Kamala, #ADOS, and the Black Agenda
The idea of reparations being paid out to the descendants of the enslaved is prominent in the political discourse again. In this moment it’s specifically being talked about in relation to Kamala Harris’ presidential ambitions and the sense that she lacks a Black agenda. Harris’ record as a tough on crime District Attorney for San Fransisco and Attorney General for California stands in contrast to her current positions and rhetoric on criminal justice. A number of her critics point to the image she portrayed in defeating a progressive in her run for DA and the videos in which she brags about her approach to truancy and laughs at the naivety of activists promoting school construction over prison investment. Many of her critics, self-identifying as American Descendants of Slaves and with the hashtag #ADOS suggest that Harris, who identified herself as American when asked if she saw herself as Black, feels no deep connection to the experience of ADOS or a strong affinity for the community’s needs. As evidence, they point to her history as DA and AG and the absence of policy centering any needs of the Black community. To be fair, her website currently offers no policy positions to anyone a month after her announcement. A number point to her Indian and Jamaican parentage to explain her perceived lack of empathy for the Black community and cultural aesthetic performance. While Harris has been reluctant to identify herself as Black her campaign has highlighted her HBCU academic roots, Black sorority sisterhood, offered her musical loves, advertised to be the Wakandan Senator and most recently talked about smoking marijuana as a college student. In the pop culture interview, she leans into a stereotype about Jamaicans, against which her father issued a statement, to explain that she supports legalization of marijuana now, despite opposition as AG. Much has been made of whether she says she smoked while listening to music that came out years after her graduation, but the more relevant issue that begged questioning, was how she chose to prosecute individuals for doing something she herself had done. The response to these ADOS critics has been to misrepresent their concerns as being just over her racial identity, to paint critics as bots or criticism as just coming from the right wing. Instead of calming critics, this response has been predictably inflaming, especially among supporters of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, responsible for creating and disseminating the hashtag long before Harris announced. Both have been consistent critics of Obama and the Democrats in general for their approach to the Black community.
Carnell and Moore are proponents of reparations. They suggest that the reparations should only be for the unpaid labor of American slaves, and thus not available to immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, or elsewhere. Their framing is that those immigrants may deserve reparations but they should seek them from the appropriate colonizing nation because ADOS have a unique claim on reparations from the US government. I’ve written previously that I think there is a moral argument for reparations separate from any political argument. The distinction is important; one can easily make the case that they should happen the difficulty is in explaining a realistic path to getting them and fully defining reparations so that they’re not just limitedly moral, they also represent the dispensation of justice. As currently conceived the plan for reparations doesn’t address the displacement of Native Americans from the land which once acquired needed labor to make it profitable. Further outside the center of the discourse on reparations is any discussion of the poor landless whites who’d been bonded servants who eventually had a pan-European identity thrust on them as distraction from claims of economic redistribution. I’m not suggesting that reparations should be a universal project, just that justice is built on an understanding of history that embraces its contradictions and finds balance. The historical idea of reparations currently up for discussion are predicated on a transhistorical understanding of racism that makes it beneficial to all white people. That framing is one that decreases their chance of actually happening. Rather than end the discussion of a “Black agenda” with an idea with little real world political traction and no chance of currently becoming reality it’s worth considering what might become reality that benefits the Black community. It’s altogether possible that the idea of reparations may gain real traction in the future, it would only occur after a deep pervasive change in our understanding of justice.
If we were living with the kind of understanding of justice that made reparations possible we would not be a nation where war, healthcare, education, and criminal justice are seen as profitable markets
Let’s start considering what could be part of a Black agenda with an understanding of our current political and economic reality: a race-based policy that will benefit 13% (minus Black immigrants) of the population is not happening anytime soon. This is inarguable. Anyone truly interested in a Black agenda is more focused on ensuring that the structures that have historically created our deprivation are challenged than they are who else benefits from those structural changes. Anyone more focused on ensuring that benefits are exclusive to the Black community cares more about a moral “victory” than they do the material well being of the Black community.
With our current political reality in mind, some have offered ways we might begin making reparations, in a sense by addressing racial wealth disparities. Sandy Darrity and Darrick Hamilton have proposed baby bonds as a means of addressing this racial wealth gap by focusing on families living in poverty. The racial wealth gap they consider is usually determined by looking at median wealth for Black and white families. It’s depicted like this:
Many use this to explain that a white family at every economic level has more wealth than a Black family with equivalent socioeconomic standing. Since I’m not an economist I couldn’t untie the problem I had that lies at the heart of this comparison: How does this framing explain that three white men have as much wealth as about half the country? It doesn’t. Matt Bruenig, of the People’s Policy Project suggests looking at mean wealth.
While the median racial wealth gap is $146,200, the mean racial wealth gap of $760,700 is more descriptive of a reality where three white men own as much wealth as about half the country. In both racial groups the median quintile owns almost nothing, most of the wealth is concentrated in the top quintile. The median quintile of both groups owns 2.9% of wealth.
The top quintile owns 88.3% of wealth, which is more concentrated in the Black community.
In the podcast where he talks about these numbers Bruenig says, “You would think that advocates who are really trying to push a racial wealth gap would pick a statistic that most highlighted how big a gap is” Whose interest is served by focusing on the smaller number provided by the median racial wealth disparity? Bruenig goes on to show that baby bonds would make reductions in the racial wealth gap, but they would be modest and far from closing it. Looking at the mean racial wealth gap it becomes clear that .9% difference in wealth ownership between the Black and white median quintiles is less important than the 85.4% difference in wealth ownership between the top and median (and below) quintiles; the people who have almost everything and the people who have almost nothing.
It’s understandable for people with the history of ADOS to center that history for a specific remedy. We need to come to some consensus on what the goal is. Do we want to focus on an exclusionary remedy with little potential of becoming reality in our current context? Do we want better economic racial parity within each quintile? More proportionate poverty? What relationship does our perfect Black agenda have to political reality or any politician’s current agenda? Looking at the way that wealth is distributed doesn’t it make sense that a Black agenda would consider the strategies and goals that have been successful in the past for creating positive structural changes for Black Americans: multi-racial coalitions focused on redistributing wealth to create better economic parity? We can consider our history as ADOS but that doesn’t mean we need to focus on a remedy solely to that history with no possibility of becoming reality.
I think it’s fair to say that among ADOS there’s a perception that our individual lives were worth more as enslaved people than they are now. To say that it’s a painful history is simplistic. It’s an unreconciled history more like painful scab than healed wound. ADOS and Native Americans have a unique historical right to cynicism and distrust of other’s agendas in the US. No one who denies that will be successful at building a coalition with Black people. The conventional wisdom is that Black Americans are conservative. People misunderstand what that means. To the degree that it’s true, Black Americans are generally socially conservative and economically liberal to socialist. In my arguments with liberals over the negative effect of identity politics I’ve been sharing an equation that I hope is a useful reminder to leftists, socialists, and Marxists also interested in a multiracial class-based coalition:
Identity in politics =/= Identity Politics
On an episode of Dead Pundits Society, Cedric Johnson quoted Harold Cruse, “The problem with American Marxists is they can only see Blacks at the barricades, they don’t see Blacks as a people with classes and class interests.” Perceptions are often more powerful than reality in organizing. Our project is the Black agenda. Articulating the case, without making fetishist arguments, doesn’t turn us into race reductionists.