The Importance of Identity Politics for Black Americans
With the announcement of Kamala Harris for democratic candidate for president, a new and not clearly understood issue has arisen. The question of whether Kamala Harris is really black has been discussed amongst the intellectual black circles and beyond. White Twitter has also embraced the discussion. With the discourse flying around the major social media platforms, it is obvious that many commentators black and white are confused about the critical issue for black Americans.
My fear is those that posit sentiments fueled by an anti-black agenda will ultimately utilize the question of Harris’ identity to separate the black vote, further diluting our political voice. The Kamala Harris question can bleed into our consideration of other serious presidential aspirants as well, as issues of identity can be a polarizing matter amongst blacks in America. Of course, the question of identity goes well beyond simply deciding who to vote for in a presidential election. Folks within black intellectual groups have wholly misunderstood this matter and are applying a faulty analysis to whether Kamala Harris represents what is best for black Americans. There is a litany of inter-related issues that arise regarding questions of identity for black Americans. To say “black Americans” has now become a question in and of itself. Just one year ago had you asked me to define myself racially, no doubt I would have responded that I am a black American. Although I knew that this description was not wholly accurate, it was the best that I could muster. I may have even said, “African-American” but that response would have brought a litany of other issues. I failed to grasp a critical aspect of my own identity and exactly how my character connects with a unified struggle for my people all over the world and directly in the United States. The reality is, there are some distinct definitional items concerning our identity that black people need to address in order to make decisions that are in our best interest under the current climate.
Dealing with the terminology
The first hurdle to understanding our black American identity is to resolve the terminology that has been used to describe us. There can be volumes written on this subject alone. However, attached is a rudimentary attempt to summarize the most relevant terms (Wikipedia).
(Descendants of Slaves)Descendants of American chattel slaves who were
brought to America in 1619.
BlackIs a term used in certain countries often in socially based systems of racial classification or of ethnicity, to describe persons who are perceived to be dark-skinned compared other to populations.
African-AmericanA decent attempt but not specific enough.
Continent and country as opposed to country and country.
NegroA member of a dark-skinned group of peoples originally native to Africa south of the Sahara.
Relating to black people.
Africans in America
Recent immigrants· Everyone with melanin/African origins.
1. Integrate into position in America where American DOS had borne all the costs.
But does not allow for American DOS to benefit from African resources or an African lineage.
Colorism v. Lineage
It is easy to see how people confuse black identity. The primary problem is that the titles used to identify us were ascribed by other people. Color identification was the easiest way for white supremacists to ensure that blacks were placed on the lowest rung of the caste while they remained at the apex. Later, blacks began to incorporate Africa as a more accurate identifier into who we are as a race of people. Not without its own set of problems, the term African-American simply lacked the specificity to speak to our experience in this county. For example, an immigrant from Ghana could be considered an “African-American,” but bore none of the historical legacy that an American descendant of slaves experienced in America. As a youngster, I attended school primarily with blacks and Puerto Ricans. One of my childhood friends commented that since both cultures loved fried chicken, the only thing that separated blacks and boricua was that “we eat black-eyes and they eat pintos.” This of course was not wholly inaccurate. Our “minority” experiences in North Philadelphia were very similar and there was a definite camaraderie between the two cultures. Unfortunately, the term “culture” was problematic when referencing blacks in my neighborhood because while many of my Puerto Rican friends knew exactly where their parents were from, their family vocations on the island, how they came to the US and who their ancestors were, many of the blacks knew nothing of those matters. We knew little of our identity. What I have only recently come to learn is that the most important aspect of our identity has little correlation with the colors of our skin. The most important element is in fact…our lineage.
A working definition of lineage is lineal descendant from an ancestor; ancestry or pedigree. It is the family bond (ancestry) and the like-kindedness (pedigree) that makes the culture what it is. Some interesting synonyms of pedigree are: ancestry, lineage, line, genealogy, family tree, origin, heritage, parentage, house, race, strain, stock, breed, blood, bloodline, history, background, roots. I give credit to Yvette Carnell @breakingbrown and Antonio Moore @tonetalks for their consistently brilliant reasoning on this point. These are two of the foremost intellectuals on the topic and I recommend following their articles and podcasts. Focusing on lineage is a simple but critical element in understanding identity and analyzing agendas that operate in the best interest of black Americans. In his article entitled, “African-Americans Are More Than Just Africans in America,” Moore writes that “African-American life is defined by the shadow of its brutal domestic history (emphasis added). Black Americans are a people mixed with slave owner and slave who were deliberately shut out of virtually all access to wealth for nearly 400 years.” The point is that black American identity is not well defined by the color of our skin but by the specific experience that is shared amongst those that are the actual descendants of slaves. “Native descendants of American slaves-or American DOS-literally served the very currency that undergirded the early American economy,” wrote Moore. So, why is this important? The American DOS has a different lineage than that of the African immigrant in America. It is not enough to simply say that they are both “black.” Both groups share two totally dissimilar historical experiences. While one group has a legacy of being kidnapped, enslaved, brutalized, raped, sold, bred, separated, miseducated, lynched, disenfranchised, oppressed and economically suffocated, the other came to America voluntarily seeking opportunity. This is a distinct and separate experience. Therefore, the direct bloodline of the American DOS is a separate branch of a common tree. American DOS is itself a completely distinctive race of people with different grievances and standing to a distinct claim of recompenses. Consider also the Haitian-American. Of course, Haitian-Americans have a legacy of slavery in their history as well. However, Haitians won their own independence through rebellion against the French. There’s is a different history. They descend from a different lineage. The Haitian-American also has a claim of recompense. However, that claim is not against America, it is against France. When speaking to non-black immigrants in the United States, they will tell you that they are Italian-American, Polish-American, Greek-American, Korean-American and so forth. This designation speaks to their lineage, not their color. Undoubtedly, there are very dark people with negroid features from Italy, just as there are those with very light skin. Either way, they are still considered Italian due to their lineage. Color classifications were created by elite, landowning European colonists seeking to control the masses of poor people who would unite together against them for a fair opportunity in the new world. Color classification has been one of the most socially and psychologically detrimental systems to the American DOS.
Kamala Harris and Revisiting the Obama Problem
Barack Obama was the first black President of the United States of America. However, he was not American DOS. His father was a Kenyan economist and his mother a white anthropologist born in Kansas. Obama was raised in Hawaii with his white maternal grandparents. His lineage does not include slavery, Jim Crow segregation or lynching. Obama’s mother earned a PhD. from the University of Hawaii and his father a master’s degree from Harvard. His family roots did not include generational economic oppression, convict leasing or redlining. While he undoubtedly experienced some form of discrimination in his life because of his skin color, he is not an American DOS. A careful review of his administration shows that Barack Obama’s policies did little to improve the lives of American DOS. In eight years of Obama, blacks still earned less, had less wealth, had lower home ownership, higher unemployment and suffered higher incarcerations rates by far than any other racial designation. Conversely, Obama designated specific economic policies for Jewish-American survivors of the Holocaust and earmarked millions of dollars annually for Israel. Obama also championed policies that lead to favorable legislation for immigrants and the LGBTQ community. The critical analysis for American DOS are the policies of a political leader, not their skin color. Black Americans were so enthralled with the imagery of the first black family in the White House, that we failed to demand that the black president specifically address our needs. Ask yourself, why do we vote for a politician if not to expect policies ask that actually improve our lives? What we received was a token black politician that focused on matters that were important to his political agenda. There was universal healthcare, $700 billion in bank bailouts, $800 billion in public works, $80 billion auto industry bailout, immigrant reform, consumer protection reform, wage increases, paid leave and many other good policies for Americans in general sold to us as policies that affect black families. This trickle-down legislation had an expected effect. Many other interest groups received specific benefits and the American DOS received nothing specific to improve its general position.
Kamala Harris’ Blackness
As Bishop Talbert Swan tweeted recently, “’People of Color’ weren’t systematically stolen, enslaved, raped, lynched, beaten, abused, humiliated, disenfranchised, segregated, denied basic rights, profiled, murdered, miseducated, experimented on and dehumanized…. BLACK PEOPLE WERE AND STILL ARE.” The only issue that I have with the good Bishop’s statement is that the term “BLACK PEOPLE” turns out to lack the necessary specificity to encompass the experience of American slaves and American DOS. Kamala Harris is a woman with brown skin. She is a graduate of Howard University which is an icon among Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCU). While a student, she was initiated into the first African-American Sorority, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated. She looks and sounds like a black woman. Most Americans would consider her black. However, Kamala Harris’ lineage is not American DOS. Her mother is an East Indian-Jamaican and her father a Jamaican who admittedly descended from slave owners in Jamaica. She does not have the same lineage as American DOS which means that she doesn’t have the same legacy. Harris will no doubt focus on polices that seek to uplift “all Americans” especially “people of color.” It is easy to see why commentators have called Harris “Obama 2.0.” So far, she has articulated the same-old, trickle-down Obama-like policies that have been sold as beneficial to black Americans. Now that Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has entered the presidential race, the same analysis applies to him. While Booker may be American DOS, he has never articulated policies that will directly and specifically address the needs of ADOS. Once again, it is not the color of the skin that matters. We cannot afford to be confused any longer. If one is an Italian-American, one should advocate for the Italian-Americans, if one is Jewish-American, one should advocate for the issues of Jewish-Americans. If one is Polish-American, one should advocate for the needs of Polish-Americans. If one is a 1-percenter, you should advocate politically for the ultra-wealthy. If you are gay, you should advocate for the rights of LGBTQ. If you are a descendant of immigrants, you should advocate for more policies like DACA. Everyone’s specific group’s issues should be priority to that specific group. Groups produce figures, evidence, testimony, illustrations, studies and any other empirical or subjective data available to stake their claim in advocacy for their group. There is the opportunity for groups to lobby their platforms in state and national legislatures to achieve action for their agendas. Politicians make promises to support action for those groups. Representatives make good on their promises or they are not re-elected. This is American politics.
What do we do?
I am an American DOS. This is a heavy burden, but I am proud of my lineage and I will do what every other group in America is entitled to do. I will advocate for the rights of my group. I will fight to ensure that our debts are repaid. Our analysis needs to be, “what will a politician do specifically for the American DOS?” It matters not if a political candidate is black, white, red or yellow. If a candidate is not pushing for action for the repairing, recompense and reparation of the American DOS, then I will not support them. They are not for my specific group. Moore also wrote, “We must understand to the fullest sense possible how native blacks had their free labor and bodies create mass fortunes the modern world had never seen before…” It is beyond time for us to wise up and stop playing games with our political capital. If a politician does not articulate policies that specifically repair our group, then they should not receive our political support. Neely Fuller wrote in his treatise, “The United, Independent Compensatory Code…” that, “If you don’t understand white supremacy/racism, everything that you do understand will only confuse you.” Focusing on specific redress for our specific lineage clears up much of the confusion and allows the American DOS to apply the correct analysis respecting our political agenda.
May 24, 2019