Leaving Louisville. Believing justice, too, is closer than it appears.
Leaving Louisville. Believing justice, too, is closer than it appears.
I would be sorely remiss in not first and foremost saying what a tremendous sense of gratitude I feel in being here with all of you today. It is a rare gift for a writer to be working at a time of what feels like transformative possibility within the nation. Perhaps rarer still is when that possibility belongs to the group to whom that writer, as a white American, has come to recognize he owes the sum of his experience as a citizen. And while part of what I intend to talk about today is how I gained a sense of that indebtedness to ADOS, I’ve also been asked to weigh in on the prevalence of its inverse; that is, why aren’t more white people—who profess a commitment to economic justice—standing with ADOS in their bid for recognition as a uniquely disadvantaged group, and its attendant justice claim for reparations.
The answer to the first question is simple. I merely had to listen. To listen with what Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby often refers to as ‘courageous ears.’ When William Faulkner was once asked to describe his writing process, he responded, “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” From the very beginning I have gone off in similar pursuit of the #ADOS movement, convinced that it has just as much (if not arguably more) to tell white America about itself than it does actual ADOS. As for why more white people have yet to heed that message, I am decidedly less sure. As literally no one seated in this sanctuary today needs reminding, the white American psyche is a puzzling thing. And I’m really not so sure that my lifelong membership to the group puts me at any kind of advantage in probing it for certain truths on why it bends in the especially mystifying way it does when the question becomes how we substantively address the group-specific damages stemming from—and very much subsequent to—chattel slavery.
Indeed, if anything, insofar as my writing about ADOS over the past few years has afforded me a little distance from the white psyche, I have come to appreciate just how limited it is in its ability to think about whiteness in a way that can begin radically undoing all of the inequalities it has been made to contain. And what I wish to suggest today is that the only way of overcoming that dilemma is for a white person to bracket whatever skepticism he or she might have about being told something truly and profoundly unsettling about themselves, about all that their experience as a white person in America entails. And to understand that the only way to really see whiteness for what it actually is is to sincerely listen to the one group who has only ever existed outside of it. The group who, precisely because they’ve been shut out so completely, because they’ve been made to be set apart and to observe whiteness from a vantage point well beyond it, thus knows it in its brutal and ill-gotten totality.
That vantage belongs to ADOS and only them. And it reveals a view of all that access to whiteness makes possible in the United States. Of all that’s derived from their group’s deprivation and ruin. The chief proceed of which has always been wealth; that cornerstone of stability, that basic building block of mobility that we continue to go to flagrant lengths in order to ensure they, as a group, never realize.
And I invite you, white people, to imagine your own capacity for restraint in such a scenario where this fullness of possibility has always rested on your being denied it, and to then measure that against what ADOS has been made to endure for centuries. I invite you to consider life from this place of thoroughgoing exclusion, and from there speculate honestly on your ability to be patient for progress. To tolerate over and over again the tiring rehearsal of your liberation. Of entering into coalitions only to find that, in the end, while your efforts have helped other marginalized groups secure a foothold in whiteness, your group itself remains conspicuously unmoved from the wretched terrain of its exclusion. Your group alone remains bound to that bottomland where all the failure and disadvantage goes that America has always needed to be diverted somewhere away from whiteness in order to make and preserve its meaning, its advantage, its normalcy.
Imagine for a moment that your group abides where all that failure and disadvantage pools and collects. And then imagine also having to live with the knowledge of this awful truth: that while your ancestors gave their lives in defiance of being consigned to occupy that place—in defense of the belief that their exclusion would not be your inheritance—their martyrdom seems nonetheless to have amounted to an implausible and tragically outrageous thing: merely the moral capital for everyone else’s campaigns of inclusion, ones in which your own persisting and obvious lack of incorporation into U.S. society seems to register, at most, an incidental concern. And while this cause or that cause might pay lip service to the severity of your group’s plight, they in practice empty it of its core, essential component: the imperative of advocating for targeted economic repair. As such, they proceed without ever really challenging what it’s starting to seem to you (and it seems maybe only you) inclusion in America is actually based on: complicity in maintaining the state of your group’s disrepair; a history of accumulated disadvantages that other groups can leverage to merge into American normalcy ahead of you, to then begin further contesting their place in the supremacy over you.
I invite you, white people, to envision yourself natural objecting to the ongoingness of this arrangement, only to then be given a stern lecture about how it’s all the same struggle. A sharp talking-to filled with that palpable disdain that your desire to put forward an agenda of self-interest always elicits in your apparent allies—allies whose quote unquote solidarity is so conditional and subject to such rigid terms that deny your individuality and your experience, that it less resembles cooperative movement politics than it does an abusive relationship.
At what point do you not really start to wonder about that? And how do you not begin hearing in it every confirmation that nothing will change? That the arrangement is the arrangement, and it will be made to continue.
I ask only that you seriously contemplate how long you feel you could possibly stomach this. How long do you personally feel you could subdue what would be your absolute burning awareness of those injustices? Of everything that’s been stolen from you, and then openly displayed elsewhere—to be at everyone else’s disposal, but never your own.
Of course, you can’t ever really do this. I can’t, anyway. And it’s not that I haven’t spent a great deal of time trying to be extremely conscious of the terrible realities of ADOS life. Or that I’ve not tried to be very, very disciplined in understanding my life in relation to theirs. But I would submit that it is truly impossible for you or I as non-ADOS to ever really even come close to appreciating what the oppressiveness of that existence actually feels like. Of belonging to a group who day after week after month after year must navigate a constant series of barriers meant to affirm their membership in a caste. For all practical purposes, you and I—as non-ADOS—exist in an entirely alternate dimension of American life than the one they inhabit.
Which is not to say that we shouldn’t persist in trying. Or that one will find little utility, or occasion for personal betterment, in the exercise of trying to imaginatively identify. The point is that such flings at empathy—however noble—are ultimately immaterial to the discussion of ADOS. Because it seems to me that it’s much less about understanding our life in relation to theirs, and more about understanding our life as entirely shaped by theirs. It’s about understanding the group to which we belong—with all its social, economic and political cachet—as being an end-product on the assembly line of ADOS disadvantage and their deliberate underdevelopment. And insofar as we profess to prize fairness, justice, and healing commensurate with the hurt inflicted on the ADOS community, then I would argue that everything—absolutely everything—depends on being able to make that leap from understanding our life in relation to, to understanding our life as shaped by. Because it is at that point, and only that point, that we actually begin to properly identify the true nature of whiteness in America. It is, at its root, a debt.
And in this framework, the phrase ‘check your privilege’ actually starts to mean something in how we as white people participate in bringing about meaningful justice for ADOS. Because that privilege of whiteness in fact corresponds to a definite and mounting sum of money—a sum payable to ADOS. It is a measurable asset, established with chattel slavery and which, ever since, the U.S. government has held in a kind of living trust, apportioning and distributing it to whomever it deems eligible beneficiaries. And in doing everything it can to ensure that selection process operate on a principle of ADOS exclusion, that government has underwritten the consolidation of social, economic and political capital within whiteness. It has facilitated the generational transferences of those sources of advantage and mobility, and so further consolidated them within whiteness. The result for ADOS has been a gutting of possibility that is so total, and so uniformly wrought throughout the group, that they will perpetually occupy the bottom of society in the absence of a reparations package whose dollar amount figures in the trillions. That is not alarmist hysteria, that is simply math. And all this so that the whiteness we enjoy might prosper.
What to the rightful claimants of that debt is our empathy? Our tortured senses of ourselves? What value to them is our hand-wringing reluctance in being a principal beneficiary in an economic system whose bounty is built off the theft from their group? And while we can and should talk about a world beyond a system that incentivizes and rewards the exploitation of any group, the idea that we as a country can help usher in a new paradigm of egalitarianism without first repairing ADOS is one that is utterly at odds with that vision’s fulfillment. For all the lofty pronouncements about the ‘impossibility’ of reparations, what’s truly lofty is the notion that there isn’t a basic, inevitable component to our progress as a nation that will require a very stark and wincingly honest reckoning with how we put to right our ill-gained inheritance as white people.
We cannot, in declining to act for economic justice specifically for ADOS, simply shunt the curse of that log dereliction onto our children. The work of repair must begin now, must being to be laid by us, and must be conceived as a multi-generational project of justice guided and governed not by a sense of empathy alone, but—more importantly—the knowledge that it is a debt, a debt which, until the balance is fully discharged, will find each new generation every bit as answerable for the abuses suffered by the ADOS community as the slaveholders themselves.
Opponents of reparations say that we can’t live in the past. Well, that declaration mistakes the nature of our past absolutely. Because to exist in a pre-reparations America is to naturally invite the past to dwell in us. It doesn’t matter whether you feel personally responsible. It doesn’t matter whether your ancestors came here ‘after’ slavery. What is ‘after’ slavery? There is no ‘after’ slavery. With an event of such massive economic consequence and unique legacy in America there is only before and after reparations.
White allies of ADOS, present and would-be, we are called today to help cross that divide. We are called to repair.
yvette carnell, louisville, ky. deftly controlling the same speed bag that nearly took out bernie
Step 1: Learn its name.
With respect to the singularity of the ADOS experience in the United States, our political discourse has thus far proven itself capable of accommodating exactly one truth: the group’s ancestors were not immigrants. And however salient the caveat may be that ADOS’s ancestors were not among that category of people who voluntarily opted into America, when beyond it declarations of convergence and equivalence crowd out a space for further contrast between those legacies of the groups that arrived here as immigrants, and that of the group that was brought here as captives, what’s achieved is not so much a recovery of truth—which is what the affirmation of that initial capital-D Difference ostensibly sets out to do—but a covering up of the scope of that truth, a papering over of the sweeping implications of the dramatic and enduring Difference that was forged specifically for ADOS in the crucible of our nation’s beginning.
Indeed, there’s no real courage required to simply (though always solemnly) aver that ADOS didn’t choose this place, because the speaker seldom if ever aspires to have us behold the more appropriately panoramic view of the sprawling impact of that Difference: how that first choicelessness in matters of national life that had characterized the group as chattel property likewise came to characterize their children and their children’s children and so on, even as they exist as apparently free and autonomous men and women, invested with the full rights of citizenship. In our present political moment, courageousness would—maybe above all—be not getting squirmy and irresolute when that panoramic view reveals how the transmission of that Difference through the generations has always provided a space through which the globally disadvantaged could gain access to a piece of American possibility in a way that has never been permitted to ADOS; a space through which centuries of group-specific material theft could be sublimated into (and perversely celebrated as) an ethos of freedom and opportunity for all.
And so is it any wonder that after four-hundred years of the kind of targeted oppression that makes possible (that makes certain!) a situation in which ADOS are being socio-economically lapped by groups that have been here for a mere fraction of the time as they have—a time during which ADOS has been engaged in a tooth and nail fight for inclusion and authentic belonging—that they wouldn’t feel content with just having an asterisk next to the country’s slogan of Immigrants Built This? One which utterly fails to acknowledge how those other groups’ contributions—however valuable they might be—were ones that were made entirely possible by the wholesale extraction of agency and denial of access of their group, the ones who really did Build This. Do the critics feel that ADOS are not human enough to feel narked by that? Are they so unjustified in pointing out the specific contours of their oppression?
Because what #ADOS has always understood is that advocating for authentic repair and for what they are owed as a group necessarily requires the development of a new vocabulary of comparison, one that is actually capable of revealing how the production of their particular group’s failure has been, for the U.S., a project of some considerable upkeep since its inception.
Predictably, the response to #ADOS’s bid for recognition as a uniquely disadvantaged group in America—and the attendant demand for reparations—has been a policing of that endeavor to the extreme. And since that new vocabulary of comparison is one that unsettles otherwise fixed notions of marginalized identities—notions which ultimately hold very little promise in resolving (or even attempting to account for) the fact that while the composition of blackness in America has grown more rich than ever, ADOS alone remains its poorest expression—the movement has been labeled as ‘anti-immigrant’, ‘xenophobic’ and ‘nativist.’ Such reproach, however, signals nothing so much as a complete unwillingness to deal in good faith with the historical situation of ADOS having been made to occupy an always subordinate position in society relative to recent arrivals, and a total disinclination to honestly grapple with the matter of how or why that situation has been made to last right up into the present. It is a mentality that simply cannot allow for any significance in the group’s attitude toward immigrants as being not at all grounded in their coming to America from a different place, but rather their coming to America from an altogether different history—a history that #ADOS has, it bears mentioning, never once argued does not entail the immigrant’s own experience of marginalization and basis for pursuing justice, but which is one that is necessarily separate from, and non-contiguous with, the history of sprawling disadvantage wrought in this country specifically for ADOS by the manufacturers of white hegemony in America.
And this is the point: the charge of #ADOS being ‘xenophobic’ or ‘anti-immigrant’ seems to—in a way that is strangely at odds with its apparent intent—perpetuate some pretty foundational attitudes and assumptions of traditional American white supremacy; namely, that there is no validity to be granted the perspectives of American descendants of slavery when it comes to their oppression, and that they, as a group, shall have the terms of what is and is not systemic American racism set for—and in no way defined by—them, its principal victims.
But if what it means to be white in America is simply the absence of what it has meant in a material sense to be ADOS—if that is Normal—then immigrants who merge into America from a position outside of that history enjoy a very straightforward advantage in becoming Normal. Certainly the well-documented disparity in outcomes between the native-born black community and the foreign-born attests to that proposition. And maybe in rushing to rescue the immigrant from his or her customary fate as scapegoat for misplaced anxieties and grievances—the victim of a reactionary lashing out that is exactly the sort of thing that critics of #ADOS feel white supremacy in America needs in order to fracture solidarity and sustain itself—those individuals are overlooking the ways in which they might be providing in fact more of the only thing that white supremacy in America actually does need to survive, some more of that thing that the immigrant has him or herself probably always recognized and has presumably by sheer natural instinct for survival as an individual competing for position in a society with limited resources sought to leverage; that thing, namely, is for the Difference and absolute abnormality of the blackness that was chattel slaveried into the ADOS lineage to endure in meaning, a Difference to which they and only they were subjected.
You can read all the hatred and irrationality that you want into a stance that rejects the continuity of that scenario. But shouting at them that they are ‘xenophobic’ and ‘anti-immigrant’ won’t change the fact that much of what animates and impels ADOS’s present uncompromising assertion of their Difference is exactly that same aforementioned sheer natural instinct for survival that has, heretofore, led immigrants to exploit it. Because even in our most generous conception of what’s possible in America today, the disease of Difference which the country developed for and infected ADOS with in order to inoculate its white population from capitalism’s indiscriminate and ruthless need for failure somewhere in the system, has in turn produced an obviously terminal state of affairs for the group. We live in what is now effectively the United States of Wealth Transfers. And for all the promise of racial justice that supposedly inheres in the universal policies being put forward on the presidential candidates’ campaign trails (policies for which ADOS—in not receiving them with rapturous delight—are being chided by their supposed comrades and shown the most extreme demonstrations of contempt), the fact is that we have so completely and uniquely gutted possibility for ADOS in this country that anything less than reparations at this point will essentially function as a mere restructuring of the tremendous debt we owe them for our, at bare minimum, being able to participate in American life in a recognizably Normal way. And one of the absolute biggest fallacies being sold to the national audience from up on those debate stages is the idea that by not paying reparations to ADOS while we pursue a suite of class-based redistributive policies, we will not, in turn, be restoring some liquidity into a white supremacy that then could (and absolutely will) claw its way back from a place of lesser influence to continue its normal operation of producing evermore ADOS failure. It is a belief that history tells us is wildly and frighteningly out-of-touch with what actually happens when whatever universal or quasi-socialist initiative reshuffles the cards of opportunity and access in this country: ADOS is still dealt a losing hand. The house—which is to say whiteness—always wins.
Doubtless #ADOS will continue to be lazily and erroneously portrayed as an intolerant mob that is pushing a white supremacist agenda—a group that is ensuring the house continues to win. But for a movement that has worked so tirelessly to in fact promote an understanding of whiteness in America as being an expression of the cumulative debt owed specifically to ADOS—and through those very efforts having made it so much more knowable and assailable as such—that certainly seems like a real curious accusation; particularly since reparations, which would function to liquidate that debt, would (by ADOS’s own definition!) also function to liquidate whiteness. One is left wondering how it is, then, that the supposed agents of white supremacy are out here committing their whole beings to getting a critical mass to rally around the fact that their identity is the most damning and actionable indictment against it?
Not to be too cynical or whatever, but when she wasn’t otherwise occupied with satiating the hunger for performative reflection on matters of historic racial injustice last week in Ghana, Nancy Pelosi’s itinerary suggested a rather portentous truth; namely, that the only thing foreseeably “Pan-” about Africa is U.S. military hegemony on the continent.
It is, of course, worth mentioning that the primary political objective of #ADOS, if attained, would dramatically and materially impinge on the wherewithal needed to see that fortress-building enterprise through, and would not be insignificant in helping de-realize the continent’s becoming one big assembly plant of global destruction, sorrow, and death.
In late May it was revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies had acquired confidential documents circulated among well-known Kremlin operative Yevgeny Prigozhin and his associates, the content of which primarily dealt with possible Russian influence operations to be conducted within America. Of special interest to Prigozhin and his co-conspirators—one of whom managed the Internet Research Agency (the St. Petersburg-based ‘troll farm’ that was responsible for the propagation of social media misinformation in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election)—was how race in America could be maximally exploited to further the interests of Russia. And contrary to what certain intelligence ‘experts’ and ‘leading’ cyber analysts have been insisting in the mainstream media over the past six months—that it is the #ADOS movement which is the obvious ideological vehicle to help Russia engender the kind of discord it needs to advance its geopolitical agenda—the Prigozhin papers in fact argue that Russia’s best hope for expanding its influence lies in the promoting and fostering of an explicitly Pan-Africanist mentality among black Americans.
Titled “Development Strategy of a Pan-African State on U.S. Territory,” Russia’s disruption playbook recommends seeking out impressionable African Americans who would reportedly be transported to facilities in Africa “for combat prep and training in sabotage.” Thereafter they would be sent back to the U.S. south to foment strife and champion the cause of establishing a Pan-African state in what is now the nation’s Black Belt region. As reported last month in The Guardian, Russia has recently evinced renewed interest and zeal in expanding its clout on the African continent. And so such a cynical course of action being pursued by Russia toward black people here in the U.S. would indeed seem to conform to a larger political objective.
The point in noting this is obviously not merely to indict or vilify Pan-Africanism, or to even suggest that Russian interest in Africa is a novel development. Rather, the insight this information provides into the nature of U.S. race-focused Kremlin machinations during our present moment just really begs some basic questions, particularly as these revelations manifest in relation to the ‘official’ narrative being cast wherein #ADOS is aiding and abetting (unwittingly or not) Russian motives. Why, for example, would Russia prop up a movement like #ADOS, which has—for years—been extremely critical if not expressly opposed to black Americans adopting a political approach that is grounded in Pan-African thought? Why, when our intelligence agencies now have evidence that identifies Pan-Africanism as a basis of action that Russia might utilize for its own ends, are apparent ‘spokespeople’ for those same agencies going to such observably deceptive lengths to try and implicate a political movement that explicitly rejects Pan-African precepts? A movement that, furthermore, encourages the embrace of a politically-actionable identity that understands itself as wholly distinct and separate from one derived from the African continent? A movement that clearly states its aim in promoting a closer identification of black America with America. Has anyone who has appeared on national television to authoritatively declare that #ADOS is essentially a threat to national security offered anything like a persuasive account of why there is this obvious and glaring inconsistency between that which they purport to know and what the actual intelligence is telling us?
Probably not. In fact, one of the most troubling aspects concerning that groundless narrative of #ADOS being a front movement made up primarily of Russian bots is that—as baseless as that allegation always was—it was never a fringe idea, at least not in the minds of those people for whom it absolutely should be regarded as such absent any definitive proof; people whose supposed professional integrity by definition ought to entail a great deal of circumspection about exactly the sort of spurious and defamatory claims that have been levied at the movement from its very first appearance in the U.S. media landscape.
Those false assertions have, if anything, been amplified.
Indeed, despite there being something unspeakably abusive about the sort of breezy deployment of the term ‘bot’ when discussing the #ADOS movement—being so totally ignorant of and oblivious to the sheer loadedness of that particular characterization of the group in the context of their advocating for justice due precisely because of the history of the basic denial of their humanity and what that has meant for their experience in America—those same accusations of foreign-puppeteering are now finding expression in the public communications of our elected officials. The irony, however—the sheer madness of how one of the most salient dimensions of the movement somehow seems to escape the awareness of these people—is that #ADOS sets out to instill the exact opposite attitude toward citizenship and one’s relation to his or her country that a Kremlin plot would hope to inspire in black America. While the latter would naturally want to do everything in its power to undermine and contribute to the rot of confidence in American democracy, #ADOS by all indication aims to fundamentally cultivate that ideal, to legitimize it by forcing the country to repair the damages stemming from the legacy of injustice and exclusion that, taken together, have engineered into black life in America a gruesome immobility. And in making the group whole, it ought to be apparent that there would thus result a more just and inclusive participation in the exchange of national politics, moving us closer to a more authentic democratic process. It seems that, far from precipitating the collapse of American democracy, #ADOS is in fact an integral part of its salvation.
Contrary to what Russia’s flirtation with Pan-Africanism actually reveals about its preference for movements—that those which are inherently separatist are far more suitable to their supranational aspirations—#ADOS wants in, not out of America. And they want in because they, more than any other group, are owed in. To not meet with and engage that basic fact of American history in good faith when discussing the #ADOS movement, and to instead reactionarily brand it with Russian intrigue, or label it as some kind of conduit of electoral sabotage—is to all but lay completely bare the sort of private biases that for so long now have tacitly and shamefully opposed the action required to make meaningful restitution for the group’s victimhood. And in advocating for a black agenda that intends to remedy that, the only thing that #ADOS could be accused of trying to suppress with respect to the black vote is the potential for further self-harm and the continuation of that tragic and obscene situation, one in which the group whose ancestors built this country have been de facto omitted from having any sort of meaningful say in their outcome in it.