Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, recounts—among many other examples—the successful re-segregation efforts that took place in the city of Helena, Montana. It is but one of a great many other instances the book uses to describe how, during the 20th century, local and federal government enacted policies specifically intended to place black and white people in isolation from one another. The detrimental consequences of these efforts with respect to Native Blacks in this country cannot be overstated. They unquestionably constitute an essential component of the now yawning racial wealth gap, as whites—who previously lived in mixed communities but were afforded access to homes via FHA loans that were denied to African-Americans—clustered together in the suburbs. As black communities were left to languish in the wake of this re-segregation, The Color of Law shows how the present ills of urban black America—contrary to the claim of a pathologized blackness—are a direct, functional disorder of the racist handiwork of the real estate industry, state courts and the federal government.
What becomes apparent when looking at Helena—while never exactly being a very dense African-American city—was how the black community that was there had in fact prospered in a milieu of integration. There was an “established middle-class,” Rothstein writes, an African-American police officer patrolled one of the town’s wealthiest white neighborhoods, and there were “black newspapers, black-owned businesses and a black literary society.” However, as anti-black attitudes began metastasizing throughout the country, whatever harmony and stability had existed was soon shattered as African-Americans started being “systematically expelled” from Helena and other predominantly white communities. Between 1910 and 1970, the city’s black population declined by 90 per cent as a result of white mobs terrorizing the black community—abetted by local law enforcement—and anti-miscegenation laws.
To look at Helena today, one observes what seems to be a town that has—despite its unconscionable history—made progress in its stance on anti-blackness. After all, this past year, the city of Helena elected Wilmot Collins as its first black mayor. Collins is a 54 year-old refugee from Liberia who came to the United States at the age of 31, and is someone who, we are told, has “the most American of stories.” Presumably—for someone who is unaware of the specifics of Collins’ story—this language is meant to indicate and emphasize his embodiment of the idealized refugee experience; his ascendancy from the archetypal destitute arrival to his eventual attainment of the highest-ranking position in a municipal government. However, as with the preponderance of those “most American of stories,” a closer look at Collins’ actual experience shows how describing it in these terms conceals more than it reveals. Moreover, to conceive of Collins’ election as constituting some kind of meaningful leap forward for race relations in Helena, Montana is to misunderstand the utterly devastating legacy of the coordinated assault on black life that The Color of Law describes having taken place in the town, and on black America more generally. Those deliberate actions of re-segregation guaranteed the kind of instability that precludes any community-based, agenda-driven politics, and which could only ever allow for a future scenario in which a black candidate who “never felt that his race was a factor” might win the mayoral race.
It seems there could not be a more perfect expression and realization of the government project to keep Native Blacks at the bottom of society than to systematically engineer their place there and then have as mayor a feel-good symbol of blackness, and America’s enterprising spirit, say that his win was “not about race or anything.” Certainly, by now we must understand such a familiar proclamation as code for—and reassurance that—his tenure as Mayor will, too, not be “about race or anything.” However, a bit of digging on the Internet reveals just how powerfully race has in fact operated in Collins’ own “most American of stories.”
In 1984, Collins’ wife, Maddie, had been a Liberian high school cultural exchange student living in Helena. Her host family was a white family named the Nachsteims—Bruce and Nancy—a couple who would prove absolutely integral to both her and Wilmot’s futures. In 1988, Maddie graduated from Helena High School and returned to Liberia, which was then mired in a civil war. After fleeing the violence to Ghana with Wilmot, Maddie placed a telephone call from a shelter there to the Nachsteims and explained to them her situation. The Nachsteims quickly strategized a plan to get Maddie back to Helena. “The only way we could get [Maddie] into the U.S., was if she applied for a student visa,” Joyce Nachtsheim said. “So we explained to Carrol College what the plight was, and the college said, `We will pay for it, don’t you worry.’ It helped us tremendously, and so Maddie came on a student visa.” Maddie received a full scholarship to Carroll College, where she would study nursing.
Maddie arrived pregnant in Montana in 1992. Wilmot had to remain in Ghana. Immediately, the Nachsteims set about trying to reunite her with her husband as expeditiously as possible. Bruce Nachsteim—who was a former FBI agent—contacted state Senator Conrad Burns and Senator Baucus, along with Congressman Pat Williams to initiate the process that would eventually bring Maddie’s husband over to Helena. “I talked to everyone who was anyone,” he said. In the interim, Maddie gave birth to a daughter in a hospital that, according to Nachsteim, “didn’t charge her anything…everyone pitched in to help this African girl from a war-torn county whom they had no connection with. It was really very spectacular.”
Throughout, Nachsteim continued “trying tirelessly” to get Wilmot to the United States, and in 1994 Wilmot finally secured a visa to come to Montana. Here’s a description of his arrival in Helena from a Public International Radio article:
“When [Wilmot] first arrived to Montana in 1994, the community had already rallied around his wife, who arrived more than two years earlier. He got off the plane to find a welcoming party put together by students at Helena High School and members of The First Lutheran Church. They held sheets of paper that together spelled out ‘Welcome home Wilmot.'”
As much as the media would like to wrap Collins’ story in the mythos of American opportunity that we’re repeatedly told is available to the very least of us, a scenario like this is inarguably atypical of the experience of an average refugee. And insofar as we take Collins’ story to be emblematic of a certain notion of opportunity and improbable success which is only accessible here in America, it’s important—it’s essential—to note how Collins’ success is one that is predicated on, and made completely possible by, proximity to whiteness. Without the Nachsteims, there is no Mayor Collins.
This imperative to be afforded the opportunities occasioned by proximity to whiteness is what the Breaking Brown project has repeatedly stated is one of the absolutely critical ways that the United States government can begin providing adequate redress for the economic devastation that has defined black life in America since the arrival of the first African slaves in the 17th century, and which is catalogued at length and in vivid detail in the pages of The Color of Law.
Indeed, the very fact of Mayor Collins’ election in Helena takes on a particular valence in light of Rothstein’s account of how the city was able to all but completely vanquish its black community in the mid 20th century. In many ways, Mayor Collins—who is already using his platform to extol the virtues of refugees and other immigrants—represents a new point in the continuum of black disadvantage that was being established during re-segregation. Breaking Brown has demonstrated at length the detrimental effects of the non-U.S. citizen labor stream on black workers (and U.S. labor more generally), and the need to prioritize jobs and protections for American workers and to shore up the wage floor. And so what does it mean to have a black Democratic mayor now advocating for the replacement to native blacks? Not just in the labor market, but also as potential affirmative action slots in higher education, and the many other ways in which the ushering in of new diversity functions to assist the United States in continuing to mask the predetermined, inevitable failure of African-American Descendants of Slaves—and by extension, the United States’ failure to heal the wound that it inflicted centuries ago and then proceeded to keep open? What does it mean to understand the sort of race-neutral politics of Mayor Collins as that which filled the vacuum left in the expulsion of Helena’s native black community? What , we have to wonder, in those intervening years could have been different—in Helena and elsewhere—if the government hadn’t ordained and done everything possible to keep Native Blacks at the very bottom of the social order?
The petite empire of Dr. Boyce Watkins is presently experiencing a bit of a legitimacy crisis.
This past week, a 2017 video surfaced in which Charles Wu—precisely the sort of execrable creature you’d expect to find writhing and wriggling around in the wet soil when you lift up the stone of the Marketing Copy world—could be seen videoconferencing with a colleague and congratulating himself on having stumbled upon what’s probably the most basic and elemental principle of marketing: emotion sells products.
In recounting his experience trying to develop a marketing concept for Dr. Boyce Watkins’ line of financial literacy products geared toward producing black wealth, Wu appears at an utter loss to be able to describe the actual products themselves as anything other than painfully ordinary, uninspiring, and offering effectively nothing beyond what is already available in the market. On the other hand, Wu becomes absolutely gleeful—literally giggling at one point in the video—talking about the moment he realized how, despite the products’ innate shortcomings, there exists a rich source that can be tapped into to reliably drive sales. That source is Black desperation.
“This was exciting for me as a copywriter,” he says, describing what must be the obvious thrill of realizing for oneself the long and profitable tradition of “selling hope,” as he puts it, to African-Americans. “We basically sell [Boyce’s products] as religion,” Wu continues, and in doing so, he not so subtly implies that the target consumer here is one whose exceptional and very real condition of economic desperation must be understood as highly favorable to exploitation. And that insofar as he can effectively use Boyce Watkins—and get his products to represent a particular idea of salvation—then they both stand to be the beneficiaries of that very desperation.
Despite his evident giddiness at the strategy, there is absolutely nothing less innovative than what Wu here describes. And to be honest, since Wu has opted to make a living writing marketing copy, it’s pretty unreasonable to expect him to have anything other than the most patently empty, predatory, and foul conception of human beings as things that exist only to sell stuff to. “They buy [Boyce’s products] just to feel good,” Wu says smugly, in a self-satisfied tone that reveals not only how enamored and impressed he is with his supposed savviness and mastery of the African-American “market,” but also the total disdain he possesses for the very people who comprise that “market.”
None of this should register as a shock. What should, and rightly has, excited loathing and disgust among a lot of people is how that attitude of basic contempt for black America has been easily and nefariously packaged in a very pro-black, public-facing component: a readymade, African-American financial ‘guru’ who goes out into the community and tries to sell them on the idea that by investing in his products, it will lead to a financially-secure and thus liberated future for themselves and their children.
This idea of black advancement—of black liberation without an attendant political component that can provide a sound foundation for even the possibility of meaningful black economic empowerment to occur—is one that is the very antithesis of what Yvette Carnell is advocating as a way forward for the African-American community in her work over at Breaking Brown.
In the aftermath of the video, Yvette Carnell has pointed out how the business relationship between Charles Wu and Boyce Watkins is in effect little more than the two having entered into an agreement to prey upon the extremely desperate situation of black America. She has rightly raised the critical question of how the African-American community should regard someone who publicly promotes an individualistic course of black self-determination, but whose private business dealings nonetheless involve, and depend on, a multicultural cast of capitalists whose very presence appear to give lie to Watkins’ notion of black self-determination. What does it mean, Breaking Brown asks, to give what little money exists in the black community over to a businessman whose own consulting firm sees him as being merely a cipher of black hope? Boyce is just a “character,” Wu says, a “pitch guy…my info-product guy.”
This juxtaposition of ideas—one that tirelessly pursues the claim of economic justice for the entire African-American community, and the other that explicitly rejects any such claim and encourages those people who are overwhelmingly the biggest victims of the economy (and thus the least equipped to endure its shocks and trappings) to try and build wealth for themselves in it anyway—is in many ways the central ideological choice facing black America today in their continued struggle for equality.
The deficiency of the latter choice should be obvious enough, as Breaking Brown has exposed the major contradiction of white capital being at the controls of an ostensibly black capitalist enterprise, and how this arrangement ultimately serves the interests of business by manipulating the emotional fragility that exists in the African-American community. Moreover, that fragility must be seen and understood as existing as a result of precisely the absence of the sort of large-scale, agenda-driven political activism that Boyce Watkins would have his community believe is an unnecessary corollary to obtaining financial security. In fact, as Yvette Carnell has been consistently educating her audience through the Breaking Brown project, collective politics is not so much a corollary as it is the very precondition for meaningful black economic advancement. And that the hidden costs of the community becoming or remaining depoliticized—seduced by the illusion of financial stability without having to do the very difficult but essential work of politically organizing around a black, reparative agenda—ensures their being targeted by opportunists and their willing utility in perpetuating their disadvantage.
It didn’t take too long for a Leftist to object to the share of attention being given the black voters of Alabama who last week swung the election in favor of the Democrats. In his article, “The Doug Jones Victory Belongs to the People of Alabama, Not Just African-Americans,” Benjamin Studebaker asks, “How do we think we make the 30% of white Alabamans who did vote for the Democrat feel when we give all the credit for the Jones victory to African-Americans?” I don’t know? Maybe we make them feel that as a group they were significantly less responsible for neutralizing a fucking theocrat who at the time of the election had an octet of women accusing him of sexual assault and child molestation? Because that’s just what the white Democratic vote was in this case. It’s an observed, numerical fact. And insofar as media coverage has attributed Moore’s defeat largely to African-Americans, it’s just reflecting and expressing that general truth. The white democrats’ role in this particular special election was a helpful but empirically small accessory to the much larger black democratic vote. And if this faction of the Left that Ben represents involves becoming nervous and uneasy about white people maybe getting a bit bristly when that reality is pointed out—or if the suggestion here is that we be good little Leftists and observe the political orthodoxy that instructs us on how the only way our side can be electorally competitive again is if we omit any mention about the many ways in which African-Americans deserve particular attention, then I say that the coalition is fraudulent and disingenuous. If we can’t even rightly credit black people for the basic fucking miraculousness of what they were able to accomplish last week in Alabama—particularly in spite of all the barriers that state has put in place precisely to render the black vote inconsequential—without getting all squeamish and worked up over how that mere acknowledgement might chaff at whites’ egos, then the Left shouldn’t be surprised when black people take a pessimistic view of the political project and assume that other interests precede and rank theirs.
Because that’s what people like Benjamin Studebaker are in fact saying when they shush other people for talking about black people: that the coalition only holds together insofar as that particular history of African-Americans, and its legacy, is suppressed or understood as necessarily ancillary to the allegedly uniform condition of suffering among poor people in the U.S. That condition, though, is not uniform; and there’s plenty of information out there to dispute the idea that it is or ever was. To take Alabama alone, Lowndes County—which recently made international news for the area’s hookworm epidemic—has a 4.1% white poverty rate compared to the black poverty rate of 34.5%. In Perry County, the white poverty rate is 8.1%; the black poverty rate, 32.7%. Wilcox County is the poorest county in the state, and the county with the starkest difference of poverty rates among whites and blacks, which stands at 8.8% and 50.2%, respectively. Similar numbers are found in Alabama’s Marengo County (5.6% for whites and 40.8% for the county’s black residents). And lastly, Winston County, which has the state’s highest white poverty rate (23%), is still almost three times less than the county’s black poverty rate (63.2%).
All of which is to underscore just how obtuse a statement is like the one Studebaker makes in the article when he writes that Alabama is poorer “not just because of [the] large African-American population [but] because even its white people are poorer.” And while that’s obviously true, the fact that a supposedly committed egalitarian can regard the markedly pronounced levels of black poverty as being of a kind with the state’s white poverty should signal a crude and deliberate attempt to completely minimize the particular justice claim that African-Americans have in this country.
You can’t look at Alabama as just poor. The quality of that poverty is brutally different with respect to black poverty, and it’s different because of a very specific reason, which, as Kristina Scott, director of Alabama Possible notes, is “the legacy of slavery.” Nonetheless, Benjamin Studebaker would have us believe that “We can talk about [the causes of Alabama’s white poverty] . . . without in any way reducing our concern for people of color both in the south and around the country.” Well, it seems to me that—given the sharply differentiated figures between white and black poverty—talking about white poverty in isolation—or even talking about poverty in general—is necessarily limiting one’s concern for meaningfully addressing black poverty. And this isn’t just in Alabama. In all but one of the nation’s top ten states with the highest poverty levels, black poverty rates are double—and in many cases almost triple—that of white poverty.
So rather than Benjamin Studebaker asking us to pause and reflect on the potential for injured white feelings when we process basic numbers and reasonably identify African-Americans as the source of the Moore defeat, he should ask himself how he’d feel if he was one of the 73% of Lowndes County residents whom a study by Baylor College of Medicine and Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise recently reported “had been exposed to raw sewage washing back into their homes as a result of faulty septic tanks or waste pipes becoming overwhelmed in torrential rains.” It would be hard to imagine Ben Studebaker not finding a different and perhaps more nuanced appreciation for the situation of black poverty if his own feces wasn’t rapidly and expeditiously shunted to a place far, far away from him via an efficient and well-functioning plumbing and sewage system. If it, instead, resurfaced just out in his front yard. Or if not him, then his family or his friends or his neighbors. Because that’s black life in Lowndes County, Alabama.
At the very least, he should spend some time worrying about how a lot of those poor white people who voted for Moore and Jones—those people who’ve also been “disadvantaged and exploited by our economic system”—have historically used the footholds afforded them by federal anti-poverty programs to get further the hell away from poorer black people. Maybe he should worry about how race-blind programs in an age of widespread black generational poverty as a result of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining and mass incarceration might promote and facilitate that behavior rather than solve it.
And that’s not me engaging in what Ben calls an “intellectually and politically lazy tendency to ridicule and bully white southerners.” That’s the fundamental reality of America’s class structure. Some of those Jones voters—and maybe even some of those Moore voters—might very well be decent and good-hearted and non-racist people. Maybe. But I guarantee that all of them who are poor don’t like the condition of poverty and don’t like being around people who are at the very bottom of the social order. And what that means here in America is that they don’t like being around the black people who’ve been relegated there for hundreds of years. And—goodheartedness be damned—the minute those white people can get as far away from black people and their proximity to the social bottom as their finances will allow, they will.
And this is where the political imagination of Leftists like Ben Studebaker—for all of their thorough and incisive analysis of the catastrophes wrought upon the poor—appears to seize up: at the critical point of triage. They name the disaster. They describe the tyranny of a system developed to further enrich those who control it. They readily apprehend the crisis and the urgency of intervention. But beyond that, the conceptual response becomes cautious and sober. And the overweening concern about the limits of electoral possibility—which tends to manifest in a need to dishonestly frame the crisis as something that hasn’t inflicted its damages within the working class in a massively uneven and racialized way—already begins to corrode a politics of meaningful justice.
By ignoring the differences between white poverty and black poverty, it preserves the basic racialization of the class structure, even as it proposes to be able to offer the only means to dismantle it. And by actively trying to focus the conversation away from black Alabaman voters, like those in Lowndes County who came out to carry Doug Jones to victory, what you’re effectively looking to do is deny them something they can now cash in, politically, to maybe get some specific assistance that might help actually narrow the poverty gap. Until that happens—until the poverty rates in America are actually brought more closely together to resemble one another—the enduring disparity of the economic situation between the races will fail to be solved by universal policy alone. At best, that sort of policy—without inbuilt reparations for African-American Descendants of Slaves—can provide only a transposition of the current social arrangement, in which an interval of inequality would still exist between the races, only at a slightly different pitch. Those of us in the Left who profess a genuine commitment to justice should be very critical of, and even indignant with, that arrangement, since as long as there is a bottom stratum of society made up of black people, the conditions for meaningful equality among this country’s citizens cannot rightly be in place.
Over a century ago today, an African-American reverend named Alexander Crummell stood before a congregation in Saint Mary’s Chapel in Washington D.C. and preached the following words in his Thanksgiving Day sermon:
I see nought in the future but that we shall be scattered like chaff before the wind before the organized labor of the land, the great power of capital, and the tremendous tide of emigration, unless, as a people, we fall back upon the might and mastery which come from the combination of forces and the principle of industrial co-operation. Most of your political agitation is but wind and vanity. What this race needs in this country is power — the forces that may be felt. And that comes from character, and character is the product of religion, intelligence, virtue, family order, superiority, wealth, and the show of industrial forces. These are forces which we do not possess. We are the only class which, as a class, in this country, is wanting in these grand elements. The very first effort of the colored people should be to lay hold to them; and they will take such root in this American soil that only the convulsive upheaving of the judgement-day can throw them out.
Religion, intelligence, family order and wealth. It is these qualities which Crummell argues comprise and determine the character of a people. Or, put another way: the church, school, family and business. And what may at first glance seem like the sort of self-empowerment rhetoric of character so often used while dangling the country’s meritocratic fallacy, carrot-like, before the noses of those people who’ve been made prodigiously handicapped, what in fact those collective structures are capable of doing is shaping behavior and enabling an expansion of individual action to help effect outcomes for the community. The collective structures of which Crummell speaks are, simply, institutions. And by his configuration of power, then, it is through the institutions of a people that power must be pursued.
Anyone who has stayed abreast of some of the moves that Breaking Brown has made over the past couple months while it has been on hiatus is aware that—while the content of the show has ebbed—host Yvette Carnell has been anything but idle with respect to her efforts in pushing ahead with the show’s central mission of helping to secure racial justice for African-American descendants of slaves. Moreover, it appears that what is informing the next step of the Breaking Brown project is precisely a conviction in the institutions of the black community as being a powerful and influential vehicle for advancing their interests on a larger scale.
In September of this year, Yvette Carnell gave a speech at the Angela Project conference, the primary objective of which is to revitalize an historic element of activism in the black church, and press that into service of obtaining reparative justice. In that speech, she deftly makes the case for the particular justice claim that African-American descendants of slaves have as citizens of this country, why that claim must be pursued relentlessly if there is to be any hope of meaningful uplift for them as a people, and the clarion call that the black church must heed in lending their institutional weight to the cause of helping their community get what is owed them and on the road to healing.
This pivot by Breaking Brown to engage a major institutional channel committed to vaulting the issue of reparations is an astute, potent, and very strategic move. It’s a move that accords with Breaking Brown having long cautioned the black community of involving themselves in what can amount to a political side-project; namely, toiling in trying to tease out some of the stitched-in racism of certain white institutions instead of applying themselves collectively to strengthen and prevail upon those institutions whose sole reason is to provide and advocate for them to do just that.
In the aftermath of the black community having been consigned to instability as a result of the white institution of slavery, it is arguably the detachment of certain black institutions that has played a role in facilitating their languishing in that condition. And so the cause of reparative justice is no doubt greatly amplified and advanced with the informed involvement of those institutions. However, as Dr. Kevin Cosby and Antonio Moore discuss on the latter’s recent podcast episode, “If Middle Black Family Hits Zero Wealth, Does It End The Black Church?”, the ability for black people to be made whole is intimately bound up with the question of the black church’s ability to itself weather and survive the diminishing economic status of African-Americans, which if it continues apace, threatens to completely tank in a mere three and a half decades.
These two struggles are indeed very much interconnected, and for the church to meaningfully re-engage politically, and advocate on behalf of its community, requires as a pre-condition the community itself being prepared to re-engage politically. That Breaking Brown has spent several years now laying a foundation for this political re-engagement in the black community to take place again attests to the breadth of vision and political acumen of Yvette Carnell as she now prepares to couple the project with what, as Dr. Cosby himself contends—if the institution of the black church is true to its historic mission—is “urban America’s last hope.”
One of the most irksome and often uttered refrains from so-called fans of Breaking Brown‘s Yvette Carnell is the shallow retort “Well, then what’s your solution?” or “So what’s your alternative?” Often, more than with any real openness to actual discussion or dialogue, these questions are posed combatively and dismissively.
Notwithstanding how idealistic and naïve the expectation is that there would even be, in the first place, an easily articulable, programmatic response to the myriad positions of disadvantage that descendants of slaves have been made to occupy in this country for centuries, the refusal to understand Breaking Brown as a solution in and of itself in fact signals a profoundly deeper and troubling predicament for the show. Namely, contending with the somewhat paradoxical situation of black people who, on one hand, clearly desire a dramatic change in the social order, but who, on the other, balk at, and regard as unproductive, the absolutely critical, indispensable and foundational work that is needed to begin effecting that restructuring: the formation of a new political consciousness.
How has such a rigid and obstinate mentality taken root within the group most disadvantaged by the present political-economic arrangement? It is no doubt a testament to the sheer efficiency and craftsmanship of our ideological production industry. And to borrow from the vernacular of capitalism—the economic system for which that industry is principally tasked with producing appropriate subjects—the process is now more or less automated.
Here’s a shitty, obvious fact of reality: Capitalism has always required a highly unequal social order. Historically, it’s been a lot messier preserving that. From the very hands-on beginnings of stealing black people from Africa and shackling them in chains to compel their free labor, to Jim Crow and the slightly more remotely-operated and “sophisticated” engineering of black disadvantage via redlining, the elites have consistently had to intercede and tweak the system as black people fought for and won modest, incremental gains toward some access to stability. And although policy now has a sheen of being not explicitly discriminatory, each permutation of the social order since the plantation has proved over and over again one very salient thing: an essential feature of the social order is a permanent underclass. There must be people at the very bottom of society for capitalism to maximally function.
And so with the fact of policy having evolved to where it is superficially sensitive to the fact that they can’t be so nakedly racist in their aim of maintaining a permanent underclass, those at the top faced a predicament. The question became, for them, how to effect that outcome despite that?
The answer is breathtaking in its simplicity: Encourage black people to now participate in contemporary American life.
What’s so insidious about this is that the realities of black life following the legacy of slavery, and decade after decade of anti-black practices, make descendants of slaves incomparably vulnerable to the most refined and deceptively ruthless systems of exploitation the capitalist machine has ever contained. Those at the top have merely opened up the playing field to an America that, in its present form, requires all sorts of instruments of entrapment—loans and credit— for everyone to participate in it, let alone succeed. And to extend those instruments to a people who’ve been systematically locked out of securing the basic stability needed to offset just some of the risk associated with borrowing, and to invite them to take part in the American Dream™, is to sit back and watch the return on the initial investment of slavery positively flourish.
From chains to so-called “choice,” the history of black people in the United States can be described as having had a legacy of ultimate disadvantage created for them, and then, later, after the conditions of that legacy had set, marketing the pernicious ideology to them that they alone can transcend it by mere individual volition. To be more exact, it’s not enough to tell them that they can transcend it, they must be compelled to believe they have no other choice but to try. And so that mentality—conditioned by capitalism and brought to bear on choices like whether or not to buy a home, go to college, or pursue success at the individual level, be it in the form of celebrity or even just careers that necessitate a greater degree of stability than black people have been permitted to attain—that mentality then becomes itself a mainstay in the mass (re)production of the instability and disadvantage of the underclass.
This is what makes what Breaking Brown is doing so urgent and essential. When you’ve designed a system so total that the people whom it has relegated to the very bottom of the social order are resigned to advocating as the only solution to their misery the very ideology that has ensured it, you have achieved a feat of social engineering that is virtually flawless. And by educating her audience on how those at the top have, in effect, now set up a mock auction of the American Dream™ primarily for and by which to further disadvantage the descendants of those who—beyond being forcibly denied the dream—were bought and sold at slave auction to build and make the dream possible for their traders and their descendants, Yvette Carnell is looking to stage an intervention at the very point of ideological production. That this would not be conceived as—not just a solution—but a fundamental solution, only reaffirms the difficulty and the absolute necessity of the task ahead for the show.
Yvette Carnell is not an oracle. She is the host of a black political news-media channel on YouTube. And so to the extent that fans of Breaking Brown want to know the specifics on how the new social order will be brought about, it’s worth taking a minute to think about the role and impact of traditional, mainstream news-media, one that has led many black people—even those who are sympathetic to the project of building a more just and equal social order—to reject or doubt the practicality of the sort of political consciousness that would help bring that vision of society closer toward its realization. No doubt the select stories of certain black individuals paraded out by traditional mainstream news-media are powerful and seductive illusions about the possibilities of black life in modern-day America. Capitalism requires a narrative of attainable success to help ensure its underclass will keep striving, and traditional media has promoted the lie with the zeal characteristic of a charlatan who preys on the unfortunate.
It’s the ideology in that sub-narrative of black stability in the 21st Century, hawked to a community rendered desperate by system after system of exploitation since they were first brought to this country that Breaking Brown is out to expose. And in so doing, disabuse the audience of the notion that—outside of organizing for a change in the political arrangement—there is simply no meaningful, capital-S Solution available to the black community for a way out of the abject condition into which they were put and under which they continue to languish. This is, critically, what Breaking Brown understands, and what it is setting out to do by shaping a political consciousness among African-American descendants of slaves that is informed first and foremost by their history and its enduring, persistent influence in their present-day reality. Because, as that history has shown, in the absence of that well-educated, politically-engaged and organized, collectivist-minded community, what is an absolute certainty is that the assembly line of Black Disadvantage ™ will continue unimpeded.
[Author’s note, added 21 November.: To the extent that some of the readers feel this article is merely gossip and not grounded in a deeper critique of methodology and praxis, I would ask you to please consider, as you read, how large and significant a role funding plays in what Yvette & Irami are able to do with their respective projects. Given their contrasting funding models, the ways in which both of their political projects play out may — I feel — be very instructive in helping determine a maximally effective and sound course of action going forward. This article isn’t about taking sides, necessarily, but rather thinking through some of the limitations of a grassroots political movement that prioritizes funding from outside the group itself, and the purpose-defeating, incendiary rhetoric of violence that seems to me to be more of a self-promotional, rather than political, tactic. – PS]
On three different occasions during the inaugural episode of The Black Athenians, a live YouTube show on local black politics in Athens, GA, host Irami Osei-Frimpong turns to look into the camera and, addressing the audience he has gathered in-studio and online, emphatically calls for all listening to riot in the streets of Athens in the event that he gets assassinated.
Here’s Mr. Osei-Frimpong himself:
I need you to shut it down. I’m talking bricks and molotov cocktails…If I end up in a body bag, I need you to tear down Five Points and then just work out…Go loot over there. Loot! Loot! Take all that property! If something happens to me..anyone who looks like they didn’t give me money for this show…I need you to be shutting them down.
This comes just around the one-hour mark of the show’s premiere episode.
Apprehending in real-time just how problematic this might be is the show’s special guest, Yvette Carnell, whose body language for most of the episode is basically an oration of discomfort and exasperation as she appears to get the sense that—insofar as there are going to be any loud bangs in Irami Osei-Frimpong’s future as a political leader—they probably won’t be gunshots; they will simply be doors slamming shut.
Ms. Carnell is herself a highly respected voice in new black media. She’s the founder of Breaking Brown, a bi-weekly, live YouTube broadcast on which—for about the past year now—Mr. Osei-Frimpong has worked in the capacity of producer. In both a personal and work sense, the two have always appeared to have good chemistry and a solid relationship. That is, until the week following the premiere episode of The Black Athenians, when Mr. Osei-Frimpong took to his Facebook page to make an announcement that he would no longer be a part Breaking Brown. Shortly afterward, Ms. Carnell, via her YouTube channel, uploaded a video in which she confirmed Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s departure from the show, and also delivered the news that Breaking Brown would henceforth be on indefinite hiatus. These announcements—especially taking place at such a high moment in the show’s popularity—registered as quite a shock to fans of the show, and neither Mr. Osei-Frimpong nor Ms. Carnell have yet to provide (nor are they under any obligation to provide) their viewers with any real explanation as to what contributed to the dissolution of the partnership.
Since the two began working together last year, Breaking Brown has enjoyed a tremendous amount of growth. The present number of subscribers to the channel is just under 34,000. Of late, Ms. Carnell has been taking the show’s message to a few different colleges and conferences where she speaks candidly about the objectively disastrous situation facing African-American descendants of slaves in this country and the urgent need to provide a political (re)education that lays the groundwork for collectivist action in the struggle for meaningful social and economic justice.
Importantly, as Breaking Brown has swelled in popularity over the past year, it has done so all the while being funded largely by donations supplied by the show’s viewers; that is, namely, black people. This funding model is something that, on numerous occasions, Ms. Carnell has mentioned she places a great deal of importance on, since it means she’s beholden exclusively to the people for whom she intends to advocate. Any alternative arrangement, she seems to feel, stands to effect one of two undesirable outcomes: either compel precisely the sort of obedience by black media figures that has ensured the black agenda for which they nominally speak be woefully underserved, if not ignored altogether. Or, the funding will simply be cut off the moment the project’s message comes up against certain interests that deem it to be a bit too extreme.
For his own project, Mr. Osei-Frimpong has—seemingly for the purposes of expediency—sought out a different source of financial backing for his project. The studio equipment that makes The Black Athenians possible is, in his words, “paid for by some nice white people…because black people don’t have the kind of capital that we needed for the cameras and equipment that are going to make this show excellent.” However, by the show’s fourth episode, the pitfalls of relying on local white money to do local (and nakedly antagonistic) black politics are evident:
Mr. Osei-Frimpong, again:
We’re in a smaller space than we need to be because we had a bigger space, but the person who owns the bigger space saw the show, thought it was a little bit too hot—that it might jeopardize his white check—and so we’re in a smaller space right now and the smaller space is too small for what we’re growing.
The question is why leave your project exposed and vulnerable by going outside your group for funds? What Breaking Brown appears to firmly grasp is that the political project itself is precarious enough; the funding doesn’t have to be.
And despite the apparent consequences of his decision to source-fund from “people who are not in our group,” and his literally threatening investors with an outbreak of violent civil disobedience, he nonetheless continues to spend parts of the show returning to a discussion about his possible assassination.
Again, from the fourth episode, in which he is hamming up the prospect of his being the target of coordinated agencies with guest Mehrsa Baradaran:
If anything happens to me…if anything happens to me or mine, I do not forgive anybody. I want you to shut it down! There is a plot to get me because I wanted to build a black middle class in Athens…So get ’em! If anything happens to me, get ’em! I’m not forgiving…I’m talking molotov cocktails, and start in Five Points. Start in Five Points and then work out into the suburbs.
There’s something weirdly performative and indulgent about Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s imagining of his own politically-motivated murder each episode. It’s apparently gravely serious, but also treated playfully. He seems to delight in it, smiling brightly, as if the idea of himself as an eventual FBI target confers some aura of look-at-me radicalism upon him here in the present. The flight of Bureau-target fancies he indulges are certainly exciting and dramatic relative to the tedious present of political movement building (of any kind, but maybe especially that of a local black politics), which—to those involved—is generally always anemic-seeming. The better world that exists in the imagination is moved toward at a glacial crawl amid the sclerotic conditions and reactionary forces of the actual moment. And it seems that, in order to abide the duration, and ensure the movement’s cohesion and resilience, there’s an almost monastic selflessness required as a precondition on the part of its primary spokespeople. So it should be a red flag, or at least highly suspect, when anyone can be so reckless as to instruct a vulnerable, tiny minority to go out and confront an enforcement arm of the state, which, behind their riot masks, are police officers who are absolutely frothing at the mouth for the chance to—as brutally as possible—suppress an uprising. We live in a time where there is a fully-militarized police force that will open fire on a black person for caring for an autistic patient, let alone one actually engaging in armed conflict.
Absent some account by either Mr. Osei-Frimpong or Ms. Carnell, fans of “Breaking Brown” will probably be left to speculate amongst themselves on the precise causes that led the duo to suddenly conclude working together. And maybe the closest that fans of the show will ever get to a clear explanation of what caused Ms. Carnell and Mr. Osei-Frimpong to part ways is the former’s own description of the latter’s method of providing a political education in the service of racial justice: “This is a different kind of project,” she says, clearly understating her misgivings of Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s approach. But if the constant, odd pretense to martyrdom from a small studio space in Athens is any indication, Mr. Osei-Frimpong desires notoriety far beyond the role of producer. After all, what is imagining yourself as a target, if not imagining yourself as the very center of attention? One thing, though, is for sure, Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s abrupt departure from the “Breaking Brown” show has left one of the most vital outlets for black political education without a producer, an intern, and a studio space at a crucial moment in its development.