Ready-made Distortions: Matthew Chapman, #ADOS, and the Fear of a Fair Hearing

The #ADOS critique of Kamala Harris receives a treatment not unlike that of ultra-processed foods. And in much the same way that a microwaveable dinner is meant to minimize the consumer’s culinary labor, the prepackaged description of #ADOS’s position on Harris’s background seems crafted solely to discourage a reader from devoting any time and mental effort to researching and taking seriously what the #ADOS political project actually sets out to do. The most recent example of these freezer section-style ‘analyses’ of #ADOS comes courtesy of Matthew Chapman, a reporter at Raw Story who yesterday tweeted, “FYI, to all my white followers who may or may not know what I’m talking about: ADOS (American Descendants of Slaves [sic]) is a movement that basically seeks to exclude the ‘wrong’ Black people from civil rights spaces—ie anyone who can’t trace their lineage directly to a Southern plantation.”

What inspired Chapman to achieve new heights of numbskullery with that total mischaracterization of #ADOS was—in his words—their “posting anti-Harris content questioning her ethnicity and heritage,” and the group’s “nonsense claims…that [she] ‘isn’t Black'”. This activated something of the helicopter mom in Chapman, who evidently feared that his white followers might be rendered dumbstruck when confronted with a particular group of black people making the argument that descriptors such as ‘Black’ or ‘African-American’ have become woefully insufficient in their ability to meaningfully capture their specific, centuries-long experience of targeted exclusion in the United States. “While black activists are used to this,” Chapman informs us, “a lot of white voters might have never seen it before and not know how to respond to it.” And so he sought—as so many before him have also sought—to tube feed his white readers a stunningly reductive and deliberately misleading rendering of #ADOS.

Perhaps what Chapman really feared, though, was not the possibility that his white followers wouldn’t join him in denouncing #ADOS, but that those white people might actually begin considering what it would mean to belong to a group for whom the ability to partake in the bounty of opportunities throughout America’s history had been chattel slaveried and Jim Crowed out of their lineage by reason of their ancestors’ Blackness. That these white people might begin to consider Blackness not as a skin color that occasions identical discrimination in America, but as the heritable mechanism of that total exclusion, a thing that is suffered by one specific community of black people and that is naturally circumvented entirely by all others who arrive from elsewhere. Maybe the fear was that if they gave ADOS a fair hearing they might begin considering the injustice of the bagginess of a term like ‘Black’ in 2020. How while Blackness is nowadays conceived as a shared burden among melanated individuals, it is in fact ADOS alone who know and live the full cost of Blackness in America; how it is still being absorbed into their bloodstream even now, centuries since its vicious invention, because Blackness in America was indeed designed to have that delayed, transmissible property, like a slow-release capsule of crushing disadvantage.

Maybe, above all, these white followers might consider how unspeakably offensive it would be to ADOS to watch someone such as Harris—someone who ascended to high office while shamelessly inhabiting the profundity of a centuries-long struggle that was never hers to claim—publicly repudiate the idea of ever doing a single thing to benefit that particular community. Maybe white people wouldn’t wonder why ADOS label her a squatter in their community; maybe then it’s like way less that ADOS is quote-unquote purity umpiring and more that they’re just pointing out the fucking obscenity of someone who is happy to cash in on the accolades and distinctions that attend barrier-breaking Blackness while being equally content to ensure that the real and enduring consequences of Blackness in America persist without interruption among the great assemblage of those whose ancestors’ experience in this country is apparently just a mere political expedient.

Ask yourself: how would you respond? Tell me you would not be enraged. Take a second and posit yourself and your parents and your kids in that place of utter neglect and indignity, and seriously ask yourself: how else could you possibly respond when you are being told to shut up and celebrate a(nother!) useless substitute for what seems your family’s permanent brokenness?


Cost, not Costume: A Review of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”

How else in the midst of a pandemic to think about a sequence of like phenomena other than with an eye toward its etiology? It’s only natural. A pathogen taking a kind of deadly lark around the species for months on end inevitably puts a person in a particular cast of mind; one that is far less inclined to think of things as being merely discrete events, or idiopathic in nature, and instead as indicative of some definite systemic cause.

Suddenly there’s the felt anxiety, the inescapable haunting suspicion of not just the possibility but the likelihood that it is from more profound depths that our present maladies have sprung, and that those maladies will—if not properly diagnosed and addressed at their root—be our end.

And so when we saw how those three yokels in Brunswick quarried Ahmaud Arbery and all but trophied his dead body onto the hood of their truck; when we saw how the Taylor residence in which Breonna lay sleeping was repurposed by LMPD SWAT into a makeshift tactical shooting range; when we saw how the pulse of George Floyd was throttled to a faint, shallow tremor and finally winked out forever by a man who, in carrying out that execution, just stared ahead intractably, placidly, the dead-eyed blank expression of a cow looking out over a wooden fencepost; when we saw these things, we could not but perceive the feverish quality to them. They felt like a kind of rapid onset of symptoms; the alarming manifestations of some end-stage societal sepsis of which we were suddenly and terribly cognizant.


White Americans did what anyone ill at ease about their well being would do. We began, in a way, compulsively WebMDing ourselves. We ran out and bought White Fragility, feeling around for the apparent lumps in our own psyches and—with each turn of the page—learning that we are in fact walking supercontaminations. Tumor-ridden things. If we didn’t recognize the malignancies inside us, White Fragility assured us it only meant we were that much more of an inoperable, hopeless case. We filled the cube shelving in our children’s nurseries with board books containing messages of tolerance and acceptance; we began, with a solemn resolve, to apply ourselves to the task which it seems our parents had utterly shirked: to mold these blobs of dreadful privilege that we produced into good little empaths.

We needed answers to ourselves, and so we read—devoured—with that special sort of voracity of the newly afflicted, so desperate and anxious to have explained to us what this is that surrounds us.


Enter Oprah, whose appearance during a time of social upheaval is like low circling buzzards materializing over a dry, sunbaked valley; the presence of each can only mean that something, somewhere, is dying. In this case, the decay is one of possibility—of precisely knowing, of acting, of repairing. In her hands she holds Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which would seem like the ideal book for our present moment of anxious, binge-y social science consumption. After all, Wilkerson has described her book as “an invitation to understanding; an invitation to seeing ourselves differently than we have before, and the idea that we can have new language to help us see ourselves differently.” Oprah, in her endorsement of the book, affirms these qualities of Caste and promises that it “show[s] us how to rebuild a world in which we all are truly equal and free.”

But Oprah has always been a kind of real life Flannery O’Connor invention, hasn’t she? And it seems that she now sees in a collective desire for racial justice what a character like Hoover Shoats in Wise Blood saw in a people’s authentic religious desire: a new and profitable business venture; a people whose despair and uncertainty is, in essence, the stuff of profit. And in this way, Caste—which ultimately posits a kind of ‘make compassionate decisions’ approach to undoing caste (at one point seriously suggesting that such a thing can be achieved by “search[ing] for that key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common, whether cosplay or Star Trek or the loss of a parent”)—is a book that neatly complements Oprah’s thoroughly apolitical (and always profitable) brand of personally manifesting capital-c Change.


At its absolute weakest, all Caste is really doing is recounting episodes of discrimination (whether the national or the personal) and swapping out the race-specific terminology of the individuals (“white”, “black”) for Wilkerson’s preferred choice of descriptors (“dominant caste”, “lowest caste”). It is as if, by the mere substitution of these words, the abstractions that have so tightly organized American society over the last 400 years are supposed to be suddenly made known to us in more cogent, actionable terms. Oftentimes, though, the effect is one of bewilderment, a kind of misfire.

It’s not that ‘caste’ as a descriptor, or conceptual framework, doesn’t have the potential to vastly improve upon the very real limitations of a discourse grounded in race. There can be no question as to the inadequacy of the increasingly diluted social construct that has heretofore governed our understanding of how America has long (mis)allocated access to opportunity. We very much need an alternative and more tailored vocabulary to better assess and remedy that injustice, and ‘caste’ really does appear to best capture the unique, multi-generational exclusion that has so brutally defined the experience of a people in the U.S. But it is precisely the author’s inability (or unwillingness) to imbue caste with a necessary specificity—to identify the nature of our bottom caste as the accrued and heritable cost of one particular group’s lineage through chattel slavery onward—that contributes to her project’s abortive attempt to truly alter our understanding of what conditions our “discontents” and to help us, as she says, “reach that place of healing.”

Which is to say that while Wilkerson tries to outfit the most basic and efficient sorting mechanism of American society with a kind of new, bespoke language, there’s nonetheless still a loose, baggy quality to the finished product.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s insistence upon the Barack Obama presidency having been the “greatest departure from the script of the American caste system.” On one hand, Wilkerson argues that Obama’s political ascension was so remarkable because he belongs to the “lowest caste”, and—as an African-American—is someone “against whom the caste system had directed its full powers of dehumanization”. On the other hand, though, she also notes how his “unusual upbringing” (his father being an immigrant from Kenya and his mother a white woman from Kansas) had spared him from “the heaviness of slavery and Jim Crow and the hard histories of regular African-Americans.” It’s difficult, in reading Wilkerson’s words, to not hear ‘heaviness’ functioning almost euphemistically for the very group-specific material cost of those ‘hard histories’, which, as she points out, include the New Deal reforms that “excluded the vast majority of black workers” and the FHA practices that “encourag[ed] or even requir[ed] restrictive covenants that barred black citizens from buying homes in white neighborhoods.”

And so there is, in other words, by Wilkerson’s own admission, a long, well-defined continuum of targeted exclusion—a kind of survey line of one group’s generational lockout from wealth in America—that has, from the beginning, uniquely and distinctly bound the experience of its lowest caste: the American Descendants of Slavery, the ‘regular African Americans’.

So how, then, can we realistically ascribe to someone like Obama the same basic station in national life when his ancestors did not bear that profound cost of what it really means to belong to that bottom caste in America? We can’t. But arguably Wilkerson sees no inconsistency in doing so because Caste is one-hundred percent uninterested in the sort of transformative redistribution of all the stolen wealth that would be required to actually begin undoing the foundation of our caste system.

Indeed, for all of its appeals to Germany as a kind of star by which to steer in terms of how we can begin to dismantle caste (Wilkerson notes how “restitution has rightly been paid, and continues to be paid, to survivors of the Holocaust”), there is strangely no push whatsoever in Caste for the U.S. government to pay reparations to the descendants of American slavery and Jim Crow. Rather, the reader is encouraged to do things like “educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective”, to “value their shared commonality”, and to try to see that the caste positions we inhabit are merely the “costumes of [our] predecessors” and that—in continuing the theatre analogy—we are “performing based on our place in the production, not necessarily on who we are inside.”


There is exactly one way to read a book like Caste, because there is exactly one way to write a book like Caste without going wide of the mark, and that is through the lens of the American Descendants of Slavery experience. And to the extent that a person is able to control their emotions long enough to recognize the obvious fact that that group’s political advocacy is meant solely to defend the singularity of that experience—to not allow the ‘full dehumanization’ of it to be folded into a dilutive framework of sameness that absolves the U.S. government from paying the invoice for the economic violence it used to create and sustain its caste system—then it is simply impossible to read a book like Wilkerson’s and not come away with a sense of the sheer inadequacy of her analysis. It is impossible, in the end, not to feel like it is a four-hundred plus page argument that goes directly against the grain of justice. And the biggest achievement of Caste is that it confirms what many have already known, and what many more will no doubt come to learn: that ADOS has already developed the necessary language for a proper diagnosis of—and antidote to—our symptoms of societal instability. All we need to do is follow their lead.


I Put My Grift Down Flip it and Reverse it: Nikole Hannah-Jones & the #ADOS Movement

[N.B.: credit @ninjaamajo for the inspo for the article’s title]

Since we now have a writer who is positioning herself (or perhaps more precisely, who is being positioned) to lead a national discussion about reparations, it seems worth looking into how that person has historically framed that issue and how she has previously used her platform to help inform her fellow Americans about it. After all, this particular individual claims to have been reading about and researching the topic of reparations for the past twenty years, so one may reasonably assume there’d be a long trail of intellectual breadcrumbs that she has left along the way.

Twitter proves quite useful in this respect; that is, for collecting information about a person’s involvement in/contributions to a particular discourse over the years. So here, in chronological order, is the history of Nikole Hannah-Jones (a self-professed disciple of reparations studies) talking about that issue on Twitter.

NHJ joined Twitter in March of 2009. The very first mention of reparations from her occurs six years later, in 2015, a full fifteen years into her apparent research on the subject.

Like much of what follows, NHJ’s earliest engagement with reparations on Twitter is largely just a reference/paean to the Coates article on reparations that ran in The Atlantic the previous year. The last tweet simply shares an article by Zach Stafford in The Nation. She then doesn’t mention reparations again for four months, but, when she finally does, it’s (not surprisingly) to shout out the Coates Article.

A full year passes until reparations resurfaces on NHJ’s timeline. And while it no doubt constitutes the most original intellectual engagement with the topic we’ve seen thus far, there’s a pretty weird suggestion that reparations for the government-sanctioned, centuries-long horror of targeted exclusion of ADOS is…financial aid?

Anyway. Another month goes by and she mentions reparations again because of something that someone said to Coates when he was still on Twitter. She then abstains from any further remarks on the topic until February of the following year when she tweets about reparations twice in one day (an all-time high!) and then tells someone to not talk to her about it anymore (a curt dismissal which—as we are all now very familiar with—is signature NHJ).

Silence then ensues on reparations for eight full months. She (again) disdainfully scoffs at someone and tells them to go read a book (as, of course, any respectable public intellectual should naturally do when confronted with an opinion that is at variance with their own). She then shouts out Coates. Again.

Four months elapse, and NHJ reprises her previous year’s tweet about reparations being part of the Republican platform during the late 19th century. The next day she clarifies a point about reparations, and then shelves the issue for another three months, at which point she shouts out the Coates article (which I’m honestly beginning to think she may actually have constructed a shrine to in her house).

June of 2018 constituted the most pronounced level of discussion about reparations, with a total of three (3) tweets. Though it seems this blitzkrieg may have in fact resulted in some serious reparations fatigue for NHJ, because it’s then another three months of reparations-free tweeting.

Picking up the baton again in October, NHJ then rounds out 2018 by tweeting about reparations twice in three months.

What’s also interesting about 12/3/18 is that is the same day when NHJ announces to all of her followers that she’s going to be (re)focusing her attention on a book that she’d been working on about the re-segregation of U.S. public schools.

And it did indeed seem that way. At least for a little while.

Nearly three months pass without any mention of reparations. Not uncommon. Curiously, when she does start talking about reparations again, it is at the exact moment that the #ADOS movement is beginning to attract significant attention from national media. With the #ADOS-led critique of then-Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris gaining traction (a critique that effectively halted her campaign’s momentum with black voters and triggered a much larger discussion about who carries the true cost of being black in America) Joy Reid, Shireen Mitchell, Angela Rye and a host of others all began peddling a demonstrably false accusation that the grassroots movement was a “Russian bot” operation. The Intercept then ran an article about #ADOS, highlighting how the “Russian Bot” dysinfo campaign started by Reid et al conformed with a pattern of behavior by the establishment Left media to neutralize and delegitimize any dissent against the Party’s preferred candidates. NHJ then weighed in on the matter of Harris, distorting the #ADOS critique of her and thus prompting responses from Yvette Carnell, Antonio Moore and the rest of the #ADOS movement. NHJ claims this was the very first time Yvette and Antonio entered into her sphere. Up until this point, she maintains, she never heard of either of them.

But see it’s odd. Because the frequency with which NHJ from this point forward then begins to talk about reparations is so much noticeably greater than it had been for the previous four years. More importantly, the kind of language she begins to deploy in these conversations bears an unmistakable resemblance to the specific framing that the #ADOS movement has developed and refined since 2016.

From about this point on on her timeline, I don’t think a month goes by where NHJ doesn’t post multiple tweets about reparations. And the thing that seems essential to consider as she now persists in repudiating the #ADOS movement when they question her motivation for suddenly stepping into this space without acknowledging the significance of their advocacy, is the specific convergence of the energy around reparations that the movement itself inspired and NHJ’s sudden ‘commitment’ to the issue. Was it simply the right time to get on her grind about economic justice after what we are told was decades of research? Or—one has to wonder—was it simply time to get on her grift when she saw an opportunity to begin siphoning off some energy from #ADOS in late Feb? I think the tweets above provide some insight into that question, and I think they ultimately cast serious doubt on the integrity of NHJ, journalistic or otherwise.


Is This Your Queen?

The only thing I will say about Nikole Hannah-Jones is this: I met her in early October of 2018 when we were walking past each other on Throop Avenue in Bed-Stuy by St. Philip’s Church. I stopped to tell her that I seriously admired the work that she had done (and was doing) on school segregation. I told her I was looking forward to attending the talk that she was going to be giving on exactly that subject the following week at Boys & Girls High School here in the neighborhood. Before parting ways I mentioned that I, too, wrote and that I wrote about #ADOS. I asked her if she had heard of Yvette Carnell and BreakingBrown (I didn’t ask if she had heard about #ADOS because, at that time, the movement hadn’t really broken through yet like it would just a few months later in early 2019). Nikole answered that she had indeed heard of Yvette Carnell and that she liked the work that she was doing. So when, today, in 2020, she says something like this…

…it indicates that she was either lying then or she’s lying now. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why she’d have felt the need to lie to some no-name writer two years ago. Now, however, the moment seems ripe for such dissimulation.


#ADOS and the End of the Remix Business

Why do we do this? Why? Why do we pat ourselves and others on the back for our weird, Tiësto-like treatment of the ‘meaning’ of the African American struggle for freedom and equality?

Truly, at this point in our discourse(s) of the African American freedom struggle there ought to be an actual DJ air horn that blares right before any non-ADOS person starts talking publicly about what it ‘means.’ The African American freedom struggle has become the remix album of movement politics. There is the “African American Freedom Struggle” (LGBTQ REMIX); the “African American Freedom Struggle” (DACA Edit); the “African American Freedom Struggle” (Democratic Socialist Dub Mix), and on and on. Every group, it seems, gets a shot at reworking it. And so if you want to know why ADOS are so ‘divisive’, or why they get so fractious when confronted with our coalition hokum, you should just ask yourself how the hell you think you’d feel if for the past half-century you were made to sit and watch everyone else remix the meaning of your group’s historic struggle while you and your family stay not collecting a single cent in royalties. Not only that, but you all never even got paid in the first place.

It must be said again and again: the “ever present possibility of universality” is something that has been crudely retrofitted onto the African American freedom struggle by the Left, and it has done this in spite of all kinds of evidence that such a thing is pure fiction. There is nothing universal about the core material demand of ADOS. It’s a debt. That’s it. And whether or not poor whites ‘get free’ too or whatever is utterly impertinent. Sorry. I know we want to put like a campfire-y spin on America paying a specific debt, but I think we need to seriously consider the fact that when we ask ADOS to join hands with us and sing our song of freedom and justice, the hands we’re expecting to receive are ones that—for the past 400 years, at every possible turn—have been denied the chance of actually holding any real economic power whatsoever. And I implore you to think about how enthusiastic you’d be to have people ‘recasting’ the meaning of your group’s struggle—which has been a struggle to wrest the economic power you are owed—if it meant that your child’s hands, too, would be denied possession of that same power.


#ADOS and Africa as the Mother Gothel Land

For those of you who’ve not been sheltering-in-place with a two year-old who is on a media diet high in Disney animated feature films, here’s a quick character sketch of Mother Gothel, the villainess from 2010’s Tangled, a movie that I have now seen like at least one-hundred times over the past three months…

Having kidnapped the infant princess Rapunzel from the king and queen, Mother Gothel has kept her locked away in a remote, secluded tower in the woods. There, she uses Rapunzel’s magical hair in order to preserve her (Mother Gothel’s) youth. Her ‘parenting’ style could best be described as psychologically abusive to the absolute extreme, manipulating Rapunzel with a false origin story while casually belittling her at every available opportunity. The effect is basic Psych101 stuff: essentially saddle Rapunzel with a dependency complex that exalts Mother Gothel in the eyes of Rapunzel while, at the same time, dramatically subduing her will to discover her true identity and place in the world.

Eventually, Rapunzel’s conviction that the world outside the tower contains profound truths about her authentic self is something that overrides her damaged psyche and one day she decides to make a break for it. Upon learning of Rapunzel’s escape and the journey that she plans to undertake, Mother Gothel becomes truly unhinged, spiraling into a hysterical state in which the prevention of Rapunzel’s self-discovery (which necessarily entails a loss of the illusory sway that Mother Gothel holds in Rapunzel’s imagination) becomes paramount. The objective is to find Rapunzel and basically berate her back into being her acquiescent, Tower-imprisoned self and completely subjugate any future assertion of agency. In short, to make Rapunzel feel dumb and ridiculous and totally ashamed for ever thinking that she might amount to something other than a, well, slave.

I bring this up only because yesterday found a great number of Africans on Twitter in the throes of what can really only be described as a Mother Gothel-esque meltdown. And while the catalyst for the outpouring of anti-ADOS vitriol was ostensibly a joke that someone made about the continent’s dodgy WiFi reception, it is very difficult not to understand the astoundingly hateful responses the joke occasioned as rooted in (and conditioned by) something so much deeper and so much more intensely personal—something that is, in essence, akin to Mother Gothel’s felt loss of control when Rapunzel defies her by throwing off the yoke of her supposed authority and declaring her intent to forge her own emancipatory path.

At minimum, what happened yesterday raises a number of interesting questions. I guess the first would be: do Africans simply have uniquely tender feelings about their wireless internet connectivity? Is this actually something about which they are extremely touchy and sensitive? Or was yesterday merely the latest confirmation in a growing pile of evidence that they harbor a real animus and serious contempt for American Descendants of Slavery?

While it might complicate the notion of Pan-African solidarity, we should admit that we really already know the answer. We’ve known it for quite some time—it’s the latter, and yesterday was just a remarkably candid and widespread display of it. Arguably, what we witnessed unfold yesterday was a good thing; it provided an unprecedented glimpse at the giant iceberg of anti-ADOS bigotry that floats beneath surface of African culture, a deep-seated antipathy toward ADOS that we are apparently very keen to import into the country, and something of which a show like CBS’s Bob Hearts Abishola represents only the very tip.

But it’s safe to say that as ADOS continues to stake out its own identity—one singularly tied to the group’s wholly distinct experience of injustice in the U.S.—the more that these underlying attitudes of genuine disdain will reveal themselves; attitudes that have quietly informed (or, more accurately, deformed) modern ‘solidarity’ with ADOS. I would really encourage white people in particular to pay very close attention to this stuff. Because while I know we tend to get a little anxious and uneasy when it comes to seeing certain distinctions between black people, I think you’ll find that a lot of the people whom you just might otherwise assume are down with the cause (particularly the cause of justice in this ADOS-specific, post-Floyd moment) because of their skin color or whatever, are actually way, way closer in temperament and belief to the white supremacists whom you stridently claim to define yourself and your politics in opposition to. To riff on something that Yvette Carnell said recently, what will yield the necessary harvest of racial justice in America is ensuring that we cast our seeds in a soil of nuance and specificity. We absolutely cannot be inhibited in our identification and denouncement of every single dimension of ADOS’s oppression, regardless of whomever promotes it.


Living on the Fault Line: ADOS, the Protests, and Repair

I guess I keep wondering how well our national outcry in this moment maps onto the actual problem. How it seems like it should not be one of sticker shock at police budgets, but rather of implacable revulsion at the basic disposability of black life in America.

The pandemic distilled everything for us; revealed plainly the absolute deadly and ruinous precarity that has attended and beset the lives of a people whom for four hundred years have been made and kept uniquely wealthless in the United States. Postcovid, we cannot realistically claim to not know exactly where the major fault line that runs through American society is located. It runs directly through ADOS life. It stretches across centuries. It is always seething with the stress of injustices old and new. It is always accumulating with strain, and it is always underpinning their group’s experience in national life, one singularly defined by constant shocks and devastating, seismic eruptions. How then in this moment can our central demand be to shuffle around some resources within the municipal budget in order to better manage that violent instability?

If you were a part of their group, what would you want right now? Would you want people to be shouting “Reimagine policing”, or would you need people to be out there shouting that we must reimagine the whole obscene and vicious arrangement that continues to keep your family living on the fault line generation after generation? I know which one I would want in this brief window of possibility. Because as obviously desirable as fewer instances of police killings are, there is a very real despair in not fully seizing on this sudden lucidity about the terrible expendability of ADOS life, something that begins long, long before the cops show up to the scene with guns.

This feels like a moment of political re-orientation; like there’s a real possibility for a kind of chrysalis state of transition into which white people in particular can enter and therein re-conceive how we meaningfully participate in fixing race in America. More than anything else, the #ADOS movement—with its core reparations component that breathes real life into a broader black agenda—offers that transformative possibility; a viable trajectory for the multi-generational project of repair we claim to so desperately want. It rightly cautions the futility in trying to retrofit solutions piecemeal onto a community that has been specifically plundered for centuries—solutions that ultimately don’t amount to real change because they don’t compel the release of our group’s two-fisted hold on the spoils of our intergenerational raids.

The murderous genuflection onto George Floyd’s neck, or the bullet-gouged walls of Breonna Taylor’s bedroom, these are expressions of something so much greater, so much more profound than a police department’s surplus budget. They are but one part of how our continual and prodigious failure to bring ADOS out of economic disrepair has rendered their community essentially futureless; which is why this moment needs to cast a net wide enough to actually recover that future. We have a moral and legal obligation to go well beyond reforms that aim to patch up the surrounding public service infrastructure whose limitations in providing for a fundamentally and uniquely economically-demobilized community should be obvious. It is not that we can’t pursue these things simultaneously—we should—but now is not the moment to center the reform; it is the moment to center the transformation.


Focus After Floyd: Excising Racerot in America

Almost instinctively we rush to the business of likening all forms of power—be it ICE or the military industrial complex—to that singular manifestation of four hundred years of racialized power in America; a habit which has produced effectively zero material gains for American Descendants of Slavery in the post-Civil Rights era. Why?

Seeing power everywhere and roundly condemning it is not an analysis of power. The startling diffuseness of state power we now behold is conditioned by the persistent lack of focus on how we actually begin siphoning it off in a way that truly transforms. And so now is when we need to let the specific power arrangement that has so uniquely shaped American life—one that is so distilled (and nakedly on display) in the knee-to-neck move that ignited a nation—be what shapes our political demands as the generation of white people that simply will no longer stomach that injustice, that will not be distracted from the Work.

This moment right now is so rich with potential reckoning, the road ahead so fertile with possibility for the sort of sacrifices that our parents and grandparents evidently felt weren’t necessary to make in order to heal the group whose wholesale exclusion from American life is what made possible our families’ opportune place within it. And to the extent that we say no to that arrangement—if we deep down hate it as much as we outwardly profess—then this is our chance to be absolutely leadfooted in driving forward the cause of reparations for American Descendants of Slavery and their black agenda. It is not a time to perform our capacity for empathy, or applaud a victory that constitutes some modest reform. It is the time for a sustained and unvacillating show of awareness that no piecemeal approach will root out the rot of race in our society. The solution is non-optional. Look outside.


On Our Aunt Karens: The Family Business of Whiteness and Shareholder Dissatisfaction

“She did something every child has done—she tried to put the evidence of her offense away from her. But in this case she was no child hiding stolen contraband: she struck out at her victim—of necessity she must put him away from her—he must be removed from her presence, from this world. She must destroy the evidence of her offense. What was the evidence of her offense? Tom Robinson, a human being.”

— Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”


White shame is the most combustible substance in America. And what happened in the Ramble is proof that for a black man to interact with us in any way that presupposes basic equivalence is for them to be thumbing the wheel spark of a lighter.

Consider that a black man’s freest day in America is nonetheless one spent in the menacing company of that shame, a thing which—if God forbid he should excite it—seeks only to completely efface the source of its ignition.

We are post- nothing. As a society, the tendency is now demonstrably only toward further immiscibility, and that is and has always been exclusively a white-driven phenomenon. At least in our lifetime the most we can hope for is that we move closer to being post-delusional about the fact that racism in America is not here to stay, and that to the extent that we don’t want our children living with that chronic sickness there is simply no other alternative but to become politicized in such a way that our voice serves as a single and continuous demand to rewrite the functionality of four-hundred years of racialized power.

Because that’s what Amy Cooper’s phone call was. It was an activation of power that is specific to our group and which is designed and maintained to function solely in our families’ interests. That was an ugly dimension of it, but we are all, every last one of us, common shareholders in the larger enterprise which is very efficient at dispersing and expressing that power in far less obvious, subtly murderous ways.

White people shouldn’t even get to call these women ‘Karen’ without including the word ‘Aunt’. To do so implies a distance from the seat of power that doesn’t really exist for us. We are right there. American whiteness is a family-run operation and the only functional insight to be gained by reflecting on Amy Cooper and her actions is that we really have no choice but to put it into liquidation. To work to dissolve it by advocating for reparative justice. But do not be deluded in thinking that repair will not entail a material loss for you and your family; the creditors always get paid first in a liquidation event, and whiteness is running up a 401-year tab on ADOS.


Towards a Politics of Sacrifice: Zaid Jilani, Americanness & the #ADOS Movement

I’m beginning to think that you can do this with all of them. All of them.

So when the next Progressive of Color appears with their smug and absolutely unctuous ridiculing of race-conscious historical analysis and policy goals, just ask Google to reveal everything that race consciousness in America has made possible in their life.

Like Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor-in-chief of Jacobin who last year chided proponents of reparations for being essentially useless impediments to a progressive future, Zaid Jilani gave an interview earlier this week deriding the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project”, at points literally scoffing at the many, many people whom he feels are so simpleminded as to insist on the primacy of race in shaping U.S. life over the last four-hundred years. It may come as no surprise that—also like Bhaskar Sunkara—Zaid Jilani was raised in a neighborhood in which the black population is estimated to be at 0.01% or less.1

Jilani grew up in Cobb County, Georgia in a neighborhood called Saddlebrook Farms. It was built in ’93, when Jilani would have been around 5 years old. The stone wall that stands at one of the entrances to the subdivision describes it as a “Classic Equestrian Community,” and it is referred to in other real estate marketing lit as a “Swim and Tennis Neighborhood.”2 The homes—which are constructed in the French provincial style of the 18th century—range in price from 640k to 1 million. They typically have 5-8 bedrooms and the kitchens sound Downton Abbeyesque in design.3

It is, in other words, precisely the kind of enclave of wealth one would anticipate finding in the “first tier suburbs” that Rebekah Cohen Morris notes started appearing in Cobb County after white people didn’t “want to risk their children having to go to school with black children.” An educator and anti-poverty advocate herself, Morris details how that history of intense white hostility to Atlanta’s school integration efforts was part of a continuum of ADOS lockout in America that began with slavery and has extended right up into our present, still fixing opportunity and determining today’s winners and losers. Pointing this out, though, is of course something to which Jilani would object. After all, during his Skype appearance on The Hill, throughout which he wore an absolutely simpering and pompous little smirk and looked like a newly whelped mole straining to adjust its eyes to the light, he dismissed the supposedly lazy tendency of some people to “pretend as if every malady in American life is a matter of something that happened between 1619 and maybe, uh, the Civil Rights Act of 1960.”4

That’s quite a statement coming from someone whose family was able to step into a very comfortable and opportunity-rich life in 90s Georgia precisely because of the state’s historically anti-ADOS attitudes and discriminatory state policies. When the Ku Klux Klan staged a motor rally in Cobb County in 1960 to express solidarity with the Cobb County White Citizens for Segregation—who, as historian Mary E. Odem says, “successfully pursued policies [to] separate themselves and their tax dollars” from the region’s American Descendants of Slavery—it’s worth thinking about how it was exactly those anti-ADOS efforts that shored up the property value in the county’s white regions where the Jilani family would eventually settle. Or how later in the run-up to the ’87 referendum on the MARTA expansion (Atlanta’s public transportation system), it was Cobb County residents ginning up opposition and stoking anti-ADOS anxieties with bumper stickers on their cars that read “Share Atlanta Crime—Support MARTA.”

These emphatic remonstrances screened the land on which the Jilani house now stands from what Antonio Moore has coined ‘the contagion’ of property value liability that ADOS, as a bottom caste, were made to be seen and treated as. And as Odem highlights, Northern Cobb County’s fierce defense of its exclusivity (which is to say the total fortification from ADOS encroachment) is not a thing of the past; as late as 2008, residents were adamantly opposing MARTA expansion proposals that would facilitate greater mobility between the area’s urban center and the suburbs. At that time, Jilani would have been a sophomore at UGA.5 And the home in which he’d grown up would have been doing what the shielding of American whiteness had naturally allowed it to do: appreciating by nearly half a million dollars. That wealth—which ADOS were terrorized out of and legally excluded from—is something that Jilani and his family now (and will for a long time to come) very much enjoy.

And so it’s interesting: Jilani has made a name for himself writing, in part, impassioned defenses of the need for historical accuracy in the school curricula. When the GOP proposed revising educational material in an effort to indoctrinate students with more traditionally conservative principles, he took to the Internet and proclaimed how understanding history in a way that corresponds with what actually happened is “the first line of defense for preparing children to be engaged and active citizens in the political process” (emph mine). And when—in another article—he talks about the student walkout demonstration in response to the Ed Boards’ proposals to change the curriculum, there’s a detail Jilani includes about how some of the kids were carrying signs that read “people didn’t die so we could erase them.” Arguably, it is that very same appeal at which Jilani now nakedly sneers.

And while he has extolled the virtue of historical truth informing a person’s politics, he is, at the same time, seemingly very much committed to policing how some people are choosing to engage politically with their truths. From his and his family’s position of such close-knit inclusion into American society—his position of such unmitigated advantage—he berates and heaps scorn upon the very people who for four-hundred years have sought their due for that same kind of access that he had growing up in America, that same abundance of opportunity. And so what does it mean for a person whose whole life is attributable to his country’s instinct to murder and exclude ADOS to then go around giving interviews and writing articles disparaging the idea of insisting on that group’s history being the very marrow of our contemporary political discourse?

Indeed, of those people who’ve died, I cannot think of a death suffered more in vain given someone like Jilani’s eagerness to suppress the centrality of race, of why they died, of what they fought to fix. And if he actually cared about those people—if he actually gave a shit about justice for the group—then he’d know that you don’t go around bleating on about how your politics are so much superior than a politics that actually tries to honor their dead. Truthfully, someone like Zaid Jilani has no actual politics. Not really. It’s a little buffet-style belief template that allows him to breezily invoke damaging rightwing tropes about black families in one interview and then, on another day, write articles posing moralistic Lefty questions like “[H]ow is it we can all start to see that breadth of the American identity so that we can associate people who are non-white with being Americans, too?”

The question sure is rich, considering the speaker and his refusal to accept the idea that Americanness has always been (and still is) whatever’s left over for everyone after you bottom caste a specific lineage. That might be a lot for some groups of people, and it might be a little for some others, but make no mistake, those people who have even just a little of it will fight tooth and nail to deny the bottom caste any share of it whatsoever. So the real question is: how do we make American the specific people from whom Americanness has always been withheld?

It will no doubt aggrieve many who are sympathetic to that project to hear that the answer is through something like a politics of sacrifice; an advocacy that necessarily entails your own loss. It will entail something that—not only will we need to learn why and how we need to make—but which we then will also have to teach our children why and how they need to make it, too, and so on. And any fellow “ally” who is quick to tell you that—even on some small level—they don’t struggle or wrestle with that reality of sacrificing their own advantage is outright lying to you. They shouldn’t be trusted any more than Jilani, who is either simply an idiot or whose deliberate and total absence of humility in the face of his own personal history should inspire fear and rage. Indeed, it is precisely that obvious and blatant disregard for what the group is owed that, when we observe it, should move us past whatever qualms we might have and toward a firm belief in the righteousness of #ADOS politics. Because the kind of politics needed to make ADOS American exists completely outside the little circle-jerk cliques that Jilani so casually moves in and out of. It is a sort of politics that, in practice, looks exactly unlike the careerism that is so obviously at the core of his political commentary, and which—at the absolute most basic level—demands we disabuse ourselves of the false comfort that we can or even should try to circumvent the leviathan that is the lineage-based disadvantage of ADOS, a thing which has made so much possible, for so many people, and all at their group’s complete expense.

n o t e s

1. This is according to the most recent census data on policymap.com. The black people who do live nearby don’t exactly seem representative of the group’s general economic condition, either. Black household income, at the median, is just over 75k. And you’d have to drive several miles until you start seeing a situation where more than .07% of black people are living in poverty.

2. The Saddlebook Farms HOA’s annual fee covers maintenance of the swimming pool and tennis courts. In general, Saddlebrook Farms is almost caricatural in its whiteness and privilege. Blind wine tasting parties are apparently a regular thing, and there’s a Yard of the Month contest, which sounds absolutely tyrannical and anxiety-provoking.

3. Interesting to note here that this particular structural aesthetic refers to the provincial nobility in France who wanted to distance their community from the metropolis they considered “too urban” for their tastes. The very same thing appears to have animated the development of this residential area in Cobb County, but the area’s history doesn’t suggest that the white people were eve remotely interested in using any polite euphemisms like ‘too urban’ to describe their motivations; they pretty explicitly made it clear they didn’t want black people around, which will become apparent in the main text’s next paragraph…

4. For his own high school education, Zaid attended Kennesaw Mountain High, which was founded in 2000 as a magnet school. Ruthie Yow, the author of “Students of the Dream: Resegregation in a Southern City”, describes these magnet programs as “mini ivory towers because of subtle gate keeping that locks out poor children.”

5. His sister, who now works for the Pentagon’s top weapons supplier and Fortune 100 company Lockheed Martin, would have been studying at Parsons, an elite art and design school in Manhattan. From there, she would make the not-exactly-lateral move to pursue a Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2014, the New York Times announced her marriage to Gregory Whitten, who works as an “independent consultant to Fortune 500 companies on healthcare, including the pharmaceutical industry, health IT, and both federal and private sector entrants.”