The US has Avoided the Task of Anti-Black Racism

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (January 30, 2019)

Heather Heyer died for going to a rally against White supremacists. She didn’t wake up that day to die. She woke up that day to go to a rally against White supremacy. But she paid the price. That’s simply what justice costs. Our unwillingness to pay that price is why we ended Reconstruction.

I think that not so deep down, we all know that the nation has avoided the task of directly addressing anti-Black racism. The Germans went through the work of de-Nazification; White Americans erected monuments to Confederates.

Maybe it’s because they wanted to keep our housing values, secure our inheritance, or send their kids to the school with the higher scores or didn’t want to offend their vaguely supremacist friends or boss or spouse or parent or colleague. Maybe it’s because they wanted to keep our kids safe, even when we knew the “stop and frisk” sensibility or targeted traffic stops were disproportionately taxing on Black men and communities, and the best way to do that is concentrate all of America’s race problems into Black neighborhoods.

But I think that deep down, White Americans know that the vaguely anxious feeling that White House staffers feel about Trump’s twitter account, petulance, and erratic decision-making is the same feeling Black Americans walk around with all of their life with White America. It’s a steady state of terror that starts as young as pre-school, when you see the stats on how 3 year olds are disproportionately punished before they can barely talk, and the trend simply doesn’t stop on through adulthood.


No Race or Gender Justice Without Class Politics

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (December 18, 2018)

Race IS a deformation of class. As gender IS a deformation of class. So if you keep class politics, but don’t go after race politics, you’ve ignored all of the ways in which class politics comes in as race politics. If you go after gender and don’t go after class, you’ll have created two different sets of “women”: aspiring/potential CEOs and untouchables.

Racial and Gender justice is late stage, metastasized class injustice; but just addressing it as class politics is like addressing liver cancer and dealing with liver cancer, when you know full well that it has metastasized to the lung and pancreas.

This is all because you have to understand, class is largely a matter of where you fit and how you are treated in the political economy and production chain. How do Black people fit in the political economy and production chain? Well, we started out as chattel slaves, how do you think? So racial justice also means justice for people doing the work the United States made Black people to do. Same with gender justice.

Now this part is very important:
Whiteness is a class statement about being exempt from a certain kind of work, or being exempt from a certain kind of work under certain working conditions.

Whiteness is the expectation to be treated a certain kind of way in your activities. And these expectations are gendered.

So when you talk to Black people who don’t have a labor politics, it means that they don’t care if Black people are doing the kind of work, under the kind of conditions, that made Black people Black, ever get justice. Those Black people are simply want a set of Black people to be treated as if they were White. These are House Negroes.

When you talk to feminists who don’t think about working class women– and there are A LOT OF THEM– and they aren’t out there arguing for nannies to be unionized, that’s a problem.


Labor Justice is THE issue now

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (October 8, 2018)

I’ve read that as a rough rule, political movements initially start out off as free speech movements. In campus life, it makes sense at first blush, especially when you’ve been to Berkeley.

But I think it papers over the social question. We still haven’t figured out how political freedom works while you still depend on some man’s check.

At first, we need the kind of leaders who are not afraid to lose a job. No revolution that includes justice for black communities should give any power to folks who aren’t willing to lose their jobs.

If you are serious about black people, you have to be more serious about black people than you are about your job, because your job will ALWAYS be at play as long as America runs on anti-Blackness.

Systemically, freedom demands that we aim at a world where one’s status as an employee does not distort political action and aims. A world where political insight and organizing doesn’t require such heroism.

This suggests to me that the first struggle at this stage is a labor struggle. We need to secure the political independence of employees, because the overwhelming majority of people are employees, and organizing unions are a great place to start to secure this status. This isn’t clear on a college campus because the students aren’t, by and large, worried about their jobs in the same way.

But in a town like Athens, Ga. white supremacy is held in place because the employers are unmediated White supremacists on one side, and mediated White supremacists on the other. By mediated I mean that, as the Klan knew, there are two ways to keep black people under control. You can go at them directly as Black people, or you can go at them indirectly and use “the protection of women” as a cover. The results are the same: White power.

Active political participation, aligned with seeking justice, depends on secure labor conditions. It’s a problem that will always be with us, until we take it seriously as THE problem.


Freedom Depends on Enabling Institutions in Our Communities

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (May 24, 2018)

I study alienation and how freedom comes through well-ordered institutional structures, like marriage, employment, and politics. Our problem isn’t marriage, employment, or politics, the problem is that have a bad culture around institutions like marriage, employment or politics. We have bad marriages, bad jobs, and bad politics.

There are such things as a good marriage, a good job, and a good political disposition, and freedom is made concrete through working through these institutions, not by trying to avoid them or surrendering to their awful, conventional expressions. The problem isn’t teachers; the problem is bad teachers. The problem isn’t cops; it’s bad cops. (That one is complicated, but you get the point.)

Now the anarchists will say that these institutions entail coercion so they must be abolished. Everything except private property. What I’m saying is that you really can’t be free without enabling inter-personal institutions. And you can’t have enabling institutions without some sort of responsibility to each other.

These intermediary groups, from marriages to book clubs, enable freedom.

And make no mistake, to participate in any of these enabling institutions as a free person costs money. You have to pay dues. And to participate in any of these institutions with someone else, it means that every participant has to have money.

This just means that until all of your people have some independent money in their pockets, none of us are free. We are just going through (someone else’s) motions.

Community wide economic security doesn’t come from soft skills. It comes from political power used to secure good jobs.


We Need to Stop Letting White People Off the Hook

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (April 2, 2018)

The number of times I hear some version of, “You can’t expect white people to ever be fair” is astounding. I hear this from white and black people across the education divide. Honestly, the people who are the most smug about this as a truism are white women with lots and lots of degrees.

We’ve normalized treating white people like inveterate, incorrigible idiots. They aren’t. They are just fragile, lazy, and entitled on these issues, and they are supported by a culture that tells them that that’s okay. We can fix this culture.

The nation needs a better class of white people, and we can absolutely take that on as a political project. Not as a black project, as an American project. I’ve been saying for years that we need to commission a study the white family like the Moynihan Report to see how these entitlements are culturally transmitted. America needs to stop letting white people off the hook about what they do to protect the ill gotten comforts of their whiteness.

The KKK and even Trump’s election are just tantrums. We should not have an entire politics organized around the fear of white tantrums. There will be KKK marches and a few lynchings, but fixing white people is America’s job because it’s America’s problem.
And I’ll add that I think Americans should go about redressing the deficiencies in white culture with at least as much seriousness as the UDC put their project.


We Need to Teach People How to Share Power

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (March 19, 2018)

I think that a whole lot of political problems come from an inability to share power with genuine people you may not necessarily like. This barrier is baked into our political culture, though I will say that there are marked differences between subordinate and dominant groups, for a variety of reasons.

Well-ordered democracies concern how we share power with strangers across competing interests. Political power is one of these strange spirits that grows if you share it– but not in an obvious way, and there is an ethic to it, and if we don’t take that ethic seriously, it’s really easy (and popular) to abuse power, but if we embrace the vulnerability entailed in sharing power with due humility and a good sense of humor, you can get this right and win freedom for everyone involved. (Though some people are going to sorely miss their privileges.)

We don’t institutionalize teaching the importance of sharing power– which means that we don’t institutionalize the principles of wielding it justly– but we have a very rich discourse concerning property rights, so it’s not surprising that are bad at wielding power justly. People think of their share of political power as merely their property to use to seek their private interest, then everything gets confused.

To be clear, I think the blocks to, and conditions for, sharing power account for all sorts of structural racism. (This is one reason why integration fell flat. We let white people think they could integrate without sharing power with people they don’t like.) In general, this inability to take the work of shared power across difference seriously also accounts for screwed up relationships: intimate, working, and academic.

For example, I read a LOT of people who think that black people are idiots. I read a lot of people who think that black men are apes. Folks ask me, “How can your read them!” To which I answer, “Those people are very smart on OTHER, more basic issues, and I think I can separate out their bigotry and misandry.” Taking time to read them is a form of sharing power with people I don’t particularly like. I didn’t realize how much it habituated me to sharing power.

I get a lot of flack for being such an integrationist. But yeah, I think the only way we will be free is when we take the principles of shared power seriously, institutionalize teaching people how to share power the same way we institutionalize teaching people Geometry, and we realize that freedom is more important than the comfort shared power compromises or the vulnerability shared power entails.

What’s fascinating is that there very little that leads me to believe that victims of abuse of power are necessarily much better at sharing it, unless there is more to the story in the form of a political or structural or intellectual intervention. (To be honest, this is what worries me about safe space discourse in politics, but that’s fodder for another post.) This growth does happen, so that not all victims are necessarily potential abusers, but enough of them are that I always ask my students, “So, who taught you how to wield power?”

If the answer is “nobody,” then we consider why that may be a problem. If the answer is “My parents”, then we consider whether they think their parents wield power justly.


Good Institutions Are about Helping to Govern, Not Charity

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (February 23, 2018)

I’m serious when I say that institutions should be judged by their capacity to help people govern, both govern themselves and with others.

I worry that charity institutions provide services without growing people’s capacity to govern. This breeds accountability problems, and more importantly, since these institutions emerge as a matter of charity, not justice, there is no space to contest the terms of the service provided. This going to come down to a fundamental unwillingness or inability to share, with the mindset of the service-provider being, “Why should I have to share power? I’m providing services, instead.”

My goal is for people to grow power through services, and since real power is in production, I worry that the only people who grow power are the service-providing decision makers. And if it’s not done right, the only lesson they learn is how to lord over people as oligarchs.


On the Unfinished Work of Extending Rights to All Americans

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (February 13, 2018)

The basic problem is that our rights were conceived with property owning white men in mind. These rights presupposed economic security and independence. Security and independence came in the form of property. And that’s why the Constitution is primarily concerned with securing property rights. Also the exercise of rights relies on the collegiate fraternity of white men, but I’ll consider this later.

When you start formally extending rights to dependent women, how do you secure the independence of their actions in exercising those rights, i.e., how free can you be if you are economically dependent on a guy who is threatening to kick you out if you speak out? Furthermore, even if you do become economically independent, these rights presuppose a balance of power, so how can you exercise them if men clique up against you, to, for example, lock you out of the press. Again, remember that you are fighting both economic dependence upon and the fraternity of white men.

This set of problems births the need for family law, and if we had thought of how we baked in the presuppositions of economic independence and white fraternity from the beginning, family law would have more robust constitutional protections, so that the government secured free and equal relations between spouses (and the economically dependent spouse and society) the way it secures free and equal relations between property owning white men.

A similar set of problems emerges when we talk about extending rights to employees who are economically dependent upon their employer. How free can you be if you can be fired for speaking out of turn? The Founders were worried that employees would be used as tools of their employers. They were right to worry about this. But they were wrong to use that as a reason to deny employees political power. Once again, the particular social position of the Founders skewed their conception of rights, so if you are going to constitutionally secure the economic foundation for the exercise of rights for property holding white men, that is, property rights, then you have to constitutionally secure the economic foundation for employees, also, protect employees from the collusion of the fraternity of white male propertied employers. This is why you need worker and organized labor protections in the constitution if you expect workers to ever be able to exercise their other rights. This is why we have property rights in the constitution because we DID expect white property holders to exercise rights.


Now you have black people who are both without property and without the fraternity of whiteness, and more pointedly, whose inability to exercise their rights is directly tied to their economic and political dependence, rendering them targets for exploitation by property owning white men and their auxiliaries.

The question is always going to turn on how do we constitutionally secure the ability to exercise rights for everyone, including women, the property-less, and non-white people, the way we constitutionally secured the ability of propertied white men to exercise rights.

The analogy I used was fighting so hard to get into a poker game, only to find out that you can’t afford the ante. Then fighting so hard to get the ante, only to find out that the other players are colluding against you because they’ve known each other for so long.

So in order to actually play the game you need to both have the ante (economic security) and protections against collusions/cliques of the other players.


Without Jobs, Our Freedom is Hollow

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (February 5, 2018)

You have to understand that when you have access to property and an independent, above subsistence income, your conception of rights is markedly different from someone without property and depends on a non-contract employer for an income.

The Founders conceived of rights for people like themselves.

In order to exercise any of the rights the Founders were talking about, you need to secure people housing and a good job. Free speech doesn’t mean anything if you are scared to be fired for what you say. Freedom of the press doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have capital to influence the press. And for all of the other rights you need a lawyer to defend yourself from, forget it.

We need a Bill of Rights for non-property owners and non-contract employees, that enables them to exercise their rights on a par with property owners and the independently wealthy/economically secure contract employees.

When we extended rights past white male property owners to everyone in the United States, we didn’t extend the substantive conditions for their use. We may as well have extended to everyone the right to buy a 2 million dollar house.

We need a Federal Job Guarantee at a fair wage. We need to talk about worker empowerment. Without it, your ability to exercise all of the other rights are at the mercy of your boss’s discretion. Your citizenship has become their political tool in every other way except in the actual voting booth (where your ballot is a secret). Your freedom is hollow.


Black People Need Good Governance Toward Justice

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (January 28, 2018)

I’ve been thinking about Ann Richards and Obama.

Everyone loves Ann Richards. I think she was great. Or at least I think she was fine. She won Texas without teaching people how to govern, so it snapped right back. Obama is similarly blessed. There are no principled Obama Democrats. The Obama coalition is held together by aesthetics, and insofar as it is held together by a vision of governance instead of aesthetics, it’s vaguely libertarian because that’s what you get when you have a governing coalition that’s held together by aesthetics. I suspect that this is why Obama was so good at electing GOP legislators and governors. He elected a lot of other Reagan Republicans, and he converted a lot of black people into being Reagan Republicans. Reagan was Goldwater Republican, and Goldwater Republicans are Libertarians, so it shouldn’t be that big of a surprised that Obama created so many Republicans. If folks deeply believed in his style of governance, they would eventually vote Republican, anyway.

Contrast that with FDR or even Kennedy. After they left office, there were still principled FDR and Kennedy Democrats who were convert by FDR or Kennedy.

The goal isn’t to get people to pull the Democrat lever this one time; the goal is to move people to a better vision of governance. Anything that’s not that is not going to enable black people to be free.

You can say that there are principled Clinton Democrats, but I think principled Clinton Democrats are snakes because that’s the principle of governance Bill Clinton taught America.

Black people, we are a people who need good governance more than anyone else in this nation, because we can’t be free until we see justice, and we can’t get justice without revolutionizing the US political structure towards justice for Black people. FDR’s revolution provided justice for white people at the expense of black people. We simply need the same quality of governance for everyone.

Black People, remember that white Democrats don’t care about racial justice for black people. They care about beating Republicans, and not offending too many of their white Republican cousins in the process.

Our politics is not and cannot be Democrat politics. Our politics is revolutionary politics, and when the Democrats balk at the kind of revolutionary politics we need to be made whole, we must, from time to time, shut Dems down.


Does Everyday Feminism Actually Reinforce the Status Quo Against Working Class Women and People of Color?

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (January 22, 2018)

What if a subset of women composed the second biggest obstacle to gender justice in issues like affordable childcare, eldercare, fair wages and Union empowerment for women who work lower prestige jobs, etc. What if this subset of women blamed poor and working class women for being poor and working class as a way of validating their excesses or aspirations to excess?

What if the school to prison pipeline had as much to do with the elementary school teacher than it does with the cop?

What if Betsy DeVos isn’t an anomaly? How would you know? What if the second biggest obstacle for getting justice for poor and working class women, especially women of color, is middle and aspiring middle and upper class women, especially white women? How would we know? What are the means of power and communication for poor and working class people to understand and appreciate this message? Who would say? Judy Woodruff isn’t going to admit this on the News Hour? Terri Gross isn’t going to say it on NPR? If this were true, would Kamala or Kirsten Gillibrand admit it? Where else would you get this information that your “sisters” are a significant part of the problem? Are any of the beautiful people on the news going to tell you?

And what if the primary strategy to deflect responsibility and maintain and profit from the status quo was to blame poor and working class men? Blame their crassness? What if this false sisterhood of all women is the real counter-revolutionary strategy? What if everyday feminism, a discourse that is set from the elite even if it strategically gestures towards the bottom, actively reinforces the status quo against poor and working class women and men of color? What if it took steam as backlash against black men, that is, former property, gaining political power?

White politicos are very quick to say that we should ignore race and focus on class, and that race is just a strategy to divide oppressed people and pit them against each other. What if a false solidarity between middle and aspiring upper class women, on one hand, and poor women and working class women, on the other, is the real strategy to counter-revolutionary politics? A strategy set to divide poor and working class men from poor and working class women, and thereby neuter the justice claims of anyone who isn’t aspiring to be fancy?

What would it look like? How would you know?

By the way, if you look at the math, if you are serious about a Poor People’s Campaign, white women need to be seriously vetted. We need the unity of poor and working class women