Yes, This Is Sabotage.

Dr. Brittney Cooper.

WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA STOOD on that stage with young brothers from his hometown of Chicago to announce the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, it filled me with an awe I had never known before. Perhaps it was the imagery of seeing a new generation of promising Black men, full of talent and skills to be brought out and honed for the betterment of themselves and their communities, standing there with the one who had reached the highest level of power achievable in this Nation. For all its imperfections, and historical shames of housing discrimination, Jim Crow, and our Original Sin of slavery, this twice-elected Executive was doing what he could to create more that would follow in the path he blazed.

Throughout his era, those beholden to an ethos of Blacks being a perpetually downtrodden minority incapable of rising past the pitfalls of structural and institutional racism have been intensely working to undermine President Obama’s entire existence, with a particular viciousness matched only by the Tea Party. Having created a media identity from victimology, prominent Black academics and pundits synchronously wrote headlines trashing My Brother’s Keeper as a “flawed” program. Over the last several months, the attacks have moved from the program being a retrenchment of “respectability politics” to something far worse.

The latest assailant of My Brother’s Keeper is Brittney Cooper, assistant professor at Rutgers University, co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective and contributor at Salon, who has established herself as possibly the most vindictive critic of the program thus far. Her latest column sets a repugnant narrative of the President as some sort of non-Black misogynist for not including women of girls of color at the last minute:

When it comes to addressing racial justice issues, President Obama’s personal identifications with blackness take center stage, trumping substantial attention to black women as a political constituency. I used to believe that Obama’s personal racial identifications were powerful, that having a president who had experienced racism personally would help him commit to doing something about it when he had the opportunity to do so. But what has become apparent is that President Obama’s personal understanding of racism is deeply tethered to his position as both black and male. The effect is that his personal experience has limited his vision of racial justice to just one gender.

There are many problems with Cooper’s entire premise, but in particular, she speaks as if women and girls are completely and maliciously ignored by this Executive. The White House Council on Women and Girlscreated within the first one hundred days of President Obama’s first term and headed by a woman of color,  Valerie Jarrett–serves to render this attack on the administration as utter nonsense. Furthermore, when confronted as to why she ignored this fact, she basically declared the program doesn’t focus on Black girls enough.

So if concerns about intersectionality and how the program impacts women and girls of color, the obvious thing to do would be to demand more from the Council on Women and Girls, as Jarrett is reportedly open to doing. But somehow, the power of Twitter as the engine of social change “hashtag activists” love to proclaim when trying to start a Conversation doesn’t extend to arranging meetings with people in the White House. So at best, Prof. Cooper is grossly misinformed, or at worst, she is a liar building a brand in the manner of Tavis Smiley.

It takes a certain level of hatred and vitriol to attack the President in such a baseless manner. But to back down from a standing invitation to come to the White House and voice concerns is nothing short of disingenuous, dangerous cowardice. These continued attacks from Black Thought Leaders serve as proof that actually having a hand in crafting “life-changing policy” is something scoundrels like Cooper can’t be bothered with.

If patriarchy, misogyny and sexism all stem from broken, ancient definitions of unstructured manhood, how is it productive–or even remotely conducive to the cause of true equality–to continually attempt to sabotage the best thing to ever happen to our young men? If mass incarceration, high unemployment and the school-to-prison pipeline threaten our boys from the day the set foot in pre-school, how is throwing women onto the back-end of a program at the last minute serving them better than  strengthening a program for girls that has existed for years?

Every well-educated, well-prepared Black man that comes from My Brother’s Keeper is a threat to the relevancy and brands of this group of people. And these schemes to tear down this initiative serve as proof that most of these Black Thought Leaders do not care in the slightest about young Black men’s lives unless they are languishing behind bars, ripped from this plane of existence at the other end of a white man’s gun, or kept broken and weak, angrily locked in a mode of protest.

Let this foolishness cease, and quickly.

 

Internal Polls Are Great, Aren’t They?

Your newly unseated House Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, sacked in Virginia’s primary election last week. (AP)

Back in 2011, I had the opportunity to meet Otis Rolley, a native of Jersey City, New Jersey who was running for mayor after an eight-year run as Baltimore’s Director of Planning. As one who treasures infrastructure, I was drawn to Rolley’s background, and saw him as a possibly a great choice to lead the city.

I wanted to speak to Rolley directly to get a better understanding of his platform and politics, and we met at his campaign office on The Avenue in the neighborhood of Hampden. He was very gracious, and we spoke about what his vision was for the city. Regrettably, I don’t remember much of the specifics what we talked about. But what struck me was the confidence his team had in their internal poll numbers, which had Rolley’s team feeling pretty confident, since they showed him ahead of everyone in the field!

When I asked where they got the numbers from, or if I could see the data that was gathered, they politely declined, and asked me to simply trust what they were saying. Of course, as just a part-time security guard at the time, I had no choice but to go with their word. Rolley would go on to come in third place in Baltimore’s mayoral primary election, winning just over 9,400 votes.

Perhaps it was this inflated self-confidence that did in Eric Cantor, the seven-term GOP Congressman and former Majority Leader in the House who lost to Dave Brat in last week’s congressional primary in Virginia’s . The Washington Post reported that a poll conducted May 27-28 showed that Cantor had a 34-point lead over the economics professor, which obviously left the esteemed Congressman to pursue his very passionate steak habit:

Cantor’s campaign and leadership PAC spent about $170,000 at classic D.C. powerhouse restaurants including Bobby Van’s Steakhouse and BLT Steak, according to FEC records. By comparison, his primary opponent Dave Brat spent about $122,000 in his entire campaign.

“It’s rare that you would see a fundraiser at a Ruby Tuesday or a Chipotle,” said Lisa Spies, a veteran GOP fundraiser who worked on Mitt Romney’s Jewish and female outreach programs. “You’ve got to spend money to raise money.”

It is no wonder why there was such a frenzy among those of our craft to cover this monumental upset. After all, this was the first time in American history that a sitting House Majority Leader has been defeated in a primary election. In a post-Citizens United environment, the fact that this occurred in such a fiscally efficient manner was jarring as well. As expected, conservative talk radio hosts loudly declared Cantor’s defeat as the death-knell for comprehensive immigration reform, despite data that disproves such a claim.

So if a lack of Right-wing orthodoxy on immigration and an addiction to the finest dry-aged, grass-fed cuts of USDA Prime were not enough, what was the silver arrow that felled Eric Cantor?

As Brian Umana explains, it was being such an egregiously out-of-touch congressman in a state with open primaries:

The truth is that Cantor’s electoral demise did not occur overnight. It was the culmination of more than four years of grass-roots organizing, from both the right and the left, to unseat him. Behind the scenes, Cantor opponents who otherwise had little ideological common ground cooperated in his demise. I know, because I helped engineer it.

In 2010, I managed the general election campaign of Cantor’s Democratic opponent. I never expected us to win, but I was a 27-year-old looking to get involved, and I thought we could achieve some good even by losing the race. (I have since disengaged from partisan politics.) At that time, an “Anyone But Cantor” mentality was beginning to take hold in central Virginia and the Richmond suburbs. In this heavily Republican district, many Democrats and Republicans told me in conversations that they saw Cantor as a disingenuous political insider looking out for his own self-interest above the interests of his constituents.

All politics is local, proven once more.

National Journal’s Ron Fournier wrote that what happened to Eric Cantor should be a lesson to all those who lose sight of what elected officials were sent to Washington to do. That diametrically opposed political factions like liberals and the Tea Party were able to collectively sack Cantor is a sign that something does indeed have to give, as Umana confirms:

To my mind, though, Dave Brat’s victory and Cantor’s defeat should be cause for celebration among people from across the ideological spectrum. Anyone who wants their elected leaders held accountable—and reminded that they work for the citizens—might count Tuesday’s primary as a win. As Jonathan Blank, a partner in the Charlottesville arm of McGuire Woods and a former local Democratic Party chairman, told me happily: “It is another signal to both parties that the politics of ‘no’ is unsustainable.” There is another message from this, though. Any citizen who works hard and cooperates with others can make a difference in our society, and even in our electoral history.

I’m no fan of Dave Brat, a man who is even more extreme in his views than Cantor ever was. But at a moment when people do indeed feel marginalized by those who create laws, it’s hard to argue with the fact that when people realize the power they have at the ballot box, real change can and does happen.

Hopefully this sentiment will continue beyond this election cycle.

Reparations: Yet Another “Conversation”

(Isaiah L. Carter)

(Isaiah L. Carter)

I had to laugh weeks ago when discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece, “The Case For Reparations” with friends on Twitter. Having known what to expect from Coates for a while now, it did not shock me that people were waiting with the proverbial bated breath as they watched the trailer–yes, in the manner of a summer blockbuster film–heralding the piece validating everything that Black people all over the country that enslaved our ancestors had always known. Coates is viewed by many to be the intellectual scion and/or reincarnation of James Baldwin, so the adulation before the piece was written came at no surprise.

Allow me to declare something that will surprise most of my readers: Never before have I read such a complete, all-encompassing historical artifact. Coates deserves both all credit and praise (and will no doubt receive a Hillman award) for taking his time with this piece, and I personally congratulate this man for such an achievement. This is the type of writing that originally drew me to Coates in the first place, and before this work was written, I had no idea of the existence of Belinda Royall, a former slave who successfully petitioned the government for reparations. Nor had I ever heard of Clyde Ross, the 91-year-old who fought Chicago’s housing discrimination with the Contract Buyers League. Despite my differences with Coates, this was a very important piece.

What disturbed me most about this article is that after drawing one of the straightest lines of comprehensive historical progression, Coates provided nothing even remotely representing a clear definition of what modern reparations should look like, save for support for Rep. John Conyers’ H.R. 40. As he stated in his afterword the next day, this was his intent all along. Others began filling in the gaps Coates left, offering their own definitions of reparations in the context of housing discrimination, which some (including myself) believe is the overarching theme of Coates’ article.

But then, I had to remember something very important: This is Ta-Nehisi Coates, the one who has blatantly stated he really only wants to remain “intensely curious” about racism, and is not vested in actually solving anything. And as more commentary on Coates’ work continues to come out, it becomes more clear that a goal for making reparations a reality–a full redress for every ill and injustice ever suffered by Blacks in this country over nearly five centuries’ time–is something many of these Black Thought Leaders simply do not want to tackle. The stated goal, it seems, is just to “continue The Conversation.”

Consider this from Peniel Joseph, author of Stokely: A Life:

…in the Obama age, where the fact of a black first family frequently muffles the national conversation on race and democracy, Americans need a primer on why race matters now more than ever. This includes young black folk, who are at times confused or ambivalent about the way in which the seemingly distant past (to them, the 1980s, let alone the 1960s or the 1860s) connects to their contemporary lives.
A candid discussion of reparations will ultimately force us to “imagine a new country,” observes Coates, in a note of hard-earned optimism in an otherwise unfailingly sober historical and political assessment of race in 21st-century America.

Coates confirms this case here:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

This bit of commentary seems high-minded and noble. But when you consider those who have made monolithic Black oppression their brand identity, any trace of real progress by Blacks in this nation must be dismissed as some impractical, unattainable exceptionalism. This abstract of reparations–one wide open, all-platform, grand Conversation where a precise definition remains open-ended to anyone–is both disingenuous and insulting because its sole purpose at bottom is to retain overall relevance.

How can we know this? Let’s start at his interview with BuzzFeed deputy Editor-in-Chief Shani Hilton last week, who gave this response when asked why his cover story broke online readership records:

 When we came up with this idea on the edit side and we started talking about it and it got out into the company what we were doing, I would talk to business people and they would say, “Yeah, this is gonna be big.” And I was like, How is reparations going to be good for business? How is anyone going to walk into an ad meeting and say, “Yeah. This is what we’re doing?” I think a part of it is, one of the things I learned very early in my career is that if you made any claim or charge about racism, people click. So, I literally could have gone when I first started, and said, blog post number one: “Racism.” Blog post number two: “White Folks Did It.” Blog post number three: “Black Folks Did It.” And you could just go down the line because people, for some reason it sets their hair on fire. That’s it, right? I think that’s the first thing.

Get clicks. Set records. Further “The Conversation.”

Okay.

The second way to tell the lack of seriousness from these falsely so-called Black Thought Leaders is when they openly declare that advancing “The Conversation” on reparations to its inexorable next stage–the logistics–is somehow “missing the point” or, as NPR’s Gene Demby writes, evidence that one has not read Coates’ case past the headline. This position asks that one immediately shut off all intellectual endeavors in solving and repairing the impacts of this nation’s Original Sin at precisely the moment they’re needed most, which is frankly stupid when by one recent estimate, there is at least $10 trillion we could be discussing. If one dares to “imagine a new country” without presenting a single tangible solution as to how it is made reality, what is it all worth?

Is it possible that a serious discussion of reparations scares even the mighty Ta-Nehisi?

The Brookings Institute’s Megan Bradley offers this to explain why discussing the logistics of reparations are appropriate and necessary:

Outside of the legal framework, definitions of reparation, restitution and redress have become particularly muddled. For example, scholar Elazar Barkan’s definition of restitution has significant overlaps with the legal definition of reparation, but is much broader than the concept of restitution under international law. In his influential text The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, Barkan offers a comprehensive notion of restitution as the ‘entire spectrum of attempts to rectify historical injustices’ (Barkan 2001: xix). Barkan (2001: xviii) contends that the legal tools of remedy, that is, restitution, compensation and satisfaction, ‘are all different levels of acknowledgement that together create a mosaic of recognition by perpetrators for the need to amend past injustices’. Although broad, this conceptualisation is salient because it encompasses the diverse yet interrelated approaches available to remedy injustice, including high-level legal initiatives such as trials and property restitution mechanisms, political efforts such as apologies and truth commissions, and grassroots reconciliation and coexistence projects.

Coates and others of his ilk bid this nation to live in a perpetual state of remorseful, unending penitence; to forevermore wallow in the regrets of American white supremacy within bounds only they can set. He writes, “The payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” The problem with this argument, other than Coates’ premise that America is cursed ground specifically engineered for Black extermination (though factual, one may wish to ask an Indian about that some time) is that as a nation, we are already very much introspective, as John McWhorter points out:

Despite frequent claims that America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we talk about it 24/7 amidst ringing declamations against racism on all forms. Over the past year’s time, I need only mention Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Over the past few years, three of the best-selling and most-discussed nonfiction books have been Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Rebecca Skloot’s book about the harvesting of a black woman’s cancer cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), and Michelle Alexander’s invaluable The New Jim Crow. And let’s not forget recent major release films such as The Help12 Years a Slave, and The Butler. Can we really say that these are signs of a nation in denial about race, racism, and its history?

I certainly can’t. While only a deluded fool would dare deny the legacy and continued effects of white supremacy in these United States,  it is nothing short of perverse to incessantly draw the Black gaze to the perceived monolithic riches of white people to one’s own station in life and hopelessly declare Blackness as a destitute, zero-sum game. An incomplete “Conversation” on race that refuses to focus on how we improve our own future merely feeds the beast of confirmation bias.

But finally, the greatest impediment to reparations lies not in any grand cabal of white supremacy; it rests firmly in the yet unchallenged ethos of individualism, which permeates every facet of our existence and has resisted repeated historical challenges, as Allen Guelzo wrote in 2002:

American law, both in terms of statute law and common law, is rooted in long historical assumptions about where rights are located. From the time of the American founding, we have understood rights to be located in individuals. We recognize no titles of nobility: this means not only that the American republic repudiates the notion of a titled aristocracy, but that it does not recognize any special category of rights belonging to a class of people. There is, in the politics of the Founders, no essential quality of nobility that all aristocrats are presumed to share and others not, and which we are all obliged to recognize legally. By the same logic, we recognize no national language, no national church, and no national race, because we do not locate civil status or rights in groups, whether those groups are ethnic, religious, or racial. So, when a crime is committed, we want to know about the guilt or innocence of the individual, not someone’s racial group, religion, or other characteristic. And when a civil judgment is issued, we want to compensate the individuals who were actually harmed, even in a class action, not the race or church or bowling league they belong to.

The grain of American jurisprudence thus runs completely against assigning blame on the basis of group identity (something which we have shown most recently in our instinctive recoil from the practice of racial profiling). It expresses the measure of resistance we have toward identifying individuals as anything but individuals, and it poses a philosophical stumbling block for reparations litigation right on the threshold of the courtroom.

It is individualism and esotericism that derails progress and eliminates real traction for political and social change in this country. Stories abound of movements that begin with much fanfare and hope, then become easy targets of punchlines and scorn once revealed as aught but shameless self-promotion. Coates’ grand sermon delineating the sins of this Nation and demanding its repentance boost his brand and his profile, but true reparations–the admittance of wrong; the apology and recompense by the offending party, and the forgiveness of that party by the victims–would be the single-most collectivist act ever committed in this country,  an amazing feat given that not only do few believe in paying for the sins of generations long dead, but that many are not interested in forgiveness of wrong either.

Thus, the impasse remains, and the hurt further entrenches.