Uncategorized

Sleight Success: AEI & Black Men in America

Earlier this week, the Trump administration staked out a position on affirmative action policy that, in effect, seeks to strongly discourage the practice by introducing the spectre of litigation and defunding for schools that may be shown to use race as a criterion in their admissions processes.

For conservatives like Edward Blum—a visiting fellow at the right-wing think tank, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)—the administration’s stance is presumably a welcomed one. In a 2016 op-ed for The Washington Post, Blum argues that the university is “more than the sum of its ethnic parts. It is comprised of individuals — some black, white, Asian and Hispanic — who should be admitted or rejected without their race or ethnic heritage making any difference.” He laments the Supreme Court’s upholding of affirmative action policies as “unfortunate.”

Beyond Blum, the AEI has, in general, been consistently critical of race-conscious admissions policies and their apparent infringement on constitutional principles of equality.1

It should come as no surprise then that throughout all 31 pages of the AEI’s recent reportBlack Men Making It in America, the words ‘affirmative action’ appear exactly zero times. Absence of the term notwithstanding, the report—which aims to identify the primary ways that black men in America might replicate the success of a previous generation of black males—nonetheless manages to provide some fairly textbook examples of how affirmative action initiatives have historically served as the major catalyst into the American middle class for black men.2

The report achieves this unintended demonstration of how foundational affirmative action policy is to black America’s economic footing via its own flawed methodology. As Antonio Moore has rightly pointed out in his eviscerating critique of the study, the researchers looked exclusively at a very narrow—and by no means generationally insignificant—group of black men in order to derive their conclusion; namely, black men who were born between the years 1957-1964.3

More properly periodized in relation to U.S. wealth, those crucial years mark the tail-end of the boomer generation whose access to the American middle class was in many ways wholly unlike any that had preceded or followed it. Black men who were born during this era—and who would then grow up to be representative of the AEI study’s ‘success’ stories—did so in a milieu of unprecedented social mobility for descendants of U.S. slaves. That ability to be upwardly mobile during the latter half of the 20th century was something that was largely aided by a number of civil rights gains; victories which critically resulted in the federal government—whether through codifying into law, or incentivizing employers and school officials via disbursement of federal dollars—creating targeted and race-specific initiatives intended to open up access to education and employment within black America, and thus, to offer improved chances at economic stability for members of that group.

Nowhere in the study are the effects of these initiatives more apparent than in its analysis of positive outcomes occasioned by service in the military. For the group of men under observation, service in the U.S. military was linked to the most dramatically increased odds (about 72%) that black men might gain economic stability by the time they reach midlife. And while the report takes pains to frame those pronounced outcomes as having derived in large part from things like the military’s “marriage-oriented culture” and its emphasis on “virtues such as duty, responsibility, loyalty, and perseverance,” it was doubtless in the military’s ability to “provid[e] stable work, good healthcare, housing, and opportunities for advancement” that disproportionately helped shape those eventual outcomes and serve as avenues to the middle class.4

Importantly, access to these social welfare opportunities was, at root, a result of how—in the latter part of the 1970s—the U.S. military had begun a vigorous application of affirmative action policies in both its recruitment and promotion among its ranks. A 2013 New Republic article describes the history: “In part through aggressive integration goals imposed on unit commanders and heavy minority recruitment at the service academies, officer candidate schools, and ROTC programs, the military transformed itself from a heavily segregated, race-riot-burdened institution in the early 1970s to a widely-praised example of successful racial integration by the late 1980s.”

The role of timing coupled with black activism in relation to the study’s conclusions cannot be overstated. Particularly with respect to military service being causally linked to economic success later in life, those black men who were born during the years 1957-64 would have reached legal service age during the mid to late-70s, a time when they would have been precisely the most sought after candidates for recruitment into the military and, thus, the beneficiaries of all of the institution’s social welfare programs.

The authors of the AEI report would prefer to gloss this and simply conclude with the following platitude: “As this report shows, young black men who believe they are captains of their own lives are more likely to do well as they reach midlife.” In fact, what the report demonstrates most clearly is the generational specificity of a group of black men whose prime working years dovetailed with a government that was responsive to the historical disadvantages of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the role of the country’s pervasive discrimination in refusing economic opportunity to its black citizens in a way that more modern administrations are simply not.

If the AEI was genuinely interested in the replicating outcomes of success in black men in America, they would full-throatedly advocate for the features of economic stability like those offered in the modern military welfare state (near-universal coverage in housing, healthcare, childcare, family counselling, legal assistance, education benefits) to be made available in a broader context of society.5 Moreover, they would need to come to terms with the most salient—but unspoken—finding of their own study: the singular importance of affirmative action policy in helping to effect those improved odds of economic well-being for black men in America.

In an era of tremendous economic precarity—and with what little recourse to systemic racism that currently exists being either too diffuse to meaningfully impact descendants of slaves, or simply being fed directly into the buzzsaw of the conservative courts—it is unconscionable to encourage the mentality in those who are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us that they can improve their lives merely by enlisting in the military and espousing certain values of personal responsibility and discipline. Even the study’s more precise efforts in describing how the military’s robust welfare programs had promoted economic stability in the black males they studied reveal only a partial picture, as it omits mention of those race-specific initiatives that provided those men access to acquire those benefits in the first place.

All of this is to say there are in fact valuable lessons to be found in the study. Acknowledgement of those particular lessons, though, would likely make the AEI squirm in its proximity to reparative politics. After all, that success achieved by the cohort of black former service members, which the study extols, is fundamentally made possible by the military’s affirmative action efforts, the results of which veteran sociologist Charles Moskos—writing for the Washington Post in 1995—describes as being without match: “[N]owhere else in American society has racial integration gone as far or has black achievement been so pronounced.”

Perhaps if the report didn’t ignore the vast differences in access between the black baby boomer generation and black millennials, and didn’t self-consciously avoid mention of the importance of instruments of opportunity like affirmative action in effecting positive outcomes for the former group—while the latter has languished in a policy climate of colorblindness—then we could begin to move from propaganda to actual progress.


1. Moreover, they frequently label the claim that AA policies actually benefit the group(s) for whom they’re intended as spurious. It’s a conclusion they reach by looking at studies that show how a vast number of AA recipients at elite schools tend to come from the top half of the income distribution. And to be honest, AA policy has been so totally warped and corrupted and expanded from its original intent to specifically redress the sheer dearth of disadvantage faced by descendants of slaves, that AEI’s position—in this particular respect—is probably really not all that inaccurate or arguable. Other such claims, like that AA policy engenders in minority high school students a ‘coast’ mentality—since they can simply rely on their race to secure entrance into college—are far, far less persuasive. 

2. In one glaring example of what the report recommends will be required to bring about economic success for today’s black males, the authors write how “schools and colleges need to do more to identify, recruit, and support young black men so they are accepted, attend, and graduate from four-year colleges and universities in the US.” This basically ringing endorsement of what is literally, by definition, affirmative action policy, is symptomatic of the report’s most curious phenomenon; that is, an obsessive avoidance of using the term affirmative action itself while simultaneously—at virtually every turn—bolstering the case for its necessity.

3. A perhaps entirely more accurate way of putting it is that the researchers began with a specific conclusion in mind (e.g. that black men in America are successful), and then very selectively chose a group whose highly particular set of opportunities and outcomes would function to prove their thesis. Basically conducting what any professional with a lick of integrity and honesty would describe as the exact opposite of good scientific-sociological research.

4. In contrast to ‘affirmative action,’ the word ‘marriage’ appears a total of 46 times in the report.

5. If those programs don’t ring an ideological bell, here’s Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of Nato forces in Europe being quoted in the New York Times placing the organizational structure of the military in its proper place on the political spectrum: “It’s the purest application of socialism there is.” And to the recommendation that those benefits should be extended to the general population, the authors of the study might respond in a manner predictable of conservatives; namely, that those entitlements are earned through hallowed service to the country. But given the fact that the ancestors of U.S. native blacks effectively built this country—the world’s richest nation—for free, I’m really struggling to come up with a more apt definition of ‘service’ to the country.

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Uncategorized

We’re All Immigrants Anyway: Descendants of Slaves and the Leveling of Social Justice

With respect to photography of children suffering in the midst of a humanitarian atrocity, we’ve already developed something of a canon. Or maybe since our world leaders seem to promise—if nothing else—an interminable supply of evermore vivid, evermore gruesome political horrors always to come, we’re forced to be more precise and describe it as an ‘open’ canon.

The image taken last week of the sobbing Honduran toddler at the U.S.-Mexico border is of course already iconic, already history-bound. She stands beside the border patrol vehicle, about eye level with its dust-caked tire. She is half-lit by some adjacent convoy’s roof-mounted LED beam, half-obscured in the penumbra cast by the border agent who is engaged in detaining her mother. The child’s face is upturned, wrung in anguish and confusion, watching it all happen.

It’s hard describing her expression in any way that doesn’t necessarily minimize it, since precisely what’s animating it is probably some nameless dread at watching your parent maybe about to be taken away from you. She is two, wearing what looks like rolled-cuff Jeggings, which is maybe something your own two year-old daughter or niece would wear.

In a certain way, the image of the Honduran child sort of breaks with the tradition of canonical humanitarian photojournalism. Routinely, the depictions of ruin and misery in these photos, while being the handiwork of the U.S., have as their settings some very distant regions of the world, at least from the vantage of a U.S. citizen. A brief, by no means comprehensive survey might include the naked Vietnamese girl running away from a napalm blast. A skeletally thin Sudanese boy collapsed on the way to get food, lying face down in a burnt-out savanna, a vulture abiding in awful, menacing calm just some feet away. The Syrian boy seated in the back of an ambulance, completely ashed in the pulverized debris of Aleppo. Another Syrian child—a drowned corpse—washed ashore and prostrate in the lapping surf of the Mediterranean Sea.

The U.S. presence in these images is generally more of an ambient thing as opposed to an observably dominant, front-and-center one. And it’s maybe in this respect especially where the Honduran girl at the border photo appears to take on new valency for most U.S. viewers. Here we have presented the same historically annihilative hand of the American government, but unabstracted, unproxied from the foreign dictatorship it installed to open up new economies in one of its client states and which, to the surprise of exactly no one, went on to starve, falsely imprison, torture, disappear, chemically assault and otherwise generally deprivate and massacre its people. This is a sort of rare cameo by America in its own long-running, worldwide production of misery, death, separation and sorrow, here seen fully operative in the act of corralling migrant families and dividing up the children from their parents right here on the bone-dry, loamy soil of McAllen, Texas.

A lot of commentators have moved swiftly to remind people that it is in fact not a cameo appearance. Rather it is just a reprisal of a very familiar role. To use but one of these sources, Shaun King, writing for The Intercept, says, “You’d have a hard time finding an extended period of American history where children and parents of color weren’t forcefully separated from one another by the white power structure in this country. It’s woefully and painfully normal . . . This nation has mastered separating parents and children.” Describing the complacency which society has historically been inclined to assume in the presence of such damning exercises of abject cruelty, he offers a fairly 101-ish, Postcolonial Studies account of the phenomenon’s ideological underpinnings: “Whenever a group of people suffers unspeakable horrors and oppression, the people in power first reduce and dehumanize them — making it such that the conscience of the people in power is fully at ease during the oppression.”

He’s not wrong, of course.

It’s discomfiting but not all that unreasonable to think that part of what accounts for the basic intensity of effect that these photographs produce in a western audience is conditioned by the fact that up until that moment when we observe these people—these, in fact, humans—they’ve long existed for us as something conceptually less than that. Then a photojournalist captures and recoups something undeniably lost in the discourse, lost in the nightly news anchors’ bland utterances regarding the catastrophe. And in so doing the photojournalist provides an immediate and compelling motivation to now attend to the humanity in a situation where its complexity, its distance, its spun narrative, would otherwise threaten to totally remove that element from existence.

Though to take the present moment, an unfortunate thing seems to end up happening in the headlong rush to historicize what’s happening to the Honduran toddler and other migrant families at the border. In trying to ground our indignation in a more complete understanding of how, in fact, throughout the course of U.S. history, splitting apart families within marginalized groups has been fairly procedural stuff, that same logic of dehumanization—that easing of the conscience, to which Shaun King referred—ends up getting reproduced in the most familiar, nefarious and traditionally-U.S. way possible. That is, through hitching the history of African-American oppression onto another group’s social justice struggle and ignoring the singularity of the former’s experience. In this latest coupling, the discussion of putatively ‘like’ policies that have long functioned to break up families in America neglects to mention the economic imperative—and its enduring, devastating material impact—behind rending apart the black family and preventing its equal status in a nation that their ancestors effectively built for free.

To the extent this unique aspect of black oppression is not outright ignored in the discussion, it’s nonetheless bracketed for the purposes of promoting the idea of a uniformly oppressed and victimized community of color, one that by default erases the specific justice claim held collectively by U.S. Native Black Descendants of Slaves. It’s precisely because of this erasure that we have no difficulty citing slavery and the auction blocks as an antecedent to the Trump administration’s border policy of separating families. Doing so requires rather little in the way of an actual, unequivocal commitment to a politics of reparative justice. What we seem to have a lot more difficulty with is being able to acknowledge the critical way in which the two are in fact very different; how those original fracturings of the black family were an integral, indispensable part of the development of an economic system that has since demanded—and primarily run on—the consequences of that instability reverberating throughout black America for centuries.1This is what it means to necessarily subaltern Native Black Descendants of Slaves by suggesting that the separation of families occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border is in essence an extension of the same ideology that determined their (U.S. Blacks’) particular history. Because as long as we continue to discourage, or find new and different ways to not look at black America as a uniquely deficient economic group as a result of specifically discriminatory government policies and state-sponsored terrorism, it’s almost certain that we will be prevented from ever fully humanizing them as victims because we fall so dramatically short in accurately understanding their condition and what it will require from us to meaningfully ally with them in their struggle.

In the Trump era—presumably because it’s been a while since such bold and naked expressions of xenophobia have been on display and informing public policy—there’s a bit of ostensibly conventional wisdom floating around that we, as a nation, are in fact all fundamentally alike in our shared, immigrant ancestry. And so to repudiate a group based purely on the grounds of their ethnic background is to simultaneously reveal yourself as a categorical hypocrite in addition to being a bigot. Shaun King, in that same article, makes it a point to remind the audience of this precept: “[E]veryone here but Native Americans,” he says, “are all descendants of immigrants themselves.” Carefully qualified, that statement nonetheless rings wildly and empirically false, omitting mention of the fact that there is one other group in this country who does not descend from immigrants. That group is the descendants of slaves, whose ancestors (it should be obvious enough) did not come here on their own volition, but were violently captured from their original homeland and cargoed here in the hulls of ships to be consigned to a life on American soil as providers of free labor and the principal capital for the profit engine of the globe’s richest economy, a system from which their deliberate exclusion was promised; an unimaginably wretched condition and fate and—most importantly—one for which they were never given full recompense, which resultantly has hounded and permanently obstructed their efforts at full, equal participation in American life.

We tend to get sort of amnesiac about that fact in our rush to conceive of ourselves as all basically glorified guests here anyway. And that—conceived as such—our real progress as a society can and should be indexed to the position of other groups who are also coming to this country simply seeking a better life. Perhaps, though, a more exacting measure—a more honest and true index—should be the position of the group that was dragged here against its will in order to make a better life for everyone but themselves. And if we take that criterion as our calculus, then really, where are we?

To relate this question to the complementary projects of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, and the work of economists and scholars like Sandy Darity, Tom Shapiro, and Darrick Hamilton, we have long foundered in our aim of civic progress. And somewhat in contrast to the more remote, intangible, or difficult-to-really-mentally-grasp suffering that we hear of or read about in the geopolitical situations of refugees and migrants, the complete privation of black America—the sheer and utter material want of an entire group of citizens on the verge of economic collapse—is too all around us and too tied up in our own history to require photojournalists to really bring it home. It’s been home. It’s a short bus or car ride away for most people in American cities. We need only to look around to observe it. But without the critical analyses like those of the aforementioned individuals, just looking around or driving through is a mode of engagement that cannot possibly compel or really even allow for an understanding of the sort of necessary and urgent scale of response to fundamentally remedy what should arguably be our most pressing domestic concern. And the information—the data—that informs all of their respective and ultimately correlated and cooperative efforts on contextualizing this condition of black America within a framework of a government-made humanitarian crisis, is the only way to coherently read the situation, bring our consciences into focus, and properly formulate and mount an effective moral and material response.


1. Mass incarceration—also commonly cited as an analog to the gruesome policy of dividing up families at the border—seems to suffer from the same instinct to uncouple the practice of locking a bewildering abundance of black men in cages from a more nuanced discussion about that practice’s specific place in the shoring up of the economic legacy of slavery.

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

On Africans ‘Figuring Out’ How To Be Economically Black In America

When Mkawasi Mcharo Hall, an African immigrant from Kenya, was teaching in New York City, she played this game with her “mostly black” students where she wrote the word “Africa” on the board and then had them call out whatever words came to mind.

The students’ responses left her bewildered.

“[T]he volley of uncensored words the students contributed,” Hall says, “were all negative.”

She had just recently arrived in America and was dismayed to discover the overwhelmingly dismissive attitude toward a people with whom she believes black Americans should find a natural affinity. Having come from Kenya, she was, at the same time, also aware that “black [American] identity [is] equally troublesome for many Africans,” and wondered whether these attitudes—which in her mind were self-defeating, solidarity-defying, and served only to frustrate the need for a unifying identity in overcoming their ultimately interrelated struggle—could ever be reconciled.

That’s the central question that Hall explores in her recent CityLab article, Fortress: ‘Black in America’: Closed to Africans?, a personal reflection on the writer’s experience of being an African immigrant in the U.S., and her anxious, multi-city search to find a “feeling of being stitched into the tapestry of the black identity.”

That feeling, described less abstractly, is one of group-belonging. And for Hall—who came to America with the belief that common ancestry is something that de facto confers one’s rightful place inside the group—it was a feeling she believed she’d doubtless be met with among native-born blacks.

However, after a set of experiences in black America that only reinforced for her the “complexities of American race relations,” and the limitations of having understood racism as a “concept that existed only in books,” Hall eventually had to concede that the “shared historical and cultural experience” of black America is something that ultimately places the African immigrant at a remove from ever fully identifying with the particular struggle(s) in the day-to-day realities of native-born blacks.

And while she is certainly correct in suggesting that the primacy of native-born blacks’ ‘shared historical and cultural experience’ (i.e. one defined exclusively by being the victims of American racism) precludes any easy claim to group identity by outsiders, Hall frames the distance imposed by that experience as being a predominantly social, or cultural, one.

“I watch and learn and laugh the loudest when I catch that one joke that almost got away, just to make up for all the others that went right over my head,” Hall writes, as she gazes from the outside onto what she calls the “inner sanctum of blackness.”

Insulting enough should be the implication that one’s ability to truly identify with native-born blacks is apparently through some being-in-on-the-joke aspect of black identity and American racism. Far more problematic, though, is the way in which Hall fundamentally misunderstands—or deliberately ignores—how the function of that racism as it relates to native blacks in American society has always been to effect a particular economic outcome.

Racism in America does not, as she argues, operate as simply a “caste system [that] puts melanin-rich humans at the bottom of the social hierarchy.” To describe it in those terms is not only a dishonest assessment of the actual, observable variation in melanin content that appears throughout the most subordinate group in American society, it evinces the sort of impoverished conception of U.S. racism that could only come from a member of a group whose arrival in this country postdates centuries of the most economically destructive policy geared specifically toward native-born blacks.

From slavery to Jim Crow, red lining and discriminatory federal loan policies, all the way up to the contemporary models of black disadvantage manufacturing like mass incarceration, the story of racism in America is not one of merely being perceived as inferior because of skin color, as Hall suggests. It is fundamentally one of native-born blacks being made inferior, lesser than, and deficient in the most dramatic and enduring sense possible. In the context of American society, this meant enacting laws and terrorizing that group out of the opportunity to create wealth, and—as naturally follows from that condition—permanently assuring native-born blacks’ compromised ability to participate as equals in American social, political, and economic life.

Hall’s overly simplified—and easily disproved—calculus on racism and social positioning crucially omits the ways in which a person’s place in the social hierarchy of U.S. society directly corresponds to their economic condition. The economic condition of native-born blacks is, and has always been, one that was designed to be the most destitute of opportunity, the most resource-deprived, and the most unstable. She affirms as much when she recognizes the singularity of the ‘shared historical experience’ of native-born blacks; namely, the centuries-long exclusion from wealth-building opportunity. However, she elides any discussion of that aspect of their experience for the sake of her argument that foreign-born blacks are, as a group, as socio-economically dislocated as the native black community by virtue of their black skin.

In fact, no.

All of the available data indicates the sheer fallacy at the core of that claim. To use but one example, the pronounced disparity in rates of admission into colleges and universities among native-born blacks and African immigrants is one which is frequently cited in order to demonstrate the systemic obstacles faced by the former group.  Those hindrances—as Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier wrote in a 2004 op-ed for the Boston Globe—are decidedly absent among children of African immigrants: “Like their wealthier white counterparts,” Guinier writes, “many first- and second-generation immigrants of color test well because they retain a national identity free of America’s racial caste system and enjoy material and cultural advantages.” In that same vein, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, points out in her study, The Admission Legacy of Blacks, how the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 limited visas to “exceptional professionals.” The ways in which such a proviso more favorably positions foreign-born blacks to succeed in America relative to their native-born counterparts should be obvious enough.

Beyond the imprecise understanding of racism’s function in America, Hall’s argument completely fails to take into account how African immigrants—while apparently having a ‘troublesome’ relationship with black identity—have traditionally felt little to no compunction about being the beneficiaries of policy crafted specifically to try and meliorate the consequences of that black identity in American society. And whether it be through African immigrants fulfilling affirmative action requirements, corporate diversity initiatives, or minority set-asides in government contracts, the protest movements of the civil rights-era have seemingly paved the way for a group of foreign-born blacks and their children to capitalize on the gains won in the name of native-black descendants of slaves. This warped outcome is owed to precisely the kind of mentality—like Hall’s—that prefers to see all oppression of black people as essentially equal, and which then encourages those victims to adopt a shared identity based on skin color. That identity is one that assumes exactly none of the tension that has marked the relationship between native-born blacks and African immigrants in America’s resource-driven society, and is one that is wholly disinterested in the obvious fact that not all melanin carries the same historically specific consequences.

To the extent that Hall is able—or willing—to acknowledge that fact, she nonetheless clearly extols the virtues of a black politics that identifies all black people of the world as collectively responsible for each other’s uplift. She cites the ways in which “[t]he black American has been actively engaged in emancipation on the Motherland,” and uses this to encourage her fellow African immigrants in the U.S. to act in kind and to take up the cause(s) of native-born blacks. “Melanin identity goes beyond skin,” she writes, “It courses through our separate histories and through a collective unconscious that causes blacks to reach out across continents for each other. It is wise for Continental Africans to figure out how to become black politically and economically in America.”

The fact is, though, a person cannot become economically black in America. This is the whole point. It is not something a person can “figure out” how to be; it is something that a person is made to be. Being economically black in America was figured out for native-born blacks from the very outset of the United States’ trajectory toward its status as the richest country in the world. It was then something that was continuously reconfigured throughout the country’s ascendancy in order to guarantee that the failure of being economically black in America would continue to perform that same function so that the rest of capitalist America might have the opportunity to succeed. That is, in effect, what it means to be ‘economically black’ in America.

And so despite Hall’s directive to her fellow immigrants to exercise allyship with native-born black descendants of slaves—to become politically black, as she says—it’s extremely difficult to see how without that group’s insistence on a separate identity of native-born blacks—and of what is owed to them as a result of having borne the consequences of being made economically black—African immigrants can participate in the sort of political advocacy that will meaningfully bring about their material uplift.

“Let there be only lineage,” Yvette Carnell of Breaking Brown once said. And if that command feels prophetic and almost biblical in nature, it’s because the story of native blacks in this country is also fundamentally a creation story. As a group, in respect of origin, there can be no doubt that they were a people who were principally created on American soil; dragged here for the express purpose of being used as chattel slaves to churn out profit for a national—and then eventually globally dominant—economy.

Following centuries of laboring in that wretched condition—and several decades of an all but equally degraded existence as victims of lynch mobs, convict leasing, and being forced to live in crowded urban slums amid abject poverty—they have since struggled from an unfathomable disadvantage to try and create for themselves an improved status, one more in keeping with the basic promise of freedom and well-being that is supposedly conferred upon all citizens of this country as a matter of right, but which in fact all observable evidence seems to confirm only follows from one’s economic means of securing them.

As both Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore continuously emphasize, it is lineage and lineage alone that unites native blacks in both their history and present state of being excluded from acquiring those economic means. And as we enter further into an era of national decline in which opportunities for prosperity are steadily receding from the reach of working class America, it is now—more than ever—urgent that native blacks heed their call to recognize how lineage must form the foundation of the group’s political identity. Only that will illuminate the way forward and enable them to create their next chapter in the struggle for reparative justice. Because before native blacks can, as a group, meaningfully make themselves—before they can be asked to identify with and take up the separate plight of the global black—they must be made whole in return for how in the same way they were originally made incomplete.

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Uncategorized

Checks and the City: Cynthia Nixon’s Reparations Proposal & the Not Exactly Productive Response.

Ever see a horse grazing tranquilly and then a nearby tractor suddenly backfires?  Even before the echo fades the horse has like basically teleported to the opposite end of the pasture, and chances are slim it’ll wander back anywhere even remotely near the noise so long as it thinks there’s still a threat there.

A politician’s startle-reflex is sort of similar.  And, after this week, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Cynthia Nixon’s eagerness to talk openly about reparations has waned a bit.

Which is too bad because there’s a sort of comet-like infrequency to the appearance of the word ‘reparations’ in mainstream American political discourse.  To the extent that it gets talked about at all, it’s for the most part a rote observance of Left orthodoxy (i.e. how it is fundamentally incompatible with building an electorally-competitive Left) rather than in terms of what such a targeted effort might actually accomplish, the basic moral imperative, and how—given the profound difference in quality between white poverty and black poverty, and the desire for even the most tolerant of poor whites to simply not want to be near the bottom stratum of society—universal programs without reparations may in effect end up preserving one of the most disgraceful and degrading features of American society: its racialized hierarchy.

This was how it played out in 2016, the last time a high-profile political figure was asked to weigh in on reparations.  Bernie Sanders—then running to be the Democratic nominee—voiced his opposition to the idea, citing its appreciable potential for divisiveness among the imagined coalition, and the virtual certainty that if such a proposal were actually put forward for consideration it would summarily come up against a congressional impasse.  Sanders’ remarks were met with a number of black activists and intellectuals who were all quick to take umbrage with, and denounce his position, seeing it as either confirmation of (or that which portended) the candidate’s more general inattentiveness to the nation’s ongoing and pretty-much-worsening-by-the-dashcam-recorded-execution-of-black-people racial justice issues.

This time around reparations found a spokesperson who is clearly much more sympathetic to the idea.  Cynthia Nixon—a prominent candidate in New York’s gubernatorial race—was speaking to Forbes magazine and remarked how she’d like to see business licenses in the emerging cannabis industry prioritized for the drug war’s principal victims, and that doing so could be “a form of reparations.”  Reaction, again, was swift and declamatory.  The #BlackLivesMatter chapter of Greater New York has demanded that she apologize.  Al Sharpton got onto Twitter to inveigh against the recommendation.  And current NY County Democratic Party Chairman Keith Wright said that Nixon should “cease and desist.”1

Seemingly prompted by concerns over her insufficient understanding of what reparations is meant to address—that is, the near total scarcity of wealth among Native Black Descendants of Slaves owing to sustained discriminatory policies over hundreds of years—critics rushed to check Nixon’s admittedly inelegant deployment of the term this past week in the narrow context of criminal justice reform, and to chide her for mislabeling what ought to be a more comprehensively-conceived and directed effort.  And while there’s no doubt lots of merit to that argument, it’s difficult not to see the mass incarceration of black males in the U.S. as anything other than a modern example/extension of the sort of policy that has always been aimed at perpetuating the economic underdevelopment of the black community, precisely the sort of thing that reparations is definitionally meant to redress.2

Moreover, a somewhat clumsy handling of the term probably shouldn’t be misconstrued as an entirely corrupt intention, or seen as a cause for raking a candidate over the coals and demanding they issue a public apology for a proposal aimed at economically benefitting black people.  That response seems much more likely to frighten a politician into avoiding any further discussion of the subject rather than encouraging that politician to reevaluate their position based on the available facts, and to move toward a more exact understanding of who gets reparations and why.3

What Cynthia Nixon proposed would no doubt be insufficient given the staggering divide in the U.S. racial wealth gap.  That’s a fact.  But it seems more than a little irresponsible on the part of people who are supportive of reparative policy to upbraid someone who is evidently sympathetic to pushing that agenda forward, rather than trying to engage with and show that politician all the very apparent ways in which their idea—though crucially needed—is conceptually deficient.

Beyond that, suggesting—as #BlackLivesMatter of Greater New York has done—that regulatory efforts aimed at assisting black businesses in the cannabis industry do a “disservice to our community…and play[s] into harmful stereotypes of African-Americans as drug users and dealers” seems to allow an overweening concern about a statistically false rate of racialized drug use and dealing to stand in the way of policy that might actually economically benefit the very communities that they claim to advocate for.

Hopefully there will be more opportunity up the road to revisit the issue more thoughtfully, and to then move a candidate toward not only the matter of who gets reparations and why, but—critically—how.  Specifically, as it relates to business licenses, prioritizing access to industry should be understood as a very minor and ultimately inadequate measure given that Native Black Decendands of Slaves are far and away the most capital-deficient group of people in the United States, and how—because of that—banks can compound difficulties for business owners who will inevitable require funds to operate and stay competitive, and engage in all sorts of highly unethical lending practices, should they choose to lend at all.4

Importantly, a meaningful dialogue on reparations can help to demonstrate how the conditions that led to this extremely precarious, and in a way almost helpless, economic situation for Native Black Descendants of Slaves were not ones that occurred by accident or by chance, but rather by deliberate design.  And that because that economic situation finds in the U.S. government its original manufacturer, it is to that entity which claims on that uniquely defective product of black America must be answerable.


1. Keith Wright being, of course, a total fucking shill

2. The obviousness of which cannot be overstated. And in case you’ve been inside of a sensory deprivation tank since 2010, please refer to Michelle Alexander’s sensational The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness for a pretty much unassailable argument on how the prison-industry complex amounts to a white supremacist institutional achievement pretty much on par with the southern plantation

3. That Cynthia Nixon does need quite a bit of help in this ‘who and why’ area is particularly apparent, having invoked the highly dilutive ‘people of color’ catchall in what must be an always historically and lineage-specific conversation about reparations. 

4. Which is of course just *one* of the consequences of lacking capital.  To that end, though, here’s a rather, um, stark example of what’s required to obtain a loan even when you’re a(n extremely connected and obscenely qualified) black business owner.  Pierre Sutton, whose father was the Manhattan Borough President, principal owner of the Amsterdam News (a leading Black newspaper in New York), and an owner of a cable television company, had this to say on his ordeal in trying to secure financing:

“We didn’t have access to capital.  We didn’t.  We had an opportunity to purchase but we were unable to find a bank that would back us in [1971].  In fact, we went to some 30 banks in New York looking for backing and this was to buy an AM daytime radio station in Harlem . . .(W)e were fortunate in that one of our shareholders had saved the life of Bunny Berkley, who was then the [child of the] Chairman of the Board of Chemical Bank, and that’s how we got additional financing.  But it was just dumb luck.  He [the shareholders] was a counselor at summer camp and he had saved the life of the [child] from drowning, saved the life of this man’s child.  It’s kind of extreme access.”

Compare this to Jeffrey Hutton, a white, small radio station owner, whose experience with his bank was a dramatically different and basically pretty breezy-sounding one:

“I went down to the bank [in 1983] and got a loan.  And they gave me a loan based on two criteria.  Number one, the collateral I was able to put on the table, and number two, my personal credibility because I was employed as vice president of a local hospital in town when I went to my bank.  And so as a result, I was what they call an upstanding citizen of the community, and you know, served on a United Way board and things like that.  So they were really, as I was told later on, they were loaning the money to Jeff Hutton because of Jeff Hutton, not necessarily because they thought that this business venture was going to fly and make money.”

And here’s Dorothy Brunson, a broadcasting pioneer in black-owned television stations, discussing the kinds of lending disparities that exist for African-Americans as a result of their creditworthiness:

“Every time we’ve had to borrow money, we’ve had to borrow it at 15%, 16% interest rates because the history and the growth of the station and the level of profitability was not there in thee early stages.  So people still look at us as high risk. . .And so you, you’re constantly paying extra dollars to be able to do the basic things that most people can do with 5 or 6 or 7% dollars, and the same dollars would cost us 12%, 15%.”

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The Glass Ceiling’s Smudge

Because Hillary Clinton’s always been one of capitalism’s most ardent, enthusiastic and prominent defenders. Because Hillary Clinton appears to genuinely love and believe in free market capitalism. Because of this, a person might remark on there having been a very, very tiny element of pathos in her acknowledging the other day how such a commitment to that economic system “probably” hurt her during the election.

The pathos is maybe like that of watching an enfeebled Magneto at a dinner party, dejectedly juggling his silverware with his mind for his fellow table guests and sighing to them about the scope of his dominion in the pre-thermoplastic days, or lamenting the impending Super Wood transition. The people sitting at the table clap at the spinning cutlery. But it’s a sad applause, weak and sparse, then gone. Magneto disconsolately twirls some spaghetti with a levitating fork and brings it to his mouth to feed himself. He takes a long swallow from his fourth glass of Spatbürgunder. The guests all avert their eyes downward at their plates and grope at something else to talk about.

Magneto is, though, a far more sympathetic figure in decadence than Hillary Clinton. Just watch the clip. It is vintage HRC. Which is to say, not a tragic supervillain. Not an anti-hero. Just a supervillain. Just anti.

Just a sort of vaguely cadaverous looking woman in a summerweight scarf or like, maybe it’s a linen neck cravat spooled over what could be an extrication collar she’s so unnaturally rigid-looking from the shoulders up. Just a general, faint aura of despondency while fielding—from an obviously giddy-headed, sycophantic, hashtag-still-with-her type of creature—the question of whether or not her clapping her pom-poms together and doing toe-touch jumps for capitalism during the height of fucking income inequality “hurt” her.

Then the response. And it’s like we watch as another, more insufferable Hillary hatches out of that Hillaryshell.

The lording of that pragmatism, the basic imperiousness. And of course—as always surfaces whenever she’s asked about the factors that may’ve occasioned her participation trophy in the 2016 presidential election—a just barely suppressed, roiling, seething, rage-contempt coupled with a beyond-weary frustration at whom you’ve just gotta suspect will forever be the one thing she’ll clutch onto as the reason that she actually lost the thing: that is, the lunatic and slobbering mob-republic who all—she seems to think—packed a lipper of Skoal and went into the voting booth to hand over her cache of bombs and missiles to a game show host. An addleminded, Big Bird-physiqued, political fucking neanderthal who managed to capture the country’s vast interior because his opponent was too busy workshopping insults about those very same people in front of the chic donor crowds in the Hamptons to go and visit fucking Wisconsin.

Because it was how Hillary Clinton went about answering the question on the consequences of her pro-capitalist stance that’s arguably far more revealing of what may have actually discouraged U.S. voters from supporting her.

Her answer naturally made no sincere attempt at acknowledging the very real ways in which capitalism has absolutely devoured and razed opportunity throughout the American working class. How it fully siphoned off what it needed of their labor and then left many of them and their families to simply languish in poverty in the country’s now gangrenous regions of dead and used-up industry. To say nothing of the capitalist wasteproduct that is the inner-city. And how here in the U.S. that economic system was deliberately racialized in order to manufacture black failure and consolidate all of capitalism’s lossmaking into one primary group of darkskinned people. Or how the preservation and continuation of that racialized failure was to then be strongly incentivized at every level by capitalists in their beloved system’s rapacious, centuries-long development. Nothing of its terrific adaptability and its demand for evermore failure; everfurther accentuation of the divide(s). And how so now that system’s bottomchurn is becoming a little bit white even, too.

Only a disdainfully amused commentary on the stupid, screaming, careless hordes who failed to appreciate—even consider—the nuance of her position on capitalism. “Appropriate regulation.  Appropriate accountability.” Those aspects that she stresses went unheard.

“That probably gets lost in, ‘Oh my gosh! She’s a capitalist!” Hillary scoffs in the clip.

Ignorant, clownish rustics. The apparent swathes of left-of-centrist Democrats all standing abreast of one another outside the Iowa caucusing locations, stamping their spears on the ground in unison and chanting “Marx! Marx!” and drowning out the gentleness and mildness that Hillary’d been trying to communicate she would have restored to the capitalist system.

Vintage HRC. A fling at being direct and upfront, but almost instinctively, unavoidably, offensively evasive and disingenuous where it matters most. Responding to a question about your position’s maybe being well out-of-step with the party’s base, and not feeling the need to account that beyond ascribing a baffling thickheadedness and blunt recalcitrance to opposing position holders, is exactly the sort of rote and insincere political dialogue that U.S. voters have come to expect from basically all elected officials, but one which Hillary Clinton is especially apt at deploying.

Maybe in defeat it’s even harder to fake empathy. Probably. Nonetheless, it’s astonishing to observe someone whose political mind—hailed as legendary throughout the beltway!—routinely fails to do that one very basic thing, which, after all, was something that even Donald Trump—in his awful, fucking clumsy doddering lurch toward the presidency—could apprehend was necessary in order to win the election.

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Give Me Some Wheels: Breaking Brown and Overcoming the Black Media Crisis

The accusation that either Yvette Carnell or Antonio Moore have been somehow deficient in providing a solution for the black community is a lot like complaining about a gas station attendant who, after filling up your tank, didn’t then convene a meeting with multiple agencies to coordinate municipality-wide road closures and personally escort you on a swift and hassle-free route of passage toward your destination.

In the analogy, it’s important to recognize what a veritable desert black-owned media has become in the U.S. since the 1970s.  And how on a very basic level, the existence of an entity like Breaking Brown—by which information and matters relevant to the black community can be promulgated and discussed—is a vital, agenda-creating plank of the multi-institutional structure that, if full equality is to ever happen, will most certainly be the thing that produces it.

As Antonio Moore, co-author of a recent report which effectively laid to rest the persistent myths surrounding the racial wealth gap, had noted back in 2016: “Joseph Torres and Derek Turner of the media watchdog group Free Press put the current grand total of black-owned and operated full-power TV stations in the United States at zero.” Also declining apace has been a national black-owned radio presence, which, over an 18-year period— from 1995 to 2013—saw a 53 per cent decrease in company ownership.

To understand how this relates to one of Breaking Brown’s central arguments; namely, the essential role of government in creating opportunity for black businesses to be successful by protecting them from being shoved out by larger capital holders’ ever-expanding capture of marketshare, it’s significant to note the year—1995—in which the national presence of black-owned media began to vanish.

The decline coincides with a landmark Supreme Court case, Adarand vs. Peña, in which a minority-owned business had been awarded a subcontract for a guardrail construction project along a highway.  Adarand, a white-owned business and the lowest bidder in the guardrail project, argued that the Department of Transportation—which had offered the primary contractor of the highway certain financial incentives if they subcontracted to disadvantaged (i.e. minority-owned) businesses—violated equal protection under the unconstitution.

The Court sided with Adarand, maintaining that “these programs stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are ‘entitled’ to preferences.”  And so going forward, the Court’s notoriously difficult-to-meet standard of “strict scrutiny”—which had heretofore applied to (and hampered) local and state affirmative action efforts—would, for the first time, also be applicable to federal affirmative action programs.  Consequently, this ruling then directly challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s having established race-based provisions in its competitive bidding procedures for obtaining broadcasting licenses, a decision which was intended to help “disseminat[e] licenses among…businesses owned by members of minority groups and women.”

According to a 2000 reportWhose Spectrum Is It, Anyway? A Historical Study of Market Entry Barriers, Discrimination and Changes in Broadcast and Wireless Licensing, “From 1978 to 1995, the FCC granted approximately 356 tax certificates to promote minority broadcast and cable ownership (287 radio, 40 TV and 30 cable licenses).”  Post Adarand, though, the FCC did away with all of its race-based provisions in competitive bidding, and those credits and deferrals on capital gains taxes that had once been available exclusively to members of minority groups were now made available to all small businesses.

The effect—like all colorblind policy in America—was to simply abandon to their fate black people whose unique history of centuries of wealth exclusion made them disastrously ill-equipped to withstand such exposure to the brutal forces of the market, and to couch this new form of anti-black discrimination in the race-neutral language of equal opportunity.

This legislative pivot away from race-specific corrective measures, and toward an apparent principle of impartiality embedded in the constitution, ensured the vitality of an economic system that to this day depends on the legacy of race-specific punitive policy being left intact.  That legacy—a vastly economically-underdeveloped class of people as a result of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining—is the successful design of  U.S. capitalism’s permanent underclass, the repository and source of its necessary failures.  And while an earlier phase of American capitalism required a fantasy of race to crudely and murderously forge this group, its latter and contemporary phase merely needs that group’s descendants to remain mired in the swells of economic privation.  To be—in other words–overwhelmingly represented and pooled in the category of high financial risk: the modern, ‘race-neutral’ disqualifier for access to wealth in the Adarand-era, wherein the discourse around policy became fully unanchored in the wealth-depriving realities of the past.

Greg Davis, a black radio station owner and industry veteran, speaks to how those historical realities—even if one is able to overcome the initial barriers to access—make obtaining the capital to then invest in the company a grueling endeavor and a stark reminder of how blackness in America signals, above all, financial liability:

“I found it extremely difficult—and even with my 25 years in the business, and even [with my] proven record [of] having been there for 12 or 15 years—it was still very difficult to get conventional financing.  So the cost of capital has always been a very strong deterrent for minorities participating in the broadcast industry…I want that to be very clear: that it’s not only the accessibility, but it’s also the cost of doing business. It’s been extremely difficult for us to come ahead.”

James E. Wolf, Jr., another black radio station owner who secured a broadcasting license in 1983 and who eventually sold his business, has a story that’s also consistent with the obstacle of capital acquisition being a matter of perceived credit unworthiness.

“(W)e tried unsuccessfully so many times [to raise capital]. . . . (T)hese are the pressures really that made me actually sell at this time, you know. It’s because I just got tired of begging people, even though you prove yourself over and over. I’m on the Chamber [of Commerce’s] Economic Development Board. I’ve won the pinnacle award of the Chamber of Commerce. I’ve won the small business award. I’ve won every large award—industry award—that you can win here, but I’ve never proved myself to banks.”

For Mr. Wolf, the reason is obvious: “The color of the skin I am in is the problem. It has been and still is.”

In this light then, the ‘badge of inferiority’ is not a thing ‘stamped’ post-factum by the programs aimed at ameliorating the legacy of being black in America, as was suggested in the Court’s Adarand decision.  The badge of inferiority—which is to say what black skin was made to economically signify in America—was branded onto slaves and their descendants as an economic necessity from the nation’s very inception. Crafted as such, race became the most prevalent and observable feature of what poverty and instability look like in American society, rather than—as it must necessarily be understood in order to fully eradicate the divide—the conceptual tool behind those conditions.

It is in this framework that the sheer paucity of black-owned media—that is, how virtually all of what black America watches, listens to, and reads on a daily basis is all increasingly being curated by and manufactured from a non-black perspective—is entirely correlated with decades of government deregulation and the legacy of capital-exclusion.  Critically, this deregulation is undergirded by the insidious idea that by giving preferential legislative treatment to a group of people who were for so long the victims of explicit, discriminatory policies, we sustain and keep alive certain notions of inequality rather than work to materially close them.  As a black-owned media company, Breaking Brown stands as not only an actual entity in opposition to the collapse of its kind, but as a vehicle that can work in concert with other black institutions—ones that also recognize the complete impoverishment of modern efforts at improving the material conditions of Native Black Descendants of Slaves—to intervene in the apparent collapse of the black community more broadly.

For those critics of Breaking Brown who characterize its position on the need for reparative justice as beggarly—that is, insofar as black institutions are pipelines into the community, then government must be understood as the primary valve through which subsidies and policies flow and fundamentally decide whether those institutions are able to adequately provide their services for the community—or that such a position is somehow unbefitting of a group of people who were for hundreds of years deliberately deprived of securing the chief means to make a dignified life in America—access to wealth—it’s worth considering the words of Erskine Faush, a black television station owner who acquired his license in 1989:

“. . . (I)t’s that access to capital. It’s that barrier. And, you know, you’re not necessarily looking for preferential treatment—and, yet, I could make a strong case to justify some [of it] because of past practices in the marketplace. I could make a strong case for that, but I won’t do that. What I will say is this: that once you remove the barrier that’s there, without help, you cannot move.  And that’s the one of capital.  You know, everything else, once you do that—give me the wheels to put on my chariot.  Do you understand what I mean?  I’ll drive it. I’ll run it.

“I don’t mind getting in the race with anybody else at any other level.  And let it be on initiative, your drive, and all those things that you ought to have to be a good, viable business enterprise, you know.  You don’t have to do that—you don’t have to go out and get the business for me.  I’ll go get it.  Do you understand what I’m saying? But the one thing I can’t get over is the fact that I’m starting at the starting gate and I’m expected to make the chariot go and there are no wheels on it. Give me some wheels and I’ll get at the race line with everybody else and line up, and let’s see who can run to the finish line.”

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