For fans of the literature of defeat, Cyrus Garrett’s forthcoming political memoir, The Lack of Profile Pics and Other Bot-Like Activity in My Mentions: Or, How I Shit the Bed with Getting Out the Black Vote, will be available for pre-order on Amazon in early 2021.
“WASHINGTON — Democrats are getting increasingly worried that black Americans with an uneven voting history may tune out Democratic candidates in 2020, as fringe messaging campaigns and disinformation breed cynicism over what the party has done for black Americans.”
Not until a full five paragraphs later does Sands more specifically describe what “black Americans with a uneven voting history” means. There, he refers to them as “marginal” and “sporadic” voters who are characterized by their non-participation during midterm elections and/or their not being unwaveringly partisan. What’s curious though is that—by these very criteria—black Americans with an uneven voting history seem to in fact be a shrinking presence within the overall black electorate. In the 2018 midterms, black voter turnout actually rose from where it had been in 2014 by 11 percentage points (51.4%), clearly indicating new and heightened political engagement within the group. Moreover, these voters overwhelmingly went for the democratic candidate (90%).
One can’t help but think, then, that what Democrats are actually “increasingly worried” about is a black voter turnout scenario akin to (or worse than) what the party witnessed in the 2016 presidential election, which—for the first time in 20 years—had declined to 59.6%.1 And while the DNC officials to whom Sands spoke are eager to blame “fringe messaging campaigns” for the possibility of such apathy resurfacing in 2020, it seems worth pointing out a very obvious fact that seems to be completely lost on them: the show of black voter indifference toward the Democratic Party in 2016 pre-dated the founding of literally every single one of the movements they cite in this article. This intro paragraph should probably read: Democrats are getting increasingly worried that 2020 candidates will be forced to actually deal with the natural outcome of the party’s decades-long tuning out of the community and its totally thankless attitude over what black Americans have done for it.
“Democratic National Committee sources told BuzzFeed News the party is tracking a new set of loosely organized online movements that officials believe are trying to steer black voters away from the party or from voting altogether. The groups are varied in their approach, but share a common thread of deep suspicion of the Democratic Party and an apparent determination to seize upon the hypersensitive political moment in a country with a deeply troubled racial past.”
If Sands is going to include this indirect quotation that he received from his sources at the DNC, then he should at least respect his readers enough to clarify the ways in which those sources are in fact openly lying to them here. It would require a minimum of effort on his part to look at these “loosely organized online movements” and see that—more than being “varied in approach”—the groups’ respective aims and strategies are honestly not even really comparable. From here, Sands could then transition into a much more detailed and honest (if that’s his thing, which it does not seem to be) assessment of what each of these movements actually stand for. And so instead of writing this…
“The party is paying particular attention to the American Descendants of Slavery, or ADOS, a group that believes reparations should be paid solely to Americans who can trace their lineage back to people who were themselves enslaved (the group had previously been under suspicion being made up of bots); Blexit, a new outfit led by young black conservatives arguing a vote for Donald Trump is a vote against widespread immigration and abortion standing in the way of black middle class family values; and Foundational Black Americans, an ADOS rival founded by independent filmmaker Tariq Nasheed.”
…he could actually report this: That the DNC sources with whom I spoke identified “Foundational Black Americans” (FBA) as a movement is rather peculiar, since FBA seems to not only reject that label, but routinely emphasizes its deliberate lack of organizational infrastructure. Tariq Nasheed, an independent filmmaker affiliated with FBA, has stated multiple times that undertaking work in the political arena is very much extraneous to its main concerns, which hew exclusively toward the cultural aspects of native-born black life in the U.S. In contrast, “Blexit”—a new outfit led by young black conservatives—does have an explicit political agenda, but it is one that is so nakedly self-serving and contemptuous of black voters that Democrats should probably make reparations a centerpiece of the Party’s 2020 platform just for letting such a vulturous thing like “Blexit” materialize on the scene in the first place. The third movement (and the one to whom the party is paying particular attention) is American Descendants of Slavery, or #ADOS. Since its emergence into the mainstream of U.S. politics, #ADOS has faced allegations that it is made up of bots. These claims have thus far proven baseless, and—as the group has begun holding national conferences, showing up on the steps of the Supreme Court, gathering at town hall meetings, and establishing local chapters all across the country—to the extent one persists in promulgating this bot theory, one assumes the risk of publicly appearing mentally unwell. The movement’s demands include proposals that would greatly benefit all black Americans, but, at the core of their agenda is a call for the U.S. government to make restitution to the specific victims of the institution of chattel slavery and its unique and enduring legacy in America; namely, to those individuals who can trace their lineage back to their enslaved ancestors, and who as a group have been made to bear the particular burden of multigenerational material disadvantage that has been both covertly and overtly made to plague them for centuries.
Laying it out like this (which is to say, again, honestly), would have allowed Sands to circle back to the bit where he erroneously said these groups “share a common thread”, and re-word that part to more appropriately convey the truth that the only common thread they share is that they all involve black people in a country with a deeply troubled racial past. And one again can’t help but feel a deep suspicion that the Democratic establishment, in witnessing black Americans begin to think critically about its not-exactly-trivial-role in helping perpetuate those past injustices, is deliberately conflating and misrepresenting these movements in the public sphere in an apparent attempt to seize on the hypersensitive political moment and to get on with the business of exacting the expected performance of fealty from black voters at the polls while reminding them how grateful they should be for its efforts at symbolic progress.
“Democrats often repeat the refrain that the party would never take black voters for granted. Inside the party, though, political advisers think it’s likelier than not that most marginal voters (Obama voters who skipped the midterms) and sporadic voters (those who are harder to persuade) have had at least some exposure to an anti–Democratic Party message. In some cases, party officials said, black Americans’ dim view of the job Democrats have done governing in recent decades is colored by a grim economic outlook and uncertainty about the future.”
Democrats often repeat the refrain that the party would never take black voters for granted. But if current trends continue, Black America’s wealth is expected to completely bottom out in the next two decades. And because Democrats have had an obvious and influential hand in shaping the sorts of policies and circumstances that will have precipitated this extinction event, it seems virtually unthinkable that black voters would not take a dim view of the job that Democrats have done governing in recent decades. Maybe political advisers inside the party—rather than focusing so much on whether or not marginal and sporadic voters have been exposed to an anti-Democratic Party message—should instead seriously reflect on the ways in which the party has exposed the entire community to the anti-black messages it has been sending out now for decades.
“The new anti-Democratic groups want to appeal to black Americans with a populist message rooted in ethnic, cultural, and economic identity they say is untethered to the ‘Democratic plantation’ mentality, a political trope first used by black Republicans in the 1960s.”
And now, like then, it is still only the black Republicans whose messaging actually includes the phrase “Democratic plantation.” For Sands to lazily lump #ADOS in with such a glaringly dissimilar rightwing crusade is for him to now be directly insulting his own readers and surrendering any right to be regarded as anything even close to a serious journalist who might hold himself to even the most minimal of standards and ethics of the trade. It is motive-exposing to the maximum. While Blexit and FBA may want to appeal to black Americans with a populist message rooted in ethnic, cultural, and economic identity they say is untethered to the “Democratic plantation” mentality, Sands might want to at least hint at the fact that it’s very unclear how Blexit‘s out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire approach will translate into any significant improvement in the group’s material condition. The same can, in a certain way, be said for a movement that supposedly abstains from staking out any territory in the political sphere. #ADOS differs from these in its determination to build group empowerment from within a site of possibility; a place where the group has actual political purchase. In this way, #ADOS is not ‘anti-Democratic’ so much as it is pro-reciprocity, pro-cooperation between a political party and its lifeblood.
“In interviews, black Democrats said the party itself is partly to blame: Party leaders had failed to further understand the voters who had boosted them at the polls.”
Perhaps, though, the more precise wording is ‘failed to respect’; Party leaders had failed to respect the voters who had boosted them at the polls. This, again, speaks to one of #ADOS’s most powerful assertions: Politics is an exchange. And so when DNC operatives who so clearly have misdiagnosed the root malaise of black voters, but who claim to be taking the challenge seriously and saying that they are now working on several black outreach efforts, then those efforts should absolutely be understood as the Democratic Party planning to reach out for the collars of the black community.
“National Democrats say they want to equip voters with a clear sense of what Democrats have delivered for black people, especially under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said Cyrus Garrett, the DNC’s African American political director.”
Six out of every ten black people in the U.S. have an immediate family member who was or is now incarcerated. Six out of every ten, in large part thanks to Clinton’s crime bill. And that giant wealth-erasing asteroid that is headed directly at black households in 2053 indisputably bears Obama’s signature. In other words, there arguably could not be two worse legacies to trot out in front of already disaffected black voters for a rose-colored glasses trip down memory lane, and one just sort of stares at their phone in bafflement at how Sands manages to let this fact slide without mention. Or, rather, one perhaps begins to understand something about Sands and his function.
‘We already know that [our] platform is aligned with what they need, but we need a way to communicate that more so that when people ask them what the Democrats have done, they can easily talk about it,’ Garrett said. ‘But we haven’t yet found the right language that makes the community feel as if we understand where they’re coming from and what’s actually happening to them. A lot of it is just listening to how they say it.’”
Or policy. Or you haven’t found the right policy. Except, of course, the right policy is directly in front of you, exactly where it has been now for almost a year, on ados101.com. All the “language” you will need is right there. “Where they’re coming from” and “what’s happening to them” is literally all right there. Stop making the needs of the community out to be some fucking great enigma, or like you need Rosetta Stone to be able to understand what black people are saying to you. It’s not language to make the community feel that The Democratic Party needs, it’s the courage to make it heal.
“The rapper and activist Talib Kweli, who has been an ardent critic of ADOS and Blexit and clashed at times with their leaders over the course of the past year, said he applauded the DNC’s recognition of their threat.”
Y’know, it’s funny. At some point during the writing of this article, Sands must have revisited some of his notes from his days as an undergrad journo student and found this rare gem buried somewhere in there: talk to sources and gather quotes. Although isn’t it strange how he somehow only managed to connect with Talib Kweli and two other individuals (one of whom has also ‘clashed’ with #ADOS, but who more specifically was one of the chief promoters of the ‘ADOS are bots’ theory), and yet he somehow could not find a single person from #ADOS with whom to speak? A single person who might have been able to turn his article into an actual act of reporting instead of an exercise in creative writing.
. N O T E S .
1. When they rammed a candidate through who embodied arguably all of the party’s most overt and covert anti-black tendencies and instincts.↩
In one version of things, Yvette Carnell has for the last three and a half years been at the helm of a conservative-sponsored initiative passing itself off as a reparations movement, the actual intent of which is to manipulate the dependably Democratic black voter bloc and thus grease the skids for Republican electoral victories in 2020 and beyond. In another version, Yvette Carnell is just (and I’ll quote here) “a bitter old woman” who is “living in her parents [sic] basement.”1
Given the seemingly contradictory nature of these accounts, you might suspect that whichever version you get depends on who you ask. After all, the first invites us to behold a kind of mastermind-Svengali who’s been handpicked by a group of highly influential figures and lobbyists in the extreme political Right and who (on their dime!) has been tasked with carrying out a massive, nationwide plot of black voter suppression. The second, on the other hand, invites us to essentially dismiss that same person as being nothing but an apparent deadbeat worthy of our ridicule.
These two portrayals, however, are both frequently spoken together in the same breath, by the same crowd of people, all of whom seem oddly untroubled by the obvious inconsistencies that surface. Who is Yvette Carnell? A key resource on the payroll of a shadowy cadre of rightwing donors? Duper of hundreds of thousands of people and orchestrator of a movement that serves to exclusively carry out the will of that rightwing cabal? Embittered former Democratic congressional aide? A perpetually down-and-out basement dweller? All of these things? Really?
This is how it tends to go with the allegations leveled at Yvette Carnell (and #ADOS more generally). They often, in the end, beg way, way more questions than they actually answer, and they routinely run aground some rather incongruous realities that cast serious doubt not only on the claims against #ADOS themselves, but also—and perhaps more importantly—the motives and integrity of the individuals making them.
The idea that, since 2016, Yvette Carnell has enjoyed access to the deep coffers of John Tanton’s network of white supremacist organizations (most directly via the group Progressives for Immigration Reform [PFIR], on whose board of directors she openly admits to having served beginning that same year) is one such claim that is having more and more difficulty making its way across this ever-widening credibility gap. And despite her insistence that she has never taken money from PFIR, critics of #ADOS claim that Carnell is concealing the true nature of the movement’s financing and have routinely sought to tie it to Tanton et al. in order to expose what they believe to be its rightwing, xenophobic and nativist seeding. And, as pictured below, documentation such as the Colcom Foundation’s contribution of $350,000 to PFIR back in 2016 for ‘unrestricted purposes’ serves for these opponents of #ADOS as irrefutable ‘proof’ that the movement’s co-founder is (and has been for some time) in the pocket of white supremacist ideologues and is merely a stooge for helping advance their pro-Republican agenda vis-à-vis the #ADOS movement.
2016-17 was, to be sure, a pivotal time in BreakingBrown’s history. The channel’s subscriber count—which up to that point had experienced modest upticks slowly over the course of years—really seemed to then begin gathering some serious momentum and growing at an observably brisker pace. And, as available analytics detailing the show’s subscriber count can attest, that number has since continued to climb steadily upwards right up to today.
What’s worth paying attention to, though, is the only instance on this graph at which the subscriber count appears to stall out for some time; namely, between late September and December of 2017. That period of course—as longtime fans of the show will no doubt recall—was particularly significant in relation to BreakingBrown. Those two and a half months constituted its only extended programming hiatus, one which followed a rather abrupt departure by then-co-host Irami Osei-Frimpong and which left Yvette Carnell’s increasingly popular political education channel without any of the necessary production equipment (and an intern) required to air its twice-weekly broadcasts. And so, just like that, at what seemed a critical juncture in the show’s run during the fall of 2017, BreakingBrown simply went away.
Somewhat bewildered, fans of the show took to forums to speculate on what may have happened, and also to keep each other abreast of any potential developments regarding the show’s return. For months there was nothing to signal the possibility of that happening anytime soon. Then, around early December, a Lipstick Alley user uploaded a video that Yvette Carnell had streamed live on her YouTube channel.
The video has since been deleted, presumably because its only content is literally Yvette in a room by herself, evidently frustrated and clearly struggling with trying to iron out the technical side of things in advance of the show’s apparently-not-too-far-off return.
This is, of course, not exactly anything too far out of the ordinary for a person who, in the absence of sufficient resources, is forced to wear a few different hats, solicit some help from whomever might be willing to lend a hand, and just make do. What is unusual, however, is that—according to those who now in 2019 are busy promulgating the narrative that Yvette Carnell has long been in receipt of secret payments from a right-wing propaganda machine (and #ADOS its puppet movement)—2017 ought to have found the co-founder of the #ADOS movement in no kind of financial straits whatsoever.
After all, if for the year and a half leading up to this, Yvette Carnell had been sitting on an apparent reserve of discretionary Tanton capital, then what the hell is she doing spending her day troubleshooting audio? Couldn’t she have easily availed herself to whatever resources PFIR had supposedly earmarked for #ADOS back in 2016 and just hired someone to take care of that for her?2 Wouldn’t her white handlers enthusiastically front her the money for something like that? Furthermore, why would BreakingBrown even have been allowed to experience such a prolonged interruption in the first place? Especially in late 2017, when the #ADOS political project was so clearly picking up steam, and when it would obviously be in the Tanton web’s best interest to ensure that their up-and-coming mouthpiece has a platform from which to trumpet their propaganda. How would this apparently quite practiced and adept group of astroturfers fail to recognize the absolute necessity of sustaining a smooth-running media component in order to churn out and disseminate those archconservative values?
Although, maybe when we consider to which arm of the #ADOS movement the ‘alt-Right’ has been funneling its resources we unduly focus on Yvette Carnell. Perhaps over the years these figures have been investing in the building up of a robust field of political candidates, all of whom were recruited and trained to foreground the #ADOS agenda in order to assist in their ultimate aim of driving voters away from the Democratic Party. Obviously having that sort of political infrastructure in place would be essential to achieving exactly the kind of disruption one would expect from a cynical organization committed to Republican dominance.
However, a cursory survey of candidates whose platforms speak explicitly to the ADOS electorate, and who are presently vying for office, reveals literally two such persons: Tamara Johnson-Shealey, a Democrat who is running for a congressional seat in Georgia’s 40th district, and Stevevonna Evans, who, out in San Bernadino, California, is running for county supervisor. In the former’s last bid for Congress in 2018, her opponent raked in over a quarter-million dollars in contributions while she herself pulled in $15,836.90
The point is obviously not to diminish what candidates like Johnson-Shealey and Evans are doing. Quite oppositely, what they are doing is all the more commendable, all the more admirable, precisely because they are starting at such a deficit—of interest, resources, whatever. The point, rather, is to try and take an honest look at what is (and has been) actually happening out there and note the glaring disconnect between that and the ongoing depiction of #ADOS as a political movement that is under the financial auspices of major players in the Right.
To be perfectly frank, those individuals who are routinely making that claim are people who have in fact proven themselves to be comically and pathetically inept when it comes to their ability to discover the absolute most basic and obvious of truths. These people are the Inspector Clouseaus of Twitter. And the affectation of righteousness and self-assuredness they assume while they bumble maladroitly through their own mess of misinformation, loudly proclaiming to be fact that which is either completely groundless or easily refutable, is genuinely embarrassing and contemptible. The ring leader of these anti-#ADOS carnival barkers could not perform a simple Twitter search of my name in order to disprove her own patently moronic theory that I was Yvette Carnell, a theory which—to this day—somehow amazingly still has legs.
‘Receipts’ will not kill #ADOS. You can’t ‘mute’ it. Calling it ‘trash’ over and over and over again every single day will not stop it. It is here now, and its presence has nothing at all to do with its being ‘rightwing-funded.’ It has always been here. It has survived four-hundred years of murderous, unrelenting violence, and you think you’re going to stop it by calling them bots and Republicans? Bots and Republicans? That’s your play? Do you not see yourselves? You are howling idiotically at the centuries-undead idea of justice, a thing that will surely—as it always has—march on single-mindedly in search of itself inside this offending land long after you and everyone else who would deny it realization have become ash and dust; after all your halfbaked theories and consternation about why it’s here (or why it’s here in the particular way that it now is) run toward exhaustion; after all your trying desperately to erase its being here reveals—in the end—only the undeniable permanence of it, a permanence that is tied indissolubly to America’s continued and dogged unwillingness to ever deal honestly with it.
#ADOS is here, plain and simple. And the bolt on the door behind which we have tried to keep it shut away is now shaking more violently than ever before. The only thing that might be worth investigating is the question of why that so deeply upsets you.
. N O T E S .
1. This is, of course, consistently said in a way that is meant to encourage all the most unsympathetic of assumptions that most Americans will make when they hear an individual is living at the home of their parents (e.g. some assortment of personal deficiencies is at play). At least to my knowledge, no consideration has ever been given to the possibility of her being a caretaker for a sick or infirm family member, nor to the basic fact that the current economy is dictating all sorts of alternate living arrangements across demographic groups. Whatever the case may be, Yvette’s home life is (obviously) absolutely no one else’s business but hers. But these people bringing it up in such a clearly judgmental way reveals nothing so much as a total disconnect from the difficult realities faced by everyday people in the U.S., and—perhaps more germane to this essay—a penchant for loudly repeating hearsay in the absence of any proof.↩
2. 2016 was also the year, according to one individual with apparent insider ‘intel’, that Russia “copped” (sic?) the #ADOS movement. Again, one can do nothing but just sort stare and blink at such an absurd and idiotic claim. ↩
Of all the many, many mischaracterizations of the #ADOS movement that Hubert Adjei-Kontoh indiscriminately fires off in his recent article, this one really explores new heights of stupidity…
#ADOS has managed to synthesize the black left-wing critique of America’s origins with a right-wing belief in the inherent superiority of those who were born in America. What the movement draws from the former is a simplified argument that black people and only black people were exploited to produce the wealth of the United States, and what they draw from the latter is that this makes them and other descendants of slaves the true inheritors of American wealth.
One almost doesn’t even know where to begin. I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever once heard anyone in the #ADOS movement refer to themselves so highfalutinly as the “true inheritors of American wealth.” And using that language to misrepresent them as fanatical and money-grubbing says way more about the writer’s own agenda than it does theirs.
In fact, all that they have ever actually been saying is that—as ADOS—they identify as a specific group that is owed restitution commensurate with the specific exploitation they’ve long suffered in order for the nation to build so much of that wealth, and, also, for the many injustices that have guaranteed basically none of it find its way back into their community. More importantly, that position is clearly not one based on them feeling “inherently superior” because they were “born in America.” That has got to be, bar none, the absolute most imbecilic take on ADOS to date. So, congratulations Hubert. Had you actually one ounce of integrity as a writer, you would, at the very least, represent their position faithfully, even if you ultimately disagreed with it.
#ADOS, of course, is not driven in any sense whatsoever by a belief in the group’s own ‘inherent superiority’ stemming from their being ‘born in America’, but rather by how America itself was born by the unconscionable belief of their group’s inherent inferiority. What the movement “draws from” is how even today (centuries later!) to be born as ADOS is, for all intents and purposes, to be born in America and experience citizenship only in the most nominal of ways. It is to be born into and belong to the group in whom the economic expression of that belief of inherent inferiority is still very much alive and still very much uniquely fixing the limits of what is possible for them in the U.S.
It is actually risible how many people like Hubert will completely torpedo their own reputation as measured and responsible journalists in order to produce pieces whose sole intention is to shit on ADOS and fulfill their author’s hopes of his or her comrades or whatever singing their praises. It is, at this point, becoming its own sad genre of criticism as careerism; that is, completely warp the positions of #ADOS in order to fashion a step ladder for your own professional betterment. There’s no point in telling these people that they ought to be ashamed, because shame is so obviously the very first thing they enthusiastically traded in for a shot at being in The Club. It will be, however, a real thrill to watch the rungs of fallacies by which they’ve cheaply ascended to their little perch of ‘influence’ all eventually give way.
Type “Reactionary” and “ADOS” into the search feature on Twitter, and it yields something like this…
Leaving aside the sweeping arrogance required by someone to label ADOS as being insufficiently attentive to the logic of capital (the group whose oppression under capitalism is so totally sui generis, and who report after report demonstrates that it is they alone who bear the most vivid and enduring material toll exacted by that system), that opinion is really not that “unpopular” at all.1
In fact, despite the pretense to original thought that @_AngrySocialist’s little golly-here’s-one-that-I’ll-bet-really-goes-against-the-grain disclaimer is meant to communicate, that sentiment (grotesque as it is) is pretty broadly shared, especially among the U.S Left (q.v. this, this, this or this, or just keep reading).
And it’s that word—reactionary—that seems to be the smear of choice for opponents of #ADOS. Functioning much like how ‘radical’ does for the Right when they want to raise the specter of political ideas they all knee-jerkingly agree are totally odious and execrable, the insistent use of ‘reactionary’ by Leftists to describe #ADOS seems, above all else, to be used as a way to really gin up enmity inside the herd by erroneously casting ADOS as a bunch of thoughtless right-wingers whose political project is governed by the most base of instincts. Which is, ya know, I mean, it’s obscene, obviously. But, whatever; every ideological camp needs these kinds of slurs to hurl at the opposition. Though it would seem a basic prerequisite for cogent discussion that these political labels should (if they’re to have any real purchase) refer to a definite set of qualities that everyone inside that camp clearly understands, and who thus, when trying to stigmatize the threat in their midst, deploys appropriately.
Which is why there’s something real sloppy and lazy and just flat-out wrong about the Left’s imputation of ‘reactionary’ to #ADOS. How it seems that in the headlong rush to brand the movement as such, what gets betrayed most is an unwillingness (or an odd inability) by those people to actually consider the politics of reaction as understood on the Left’s own terms, a refusal that would seem to obviously trouble an account of how #ADOS could then possibly be said to embody them.
I don’t think anyone on the Left would argue that award-winning political theorist Corey Robin doesn’t quite ‘get it’ when it comes to the nature of reaction as a political force. The New Yorker hailed his book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, as “The book that predicted Trump.”2
Here’s the book’s excellent and extremely straightforward definition of conservatism, one that serves to anchor Robin’s entire exploration into the history and present of reactionary demarche in America: “For that is what conservatism is,” Robin writes, “a meditation on—and the theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”
In relation to ADOS, of course, that definition ought to prompt a pretty basic and obvious question in the mind of anyone who believes the movement to be animated by conservative principles; namely, when in the hell has that group ever meaningfully known the “felt experience of having power”? During slavery? Immediately following? When their community was being lynched en masse and terrorized? When they were picked up for the most spurious of ‘crimes’ and then extrajudicially tried and sentenced to serve terms of absolutely brutal and inhumane penal labor which allowed the state to recoup those bygone profit margins of the antebellum days?3 Or perhaps it was during the decades-long period in which the government and banks colluded to deny their group the same loans with which it so felicitously furnished white America in the country’s postwar suburban sprawl. Was it when the deed language of those properties prohibited their sale to ADOS and so further ensured they would be excluded from ownership of an asset with which to build wealth? Serious question: is the “felt experience of power” that in which your family is consigned to languish in the blighted and resource-barren urban pockets of the country that your ancestors built while opportunity for mobility abounds elsewhere? Is it being a second-class citizen in a first-world country and living in third-world conditions? Does power feel like eight rounds to the back? Seven rounds to the chest? Sixteen rounds all over? Is it being murdered by the police while babysitting in your own home? Or suffering a “complete and catastrophic” injury to your spinal cord in the back of a police van?
I’m honestly just trying to understand what that experience of power must have felt like for ADOS at whatever point. Or to get my head around how today’s rates of incarceration—which see more male ADOS imprisoned than 1850 saw them enslaved—suggest anything even remotely resembling a trajectory of power? How the group’s median wealth, which is anticipated to completely tank in a mere 33 years, could be understood as anything other than the chef’s kiss of what has been a long, unmitigated campaign—public and private, overt and covert—utterly given over to denying their group’s empowerment. That seems, rather, to better describe the so-called conservative #ADOS movement’s “felt experience” in national life, one which resembles nothing so much as the experience of being made to never have any appreciable amount of power to begin with.
And yet, as Robin writes, “All conservatism begins with loss.” It is a project of “recovery and restoration” through which the conservative “seeks to regain what is his, and the fact that he once had it—indeed probably had it for some time—suggests he is capable of possessing it again.” Again, one struggles to locate what, for #ADOS, could possibly be functioning in the group’s imagination as their much longed-for halcyon days? The erstwhile period of supposed influence in the U.S., wielded over others, and on which they today ruminate from a lesser perch and desperately vie to reclaim. When was this?
Because it is that basic dynamic—those with the power and those without—that necessarily conditions the former’s psyche of reaction. And while Robin notes that the (mis)usage of ‘reactionary’ routinely “connotes an unthinking, lowly grab for power,” he argues that reaction is more properly understood as “begin[ning] from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others;” a conviction of one’s dominance that is “[f]orged in response to challenges from below.” Indeed, as Robin adds, “There is no better way to exercise power than to defend it against an enemy from below.”
To what “challenge” from below is #ADOS as a ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’ movement responding? Immigrants? The same immigrants whose outcomes in America vastly surpass their group’s, despite having only been here in this country for a fraction of the time? Despite only being here in the first place because of ADOS? Is pointing out that phenomenon “punching down”? How do ADOS even punch down, given the ways in which everything in their history has so intricately bound their hands together? They can’t ‘punch down.’ At the moment, all they can do (all they’ve been left to be able to do) is to turn to one another and work at undoing those binding ropes; to try and prevent still more knots from being made. This is what they are up against. This is the tendency of their country, of every other group who comes here: to further constrict their ropes or to simply look the other way. And to think that it is they—the victims—who, in rejecting this arrangement, are maligned and dismissed as ‘reactionaries’…
In fact what #ADOS seems animated by (and more appropriately known by), rather, are the very same aims that Robin uses to characterize those emancipatory movements against which reaction arises, and which it endeavors to swiftly quash and discipline: “Every once in a while, however, the subordinates of this world contest their fates,” he writes. “They protest their conditions…join movements, and make demands.” Robin notes that “[m]ore than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency by the subject class—the appearance of an insistent and independent voice of demand—that vexes their superiors” (ital mine).
And isn’t it in that point—that last hallmark of reaction—wherein those figures who do in fact embody the qualities of reaction in the context of the #ADOS liberation movement stand out in such sharp relief? How does one read that description of the reactionary—the individual so intensely unsettled by his awareness of what Robin (here quoting another lefty, Karl Mannheim) points out are “those forms of experience which can no longer be had in an authentic way”—and not hear the mad, desperate howling of Winbush et al.? Cannot but hear the Greg Carrs groping at their place and relative prestige in the old, receding way of things?4 The musty order of the late-20th century’s moribund ‘push’ for reparations. Can’t you hear the acerbic reprimand from those Pan-Africanists, those Leftists, whom all but explicitly tell ADOS to shut up and keep to their place, to acquiesce to the tacit hierarchy in which they are to be maidservant to a movement and never the authors of their own fate, never the agents of securing their specific justice.
If conservatism begins with the recognition of loss, #ADOS begins with the recognition of wholesale theft. The theft of everything that makes not just the conservative’s but everyone else’s loss of relative advantage in America possible in the first place. The ambition to rule—to have a commanding influence over anyone else’s affairs in national life except their own—is wholly alien to the language of the #ADOS movement. Theirs is a language of justice. It is a discourse of actual concern for each other, for the hurt they all share, and for actual healing. And it has developed because every other domain of political speech has rendered such content at best a matter of indefinite deferment, or, at worst, a thing that is simply utterly prohibited. And to construe that group’s last resort of self-interest as ‘reactionary’ is to completely overlook the ways in which the politics of a greater collective have so abysmally failed and ignored them, and it evinces nothing so much as being an advocate for that repugnant arrangement’s continuation.
1. And who also—precisely because that supposedly ‘robust’ analysis of structural inequality is one that treats what could possibly happen to everyone else as more important than what is already (and has been now for centuries) happening to them—pretty understandably take a pass on espousing it as a panacea for their oppression. ↩
2. Robin himself pretty famously (mis)opined that Trump would in fact lose in 2016 by a very big margin; and so which is to say that—while Robin is indeed no slouch as a thinker—his books could maybe be said to gesture toward certain possibilities in ways that even he misses. ↩
4. Here’s another of Robin’s descriptions of conservatism (again by way of Mannheim), and one which—again—would seem to better describe the response to #ADOS by the old guard of the reparations movement rather than the actions of its current torchbearers: “Conservatism ‘becomes conscious and reflective when other ways of life and thought appear on the scene, against which it is compelled to take up arms in be ideological struggle.’ Where the traditionalist can take the objects of desire for granted…the conservative cannot. He seeks to enjoy them precisely as they are being—or have been—taken away. If he hopes to enjoy them again, he must contest their divestment in the public realm” (ital mine).
Lastly, I would ask in which of the following categories that Robin here juxtaposes would you situate #ADOS: “Unlike the reformer of the revolutionary who faces the nearly impossible task of empowering the powerless—that is, of turning people from what they are into what they are not — the conservative merely asks his followers to do more of what they always have done (albeit better and differently.)” The answer seems, to me anyway, extremely clear. ↩
I want they conference center to be empty come October. And if it’s not empty, I want them to be so confused, they don’t know what the fuck they doing.
— Talib Kweli, seven months before the inaugural (and sold out) ADOS Conference
I saw a lot of things at the inaugural ADOS conference. I watched as the day opened with Rep. John Yarmouth striding head first into a wall of reproach after ham-fistedly deploying the one-oppression-fits-all term, “people of color” (which, because that term so totally cooks out the specific justice claim that informs literally all things ADOS, is sort of like showing up at a conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and referring to the victims of Nazism—and those who are thus entitled to compensation—as ‘people of faith’).
I saw Marianne Williamson in retrograde. Someone who, in the waning days of her candidacy, would rather go down vowing to negotiate the debt owed to ADOS (from an already very low opening bid) than use every remaining breath of air that campaign still has to sear a meaningful number into the Left’s discourse of repair. Reparations is, after all, the issue that has served as the primary rudder of Williamson’s campaign. It’s what’s been responsible for really propelling it into (relative) prominence. Which is why for all the rhetoric about how her presidency will harness the righteous opposites of those forces that Trump successfully exploited in his 2016 bid, it’s so peculiar to see Williamson already signaling a kind of uninspiring surrender to those very same cynical forces when it comes to the issue of justice for ADOS, when it comes to what she feels will ultimately determine how whole we make the group. As she often does when the issue of cost rears its head, Williamson availed herself to this bit of apparent wisdom: “With vision, you must never compromise; politics is the art of compromise.” I’m not really sure what effect that’s supposed to have on audiences. It starts out kind of inspirational, but then basically devours itself. All I can say is that what I saw at the ADOS conference was a sanctuary full of people who were clearly past the point of getting excited about (let alone throwing the weight of their vote behind) a candidate who seems interested in focus-grouping their reparations; who posits a scenario in which, with the right haggling, ADOS will get a little something in exchange for the everything that’s been stolen from them (an everything which—it should be remembered—has been used to make the whiteness that a candidate like Ms. Williamson has never not known and enjoyed).1
I saw Dr. Cornel West both bear witness and testify to the spirit of affection and intense, genuine concern for one another that has, since the outset of the ADOS movement, so obviously and powerfully pulsed from within it. This is apparent enough online; in person, it’s really a whole different thing to behold. And I quickly realized how utterly impossible it would be for me to actually put that particular attribute of the conference into words. So I’ll just include this thought that I jotted down in the margin of my program while observing the crowd interacting during one of the breaks: Witnessing for about the three-hundredth time this weekend how it is apparently definitely possible for one’s first encounter with another person to feel—at the very same time—like a long anticipated reunion. 2
I guess maybe that comes close to capturing it, but I honestly don’t think—unless you were actually there in that room or on that lawn outside St. Stephen earlier this month—that you can really understand just how deeply connected ADOS are with one another, or really get your head around the sense of harmony and union that so totally pervades this movement of a people in lockstep toward justice and restitution. In fact, the only word I think I heard more than ‘justice’ that weekend, was ‘family.’
Which is to say I saw no confusion at all. Instead, what I saw so plainly among the attendees there in West Louisville a few weeks ago was the complete and total absence of that quality. I saw people who had come together with an absolutely precise sense of purpose, an exactly defined awareness of just who they are, of all that their group has built here, and all that is owed them as a result. I saw what America has tried forever in vain to vanquish, or at the very least avoid dealing with. I saw what, despite that, has always endured, and what now with #ADOS seems to have found its way across centuries to its most promising and formidable expression yet. What I saw, in other words, was the abject failure of the ridiculous and contemptible ‘mission’ set forth in this essay’s epigram. And I don’t just mean that I saw the failure of that now, at this particular juncture in the fall of 2019. I don’t mean that I saw just one person’s failure. What I mean to convey is that I believe I saw the complete and outright permanence of that failure. Because #ADOS has, from day one, worked tirelessly to purge confusion from within the group and to nurture in its absence a terrific and fearful clarity as they move forward. And with the unmitigated success of the inaugural ADOS conference serving as a backdrop, what that epigram reveals is how all that comes against that vision does so only in vanity, only briefly, before fading back into darkness. Weeds simply don’t grow in well-treated soil.
1. And this is not to go in on Williamson or whatever—someone who has displayed some actual guts. But like, there’s a real difference between simply putting the ball down on the field, and actually moving it purposefully toward the end zone.↩
2. This wasn’t just the vibe in the context of conference attendees meeting Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, either. A duo who are honestly such a presence in ADOS households that it probably really does feel like a reunion. This was just ADOS meeting other ADOS. But, speaking of Yvette and Antonio, I watched them both forego what seem some pretty basic human functions/needs (bladder emptying, thirst, hunger) over the course of several hours in favor of mingling with the crowd and making sure that everyone there was aware of just how much their presence in Louisville was appreciated and valued. ↩
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.