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Crooning Al Green While Black Wealth Cratered: Breaking Brown & the Problem of Barack Obama

There is a longstanding and baleful account of black life in America that Breaking Brown has spent virtually its entire existence trying to counterbalance and undo. One that attributes certain deficiencies in the black community—the blighted neighborhoods, the elevated rates of criminality; the supposed listlessness and miserable poverty of its members—to basic and immutable facts of those individuals’ personal habits and choices. One that maintains if only African-Americans simply made better decisions, they would be able to transcend their situation.

Breaking Brown proceeds from a fully developed critique of this expedient catch-all of black life in America. And like much of the worst prevailing anti-black ideology that the project aims to deracinate from society at large, that crude synopsis has found many of its most ardent supporters within the black community itself. What Breaking Brown is attempting to demonstrate is that in fact these aspects of black life can no more be considered essential to the character of the people than a fever can be regarded as having developed independent of some deeper infection; that this febrile state of the black community is more appropriately viewed as epiphenomenal of a racialized capitalism that—with this latest tax reform—has now fully hit its stride in its ability to heap unmitigated punishment upon its victims. Breaking Brown has, in short, worked very hard to unburden African-American Descendants of Slaves of the lie that they themselves are largely responsible for their condition.

Of this harmful set of ideas, there has been perhaps no more prominent spokesperson and influential messenger than Barack Obama. In so many ways Obama emerges from exactly this primordial brine-sludge of anti-black beliefs, a fact which is nowhere else more apparent than in his delivering of the commencement speech to Morehouse College’s class of 2013, wherein he tells a lawn teeming with rain-soaked, African-American graduates seated on folding chairs that, in effect, it’s tough shit they are black in a country which, from its very inception, has been systematically and by design hostile to their people’s advancement.

Obama’s was a presidency which, from the first, was conceived more as a divine event, similar to the kind of thing that W.E.B. Du Bois—then writing in 1903 and reflecting back on what the promise of emancipation meant to black people—had said about how the enslaved envisioned their eventual freedom as that which would contain “the end of all doubt and disappointment.” And even as the hallowed figure of Obama evinced a patently hollow interest in—and at times cold contempt of—the community with which he claimed affinity, he continued to be regarded as the very fulfillment of salvation and progress which Du Bois had, a century earlier, described a putatively freed black society in desperate search of; and which, then like now, was made to elude them. And so if there’s one area in which Breaking Brown in fact does hold many African-Americans fully accountable for some of their continued disadvantage, it is in exactly this: their unflinching support of Barack Obama. A man who despite all his symbolism of the distance they’d come from the noose, was himself—because it was only ever symbolism to begin with and nothing more—an albatross worn willingly around the necks in the black community.

If there is any indication of the amount of work that Breaking Brown has cut out for itself with respect to elucidating the community on the dangerous longing for the country’s first African-American president, there is no more obvious example than the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates and its consistently earning a slot in the Top-Seller lists. Virtually every article or essay by Coates provides occasion to journey through the writer’s nakedly uncritical recollection of the Obama years, a modus operandi which—in response to the much more primitive and traditional form of white supremacy that’s been embraced by Obama’s successor—has become particularly pitched as of late. And, judging by the title of Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, the writer shows fully zero interest in transitioning from a body of work that is basically an ahistorical lament over one man, to a deeper engagement with certain realities that directly contradict the idea that the Obama presidency in some way constituted a period of social and economic advancement for black people in this country.

Breaking Brown‘s occupancy in this particular critical space is a necessary antidote to how Ta-Nehisi Coates and other members of the black intellectual class all appear singularly incapable of producing any critique of American racial politics that does not ultimately aim to absolve, or at the very least, excuse Barack Obama from his role in contributing to the eroding quality of black life in the United States and the insidious notion that, in order to overcome those circumstances, African-Americans themselves must only tap into the supposed virtue of self-reliance.

One need only consider the extremely mild and qualified and ‘well on the one hand’ censure by Coates of Obama’s Morehouse speech: “I would not suggest that it is in his power to singlehandedly repair history. But I would say that, in his role as American president, it is wrong for him to hand wave at history;” or, “Perhaps [African-Americans] cannot practically receive targeted policy. But surely they have earned something more than targeted scorn,” to the unequivocal and venerating language he uses in the very same article to articulate his personal feelings about the man himself: “I think the stature of the Obama family—the most visible black family in American history—is a great blow in the war against racism. I am filled with pride whenever I see them: There is simply no other way to say that. I think Barack Obama, specifically, is a remarkable human being—wise, self-aware, genuinely curious and patient. It takes a man of particular vision to know, as Obama did, that the country really was ready to send an African American to the White House.”

Of that same speech, Yvette Carnell had this to say, an excoriation which absolutely deserves to be quoted in full:

“I watched this man say something in front of black kids he would never say in front of white kids. He would never go into Stanford—into Harvard—and tell them what they don’t deserve and what they’re not entitled to, especially since what they’re going through is a systemic failure. When we look at all those numbers [of black poverty, incarceration rates, eviction], you don’t get numbers that big with an individual failure. Those numbers get to be that big because of a systemic failure. And Barack Obama wanted to be the black daddy of black men. That’s not your role. That was never his role. His role was political. You are the president of the United States. And what you did when you showed up to Morehouse is tell a lot of black men, who achieved beyond the odds to get a college education, you told them what the government wasn’t gonna do instead of what the government was gonna do to make sure that [they’re] treated fairly. What is the government gonna do to make sure that you can get a job as a Morehouse grad. We see that black people who go to school and get a degree don’t even have the same odds as a white person who didn’t get a degree. Instead of telling me, Mr. Obama, what you not gonna do, how about you tell me what you are gonna do so that we’re treated fairly by employers? Instead of telling me what you not gonna do or not gonna see in terms of excuses, why don’t you commend me for how I got here against the odds to be standing here in the rain at a college. Why don’t you do that? Know why he can’t do that? Because he’s not anchored in our history.”

Breaking Brown exhibits no such fragility or sensitivity to emotion in negotiating the enduring legacy of Barack Obama. Moreover, it heard clear and pure the plaintive echoing of the cry for progress described by Du Bois having rung persistently up to, and throughout, these last eight years. It is the emotional connection to Obama, Breaking Brown argues, that mutes and warps that imperative. And the project understands the severance of that connection is necessary for realistic and purposeful reckoning to occur if the African-American community is ever to move beyond contentment with symbols of progress and attain meaningful, material improvement. For this, Yvette Carnell is often accused of being depressing. But maybe if there’s one thing that all these hot takes of the Obama years penned by writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates need more than anything right away, it’s a wet blanket of truth.

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On Half the Hyphen: Breaking Brown & The Question of African-American Collectivism.

There’s this thing about how white players in the NBA are statistically superior from the free throw line than black players. They actually studied this, like in the mid or late 60s. Whether or not this is the case today is kind of anyone’s guess. For very obvious reasons there’s not a lot of purely race-based statistical analysis happening in professional sports nowadays. But anyway they controlled for height and everything, and it turned out to be something like white players were 4% more accurate than black players at the free throw line, which—statistically—is not insignificant. They then went and tested the same thing at the college level. This time they even passed around a questionnaire that players were asked to fill out because the researchers wanted to get so fine-grained with their analysis that they could potentially look at the players’ free throw percentages for the season and correlate them with like an absent father or the family’s annual gross income or whatever. They analyzed the free throw data, then re-analyzed it to control for height, and what they found was that the data bore out basically in exactly the same manner as it had in the pros, with the white players again being reliably more accurate from the foul line than black players. The questionnaire also plainly ruled out the differences being accounted for by certain variables like socio-economic status or like a dad not being around while the kid was growing up to make him stay out ’til after dark doing free-throw drills in the driveway either. So what was it?

The basic hypothesis was that—in sports that were more reactive in nature (boxing, football, etc.)—black players outperformed whites, while white players tended to—in sports that were more self-paced (golf; bowling)—outperform blacks. And in order to eliminate certain social factors that exclude black participants (e.g. golf is expensive; professional bowling is not exactly a sport in which black role models abound), they looked exclusively to a sport like basketball which contained both reactive and self-paced components, and in which African-Americans are overrepresented. The results of the free throw experiment, taken together with black players statistically outperforming white players in the reactive aspects of the game (field goal shots; one-on-one play), appeared to support the researchers’ original hypothesis that performance in the two styles of sports could be charted out along lines of race and could be, they said, “genetic in origin.”

It wasn’t until a few years later that a guy named James M. Jones came along and appended a more nuanced explanation onto the original hypothesis of reactive vs. self-paced performance disparities. Those low free throw percentages, he argued, couldn’t really be properly understood outside of  “the cultural context in which basketball skills develop.” In other words, it wasn’t that—with respect to self-paced sports—black players were less capable merely because of their biology; it was that certain “culturally conditioned attributes and capacities” of an African-American’s unique psychology weren’t exercised in those sports, and thus accounted for the performance disparity.

Jones’s overall aim was much more ambitious than to simply rescue the African-American free throw shooter or professional bowler from the fate of a purely essentialist understanding of the number of bricks or gutter balls that might issue from their hands. Nor was he really all that interested in limiting his analysis to the world of sports. Rather, Jones set out to argue that African-American culture on the whole—in particular its powerful and robust psychological element; the “patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving, and valuing”—reflected and was “continuous with its African origins,” and was instrumental in helping cope, adapt, and essentially survive the contexts of slavery and dehumanization into which they’d been forced, and the oppressed condition in which they today remain.

What Jones was hoping to underscore was that this conception of African-American culture markedly “diverge[s] from one constructed on the principles of a European-derived materialistic individualism.” Instead, it’s one whose nature “reflect[s] the core African ethos,” which—to the extent that it departs from a Western ideal of self-reliance—can reasonably be understood as being grounded in communitarian values. Abdou Diouf—who was Senegal’s prime minister around the time when Jones was writing—perhaps articulates that ethos more precisely: “The emotional characteristics of the Negro-African form the substructure of communal life in Africa . . . it develops especially the inclination to solidarity, mutual aid, justice and honour, and by stimulating the collective work and equity in the distribution, they forge the socialistic and civil spirits which inspire our strategy of development.” With this notion informing his analysis of African-American culture, Jones would go on to argue that—beyond mechanisms for survival in their oppression—these “expressions of psyche” that are rooted in Africa take on a unique and significant political valence here in America in the context of the ongoing struggle for equality: “Progress in rights and opportunities, however much qualified,” he says, “opens up new avenues of possibility and expands the range of goals to which the reactionary and evolutionary mechanisms may be directed.”

Just prior to Breaking Brown‘s indefinite hiatus, Yvette Carnell uploaded a short video to her YouTube channel that, in many ways, echoed the words of both Abdou Diouf and James M. Jones. And, as she prepared to regroup with the Breaking Brown project, she left her audience to deliberate over this thought in the meantime:

“I don’t know if African-Americans, morally . . . not intellectually . . . morally—in terms of our values—have what it takes to be super-capitalists. I don’t know if we have what it takes to be capitalists. The problem is African-Americans don’t have the level of viciousness required to snatch or take anything on that level. The way we that we have gotten ahead . . . and not even ahead . . . but the way that we’ve gotten to be still alive after what we’ve been through . . . the way that we have secured ourselves after what we’ve been through is by collectively doing with and for each other.”

Some of the reaction to Yvette’s statement was predictably swift and defensive. The capitalist economy, they contended, is in fact an eminently tenable system for uplift in the black community; this despite the fact that the very system for which they are advocating has already basically completely devoured their community and is now merely using what’s left of it to pick its teeth as it moves onto its second course: the white middle-class. There was also the weird and wince-inducing insistence by some commenters that, in fact, African-Americans do, as a collective, possess all the requisite immorality and viciousness needed to economically thrive in a hyper-capitalist society; the moment to do so, they said, has just not yet arrived. Why someone would rush to claim ownership of such innate depravity is maybe best understood as, simply, behavior conditioned by sheer desperation for some kind of solution in the face of abject ruin, or how capitalism has come to so totally subsume the political imaginations of its subjects that even those who are its chief victims foreclose on the possibility of any alternative arrangement between human beings outside of the purely exploitative. For it’s a bleak situation indeed when a person would sooner repudiate the suggestion of her innate good than flatly condemn the wretchedness of capitalism with which that righteousness is said to be incommensurate.

However, not one of the skeptics of the idea of African-American collectivist cultural norms saw fit to refute—or to even challenge—the validity of Yvette Carnell’s claim on the grounds of actual science. After all, how can someone who is not, as far as we know, particularly verse in modern cultural neuroscience make such a seemingly broad and confident assertion as to the morality and values system of a particular race of people? Isn’t this precisely the sort of essentialist way of looking at groups of people that leads even so-called experts to say something like black basketball players miss a higher percentage of free throws because they’re black? And insofar as the sorts of gains that Breaking Brown is attempting to help realize for African-American Descendants of Slaves, which undoubtedly require a collectivist-minded constituency, it’s worth considering—or at least being skeptical about—how the project may lean too heavily on its ideal rather than grapple with the question of exactly how much the people it needs to act collectively in order to make those gains actually do favor the community over the individual.

The answer to that question, like with so many things in America—as Ms. Carnell herself often says—appears to be quite complicated. In a wide-ranging, 2002 meta-analysis of studies looking at individualism and collectivism across certain ethnicities within the U.S., African-Americans emerged as more individualistic than their white counterparts. About a decade later, another empirically relevant piece of data for the cultural propensity to collectivism surfaced: the frequency of the S allele in the serotonin transmitter gene 5-HTTLRP. Lower frequencies of that S allele were reported in African-Americans, which would in turn support the earlier studies’ findings of African-Americans having a psychological orientation toward an individualist, and not collectivist, culture.

However, in that same meta-analysis, researchers performed a regional analysis in which Africa (particularly West Africa, the region from which the majority of slaves were stolen and brought to the U.S.) was demonstrated to greatly exceed every other global region that was examined for psychological traits of collectivism. In particular, Africa’s collectivist rating was nearly double that of Western Europe, and 13x’s higher than English-speaking regions. Moreover, the data on African-Americans includes two major caveats: a relatively small sample size of African-Americans, owing in part to the difficulty in recruiting them for genetic research. And, the second caveat—less explicitly stated as such in the study, though arguably of far greater significance—is the fine distinction that necessarily needs to be drawn in considering the ramifications of living as an African-American in an oppressive, materialist, and largely anti-black society for centuries, and what that sustained experience will do to a human psyche. James Jones argues as much when he says, in “the hostile context [of America] . . . [i]ndividualism in the service of survival and establishing self-worth may be of a different quality than individualism that serves personal achievement.”

In other words, for African-Americans, one side of that hyphen—culturally—is doing a lot more work in (re)shaping the psyche than the other. It is that culture within which circulates all the wealth and everything else that would materially benefit the African-American community, and in which it has historically been hoarded in order to preclude the possibility that descendants of slaves may heal and be made whole. Breaking Brown aims to show that if there is any hope at all for African-Americans to lay claim to what of that bounty is rightfully theirs, it is the other side of that hyphen—that side in which those collectivist attitudes of mind find their historical roots—that must be recovered from the cultish delirium of individualism and tapped into for the political project here at home. That political project, at least at this present stage, is not particularly interested in prescribing one specific ideology over the other as a definitive way forward for African-American Descendants of Slaves, but rather is interested in asking those who desire change—especially now as the nation enters a new period of what Antonio Moore rightly describes as an amplified and omnidirectional assault on black life—to weigh the suitability of those traditional values with respect to a politics of individualism, a politics that has exploited them and given them the only thing they’ve arguably ever collectively known here: a social and economic environment of oppression.

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