located in an area that was once marked ‘Definitely Declining.’ Margaret continued, shaking her head: “And he was bragging because he got that house…that whole funeral home and building for like sixty-thousand, but he made millions off of it.”

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Aaron, photographed in Bed-Stuy. “I think financial literacy is important, but like having money to be literate with is more important.”

Contrary to the words ‘confidence’ and ‘self-esteem’, the word ‘home’ appears in the racial wealth gap report a total of 70 times. The reason for its prominence, as the report notes, is obvious enough: “[T]he typical household, regardless of race, holds most of its wealth in home equity.”

The rate of homeownership in Chautauqua is an astronomical 91.2%. Bed-Stuy’s homeownership rate is 21.7. When the State Comptroller’s office went to write up a post-mortem on the housing crisis ten years ago, it was reported that as of 2008 there had been a total of 800 sub-prime mortgages issued in the entire Chautauqua County area.6 In the single year of 2006, there had been 1,517 sub-prime mortgages issued in Bed-Stuy alone. Two years later, it had the highest sub-prime foreclosure rate, statewide.

The point is not simply to compare the dramatic levels of wealth inequality between these two places. In America—if the demographics are right—you can pretty easily find any number of similar examples of cities where the history of unequal access to wealth-building opportunities gets expressed in homeownership rates. This is, however, a particularly glaring one. Rather, the point is how, in Chautauqua, there is a long tradition of supposedly intellectual figures—’leaders’ from the black community—who get up before the crowds there and encourage them to feel, to think, to know that a place like Chautauqua—which so obviously enjoys an unusually high level of wealth—has nothing to do with the failure to prosper having always been assured to occur elsewhere, in a place like Bed-Stuy.

In 1918, Robert Moton—Booker T. Washington’s successor at The Tuskegee Institute—told the audience at Chautauqua, “I am glad that my people were brought here as slaves, for we were placed beside the strongest race that the word has yet produced, the Anglo-Saxon race.” He continued: “The schools of the South have been solving the negro problem. Patience, Christianity and forbearance are enough to make it possible for the white race and the black race to live in peace and harmony…We are coming on. We are behind you, but we are catching up.” Fifty years later, while riots were erupting in urban centers across the country, then-Governor of Michigan George Romney was welcomed onstage at Chautauqua with the remark, “We welcome you to a riotless Chautauqua,” whereupon hearing this, the crowd reportedly broke into “thunderous applause.”

Nearly one-hundred years later, John Hope Bryant stood in that exact spot, his turn to carry the torch of white reassurance: “Black people are not dumb, and we are not stupid,” he said, urging a la Moton for a kind of recognition of black capability while gesturing at some obstacle or barrier which is inhibiting its full potential. He stopped, letting a pregnant pause fill the amphitheater before saying, “We never got the memo. There’s a memo about free enterprise and capitalism…there’s a language to money. Imagine one-hundred and fifty-years of not knowing.”

And so with the basically all-white audience unburdened of any inkling that all the refined comforts they enjoy there—all that beautiful surrounding architecture, taking in an evening performance of Tchaikovsky and wandering the Institution’s sprawling grounds with its churning watermills; spending an afternoon getting the Baroness Facial which (I shit you not) is advertised on the Spencer Spa in Chautauqua’s website as a ‘premium face treatment’ with ‘mineral-rich clay that’s “out of Africa”‘ and will ‘leave your skin glowing like dawn on the savannah’—that all of this is completely detached from the economic consequences of the history of chattel slavery and anti-black discrimination in this country. And then, with the amphitheater’s crowd’s sympathies fully excited, John Hope Bryant partook in the Institution’s tradition of celebrating the stability of a place like Chautauqua relative to the always-waiting-to-combust locales of black America.

“Middle-class neighborhoods don’t riot,” Mr. Bryant said. “Middle-class folks want to go shopping and spend time with their families. Only poor neighborhoods riot. Middle-class black, white, Latino, Asian neighborhoods don’t riot. Only poor neighborhoods riot.” And helping to interpret for the crowd at Chautauqua those occasional, distant, remote and isolated expressions of unrest, Mr. Bryant turned again to Dr. King, quoting from his “The Other America” speech and telling the audience that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

But of course what Dr. King was saying was that the conditions that brought black people out into the streets to riot were much graver than their not having gotten the ‘memo’ on free enterprise. It was not because they didn’t know the jargon of finance. As Aaron, another Bed-Stuy resident with whom I had spoken earlier in the week noted, then as now the conditions animating unrest in black America are “civil rights. Like it’s still civil rights. That project was never finished.”

I had mentioned to Aaron that John Hope Bryant was going to be coming to Bed-Stuy in a few days for a conversation about the racial wealth gap.

“I heard John Hope Bryant speak about like four years ago,” he told me, “and he was talking about the move from Civil Rights to ‘Silver Rights.’ And that doesn’t really play as well, you know? Especially in the like, post-Mike Brown and #BlackLivesMatter moment.” I then asked him if it was safe to assume that he didn’t think that financial literacy ought to be how the country approaches the conversation about what’s needed to meaningfully close the racial wealth gap. “Financial literacy is important,” he said, “But like, having money to be literate with is more important.” Aaron then thought for a second and shrugged. “John Hope Bryant is very palatable though.” I asked him to elaborate. He paused before saying, “Because to say that the way to close the racial wealth gap is through financial literacy, people love to hear that—white people love to hear that—because then the onus is on black people. But then to say that the racial wealth gap is because of racism and that it needs to be closed through some kind of transfer payment, that’s not as popular. So if he’s coming to talk about reparations in particular, I think that’d be good, and I think that’s where the conversation needs to start, not with how can low-income black people be better with their low income.”

Like Aaron, other residents of Bed-Stuy with whom I spoke throughout the week appeared similarly dubious about the gains to be had from framing the racial wealth gap exclusively as a problem of—or as a thing that might be solved by— financial literacy. A man named Isaiah, who I had met while he was walking home with his three daughters one afternoon, echoed Aaron’s misgivings on the idea that financial literacy can or should supersede the fundamental need for reparative justice.

“The work, and the demand for reparations—that’s critical,” he said. “Let’s just begin there. I think that’s critical and long-ignored and not embraced by the broader society. I think that’s—to me, anyway—that would be the principle way in terms of resetting, and how we begin to establish ourselves on a level playing field. And, I mean, education, of course, you know I’m not gonna argue about that. It’s key. But to teach you about managing your money…and you don’t have any money… What are you going to teach me about? Concepts of financial literacy? I don’t produce. I don’t own. I think it’s…some of the initiatives, even with the non-profit community, it’s like, you’re preaching to people about, ‘hey, you’re the problem; let me get you some education.’ But they’re not connecting the other dots…”

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Shemaia, a home health aid and lifelong Bed-Stuy native, walking her son home from school. “In this area, the rent is becoming too high, so I feel like that’s where mostly everybody’s money is going. And mostly everybody is making minimum wage, and that’s, you know, not enough. I’m working and living with my mom, paying rent, and also taking care of my son and that’s…I’m barely making it.”

It would be delightful to report that, in advance of tonight’s talk in Bed-Stuy, John Hope Bryant has evidently sat down and read the racial wealth gap study and now in light of the information and hard data therein stridently and without hesitation professes that what is patently and urgently required at this juncture is a commitment to a kind of politics that prioritizes securing targeted public policy to redress centuries of wealth-depriving discrimination of the community. To use the report’s own language on what this might look like in practice, “This could take the form of a direct race-specific initiative like a dramatic reparations program tied to compensation for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and/or an initiative that addresses the perniciousness of wealth inequality for the entire American population, which could disproportionately benefit black Americans due to their exceptionally low levels of wealth.”

Afterall, these legacies are presumably the exact ones referred to in the Restoration Corporation’s own manifesto, which is printed on the first page of a booklet entitled “Dream & Do: A Record of Your Journey to Economic Success,” which everyone here was given. It reads, in part, “We dream of opportunities for the people of Bed-Stuy, a community that has borne the weight of America’s history.”

But let me assure you that John Bryant did not come here tonight to talk about reparations.

To be honest, for all of The Memo’s ostensibly ‘deep’ contextualization in American history—the references to the establishment of The Freedman’s Bank, the Savannah Convention and the establishment of Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, Lincoln’s assassination and the failure of Reconstruction, all of which he mentions in the first few minutes of his presentation—Mr. Bryant doesn’t really even talk about history in any sort of meaningful way. There’s no ‘connecting the other dots,’ as Isaiah had said.

This much is apparent when, in one breathtakingly abridged description of post-emancipation life in the U.S. that occurs during the talk, Mr. Bryant tells us, “The [Freedman’s] Bank—poof!—just went away in 1874. You now fast forward from 1874, when they talked to us about money, to the next time anybody talked to us about money…a preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Poor People’s Campaign of April 1968.”7

In a way, it’s maybe almost a testament to John Hope Bryant’s gifts as an orator that the omission of 94 years is so subtle in his delivery as to not receive any on-the-spot objection, especially given how unsubtle the coordinated assault on black life was in those intervening years between 1874-1968: the mobs who massacred, the big business that depressed, and the policies that stymied exactly the sort of efforts at economic self-sufficiency undertaken time and time again by the black community over that century in the struggle for equality.

To his credit, the moderator for the evening, Colvin Grannum—president of the Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation8—tries to incorporate into the discussion an element of how systemic anti-black discrimination remains the primary and constant obstacle in black American life: “The other conversation that some of us have,” he tells Mr. Bryant, “is discrimination holds us back. That every time we try to do something, the man changes the rules, blah-di, blah-di, blah-di…Now I’m not saying that’s not valid, but how do you address that?”9

What follows is, I’d say, right up there with some of the most appalling, crass, and contemptuous responses to a question about the lived experience of racism that I’ve ever personally witnessed from any person, black or white.

Before Mr. Grannum even gets the question completely out of his mouth, Mr. Bryant has already hitched himself up in his seat, straightened one leg out and thrust his hand into his back pocket to bring out his wallet. Digging through its contents, he removes two American Express Centurion Cards—more commonly known as the ‘Black Card’—and hands them to the audience, telling them to pass them around.10

“That has no limit on it,” he smugly tells the people in the room. “I can go buy a Ferrari. I can go buy this building…It gets me whatever I want…None of this drama in life bothers me one little bit…I don’t feel any drama…I don’t feel discrimination, I don’t feel bias. People open doors for me…When you have wealth, when you own stuff, you’re in a completely different class. All I need for you is to own your home, and watch how your life changes…Just own your home.”

Just own your home. There’s an almost taunting quality to it. To tell a community of people—most of whose ancestors, when they arrived in Brooklyn, were already extremely wealth poor and who were then redlined out of opportunity to have access to owning a home—that the best defense against racism and discrimination is the very thing that racism and discrimination would not permit their participation in from the very beginning. And since wealth is always, at all times, living and growing with the world around it, that discrimination is always just remaking itself and the conditions of impermissibility, merely contemporizing them in ways that make polite the original shutting-out, recapitulating our economy’s founding dictum that there must exist prodigious failure somewhere in society; a precondition which was managed by creating a class of squalidness and degradation and failure that was coeval with the invention of American blackness itself.

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Reggie, photographed outside of the Lafayette Houses in Bed-Stuy.

Which is why when John Hope Bryant omits that history he is able only to preach in paradox. To instruct in what is intrinsically unreasonable. I guess the question is whether Mr. Bryant is unconscious of the many contradictions contained in his beliefs? Of the violence they do to the vulnerable? Does playing show-and-tell with a fancy credit card at an event where the people’s lives have been freighted with discriminatory intent strike anyone reading this as even remotely compassionate? Saying that is the panacea to the community’s legitimate cries of frustration and injustice? How does our moderator—a man who supposedly stands on behalf of that community—witness such a response, with all of its lofty insolence—its outright rejection of history—and then possibly ask the audience to give Mr. Bryant “a round of applause”? How the actual hell is a round of applause being requested of the community center, by a community leader, for the man who—just a few minutes after this wildly arrogant response—is literally instructing the people in the community to leave it and invest their money elsewhere?

“And by the way,” John Bryant says, “you say, ‘Well I can’t afford [to buy a home] in New York.’ Fine. Take your money, find yo’ broke cousin in, uh, in Detroit where they giving away property, Baltimore where they giving away property, go to the South! By the way, the South is on fire. Go there and buy a piece of crap property, ten minutes from downtown, any place, for $30,000, or $10,000 with a tree in the roof, get a rehab loan from Rich Dude here [points to Mr. Grannum] for thirty grand, now you got fifty-grand into it, max. It’s worth, at that point, 75 grand, lease it out, rent it out for the cost of the mortgage payment plus property taxes, so now they paying you $500 a month, do that three times, and you can retire.”11

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Historic Siloam Presbyterian Church, pastored in the 1960s by Rev. Milton Galamison, a major civil rights figure in New York and leader of the Schools Workshop, a group that worked through existing parent and teacher groups to educate parents about issues concerning Brooklyn’s public schools, in particular the city’s rampant segregation. Rev. Galamison led a one day boycott that kept nearly 500,00 children out of public schools to force NYC’s Board of Education to come up with a plan and timetable to integrate.

Near the evening’s end, during the audience Q&A, a man who looks like he’s maybe just shy of 60 approaches the microphone and removes his hat.

“I’m really so happy to be here,” he tells Mr. Bryant, and there really is a detectable excitement in his voice. “The concept of the wealth gap is, uh, it’s just something I’m obsessed with…that gap, I refer to it as being genocidal. We just have to be real about it. They’re trying to wipe us off the map.”12

“They don’t have to try very hard,” Mr. Bryant interjects, before adding, “We did a good job all by ourselves.” Evidently becoming impatient, he says curtly, “Your question?”

“Well,” the man says, “I’d like for you to evaluate a concept I have—”

“Yep,” Mr. Bryant responds, again interrupting the man, obviously eager to be rid of him. “That’s my New York leader,” he says, pointing to woman in a section of the audience behind the man. “She’ll get your data, we’ll evaluate it and get back to you within thirty days.”

There’s a brief pause.

“Well…can I tell you what it is?” the man asks, clearly taken aback and confused by the dismissive response.

“Uhh…you’re taking up a lot of time with questions,” Mr. Bryant says, “But yeah. Sure. Go ahead.”

“Well, I’m in the insurance business. And about a year ago, I jury-rigged a proposal and put it to the MacArthur Foundation. They had this program called 100&Change. So, you know, they were gonna give one-hundred million dollars if you had an idea to change the world. And I did. I do. I still have it. But one part of that was my insurance concept to encourage people to use life insurance as a way to build wealth—”

“The answer’s yes. Next question,” Mr. Bryant says, interrupting the man for the third time before digressing into an aside about how, in South Africa (where—he informs us—”I have offices there”), AIDS is “so bad and so prevalent that the family members take life insurance out on each other because they pretty much know that two or three members of their family are gonna die, and they take the…and they just…I mean…they…they just cash about because they know that their…somebody in their family’s gonna die, uh, it’s really sad, but it’s the way of life in South Africa. My point is that life insurance is a…is an absolutely bulletproof way.”13

“Well the way you could do it here in America,” the audience member says, clearly wishing to at least be afforded the courtesy of being heard out, “is if 600,00 African-American babies are born each year—and if you put 500,000 in a fifty-thousand dollar whole life policy—that generates 2.5 billion per year. And if you know how life insurance works, that number grows every year. So if a baby, you know, at zero months, and they live ’til eighty, you’d be able to generate—”

“Yeah, no. It won’t work,” Mr. Bryant says, interrupting the audience member for the fourth time in less than three minutes. “It won’t work because of what I told you about the psychology of our people. We don’t trust each other14…it all goes back to that slave mentality, the low self-esteem, all that stuff. Until we fix the psychosis…until we deal with the fact that we were messed up, and we address it back to we don’t feel good about ourselves, we can’t do rational things.” Mr. Bryant continues, “Your plan will work in the Korean community, it’ll work in the Spanish community, it’ll work in almost any community, and it’ll work in our community once we get some mental health.”

Actually witnessing this exchange is brutal and sad and enraging. And it warrants chronicling in full not only because it reveals John Bryant at what I feel to be his most authentic: completely unsympathetic toward the black community and full of basic disdain and resentment for them who have been so obviously and profoundly victimized (the execrable remark: “We did a really good job all by ourselves”). Not only because it reveals him—a supposed ‘leader’—who, within literal seconds, will reverse-thrust on a position and contradict himself on ‘solutions’ that he espouses one second and then suddenly denounces the next (“You’re absolutely right, life insurance is a brilliant way to build wealth”/”Yeah, no, it won’t work, it won’t work.”) And not only because for all of his putative concern about the “psychosis” and “messed up” psychology that he feels is at the very root of why the black community “can’t do rational things”—and his belief in the apparently fundamental need of “get[ting] some mental health” as recourse—the actual words “mental health” or “mental counseling” or even “psychosis” for that matter appear zero times in all three of the books Mr. Bryant has authored.15

The exchange is worth chronicling because it transparently demonstrates how John Hope Bryant is essentially a malignancy himself. His project is an unsettling and weird exercise in a kind of Munchausen’s by proxy, wherein he attempts to convince a whole community of people that they are suffering from disorders of low self-esteem and intra-group mistrust, all while distorting their history in a way that seems intended to depoliticize them and lure them into reckless financial behavior that ultimately baits them for someone else’s easy profit, thus recapitulating once again the process of exclusion (though this time from the community itself) and extraction.

Is it for his own financial gain? Is he motivated by some weird, purely psychological endpoint? Obviously no one can say for sure why John Bryant seems to want to manipulate people into thinking that, with respect to black people’s actual positive attitudes of self and trustworthiness among and toward other black people, the opposite is true. Why he seems to want so desperately the external world to conform to his vision of black America as existing in this almost Hobbesian state of nature, with the community crippled not by their history of economic exclusion but by internecine mistrust and enmity. But what is certain is that John Bryant has literally no authority to speak to the psychological condition of anyone, let alone an entire group of people. There is no PhD after his name. His clumsy guesswork is easily refutable by consulting actual credentialed professionals who are doing research in the relevant field(s) of study. And the fact is that all he can do is try to actively produce the presence of the thing he describes, thus his insistence to a room full of black people on the impossibility of doing ‘rational things;’ that rational acts are the domain of every community other than theirs.16

After taking another question from the audience, Mr. Bryant seeks out the attention of the insurance man.

“By the way,” he says, “I wasn’t trying to discourage you.”

This would be laughable were it not for the massive amount of effrontery that is required for Mr. Bryant to actually say this to the man being so totally detestable, especially after having eviscerated his concept not on its own terms but at the expense of the black community being depicted as basically deficient in self-worth and completely leery of one another’s sinister personal agendas.

“I don’t get discouraged,” the insurance man responds, defiantly and poised.

And I think that’s true of the whole community here. I really do. I don’t know if many people really even need a study in order to give credence to the idea that American descendants of slaves possess a prodigious amount of conviction in their ability to do because of what they’ve always been able to do with so relatively little. Though I do wonder about one aspect of another self-esteem study that I came across where researchers observed that self-esteem of black people—while remaining higher than other groups’ throughout most of their lives—”decline[s] much more sharply in old age than [does] the self-esteem of whites.” According to the study, this begins to happen at age 60, just around the age of the insurance man in the audience.

Why then does positive self-perception begin to falter rapidly in African-Americans?

Perhaps then because after having lived fully two-thirds of their lives demonstrating as a people a resolve and implacability of will and determination and firmness of purpose that, given the conditions of injustice and violence that have defined their existence in this country, defies all basic reasoning and expectation; a persistence and optimism that endures despite those horrors and which serves as a pure rebuke and outrageous affront to those very people who with absolute glee would see her or him wallow always in the depths of low self-opinion and feelings of inferiority; the simple irrefutable fact of their resiliency a maddening reproach, like that of the crow that a farmer has tried in what feels like endless futility to expel from a crop field and which he thought he’d finally succeeded at until from an iron sky it suddenly alights on the straw man’s shoulder that he’d erected in a corn patch, and whereupon the crow turns its head and blinks and calmly regards the now irate and berserk and red-faced overalled rustic who turns on his heels to go inside his house and load his shotgun which he doesn’t know and will with rue discover still won’t effect his intent.

Perhaps it’s after that because having spent those first two-thirds recurrently coming up against the systemic barriers of injustice and the reach of their group’s history into the present, they’d been told each time by people exactly like John Hope Bryant that it was by their own doing, that it was their slave mentality, that it was purely a matter of their own deficiencies and attitudes that had contributed to and forestalled the success which they sought. But still and only because of that innate remarkable courage and obdurate will they said, ‘I will try again. I don’t get discouraged,’ and so they continued firmly, obstinately in their course of action until they reached that next barrier, that next imposed limit on what their lineage can ever achieve in America, that next one and that next one, until finally after the long series of frustrations they maybe stood in grim stalemate with their idea of what they had expected for themselves, one which they’d carried with them faithfully, conscientiously, and with solemn assurances had told themselves was right and attainable; they came then toe to toe with the miserable fact of U.S. society’s being structured to resist that expectation absolutely. Perhaps it is then because all the while they’d been told—not even told; chided, scolded, deceived and hoodwinked—by self-anointed leaders in their community that there was no such baked-in failure, that there was only bootstraps, and that they must pull themselves up by them, that glib empty simplistic regurgitation of complete untruth, urging them each time back onto a dangerous path, one on which their undoing has been historically conditioned, so that when they do finally meet with that one eventual disappointment, the one that finally penetrates the heretofore impregnable spirit and throws all confidence into a tumult of grief and indignation because there was never another dominant referent proffered for their difficulties than their own inability to transcend a slave mentality; perhaps then—then—they think, at last, ‘Well perhaps I really am no good. Perhaps I cannot after all, and never could.’

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Ethan, Bed-Stuy. “There’re a lotta white and black people getting along right now, doin’ the right thing, but there’s no businesses together. It’s just like you go for yours, I go for mines…”

The last thing that the insurance man says after John Hope Bryant’s declamation of the black community—and I should emphasize that it is with a hopeful note of open resistance aimed at our speaker that he says this—is, “My response to that, Sir, is that you need to understand your history. You need to have African-American history in the curriculum. Because if you know where you came from, you know where you’re going.”

In a way, what the man says here recalls something that John Hope Bryant himself said three years ago in Chautauqua. “You can’t fix it,” he told the audience, meaning poverty, “if you’re pointing at the wrong thing.”

It was said right after he’d quoted Martin Luther King Jr., which is sort of a touchstone of his presentations. Yet, despite seeking to connect his efforts to the more politicized approach of King, the two’s interpretations of the historical nature of black poverty, and what they’re pointing at for how to meaningfully address it, couldn’t be more dissimilar. For Mr. Bryant, freed slaves and their descendants simply “didn’t get the memo on money,” and are thus woefully ill-versed in the language and the know-how of free enterprise. For Dr. King, black poverty is a product with the imprimatur of the federal government all over it. Which is why—at the end of that speech in 1968—he resolutely concludes on the proper course of action to be taken by saying, “Now when we come to Washington, in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check,” and not something to the effect of, ‘We will overcome as long we have the appropriate financial literacy skills.’ Dr. King wasn’t demanding that black people be given a ‘memo’ on money, because what good is a ‘how-to’ when the ‘with what’ is still unresolved? No, he was demanding the funds because he knew that the actual history of why and because of whom there was no what to how to with in the black community constituted a particular justice claim whose fulfillment was only ever a matter of when.

And so today there is a movement underway that is fully anchored in this specific sense of history and of the righteousness of that demand. Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore are taking the ‘slave mentality’ that Mr. Bryant has used tonight so pejoratively and refurbishing it; turning it into a particular political consciousness, one that does not denote its holding a group back, but rather—because everything in that group’s life, as they argue, must be filtered through a mentality of how they have been economically victimized by slavery and its derivative configurations, and how that has and continues to wholly determine their lived experience—impels them forward with a politically actionable identity and a coherent way of understanding their position in American society.

The racial wealth gap study is every bit a result of this shared fidelity to seeing American black life through the historical conditions that created the yawning divide in economic security compared to white America. The question is why is Colvin Grannum inviting John Hope Bryant—a man who traffics in calumny and deception toward the black community—to speak to those most in need of meaningful help, and not people like Drs. Sandy Darity, Darrick Hamilton, Tom Shapiro and Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, people who can speak so much more cogently to the factors undergirding the racial wealth gap and who—most critically—do so with not a trace of ridicule but a deep and great sense of empathy for the community. These are people who have committed their life’s work to actually helping fulfill the words again found in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s manifesto: “We remove the barriers to opportunity,” it reads, “expel the darkness that eclipses hope, and dispel the shame that stifles our power to dream. We enable the people of Bed-Stuy and beyond to dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?'”


1. Speaking of former U.S. presidents, now might be a good time to mention that John Hope Bryant had served as vice-chairman of President Bush’s (W.’s) Council on Financial Literacy, and later, on Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability (PACFC). He then went on to be appointed chairman of the PACFC’s Subcommittee on the Underserved and Community Empowerment. Which is to say that, whatever you or I might think of Mr. Bryant’s approach to economic uplift—and, full disclosure, I do not think much of it at all—the guy is not exactly a slouch.

2. A copy of which I am unexpectedly handed gratis by the woman doing sign-in after I present her my ticket for the event. The complementary copy of the book comes as a doubly pleasant surprise since, last week at a bookstore in the La Guardia Airport, on my way to Ohio for a friend’s wedding, I had been very, very close to buying one in order to keep myself occupied during the two-hour flight.

3. Here is an extremely slick little marketing video on it.

4. This is something of a big, apparently revelatory utterance during the lectures, and is one of many in the John Bryant stock lecture soundbites. Others sure to be featured during a John Bryant talk are: “We are sitting in a moment in history;” or, if you wake up in the morning and don’t know who you are, then “by dinner time somebody will tell you;” and a Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quote that he consistently misattributes to Deepak Chopra that goes “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Then there are the little aphorisms oft-deployed interchangeably to whomever he is addressing at the moment. For example, the departmental director, or whomever the chairman of the host institute is “doesn’t walk on water, but he/she knows where the stones are;” or describing a person (either in the audience, or someone instrumental in coordinating the event) by likening them to eagles which, we are told, “don’t fly in packs;” and there’s usually pretty much always an announcement to the audience that he’s “from the black church,” which is meant to signal something to the usually all-white crowd but I’m not really sure what, though it usually gets a reliable laugh. I realize that it’s in the nature of motivational speaking to like really lean on these pithy phrases or whatever, but these span four years of John Bryant’s lecturing, and when you’ve heard them uttered over and over again in so unoriginal a fashion they tend to just leave someone like me feeling cold and numb on the inside rather than inspired. We will hear literally every single one of these during tonight’s talk; I would bet any amount of money on it. 

5. For an extended discussion on how, in fact, we might come to view the levels of self-esteem of black males as being even more remarkable than their female counterparts, given the manner in which their (black males’) ‘non-being’ completely upends traditional intersectional categories of oppression analysis, please see the mind-bendingly brilliant work of Dr. Tommy J. Curry, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University.

6. The county of Chautauqua encompasses two cities, twenty-seven towns, and fifteen villages. It spans over one-thousand square miles.

7. It’s at this point in the talk where we are reminded by JHB that there are more poor white people than any other group in the U.S. And I’ll admit that I’m genuinely kind of shocked he said it here at this event. I guess I figured if there was ever a time to bracket the extremely indecorous suggestion that—not only is all poverty essentially the same—but that black people don’t really have a legitimate grievance when they contend that the poverty they experience is discriminatory in nature, because, well, look at all the poor white people. In fact one of the most salient and eye-opening aspects of the racial wealth gap study is how it demonstrates the qualitative difference between black and white poverty; how even the poorest of whites in the U.S. are still appreciably more secure, economically, relative to poor blacks. We need only look at how much more is required of black households to even approximate the levels of wealth that poor white households have, and observe how — routinely — those white counterparts are positionally inferior and much less favorably equipped to be in possession of more wealth. To very quickly run down some of the examples of this phenomenon that gets catalogued throughout the study: a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth than a white family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma; white households with an unemployed head have more than ten times higher wealth than similar black households; white households with an unemployed head have a higher net worth than black households with a head who is working full-time; black households in the lowest 20% of the income distribution have essentially zero net worth, while the poorest white families have on average 15-18k net worth; black non-homeowner head of house have a mere $120 in net worth, while white non-homeowner head of house have hold 31 times more wealth; and white households with a single-parent have more than 2 times the net worth of two-parent black households.

8. And tonight’s recipient of the “doesn’t walk on water but knows where the stones are” description.

9. Except that “blah-di, blah-di, blah-di” is a phrase deployed specifically to invalidate whatever comes before it as being essentially superfluous or basically trivial. So I’m not really sure why Colvin Grannum even tries to qualify his statement here when it’s pretty apparent that, at least in this moment, he seems to have a palpable air of insouciance when discussing the extremely legitimate grievance of systemic racism and the extent to which it obstructs the progress—economic or otherwise—of the community. 

10. I’m here tonight at the event with a very good friend who works at the Lower East Side’s extremely ritzy and chic and celebrity-frequented Bowery Hotel. Which is to say that my friend has handled a good many ‘black cards’ in his years there. When he feels Mr. Bryant’s card, he leans over and tells me that he’s fairly confident that it’s a fake, given the lack of actual heft to the card and the absence of some other design insignia/characteristic which my friend says is meant to separate the real card from a replica, which are, in fact, available online for $30. There’s also the very big question of why anyone in their right mind would pass around their personal credit card at an event full of strangers where basically everyone in the audience has a camera and can very easily and quickly steal all of the necessary information to go out and do some serious damage.

11. In JHB’s world, there seems to exist literally no sense of community apart from the community of plundering, opportunistic, racist capitalists. The community of Bed-Stuy is not worth investing in. The poor community somewhere else where your family lives—and that is victim to the same processes as Bed-Stuy—is desirable only insofar as it is pre-speculatively ripe for extractive practices. I’m sure that, in JHB’s mind, he very much imagines himself as what he often refers to audience members as being: an eagle. Soaring packless in the sky. In fact, in this response, it becomes so totally obvious how very much a pack bird he actually is; nothing so much as a vulture circling with other vultures above a carcass, and feeding with them when the times comes. 

12. Just prior to this, the man from the audience correctly, and very politely, pointed out that, earlier in the night, Mr. Bryant had misspoken about a particular data point regarding the racial wealth gap. Mr. Bryant had quoted an article in the Boston Globe that, he said, noted the average black individual in Boston as being worth $7. When the man attempted to clarify the information, saying “That example that you gave in Boston, I think it’s eight dollars as opposed to seven.” Mr. Bryant became visibly angry and petulant, interrupting the man and saying, “No, it’s 7. I got the [unintelligible], anyway…” Well, here’s the article. 8 bucks indeed. Furthermore, imagine being so on-edge and full of conceit and ultra-sensitive to any kind of pushback that a simple, courteous clarification from a person who commuted after work to listen to you talk lights you up. 

13. John Hope Bryant is obviously correct in that AIDS is an incredibly serious problem in South Africa. And I’ll go on record as saying I know next to nothing about what might be going on there in terms of the instances of insurance fraud. However, a report done in 2013 entitled “Paying the Piper: The High Cost of Funerals in South Africa,” casts serious doubt upon his claim that the “way of life” in South Africa is for family members to enroll their relatives in life insurance policies so that they can “cash out,” by which he presumably means the family members are using the money as capital to fund subsequent economic ventures. South African funerals are, it turns out, extremely elaborate and costly affairs. Analyzing funeral arrangements after the deaths of nearly 4,000 people who died during 2003-2005, the researchers of the study found that “[South African] households spend the equivalent of a year’s income for an adult’s funeral, measured at median per capita African (black) income.” In the region studied, when an adult male dies, it is general custom to kill a cow so as to be able to feed the mourners at the funeral. The researchers note that a typical cow represents “more than a third of year’s income for half the African population.” And while the South African Council of Churches has repeatedly enjoined the population to begin practicing more “appropriate and affordable funerals,” the price tags have way more to do with long-standing cultural norms and the service’s overall significance with regard to family and community life, than they do — say — just pure conspicuous consumption. So to the extent that there is an inordinate amount of insurance policies being taken out on relatives, far from converting the money obtained from those policies into another investment, the report—with strong evidence to back it up —argues that households are in fact “taking what, in other circumstances, could be productive capital and using it on coffins, meat, and groceries to bury their dead.” Add to this the fact that AIDS in South Africa is so bad that it has altered the population’s mortality profile — with more adults dying in middle-age — and you have a maybe more slightly reliable explanation for why there is a large volume of life insurance policies being taken out, rather than imputing a motive of profit onto people who are insuring a loved one.  Just a thought anyway. Or but I don’t know, maybe Mr. Bryant was talking about funeral insurance, which is not life insurance, per se, but is tremendously popular in South Africa. Still, Dr. Erlend Berg, a professor of economics at the University of Bristol also had this to say about funeral insurance in South Africa: “In fact, at least in South Africa, funeral policy holders as a group seem to be dominated by pensioners. These are in their sixties or older, and given the life expectancy of black South Africans it is unlikely that many of them still have parents who are alive. This is a strong indication that those who take out funeral insurance do so first and foremost to cover their own funeral.” Lastly, there’s also this article in The Guardian which pretty clearly demonstrates how insofar as there is an attempt to profit off of someone’s suffering and loss of life with these policies, it is the insurers and not the consumers themselves.

14. So here’s yet another big generalizing claim that probably warrants some scrutiny. In a 2007 study published by Oxford University Press, “Are Blacks Really Less Trusting Than Whites? Revisiting the Race and Trust Question,” the authors had this to say concerning the paucity of extant literature that actually addresses the issue of whether black people do or don’t trust each other: “While there has been much research on trust and race,” they write, “no work (to our knowledge) has addressed whether and how race category affects trustworthiness…the absence of previous work offers little guidance for predicting how trustworthiness may vary within vs. between race categories.” Moreover, they note that previous studies employed a standard metric when looking into differences in trust; one which they say — while it sufficiently measured whites’ trust of blacks — “did not predict trusting behavior for any other combination of own and other’s race category.” Discussing the findings of the trust data collected in their experiments, the authors write, “[T]he results of the analysis show blacks engage in more trustworthy behavior than whites…regardless of the race category of the truster, black participants returned an average of 23 per cent more than whites.” They also found that “white participants…trusted other white participants more than they trusted black participants. Yet blacks were more trustworthy than whites toward white trusters.” The question is, then, why is John Hope Bryant so deeply invested in the idea of doubt and suspicion and distrust within the black community? Why does he speak to the issue of race and trust with an air of legitimacy when there is in fact a gaping hole in the actual scientific literature on the subject, and the literature that does exist runs contra to his thesis?  What’s the motive for essentially inventing this stuff? Does John Hope Bryant benefit somehow from sowing seeds of doubt as to the degree of affinity and fellowship between black people? And why, again, is someone who is either very uninformed or very dishonest behind invited to speak on one of the most pressing issues in modern America? 

15. Nor is it really even to defend the man’s idea, despite its being probably the closest that we come all night to discussing an actual approach to tackling the racial wealth gap (…sort of). That said, I think anyone hearing this idea described—and who also has an ear to the present discussion on reparative justice—would recognize in it a version of the baby bond program proposed by Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton, which the former outlines here, and which he aptly notes is very reparations-lite. One of the big differences—I think— between what the man is proposing and Darity’s & Hamilton’s program, being the nature of the program’s funding, which, in the private insurance realm, seems very fraught with danger.

16. It’s honestly difficult to overstate the sneering contempt that John Hope Bryant seems to possess toward the black community and the lack of sympathy for the actual historic nature of its plight. “We have institutions for civil rights, social justice, police brutality,” he says, “whatever’s against us, we can tell you in a second what it looks like. But don’t talk about owning a home, or a business, sending our kids to college, becoming an engineer. Anything that’s tied to aspiration [we say], ‘Oh, naw, naw, we not like them rich people…'”

 

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

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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