On January 13, online magazine Babe published an article titled, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” The piece alleged acts of sexual misconduct on the part of comedian Aziz Ansari and in the aftermath, folks have been left to grapple with the murky questions of what is sexual assault, why do men fail to see it, and what we can do to stop it. On this week’s episode of Run it Black, David and Mike enter the fray.
With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.
#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.
#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.
#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.
#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.
#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.
#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.
#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.
#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.
#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.
#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.
Happy reading and happy new year!
This week on Run it Black, Mike and David talk about the latest entry into the ongoing intellectual debate between philosopher and activist Cornel West and critically acclaimed essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. The conversation covers a range of topics including identity politics and the Obama administration, the roles of race and class in how we talk about progressive struggle and what it all means looking forward to 2018 and beyond. Check it out and let us know what you think.
On this week’s Run it Black Podcast, we talk about a fascinating GQ profile on the rapper Andre 3000, the importance of the rap duo Outkast, and why Andre continues to remain relevant at age 42. We also go speak to the development of Southern Hip-Hop and its influence on much of the rap game in 2017, regardless of region. Later on, we dive into where Hip-Hop as a genre is headed and whether it can evolve into an art form that speaks to the experience of older folks. Finally, we give our top 5 Andre 3000 tracks because, well, of course we would. You won’t want to miss this episode!
Once, at a town hall in Wisconsin, someone asked me the following question:
“I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.”
If you’re ever in a position of power and trying to simultaneously cut taxes for rich people and benefits for poor people, you’ll get asked questions like this one a lot. To make sure you’re ready for it as the tax debate heats up, I’ve written a handy step-by-step guide on how to convince your constituents that the help-the-rich, whack-the-poor agenda is the only way to go:
1) Say you share the same goals. The trick here is to convince people that you’re with them all the way on the importance of helping the poor. You just disagree about “how to achieve that goal.” Start there and you’ve quickly turned things from a moral referendum on whether we should help the poor or the rich into what appears to be a reasonable disagreement over what works best to help the least advantaged.
2) Direct attention away from what it means to be poor. People who ask these sorts of questions think that poor people simply don’t have enough money to meet their families’ basic needs. You know better. Tell them what the poor really need is “upward mobility,” “economic growth,” and “equality of opportunity.” Not only do these airy concepts all sound really good – who could be against any of them? – they also let you pivot away from the obvious solution: giving people more of the resources they lack. True, your agenda doesn’t bring about the things to which you’ve shifted the focus. But don’t worry! The narrative that tax cuts promote economic growth is one that voluminous evidence to the contrary has thus far been unable to kill; likewise, the intimate connection between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity is one very few interviewers will point out. People are often happy to ignore the large body of evidence on these issues and treat them as debatable.
3) Imply that poor people’s personal failings are what’s holding them back. You can’t pull off the enlightened nice-guy routine if you’re blaming poor people for their problems outright. So you need to do it subtly: say that what we really need is worker training and programs that encourage people to work (again, who’s going to be against that?). Never mind that there’s little actual evidence of a “skills gap” and that most people who can work already do. People are predisposed to believe that our success relative to those less fortunate is a result of our superior work ethic and talents (rather than a product of race, class, gender, and/or other forms of privilege and sheer dumb luck). The more you tap into that predisposition, the more people will oppose downward redistribution and support imposing burdensome requirements on the Have Nots instead.
4) Choose unrepresentative examples and statistics. People are always shocked to hear my example of “a single mom getting 24 grand in benefits with two kids who,” because of the way the safety net is designed,” will lose 80 cents on the dollar if she goes and takes a job.” They don’t need to know that very few single mothers ever face such a marginal tax rate, that marginal tax rates for low-income people are typically much lower than marginal tax rates for people with more money, that it pays to work even for the tiny group of people my example describes, or that reducing the marginal tax rates low-income people face without pushing them deeper into poverty would require investing more in the programs I want to cut, not less.
Similarly, I love to tell people that “our poverty rates are about the same as they were when we started th[e] War on Poverty,” which is more or less what the official poverty measure shows. That official measure excludes the effects of the very programs I say aren’t working, of course, and yes, there is a Supplemental Poverty Measure that refutes this claim and that analysts across the political spectrum agree is more appropriate to use, but the inconvenient truth that anti-poverty programs currently cut poverty nearly in half and have reduced poverty by 10 percentage points since the late 1960s isn’t exactly going to help us pass our agenda.
5) Hammer “focus on outcomes” rhetoric. Focusing on outcomes is popular in many fields, so this talking point – that “instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs, [we should] measure success in poverty on outcomes” – is very effective. The fact that nobody actually measures program effectiveness by how much money we spend or by the number of programs we create is irrelevant, as is the large and growing body of research showing that the safety net boosts the long-run outcomes of children growing up in poor families, as is the havoc the tax-cut agenda has wreaked on Kansas. All that matters is that people fall for this line, nodding their heads in agreement when you say it.
As long as you’re proposing to redistribute money from the bottom and middle to the rich, you’re going to get questions like the one I got at that town hall. There will always be those who oppose reverse-Robin-Hood-ism on principle. But if you stick to these steps, before you know it, you’ll have convinced a constituency (and perhaps even yourself!) that helping the rich is actually about helping the poor. At worst, people will just be too confused to know what to think.
I’m excited to announce that 34justice is partnering with Run It Black, a podcast on “sports, politics, culture, and the intersection of race” from David Tigabu and Mike Mitchell. Mike taught me much of what I know about podcasting, and David is no newcomer to 34justice, having previously authored a great piece for us on how the co-option of Christianity helps explain the election of Donald Trump. Besides being good friends of mine and knowing far more about pop culture than I ever will, David and Mike have awesome insights about the connections between racism and various other forms of oppression. Often containing fascinating historical context, their episodes are both entertaining and informative.
You can listen to Run It Black episodes directly through 34justice’s new Run It Black widget, which can be found on the top right-hand-side of our webpage on a desktop computer and towards the bottom of the page on a mobile device. You can also tune in on iTunes. Here’s a quick overview of the first five episodes (from earliest to most recent):
What to do about the NFL?
Find out why David and Mike are boycotting the NFL this year and what they think of the Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor showdown.
The Politics of Hurricanes
People of color suffer most when natural disasters strike, are often de-prioritized during our inadequate responses to such disasters, and will continue to face disproportionate harm if we fail to address climate change. David and Mike explain.
Jemele Hill Was Right
Hill’s Black colleagues backed her up when she called Donald Trump a White supremacist, but ESPN didn’t. David and Mike discuss the Right-wing backlash to race-conscious sports media before delving into some statistics on and possible remedies for the racial wealth gap.
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Disaster
As David and Mike note, our government has treated Puerto Rico significantly worse than it treats US states during times of natural disaster, a problem consistent with a long history of unjust policy towards Americans on the island. They also comment on the evolution of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice.
The Enduring Significance of HBCUs
While neither David nor Mike attended an HBCU, they’ve thought a lot about the important role such institutions play in improving opportunities for Black Americans. They note HBCUs’ many strengths, why some criticisms of HBCUs are misplaced, and the curious case of HBCU presidents accepting Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House.
At many schools I’ve worked at or observed, math departments are structured counterproductively. The best teachers often teach the most advanced classes, while the newest teachers, or those most in need of support, teach the classes that struggling students are more likely to attend. As a result, the students most in need of excellent teaching can be least likely to get it.
Math departments may be structured this way for a variety of reasons. There is surely a correlation of some sort between teaching skill and mastery of mathematics, so the best teachers may just more often than novice teachers be well-equipped to teach advanced courses. It may also be the case that teachers prefer teaching advanced classes; as the students in advanced classes typically already want to be there, teachers of those classes can focus more on content instruction and less on classroom management. School leaders may want to keep their best teachers happy, and giving those teachers the advanced classes may be one way to do that.
I can understand why teachers might, if given the choice, decide to teach AP Calculus AB instead of an intervention class geared towards students who failed Algebra I. Especially given the workloads American society foists upon teachers, who never have enough hours in the day to do a fraction of what they’d ideally do for their students, teacher burnout is a real concern. While I know some great teachers who love teaching hard-to-reach students and have made doing so their life’s work, and while teaching advanced students also carries its challenges, working with the highest-need students is often emotionally exhausting and probably accelerates the burning-out process.
Several approaches could potentially help reduce the tension between pursuing the most equitable arrangement – in which the best teachers teach the students who need help most – and protecting teachers against burnout. One option would be to reduce the number of classes teachers of introductory or remedial courses would be required to teach. If nothing else, an extra free period would give these teachers more time to plan remediation and give students constructive feedback. Another option would be to ensure that an instructional aide is available to assist teachers in every lower-level course they teach. A third approach would be to require every teacher teaching an AP or honors course to teach a lower-level course as well. (None of these ideas is mutually exclusive, of course.)
Reducing teacher burnout and making our schools more equitable are big challenges that ultimately require substantially increased investments in public education, particularly in low-income areas, as well as an overhaul of what teacher workdays and support structures look like. We must push for those investments and overhauls, not to mention the larger, outside-of-school changes that are most important for ensuring equal opportunity for every student in this country. In the meantime, we should explore creative ways to simultaneously keep our best teachers invigorated and make sure they’re in front of our students in need.
A black person does not really discuss black people dying without also feeling a subtle contempt or masochism, but there is also gratitude when black death is made public (à la Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, insisting for the world to see what America did to her son by having an open casket funeral for his unseeable soul) — because there are so many black deaths that are ignored by mass media, or simply forgotten — but how could one forget what one never thought was worth knowing, counting, excavating, cherishing? It’s almost as if you can kill a black person for existing, while also denying they ever truly existed. We want to say with Mamie, “Look what they are doing to us! Still!!!”, and are grateful for this chance, but also frustrated and shameful that our cries continue to fall on deaf ears. Why grieve at all? Who is even listening — we ourselves are tired of grieving and listening to others grieving for us. As long as its another black person, and not myself, whose family will have to deal with the aftermath of their unjust loss (and no real hope of actual justice), how does that affect my mental health?
We of darker persuasions cannot mourn ourselves every day, or can we? Are we built to mourn and live like this? The twin archetypes of the strong black woman and hyper-masculine black man have the answer: of course, we are built for this. A prerequisite of these archetypes is the inability to feel pain — and denial of pleasure, conversely — and the failure to perceive pain in others: an utter lack of basic humanity. Blackness under the western gaze is not sentient — it cannot think or feel in any civilized way, which is the only way that counts. (Of course dark people can think and feel in primitive ways, isn’t that what the continent of Africa is for?) This is why some white people can be very passionate about animal ethics or environmental causes but somehow cannot process basic principles of structural racism, hence the pejorative “animal whites”. In western thought, “black” is not characterized by viable boundaries and demarcations, but more aptly by what it lacks: the holy grail of whiteness. This is similar to how de Beauvoir describes feminine qualities under the masculine gaze in The Second Sex.
“He [Man] thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it. ‘The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is symbolised in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called ‘a supernumerary bone’ of Adam.”
Whatever black is, is irrelevant; it’s only important to know that it’s not white — which is perhaps one reason why white immigrants could gradually (only after deep shame and self-contempt) trade in their ethnic pride for the immaculate coin of whiteness. The Italians, the Irish, the Greeks, and many in eastern Europe who have definite Asian or African ancestry all had to become “white” — and becoming something that doesn’t exist requires much conjuring, sorcery, and blatant deception.
Ellison echoes the same in a 1970 essay, What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,
“Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the “outsider.” Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term “nigger” – it made them feel instantly American. But this is tricky magic. Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system, but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.”
And Baldwin picks up the torch in On Being White and Other Lies:
“No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country…. America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation.”
This positioning of blackness as outsider, outlaw, something lacking agency, uniqueness, responsibility and thus any truly productive role in society, is the start of “black death as spectacle” and a hallmark feature of whiteness. The spectacle is, as Du Bois says,
“a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Onlookers are amused because they don’t understand how a people so gifted can still be suffering so greatly in a country that they built. The onlooker’s detachment from black suffering buttresses their amusement. The black person alike can be detached from the suffering of their own people by bleak attempts to assimilate towards external markers of whiteness and respectability that it promises.
As Ellison briefly touched on, the paradox of black death is how undeniably and uniquely American we are (regardless of how much we wish otherwise). No matter how much the police and government and our nonblack neighbors convince us otherwise. We may not have all came here by choice, but we came and built this land with our sweat, tears and intelligence — which is why it hurts all the more that black lives don’t seem to matter to our country and our people.
In her 1969 book Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlines the five steps of grief that usually occur when a person encounters their own death. This is analogous to what can happen when we witness an unprovoked loss of black life. The stages are as follows:
Usually accompanied by shock (“How could this have happened to someone so young or educated or civilized or promising or successful or harmless? What could they have possibly done to deserve this? How were they able to do this on camera? Weren’t body cams supposed to enforce an honor code?”)
Persistent denial quickly leads to full-blown rage and disgust (“Fuck the police and this country. I hate white people and white supremacy. Why does this always happen to us?”). These feelings are not new, but simply resurface over and over again to deal with recurring grievances. Anger towards ourselves for not doing something about it sooner (but also feeling helpless because we have no idea how to stop it), towards black people for not rising up and forming some militia of the people, angry at non-blacks for being so complacent with black death
Appeals to respectability politics and persistent rationalization are performed: (“The assailant must have had a good reason”, “the officer feared for their life and did they best they could, it’s a tough job, lives will get lost, sorry”, “the victim had a history of criminal offenses or drug abuse, petty or otherwise”, “The victim shouldn’t have been in that place at that time of day/night or should have just done what the officer told them to do”, “The officer should have had their body cam on, then there would be no ambiguity about exactly how it went down”, “The family life or childhood of the victim has some minor detail that justifies their imminent demise”
Anyone, not just black people, can bargain in this way and make excuses for the incident. Respectability politics for black people is merely a special case of the well-known “just world fallacy”
This phase can last for months and years and takes a severe toll on black mental health worldwide, especially those who lose family members or see the events live. The candid realization that black lives don’t matter, and there are still people who argue that advocating for your survival is a terrorist act — which, technically, it is! Because it brings absolute terror to the idea of whiteness having the sole claim to which lives do and don’t matter.
“Well, we should make peace with our status”, having “the talk” with your black children, “We can’t prevent ourselves from being killed, we can’t really bear arms or shoot back, and when killed, we are unlikely to receive justice, so we should lower our standards and do the best we can”, me being paranoid that having a broken taillight can lead to my death (à la Sandra Bland), normalcy and desensitization of black death takes center stage:
“What happens when instead of becoming enraged and shocked every time a black person is killed in the United States, we recognize black death as a predictable and constitutive aspect of this democracy? What will happen then if instead of demanding justice we recognize (or at least consider) that the very notion of justice — indeed the gamut of political and cognitive elements that constitute formal, multiracial democratic practices and institutions — produces and requires black exclusion and death as normative?” – Joy James & Joāo Costa Vargas, Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization: Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs
Unconsciously, this perpetual cycle of grief can lead us to agree with the general public opinion that we are “a problem”, (whether we are our own problem to fix or it is our environment’s fault is another question entirely, usually set up as a false dichotomy) which Du Bois noticed long ago in the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk —
“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”
Du Bois’s playful way describes perfectly why having nuanced conversations about race is so difficult with white people; they so often don’t want an answer to the real question: How does it feel to be black, to be at the bottom of this brutal yet worthless racial hierarchy? Black feelings are white nightmares.
White people usually don’t have the patience to listen to this answer, because they congenitally lack the patience and nuance to examine their own complicity. Whiteness is curable if the owners know its true cost. White people, in the main, have failed to be human, because they are too busy trying to be white. But they are too white to admit this, and yet drowning in white guilt is neither salve nor salvation.
And finally, we find ourselves at the performance art piece, or the conspicuous consumption of black death as a spectacle — as something to be gawked at, internalized, amused by, as a perennial window into western morality, to be pitied and empathized from afar but never entering the heart of the matter, on how collective black rage/action is the world’s worst nightmare (even for some black people themselves to honor the rage they have every right to) — and as ritual, an almost religious experience that ensures the spectacle plays out its script via mass media, pleas for respectability politics, and calls to action that want reform without revolution:
public display and knowledge of black death, which renders blacks privy to embarrassment and humiliation, and offers non-blacks a chance to internalize black inferiority — and for both parties to assume that justice will not be served no matter how clear-cut the case may seem.
private knowledge as blacks navigate feelings of self-hate, self-pity, and decide how best to fight back against the world’s assumption of their innate inferiority and still love being black, and not simply tolerate it.
The Ritual is simply the performance of the spectacle, day after day, with these key underwriting features:
- repetition (it happens again and again, seemingly without end, since this country’s inception)
- These incidents may follow one another in quick succession, within days or weeks. One event’s grief can overshadow the other. A very essential demoralizing effect — why grieve for one of them when they all happen so fast? why grieve at all? This is the entry point into learned helplessness. Rage must be distilled into apathy or else it becomes lethal to the oppressive regime. The ritual usually does not end in anger, but makes the full cycle through to depression and acceptance and starts anew upon another incident.
- Outrage and call to arms (riots, protests, public displays of morning and rage, black separatism through self-sufficiency, chastising whites for being complicit with their inaction or for actively denying that it even happened, sharing information about the incident on public media) as public outrage responds then quickly retreats as event fades from public memory
- Church folk praying for strength to forgive those who are complicit in black death, which ostensibly will also help the praying black person not to hold a grudge against American society for its deliberate blindness to the black plight.
- The dissemination and proliferation of black death as film and image on social media in our age is meant to drive home the concept of learned helplessness, which is basically the default black mindset today, rage distilled into apathy. This reinforces a deep powerlessness as you see cops explain away everything in court.
Every black person in America is raging eternally beyond belief in their private life — the real difference is how it manifests itself in public life. Every black soul must — and will, no matter how much they run and hide — grapple with the incessant sermon on the mount concerning their own public worthlessness, which is meant to guarantee the adoption of private suicide, the annihilation of black intellect, agency and hope. But, take care to know that this doesn’t mean white supremacy wants to elimination of black life but merely the reins and subjugation of black spirit; it simply demands the cooperation (complicit or not) of black people in the maintenance of the laws and systems that routinely deny their basic humanity — hence the eternal return to our old friend, “the politics of respectability” as a last-resort plea to the powers that be: “Don’t hurt us or our children. We know how to render ourselves harmless, unlike those other negroes. We will get educated, speak proper English, dress appropriately and be respectful contributors to the economy. We admit to our own disposability and inferiority and hope American culture can have a civilizing effect upon us. We won’t confront white fragility with our black rage”. This has been the most common response to white power and even if it outwardly works, a piece of the soul is drawn into self-loathing every time this strategy is used. Any politic of respectability is unremitting and unabashed self-hate. What would a true politics of black liberation look like? I’m sure there are black people who can say it better for us, but a passage from the beautiful Andrea Dworkin captures the core urgency of a holy rage that nurtures neither apology nor reluctance:
“Imagine– in present time–a woman saying, and meaning, that a man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing her. Suppose there were a politics of liberation premised on that assertion–an assertion not of ideology but of deep and stubborn outrage at being misused, a resolute assertion, a serious assertion by serious women. What are serious women; are there any; isn’t seriousness about freedom by women for women grotesquely comic; we don’t want to be laughed at, do we? What would this politics of liberation be like? Where would we find it? What would we have to do? Would we have to do something other than dress for success? Would we have to stop the people who are hurting us from hurting us? Not debate them; stop them. Would we have to stop slavery? Not discuss it; stop it. Would we have to stop pretending that our rights are protected in this society? Would we have to be so grandiose, so arrogant, so unfeminine, as to believe that the streets we walk on, the homes we live in, the beds we sleep in, are ours–belong to us–really belong to us: we decide what is right and what is wrong and if something hurts us, it stops. It is, of course, gauche to be too sincere about these things, and it is downright ridiculous to be serious. Intelligent people are well mannered and moderate, even in pursuing freedom. Smart women whisper and say please.” – Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women
Tom Block, an artist and author of five published books, believes art is a vehicle for human rights activism; he connects 13th-century ideals of “legislative prophecy” with the present, looking for a moral center in politics, the economy, and social interactions. In this post, Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at http://www.tomblock.com/) draws lessons from a 150-year-old book about the problems with and how to improve America’s economic system.
Let’s forget about Trump for a moment.
After all, as fun and exciting and different as his presidency is proving to be, he will not – in the end – change the course of human events. Even less so, of the economic pressures that aggrieve and threaten to crush us. Where Trump is a pimple on the butt of American history, our ongoing economic anarchy is a blistering, cancerous abscess affecting the fate of all of people.
I picked up a book the other day which threw the greed, inequality, lawlessness, and inhumanity of our Western capitalist system into stark relief. And given that this series of essays was written more than 150 years ago, at the infancy of the Industrial Revolution, I found it both prescient and deeply disturbing.
It diagnosed the creeping illness of the economic system of mid-19th century England, which so closely parallels our own, in 21st-century America. The only difference being that the ability for “economical science” (as the author called it) to wreak havoc on society and individuals has grown exponentially, keeping time with our frantic technological progress.
More than that, however, the slim pamphlet provides a potential palliative for this social illness.
I’m talking about an 1860 series of four essays, “Unto this Last,” by writer and philosopher John Ruskin. Ruskin set out to show how economic health concerns far more than the acquisition of “all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value” (Ruskin quoting John Stuart Mill). He laid out quite clearly that true economical well-being involves evaluating the totality of society, not just the amount of gold distributed among the fewest number of people (as seemed to define – and continues to delineate – the true state of “wealthy” nations). In his view, “just or economical exchange…is simply [that wherein there is] advantage on both sides [and] whatever advantage there is on either side…should be thoroughly known to all concerned. All attempt at concealment implies some practice of the opposite.” He also chafed at the idea that people with different interests (for instance, labor versus capital, or client versus producer, etc.) must “necessarily regard each other with hostility, and use violence or cunning to obtain the advantage.”
Obviously, this kind of transparency and fairness runs directly contrary to what is considered “sound” business practice. As many current chairmen of publicly held corporations would surely note, their obligation is to their shareholders, not to consumers, to the health of the environment or nation, or even their own workers. Isn’t the idea of having an economic exchange which is of “advantage on both sides” not only absurd, but antithetical to good business practice?
It’s a zero sum game, man! There are winners and losers in life – and we want to be on the side of the winners!
This dynamic of greed and self-justification stretches back to the beginnings of capitalism, often dated by historians to fourteenth-century England. As Ruskin argued, those in power “never professed, nor profess, to take advantages of a general nature into consideration.” Instead, they believe they are simply experts at “the science of getting rich…Every man of business knows by experience how money is made, and how it is lost,” they’d argue.
Ruskin has an easy reply to this line of reasoning – one that all progressives should keep handy when arguing economic theory with the smarmy and self-certain advocates of economic anarchy (“deregulate the banks!” “deregulate the corporations!” “eviscerate environmental protections!” “never, ever raise the minimum wage!,” etc.):
The circulation of wealth in a nation resembles that of the blood in the natural body. There is one quickness of the current which comes of cheerful emotion or wholesome exercise; and another which comes of shame or of fever. There is a flush of the body which is full of warmth and life; and another which will pass into putrefaction.
As diseased local determination of the blood involves depression of the general health of the system, all morbid local action of riches will be found ultimately to involve a weakening of the resources of the body politic.
And so it is: as the inequality of wealth accretes (as it certainly has since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, he whose name graces an airport, a federal building and perhaps, some day, the dime), the health of the nation, as well as the environment upon which the nation sits and depends, weakens. And so too, if we can judge by the growing anti-science, anti-truth legions collecting in our public square, does the mental acumen of the polis.
So what is one to do?
One of the hallmarks of my belief in activist social theories is that they be applicable, and lead to quantifiable, positive social change. We must move beyond simply expressing opposition to current political and social energies, to devising specific manners of combatting them. We must develop, as Hannah Arendt called them, “clumsy theories” – theories which can actually be implemented.
Ruskin’s ideas show a way forward in the realm of the 21st-century global economy. And although I believe he would support a universal basic income, universal health care and access to housing for all, he states no such thing, and certainly is no proponent of communism or socialism.
I feel it is his acceptance of capitalism as the economic structure which makes his ideas more powerful. He is not going against what most people in our society (and certainly the older monied class, though not always today’s youth) accept as the “best” way for the economy to work. Rather, he is tweaking, infiltrating and massaging it to make it work for a far greater portion of the population. And in the best of cases, for the entire society.
Ruskin reconsidered the manner in which we think about the most basic aspects of a healthy society. For instance, he noted: “The vital question, for individual and for nation, is, never ‘how much do they make?’ but ‘to what purpose do they spend?’” Today, 21st-century “educated consumers” – all of those purchasing organic and fair-trade goods, buying local and at farmer’s markets, examining labels to make certain they weren’t made in far-away sweatshops, staying away from Walmart, Target and other multi-national corporations while paying a little bit extra to support the locally owned store or individual market – are living by Ruskin’s code.
Doing so does cost a little bit more, and given that reality and many workers’ low pay, we also need to think in terms of another movement gathering steam, one that Ruskin would heartily endorse: the Fight for $15. For Ruskin made it very clear that the price of labor should not be set by the anarchy of the marketplace and desperation of the worker. A fair and living wage should be paid to all, he argued:
The abstract idea, then, of just or due wages, as respects the laborer, is that they will consist in a sum of money which will at any time procure for him at least as much labor as he has given, rather more than less. And this equity or justice of payment is, observe, wholly independent of any reference to the number of men who are willing to do the work.
This idea of “procuring at least as much labor as he has given” translates into an equitable exchange in which workers are paid what they’re truly worth, not what business owners say they are. We definitely see this idea in force now, as over the past couple of years, the ideal of a $15/hour minimum wage has been gathering steam. Low-wage earners in many cities and states can now take home pay more in line with their time expenditure, and thus have greater purchasing power.
Finally, we need to follow Ruskin’s lead and center honesty in our economic thinking. Currently, the idea of “honesty” in commerce runs contrary to our economic model. Our economy is built on lying to consumers, usually obliquely through advertising messaging, but sometimes through overbilling, frank misstating of a product’s benefits, and outright fraud, such as Wells Fargo Bank’s practice of opening expensive bank accounts without informing people of their fees. But it doesn’t have to be that way; as Ruskin said:
The acquisition of [true] wealth is finally possible only under certain moral conditions of society, of which quite the first was a belief in the existence and even, for practical purposes, in the attainability of honesty…There is no Wealth but Life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
Ruskin’s ideas are hardly revolutionary. He does not advocate for the cessation of wealth accrual, or the destruction of the capitalist system. He only advocates for ramming a moral lodestar into the center of the system. There would still be labor and capital – but capital would treat labor with humanity, kindness, fairness and honesty. Money could still be won, but it would no longer be the “god” it has risen to in our pagan economic system; it would be simply a byproduct of hard work and good ideas, not malfeasance, cleverness and trickery. And when gobs of money were won, the “winner” would treat all the laborers in their orbit with fairness and honesty, as well as do their best to protect the values of respect, health and morality.
Unto this Last thus holds much wisdom for today’s progressive economic and social thinker. The kind of tweaks, infiltrations, and moral compass Ruskin proposes – if advocated by enough people through specific legislative, legal and economic proposals – might actually begin to create the kind of practical utopia he envisioned. Many such ideas – a universal basic income, access to higher education for all, health care as a human right, etc. – are already percolating in our society. In some cases, like a living wage, social pressure has driven legislative action and these ideas are actually beginning to be implemented through legislation.
Now we just need more of that!