Racial Controversy in Advertising and How To Avoid The Need For Apologies

 

I was waiting for another “advertisement campaign gone wrong” news story to happen to contrast the way in which the messages in traditional magazine style graphic ads differ with what can be done with content marketing and sure enough Dove does me the favor of running an ad that many are calling racist and is now facing a boycott of their product.

In this article I’m not going to judge the intentions of the people involved in this Facebook-based advertising campaign, but I will defend their intentions by stating I believe the screen grabs below that spread like wildfire across Twitter misconstrue the nature of the ad – which isn’t nearly as direct in implications as this.

Instead, I’m going to show why it is that people claim it is racist; touch upon some of the ways in which a marketing messaging can be engaging and controversial but not offensive; and finally present a brief content marketing proposal that Dove could have instead done which would provide more value for their current and would be customers.

Racism in American Skin Care Marketing

   

Controversial marketing can be very effective, but if not done properly it can also lead to undesired press. Because of this it is important to always keep in mind the perspectives of the people being depicted or implicated in advertising.

One need not agree completely with all the views of prominent African American cultural commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates as to the power of whiteness to recognize that in the United States whiteness has been lauded as an definitive quality for culturally dominant standards of beauty and truth; legitimate political power and authority; etc. Additionally, one need not agree completely with Malcolm X to recognize that the media has a huge impact in how communities perceive themselves.

In this sense we can come to understand that the brouhaha is less about the manifest content – a skin cream that whitens – but the latent content, or social context, in which it is promoted.

To put it another way the issue at stake, pardon the pun, is not black and white but is specifically about what many people see as a culture that continuing to reinforce a social and economic order that denigrates and exploits black people. Because of this, these these types of advertisements are seen as ideologically supporting such a structure and why Proctor & Gamble’s ad is so celebrated for being the opposite.

Cultural Sensitivity in Polarized Times and What Stays With Consumers

   

Skin whitening creams aren’t the only type of product and services whose communications run the risk of being labelled racist and alienating customers.

Surf pulled a number of ads like the one above, which is especially ironic given criticism over roles and awards given to black actors in Hollywood films. In the wake of controversy over the defending hate groups prior to demonstrations in Charlotesville and their subsequent Twitter post shown above, the ACLU has changed their position on defending all groups right to free speech and apologized for their posting. State Farm’s Twitter account briefly became

What these and the Dove ads miss is cultural sensitivity that would allow them to see how how black people and their allies could feel that such marketing messaging contributes to a culture that denigrates blackness.

While not speaking on race but sexual preference, Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A’s reflection on the comments he’d made regarding gay marriage summaries provides a good insight in what companies should consider when approaching their messaging:

“Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with. And it’s probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to.”

If a consumer feels that a company is attacking them in their advertisement, intentional or not, it puts th consumer relationships at risk.

Great Content Marketing That Deals With Controversial Content

The problem with addressing or depicting controversy in advertisements is not necessarily that it gets attention, but what further message is then transmitted from it. Though many people purchase products such as bleaching creams or Surf detergent in order to get their skin or clothes whiter, the underlying message of “Darkness is undesirable” leads to wasted ad buys and time spent on handling criticisms. It’s for this reason that content marketing is particularly effective.

This is one of the reasons why Zillow and NerdWallet’s Content Marketing is doing such an amazing job. Not only are they both producing functional tools for people to used, but they are also coming out with reports like: Rising Rents, Stagnant Wages, And the Burden of Unstable Housing and Seeking Medical Debt Relief? Crowdfunding Rarely Pays Off the Bills.

Hiding Controversy in Plain Sight

   

Chances are as you read what my good examples of controversial choices for marketing content was you may have thought the following contentions:

  • These don’t deal with race.
  • These aren’t controversial.
  • I’m comparing apples and oranges.

Regarding the first point you are absolutely right. I will, however, provide an example of what good content marketing that deals with race looks like below so I hope you’ll overlook this. As for them not being controversial let me explain how they are.

Your friends, if they’re good friends, will certainly give sympathy for expressing anxiety and frustration over your income and how your daily struggles wouldn’t feel so burdensome if you just earned just a few percentage points in your salary and some level of support. Your employer, who holds the power in making such a determination, is less likely to be as welcoming to such expressions and less likely to offer support – though this is changing.

The future of health care in America is so highly contested by a variety of actors that have stakes in saving and losing money that protests and coordinated movements to sway legislators have erupted all over the country. Regardless of one’s view of what is to be done, information is power and this goes to show that private philanthropy is not doing nearly enough to prevent people from death or life-changing debt.

As for the third contention, that’s a partial truth as they are different in format but as they are at their root marketing messages such a distinction is spurious and only gives heft to the claim of many advertising professionals today that content marketing is king. Unlike the visual-only ads, these content marketing projects do not veil the conditions of American political economy but make unveiling it their purpose. The value-proposition of Zillow and NerdWallet’s content marketing is educational rather than mere single grahpic attention grab whose only message is: “This lotion will whiten your skin”.

What Could Dove Have Done to Raise Brand Awareness Instead of Publishing An Ad the Replicates Racist Tropes?

Like many other people,  I Feaking Love Science. Like many publishers, I also love survey based projects. Not wanting to go into too much details, it was with this in mind that I thought of some alternatives that Dove could have developed instead of the racially insensitive ads.

Were Dove to take a content marketing approach instead of the traditional single graphic ad for their campaign they would have had their marketing team produce content that educates about skin and race via an aesthetically engaging depiction and explanation of the science of skin color.

Were Dove to take a content marketing approach they could have presented the findings of a survey asking about perceptions of whiteness that combined analysis of their results with that of previous studies in an engaging manner. There a lot of them on race in relation to aspects of American society and such a study that examines original research (Legal, psychological, etc.) along with the number produced, their findings and analysis of other qualities over time would contribute to the national conversation instead of being seen as just more evidence for one position or another.

Controversial Content, But Without The Baggage

One of the reasons content marketing is such an amazing field is that the value it creates is not as ephemeral, being more than a mere image, but also as it can be continuously updated, and parts of it can be repurposed. Like solely visual advertisements it seeks to gain a consumer’s attention, but because of the format it is able to do so without the baggage and and in a more organic manner.

If you want to assure that your company’s time is not wasted by apologizing for an insensitive advertisement and are interested in learning more how controversial content can help your marketing, reach out to me, Ariel Sheen, and ask about how I can help build up on-site material or how I can build you a content marketing campaign.

Not only do I have a track record of successful content marketing campaigns, but my extensive studies in America’s history and culture means you won’t end up with lots of press about how you inadvertently promoted racially insensitivity.

Review of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

My mom gets me #bookstagram #black and #Latin #history #books #christmas

A post shared by Ariel Voyager (@arielvoyager) on

I’ve been meaning to review The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse for quite some time. With it’s depth and breath of evidence and a forceful analysis it’s no surprise that following it’s publication it was a cultural touchstone amongst the cultural and political elites of the early 1970s. Truth is, whenever I’ve sat in front of an open Word document with the intent to respond to it’s arguments and evidence, I start to feel a bit overwhelmed. This despite the fact that I’ve had some pretty extended conversations on this book.

Thankfully, one of the Facebook groups whose posts I follow, the Society for United States Intellectual History, recently curated a Roundtable on the Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Rather than provide you with my thoughts on the matter, I decided I’d share these instead:

Along with two other insightful PDFs:

Review of Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow

Gerald Horne’s book Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow is an incredible account primarily on the relationships between the two countries mentioned in the title along with Cuba’s former colonial master, Spain. Horne’s account is not, however, a mere institutional history but one that illustrates that key role which enslaved and emancipated African Americans had in structuring attitudes and actions of the colonial Cuban government, the slaveholding Republic to its North and the center of Empire across the ocean to the East.

A large concern of the United States was that of a “black military republic” in Cuba that was sponsored by Britain. Secretary of State Daniel Webster was deeply concerned that London would “offer independence to the creoles, on condition that they unite with the colored government” in this Negro Republic “under British protection… and that “A Venezuelan general residing in Jamaica was to “take the command of an invading army,” which was to be “seconded” by an insurrection of the slaves and free men of color,” and thus with “600,000 black in Cuba and 800,000 in her West India Islands London will then strike a death blow at the existence of slavery in the United States (73).

The Long History of Interaction Amongst Cubans and American Negroes

Due to its prime ports and location, networks of trade and information were created between a large number of the States in Havana. Louisian, Mississipi and Texas were the primary buyers, however while slave markets closed in the United States due to abolition, they flourished in Cuba. Shipping now primarily to Texas, which was still a territory, Cuba experienced a boom in trade.

While all this was going on, in the halls of the Congress the Southern legislature hooted and hollered for annexation. Reading the speeches, yellow news article clippings, letters, diaries all depict a primal lust to aim, shoot and pull Cuba under the yoke of American capital and American style property management and enforcement. After all, American investment had dramatically increased as many of the Americans reinvested capital that was previously in the south to Cuba.

Cubans Considered by White Racists to be Lesser Humans

The Cubans, and for that matter also the Spaniards, were considered by the Americans to be less than white. In the racialist literature of the day, subscribed to by any politician of importance, the occupation of the Spanish by the Moors made them “not fully white”. Quoting Horne:

“U.S. nationals tended to think that Spaniard were “not quite white,” given the lengthy occupation of the Iberian peninsula by Arabs and Africans and, inter alia, this disqualified them from holding the prize that was Cuba.”(25).

The Spaniards subsequent intermarriage with the Negresses brought from the Ivory Coast increased the rationale for their being inferior.

A large number of expeditions – filibusters – went in in order to claim property and spoils. Former soldiers accustomed to the horrors of the Civil War re-enacted their old jobs. Like Hell on Wheels, but if when Bohannon first rolls up he just re-enslaves the black crew with the help of the white present – who he says now gets paid double. Richard Gott, perhaps no surprise, writes a wonderfully journalistic description of something akin to this in his history of Cuba. U.S. privateers were able to do this primarily as it occurred during a period of intensive rebellion in Cuba. Slaves, Freeman, and Mulattos united against the Spanish colonial administration. Over 160,000 people were killed in the ten years uprising. The atrocious and widespread slaughter literally split the country in two as domestic rebels acted as an insurgent and constituent force alongside the shores America. As can be imagined, what shape the constituent force to take was of prime significance to American politicians, which represented the interests that investors had made into Cuban railroads, sugar mills, land and labor.

Unlike what was said in the halls of power, the writings of Cuban newspapers were often written in part to target American Negroes and contained a message that didn’t sanctify property rights but one of community control. The content of these messages was often presented in a manner that would encourage readers towards a pan-African identity. By carrying tales of lynching and profiles of people such as Frederick Douglass as well as more daring stories such as that of “The Mutinous Sixth” – a deployment of African American Soldiers that were preparing to invade Cuba in Georgia that suffered casualties by American racists for refusing to submit to Jim Crow segregation. In 1886, the year slavery was effectively banned, the first cigar factory was built in Tampa, accompanied by the arrival of about a million workers from Cuba and other lands touched by Spain.” (159). Yet while slavery maybe have been made illegal in the United States, this did not prevent those that had profited from it from finding places where they were able to return to their high ROI practices. This put the US in the perilous position of, basically, fighting to impose a racial order on an island that was considered “colored”.

White Nationalists Afraid of a United Soviets of America

Horne’s book doesn’t go into the much detail as to the Soviet influence on either Castro’s or the Communists in Cuba – itself split along Trotskyist, longstanding anarchist, and nationalist lines. However he does point out how vastly inflated as a cause for fear this was by the members of the United States’ Havana Bureau. Whether this was because it gave informants cause to receive bribes from the U.S. government’s “liason and administration offices,” people that among others Cuban patriots would later call “vendepatriots,” is uncertain. What is clear from the record is that “Cubanidad” and distaste for Jim Crow style white supremacy was an organizing ideology against White Supremacy. Citizens of Cuba and the U.S. paid each other homage to the struggles going on there in a coordinated series of marches, demonstrations and exchanges between committed cadres of organizers.

Domestic sympathies towards the Cuban Communist party by America Negroes drove home the fear that Soviets would spread across the southern tip of the country and radical property struggles would again take place. This fear flamed by the KKK and others wasn’t entirely without cause, as the people involved in this cultural and intellectual exchange would soon have an outsized role within the civil rights movement in the United States.

Cubanidad as an Ideological Enemy to White Nationalism

Horne tells the story of Havana’s holding lucrative “black vs. white” boxing matches, a practice then forbidden in the United States. Havana allowed Paul Robeson to sing to “mixed race”, “mixed couple” crowds that were drunk on Bacardi family products. These, however, are shown to be showcase moments by the new economic and political leadership.

The reaction to the Jim Crowism that the US brought to the region was swift. It was so repugnant to the people that a domestic response force soon composed itself to eject such a social order. Most of the J26 movement – which I write about more on here – were also composed of Black Cuban nationalists. After black political organizations were banned, “the Communists came to play an increasingly conspicuous role on both sides of the strais, with those on the island going to far as broaching “the idea of an autonomous state in Oriente” (239). Domestic unrest lead to U.S. and Cuban elites embracing military rule via Batista, however his darkness made some in America suspect and uneasy. While first embraced by American blacks, subsequent secret police actions against poor, “colored”, Cubans that had mobilized against American investment and the enforcement of Jim Crow rules when Black American businessmen were visiting for conventions made him soon lose his lustre. Private party delegations between the countries increased to study each other’s answer to the “racial question” and increasingly the Cuban people – both the poor the suffered the most as well as the elite which more often dealt with resentment over American influence – came to view the US as prohibiting the social structures most appropriate to a post-colonial export economy. When Castro finally did come to power, one of the reasons he was so welcome by African-American was precisely because his policies were against such racialized oppression.

Review of The Spook Who Sat by the Door

A post shared by Ariel Voyager (@arielvoyager) on

I first heard of The Spook Who Sat By The Door by Sam Greenlee in the source note of an academic journal article by George Ciccariello-Maher called Brechtian Hip Hop. The note provided a plot overview and stated that this text, about a black spy trained by the U.S. comes to recruit a number of gang members in Chicago to begin and spread a domestic insurgency, was formerly mandatory reading for CIA operatives in the 1970s. Given the zeitgeist, a few years after The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder had published The Kerner Report, which delineated concerns over rioting and Communism, such a work being produced seems apropos. On first learning of such a narrative, which is a variant of Happy’s story in my book Unraveling, I was somewhat bummed – yet also pleased to be able to learn from such a narrative. A few clicks later it was being delivered to me. A few more and I learned that the book was also made into a movie, which after reading the book and having watched it is, for the most part, felicitous to the original.

Dan Freeman is the “spook” of the book –  a play on the words meaning black person and spy. We learn through conversations midway through the book that he was in a Chicago street gang, the Cobras, as a young man and that while in college he was an advocate for a variant of Black Nationalism. He sits by the door as following an opportunistic senator’s push to integrate the C.I.A., he is the only one that is able to pass the rigorous testing regimen and is put into a position of great visibility so that visiting Congressmen and Senators can see the token black person hired for a non-sanitation or food preparation related job.

During the several years Freeman works for the C.I.A., he is described as having a dual life. One where he is a “good negro” that does all work beyond expectations at his job in Washington D.C. and the other a “hipster negro” that only exists once he slips in tail in New York. This is themes of masks and the social construction of identity is one of the main themes of the book. Freeman is always “putting people on” in order to meet the expectations that white people have so as to obtain social or political acceptance.

Dan leaves Washington D.C. in order to take a job as a social worker. Counterbalancing his behavior in this role as an “Uncle Tom,” one wholly deferential to the existent structure of white supremacist, liberal power, he also begins to organizing the Cobra’s into a militant, revolutionary organization. The comments that come out of Greenlee’s liberal characters at the dinner parties and community outreach foundation meetings Freeman attends and the divide between what he thinks and says are quite amusing. Freeman states how he feels more comfortable than the whites as they are actually less racist than the black middle class – which he sees as constantly struggling to be “more white” in their values, attitudes and behaviors than white people.

This disdain for the black bourgeoisie/middle class is another recurring theme of the book. Freeman’s psychological criticisms are akin to those voiced by Harold Cruse, as well as a number of other non-integrationist traditions. According to Freeman’s worldview, the “social worker” is less a means of helping empower communities and more a means of helping vent frustration over the conditions of the political economy away from rioting and toward more passive, less private-property damaging outlets.

In Freeman’s initial planning stages for domestic insurgency he is reluctant to try to recruit any members of the the black middle class to his cause. Following the beginning of the widespread civil disorders, they are described as one of the most outspoken groups delegitimizing the violence due to the fact that they are losing their “token” jobs over it.

Dan Freeman’s struggle to convert his childhood friend Dawson to his cause, who he sees as a potential asset due to his color and high rank in the police department, shows the irreconcilability of their two positions. While Dan sees freedom as the ejection of white political power and economic control from black communities, Dawson accommodates to it and has no trouble playing the jailor.

The novel as a whole, thankfully, never gets caught up in long, didactic passages as a number of ideologically motivated texts are often want to do. The Cobras transition from street hoodlums to disciplined cadre members leading five man teams to attack and harass the armed guard lacks any sort of crypto-catechism in conversational form, a la Ayn Rand, and the interpersonal struggles of Dan Freeman keeps him from being a one-dimensional character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History

One section of Master’s Thesis research included legal analysis with politically chilling effects upon anti-lynching and leftist movements in The United States of America from Harper’s Ferry to the late 1960’s. The way in which the law laid force upon the bodies that broke with expected behavior and the means by which police facilitated “corrective” behavior for these violations differs drastically. And dialectically. To suppress suppress either labor, racial and leftist political struggles is to repress the three progressive aspects of society that have been driving emancipatory ideas and practiced encased in institutions. Because of this, of course I read Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History by Rebecca N. Hill.

Hill’s history has a pleasantly journalistic feel to it. The main characters are of course detailed – the defendant – whomever she’s describing in that section – and the plaintiff – the State in the place that they were arrested – are both described and all their relationships therein. Who were those involved with the crime, what brought them to where they were right before they just were arrested, arraigned, transported, processed, jailed, for days, jailed, for months, jailed, for years, then brought to court, etc.etc.

It combines this description of their time and those around them with legal exegesis of the components of the case. This combined with local socio-political factors involved in such cases, such as the manner in which popular movements sought to impress their influence upon the courts, had a number of legal implications on social movements involved with race, class and/or labor struggles. While Sacco and Vanzetti are name dropped in the highly underrated, very funny movie War On Everyone with Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Pena. Anyway…

 

The book is organized around several dramatic cases, starting with John Brown’s trial. From this heavily police involved form of repressive behavior the the narrative goes to where the law played a less involved roll. Lynching throughout the south in the United States was a true horror that kills thousands of African Americans. Police slowed their roll on the road towards justice and would often falsify or forge documentary information, not intervene while militant bigots exercised their force upon them and, well, all around oppressed them.

Racial, Labor and Leftist social justice warriors – a term that ought be associated with esteem – sought to impress their demands that the state more justly apply it’s purported universalism, an inherently conservative position. The other says the state is unjust and wants to replace it along democratic, centralist lines rather than plutocratic ones – the preconditions for the most active ire. Labor wants the state to join its side in demanding more benefits but are not connected to the Leftists either because of lack of class conscious or lack of practical use value in linkage, a serious consideration to make considering the effect that associating with Reds could have on your work life.

While John Brown clearly engaged in the behavior he was charged with, the obverse is true of the Haymarket Martyrs. Their case spawned a holiday celebrated nearly everywhere in the world except the USA – May Day. If you’re not familiar with the case, you should look it up. What I found interesting as though Hill does not spend much time on the material evidence, of which there is none, and instead writes about the majority-immigrant leftist responses. Of course every people has a culture, but that of Chicago – the Second City, was unlike many others due to the habitus brought over from the German revolutionaries. Gymnastic, parading, militant Anarchist culture practiced by Germans and a number of other stocks from across the shore shocked the sensibilities of the local bourgeoisie.

After an incident that was, essentially, the pretext for the public execution of the Opposition Leadership Anarchist newspapers fought not just to save members but leaders. Newspapers which shared workers stories about their conditions, pay, bosses and other things now started to include writing from those inside. Rather than becoming devotional, religious character associated with sublimity their writings subverted the abolitionist martyrs sharing stories and expressions of romantic, sexual love. Anarchist newspapers published the love letters of the Chicago anarchists and their wives and girlfriends, another practice that was taken up by most socialist defense campaigns.

Hill’s history ends with the equally tragic tale of the Black Panther’s Party. With an emphasis on the Party’s organized defense apparatus raised to support George Jackson, Hill shows a man imprisoned due to political caprice rather than justice. Like The Haymarket Martyrs and Sacco and Vanzetti, his writings behind bars and public adoration of Assata were used as gristle to further help people find sympathy in their story. Having recently read their published letters and accounts – I get it!

All these and more arrests and trials forms responses with historically dependent forms of action. Organizations along class and/or racial/ethnic alliances were highly limited by place, history and the interests and powers of the state and local elite. In some cases the popular struggles were able to save the subject of their organization. Other’s no.

Hill’s history shows radicals creating interconnected networks of protest and resistance activity as well as volunteering time and donating money for massive fundraising undertakings that spanned the globe. Success in obtaining government guaranteed rights often depended on how loud and disruptive supporters could be to the normal functioning of government.

Mixed in is to this journalistic, documentary history are comments pulling together some of the themes evident in today’s world:

“Once admired as the heritage of manly individual freedom, Puritanism in the 1920s became associated with the Ku Klux Klan, along with fundamentalism, racism, capitalism, and prohibition.”

The heritage of many organizations racism persist in various ways. And yet to point this out is to become a public persona non grata. Example K:

Example on the opposite side? Trump the tee-totaller and Sacrosanct “States Rights” Sessions just did a 180 on over over a decade of federal drug enforcement policy.

These broader points build and intersperse Rebecca Hill’s account. Along with the legal proceedings, are a few interesting asides as well – such as The Red and the Black being George Jackson’s favorite novel.

Her conclusion does not lay out a platform upon which a group might be able to exercise their collective social power in order to achieve this, nor should she have to. The conditions by which that they would need to be changed would always depend upon the locals activities. What she does, however, is provide a powerful ethical imperative:

“The capacity to imagine a different world might begin with the ability to refuse to accept the characterizations of people who were willing to recklessly go against the rules of the society in which they live as wicked, misguided, wrong, foolish, or criminal. It is much harder to see the face of the “handsome sailor” on an imperfect human than it is to accept the underlying message of the modern-day nation-state that the only real heroes are the cops and soldiers who protect “us” from the rest of the world”

Review of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a history of the cultural and political forces that have shaped the African-American experience.

What sets Taylor’s book apart from others on the subject, however, is how far she goes beyond simply documenting the seemingly endless dimensions of racial oppression in the United States. Instead of just describing its dynamics, she also includes a class based method so that activists may contest it – a recurrent theme of Haymarket Press’s publications. Taylor starts her overview in the 1930s, when blacks were not given the same treatment as white workers during the New Deal. After a sufficient period of education, agitation and organization, however, blacks were able to so disrupt the normal functioning of governance that Lyndon Johnson had to address their grievances.

Taylor’s understanding of the manner in which capitalism operates in America is tied explicitly to racist ideology. Though only beginning in the 1960s, she points out how racist ideologies which use the “culture of poverty” argument to explain relative deprivation of the black community have a dual function in political discourse: not only do they serve to scapegoat African Americans for their conditions rather than lack of a full Reconstruction program, but, by racializing poverty, it also conceals white poverty. This designation of workers in the lowest income sectors as disposable thus obfuscates the structural dynamics of American capitalism.

Rather than merely focusing criticism just on whites, Taylor shows through a number of examples how the class differentiation which has taken place in the Black community since the Civil Rights Movement has mean that liberal black politicians who have come to power on the hopes of ameliorating problems in the black community have taken over the task of disciplining blacks. In addition to this she points out how black capitalism boosters going back to Garvey fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the economy that they were working in. Rather than upward mobility through this means, she endorses Liberation.

Taylor emphasizes the need for working class unity and then explains how “colorblind” language and politics in the US operates to stoke racial tensions and mystify historical relations. The language of colorblindness was first used by Richard Nixon and the Republicans. While a good means of mobilizing sentiment against racial discrimination, as the black civil rights movement became compromised and co-opted by capital, it came to replicate the same effects as the racial justifications of policy thru class-based discrimination.

If this seems removed from the present as there was a black president, it’s worth pointing out that during the tenure of Barack Obama African-American’s were disproportionately unaffected by the steps taken to bolster sections of the struggling economy, that Obama distanced himself from the needs and grievances of the black community, the Supreme Court has struck down sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as no longer relevant and that in a number of NGOs point out that in historically racist places it is now increasingly difficult for people of color to vote or live without harassment.

While the hash tag first shared by Alicia Garza, #blacklivesmatter, has certainly been useful as an organizing medium – Taylor shows through historic examples of how such organizations have become co-opted and rendered a form of palliative care for the black community. In order to ameliorate these conditions, Taylor states, black and white (and brown) class based unity is the answer. BLM has moved in that direction – their most recent platform contains a number of planks that speak to the condition of the working poor. However spreading solidarity has been a historically difficult task in America and given the wont of crypto-racists to tar and declaim BLM as a racist organization hints at the difficulties they face as they are currently composed.

*

Interviews with Taylor below:

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35103-achieving-black-liberation-a-conversation-with-keeanga-yamahtta-taylor

https://roarmag.org/magazine/black-awakening-class-rebellion/

 

Review of Angela Davis: an Autobiography

 

When you read an account of how someone describes the highs and lows of their existence in their early 20s it tells a lot about their character. Most people are trapped in the pursuit of selfish interests, a good job, obtaining good housing and a lover to share their time with. There is nothing wrong per se with such pursuits, however often there is no balance and actions to promote community development is ignored.

Angela Davis: An Autobiography is the inverse of this typical selfish pursuit of happiness, one informed by an insightful political and philosophical recognition that as long as historically repressed and exploited communities in the U.S. were politically and economically marginalized that she, as a black woman, would always be a second class citizen if not de jure but de facto. The personal narrative that frames it makes this book something beyond a jeremiad against American Society. Instead she describes how her hopes, dreams, and aspirations along with most others with dark skins were unable to follow through on them due to the oppressive ignorance of numerous Whites.

For many years Angela Davis studied under the German Marxist Philosopher Herbert Marcuse in Europe and in California. Distinguishing herself as a serious scholar in her field, she obtained entry into prestigious study abroad programs that placed her in the center of radical student life in Europe – an important connection for subsequent speaking engagement in support of legal defense fees – while also studying historical materialism. Her engagement with historical materialism, or the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, combined with her desire for a practical outlet for her education besides being a professor is what drew her to become a member of the Communist Party USA.

Davis likes to conclude some of her anecdotes with a “lesson learned” message advocating steps to increase political awareness, make cadres function better, etc. There’s not enough of them where it reads like anecdotes mixed with catechism, but they do open up what I thought was a number of ambiguities and contradictions. In her description of working with SNCC and other parties, for instance, she claims that certain Black Nationalist groups are overly fixated upon the nationalist question, are unduly critical of socialism as a “white man’s thing” and the need for working with like-minded people. However these criticisms are said in such passing that they offer little in the way of political education to those uninitiated in the debates surrounding these and other topics.

One of the recurrent narrative elements of all of the Black Panthers stories is their arrest by police and being charged with crimes that courts of law subsequently are determine to not have been committed by them. Huey, Assata, the Panther 21, many others. Escaping with years of their lives in jails makes them a lucky one. George Jackson, for example, was killed while serving time. The prison guards staged a riot and shot him down. His death greatly affected Angela. They had formed a romantic relationship through their letters. While not able to make their affections physical, I found the connection evident from reading his letters mentioning her and her reactions here to be very compelling.

Marxist Paul Saba published a highly critical review of the autobiography in the first issue of Class Struggle magazine, stating that class which Davis praises the most and adopts is that of “…the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, with firm reliance, not on the working class, but on the liberals, the intellectuals, lawyers and professors. This is combined with the condemnation of any movements among the people which base themselves on class struggle rather than the capitulation of the revisionists.” Considering the large amount of the book which is devoted to praising legal professionals and uncritically describing her academic studies with Herbert Marcuse, that the CPUSA has largely foregone working class and African-American struggles I think that this is a fair assessment. I think the criticism is, however, unduly harsh. While I’d agree to an extent with Saba’s claim that there’s a fair degree of distance between her and African-Americans generally – a result of her education and class privilege stemming from her profession – I think the book does great service to showing the traps and barriers faced by radical activists. One can certainly think that more should be done while still respecting the effort. Rather than performing the same old song and dance about the correctness of one’s foundation of political action, as Saba does, in order to claim theoretical superiority – I think it’s better to praise the exemplary courage and determination to better the world despite the risks inherent to one’s life and liberty. This perspective, critical but also respectful, seems to me to be on display in Shepard Fairey’s poster below.

Final note: Those preferring to read the book digitally can find a free copy here.

Review of The Autobiography of Assata Shakur

A former Black Liberation Army member that has obtained political asylum in Cuba for perceived lack of evidence for crimes connected to the murder of two police officers, Assata Shakur is a polarizing figure. She is still wanted by the FBI and talk of her possible return to America was discussed between respective nations bilateral trade meetings leading to online talk of her spiking to numbers not seen since legal defense committees received donations in her name for other sham trials in the late 1960s. Assata was one of many black political and cultural activists that were falsely imprisoned for hours to years based upon the whims of the judicial system. The Autobiography of Assata Shakur memoirs describes the evidence against her, the conditions of her trial, penetrating and poetic social insights, her treatment in the prison as well as her socialization with white communities under Jim Crow, her work with the Black Panther Party, etc. It is, another word, wonderful for touching on so many of the important issues of that epoch.

At a young age Assata describes herself as being very sensitive to the Jim Crow conditions which she grew up under. She tells of the isolations of being unable to play with neighborhood children because of her families purchase of a home in a white community. She describes how the low level of intellectual abilities that her classmates first had for her.  Later she will also describe in detail her close relationship to two of the five young girls killed in a church bombing that happened a short distance from her childhood home.

Yet her anger is not without a certain sense of revolutionary irony. Revolutionary as while recognizing the seriousness of the situation – racially informed class oppression – she is also able to recognize the base absurdity of its claims and the essential precariousness of the various power allegiances keeping it together. For example she describes going into a shoe shop in Montgomery with her friend as a young teen. A white clerk and overweight customer look at her in red-faced anger and terror quickly take on a tone of deference granted as they speak with a French affectation and claim to be from the Martinique. They are Caribbean, the social thought of the day went, therefore exotic and ergo not black. They are conversed with by the staff as they try on shoes.  Assata, at the time named Josephine, speaks in her best accent and finally breaks character. The initial angry attitudes return, however the girls can’t stop laughing. Now speaking in plain English, as they leave the store, she calls the people present out for their bigotry. There are many poetic turns of phrase and local color captured in these and other exchanges, all of which is to sound please but be immoral. Given these exclusionary experiences it is no wonder that she begins to have increased involvement in black nationalist cultural and political networks and organizations.

What makes this such a compelling book is not just the everyday heroics that comes to be displayed but also it’s structure. After childhood and arrest are covered the structure shifts to a back and forth between a horrifying depiction of what life is like in jail and narrative of her work as an activist. First one starts to become painfully aware of the cruelties of the treatment afforded her because she was a political prisoner, such as being forced to live in an isolation room for 21 months on end – a practice which was only stopped after a long struggle to get an independent investigator of the court to verify Assata’s claims. Following this Assata describes her work at a Black Panther Party breakfast program for children. She would wake up at 4am in the morning and cook for all of the children and come up with various educational programs for them to help get in the learning mood before going to school. She describes the paranoia and fears of briefly having to live an underground life as she’s just discovered that she’s again being promoted in the media as responsible for a crime that she’s not committed. And what helped her face such COINTELPRO actions? Her good skill set was recognized and she was promoted to New York to help the Party be more efficient.

Assata’s autobiography is good not only for the above, but she also reminds the reader that there were many others targeted for assassination, observation, infiltration, and social subversion through ruses, rumors, and other sorts of intelligence campaigns designed to delegitimize and destroy trust. She names three people that were connected to high ranking members of the Party that were used in FBI conceived plots to entrap or bring harm to Members. She is not, however, wholly uncritical of the Party. Some of the members are upbraided for their misogyny when she first arrives in New York. She eventually left the group as she found Newton’s ideology to be incompatible with her own, as she thought they needed to have less of a focus on the thoughts of a greater leader and more information on black history. Certainly anyone seeking to learn about black history is well served by reading this story and her other writings.

Review of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin is the first deep archival work that truly showcases the Black Panthers brief but pivotal role in the African-American freedom struggle, the black power movement and the New Left movements in America. While the Panthers were only an effective political machine for a mere four years, this account shows how and why they were able to attract so many under its banner despite being intensively repressed by the FBI and there being a variety of other organizations which politically radical blacks could join.

The opening chapters provide an on the ground account of the Oakland /Bay Area political and cultural scene through Bobby Seale’s and Huey Newton’s engagement with them. The organizations that would influence and be influenced by the Panthers included black nationalists, U.S. socialists, third-world communists, cultural uplift organizations, New Left groups and the government through the form of social work programs. It was their militant anti-imperialism that separated them from other organizations. Following Malcolm X’s views that the U.S. police force was akin to the troops of a colonial empire, they organized patrols to monitor the police’s activity in the community while openly armed and actively courted the “brother on the street” to become involved. At this time the organization was called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, a name that would be shortened following the expansion of social services provided and their rapid expansion into cities with large black populations.

I found it amusing that one of the Party’s early and vehement supporters mentioned several times in the book is Bob Avakian – the not yet founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party. More interesting yet is the descriptions of the organizational conflicts brought about after the Party’s spread following the California Courthouse Incident. The extensive archival work depicts a variety of factors constraining and supporting the party’s goals – be it police suppression and infiltration, or the coalition style politics that was able to support their goals.

Some of the more interesting things revealed to me in the book was the existence of an organization similar to the one that Happy runs in Unraveling in Chicago. In the chapter on the State’s assassination of Fred Hampton the authors describe the existence of a militant gang that also offered some social services and had members that would adjudicate conflict between members extra-judicially. They describe a scene wherein Fred Hampton tries to talk to their leader in an attempt for them to merge. As the FBI had started a rumor that the Panthers were going to kill their leadership if they didn’t join the tense scene of around 100 armed and militant gangsters coming into what was supposed to be an amiable meeting is very dramatic.

The closing chapters describe the changing national and international dynamics that lead to the decline of the Panthers. On the international scene the countries that had previously recognized the Party – anti-colonialist, revolutionary, socialist governments – soon adjusted their policies to engage with the United States Government. China, which had once welcomed the Panthers as a proto-government, soon broke off discussions with them. Cuba, which had spoken of using farms their nation as a training ground for revolutionary fighters and supported consciousness raising activities such as radio shows and publication of books such as Negroes with Guns, soon drastically limited the ability of those seeking shelter – such as Assata Shakur – so that the relationship with the United States would be better. Same so for Algeria, which had one seen itself and acted as if it were the leader of pan-African revolutionary movements but then had to deal with the more banal activities of governing.

Additionally much of the impetus for liberal coalitions to support the organization was taken away as the government started to concede a number of the demands of the Panthers. As the number of young Americans getting drafted fell dramatically, the numbers of those dying in Vietnam fell and the beginning of Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” – or turning responsibility for fighting primarily over to the South Vietnamese – those in the Anti-Draft Camp started to back off. As the government started to institute quotas for government hiring and black unemployment decreased, criticism of the state as explicitly racist became more difficult.

Lastly the split between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver was of a quality that made it difficult for current members want to stay in and outside members not to view as cause for delegitimization as a movement. Party debates are one thing, but the rhetoric turned to broad purges and internecine assassinations between the Newton/Cleaver cliques. Rather than debate the merits of Social Democratic politics, advocated by Newton, versus forming an insurgency, advocated by Eldridge, Netwon’s expulsions of those against his position inflamed tensions. This is likely because a number of the high ranking members that had been supporting Newton’s release through a wide variety of actions now saw their work as towards someone that they now fundamentally disagreed with.

After the Party has been dismantled, there is a brief account of Newton’s new life as an Oakland Mafioso. While the book clearly is focused on the Panther’s, given that Free Huey! was an international slogan and major pursuit of the rank and file membership I would have liked to have learned a little more about this. I recognize the author’s claim that those who have fixated on it seem to extend Tom Wolfe’s criticism ex-post facto in such a way as to delegitimize the Panther’s in some fashion, but I am more interested in it as a case of what sort of enterprises are formed when political aspirations are difficult to form – a la the Chicago gang mentioned earlier.

Afro-American Political Economy and History Syllabus

Lest we forget, the American government only illegalized chattel slavery and it’s attendant horrors out of economic and military necessity, and even then reluctantly. Following Emancipation, white supremacy did not end, but merely took new forms. Here’s a basic reading list related to that history and questions of tactics.

The Long History of White Resistance to Black Freedom

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist

Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 by W. E. B. DuBois

Reconstruction Updated Edition: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression by Robin D. G. Kelley

We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement by Akinyele Omowale Umoja

Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton

Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition by Doug McAdam

Sunbelt Revolution: The Historical Progression of Civil Rights in the Gulf South by Samuel C. Hyde

The Tallahassee Bus Boycott by Gregory D. Padgett *PDF*

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire

It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped: Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle by Danielle L. McGuire *PDF*

A World More Concrete: Real Estate and The Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida by N. D. B. Connolly

From Sit-in to Race Riot: Businessmen, Blacks, and the Pursuit of Moderation in Tampa, 1960–1967 by Steven F. Lawson *PDF*

The Success of the Unruly by William A. Gamson *PDF*

The Use of Terrorism by Ernest Evans *PDF*

The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance Hill

This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible by Charles E. Cobb Jr.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Black Panther Party

Soledad Brother

Revolutionary Suicide

Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver

Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E . Martin

The Huey P. Newton Reader by Huey P. Newton *PDF*

To Die for the People by Huey P. Newton *Foreward PDF*

Philosophical and Sociological Reflections and Historical Case Studies on Violence

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan

Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America by Ward Churchill *PDF*

The Success of the Unruly by William A. Gamson *PDF*

The Use of Terrorism by Ernest Evans *PDF*

The Contribution of Social Movement Theory to Understanding Terrorism by Colin J. Beck *PDF*

14690927_305728266465792_728675862619846669_n