Jacqueline Luqman: The economic situation for black Americans was dire before the pandemic. But since then, it is absolutely apocalyptic. And if the way the government responded to our losses in the last recession are any indication, we won’t get a bailout that will make any real difference to our abysmal material conditions this time either. Given the fact that capitalism itself has proven to have failed us all, it should be clear that black capitalism won’t free us from oppression and cannot be reformed, not even when it’s promoted by our favorite rappers. This is Jacqueline Luqman with the Real News Network, and I am here with Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, assistant professor and Mellon faculty fellow of Africana studies and political science at Carleton College to dig into why that is. Dr. Burden-Stelly, thank you so much for joining me.
Dr. Burden-Stelly: Thank you for having me.
Jacqueline Luqman: The very idea that capitalism can produce economic equality is a dubious one at best just starting off with this discussion. But these kinds of investment heavy, texts break friendly, entrepreneurial focused economic plans have been presented over and over again to address the persistent marginalization of black people in this country. Politically, where did this idea of black capitalism framed as public policy in response to inequality that black people endure come from? When did the shift in the focus from equality and justice for black people to black power to support investment and entrepreneurship happen?
Dr. Burden-Stelly: Well, so that’s sort of two related questions. I would argue that there has long been a push toward black business owners or black entrepreneurs being the leadership of the black race since at least the 1700s, right? As long as black people have been participating in the US economic system, there has been this idea that those who are the most affluent should lead or shall rule. And this is closely tied to the idea of racial uplift and it’s sort of social ideology of politics of respectability. But in terms of the shift to black power, often people mark this shift with the rise of Richard Nixon and the ways in which he harnessed black power to black capitalism because as some scholars argue, the idea of black collective mobilization and black socialism was very threatening to the US economic order.
But when you append blackness to capitalism, it sort of neutralizes the specter of subversion or destabilization that is often associated with blackness. More over, in the mid 1960s, but especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, there are all of these urban uprisings. So this idea of black capitalism or black power was harnessed to the idea that if there’s some economic development in urban areas or in ghettos, that this would quell the unrest. And so there is a strong historical connection between the idea that the black petty bourgeoisie should be the persons to set the agenda for the black race and that their particular interests are representative of the interests of black people in general.
Of course, we know that this historically has not been the case. The other sort of irony of that is that black business as an industry has not been that successful. As we know, there have been very few black corporations, most black businesses are small or medium sized firms that employ few black folks. And that face, because of structural racism, face a lot of discrimination in terms of getting viable loans, in terms of getting cheap land, in terms of getting access to primary and secondary materials. And so that exploitation gets passed onto the employees. So there’s all sorts of contradictions with this idea of black capitalism except for the fact that it serves a managerial function.
Jacqueline Luqman: That’s I think a very, very important point, the function that it serves, the managerial function, because when we talk about the petite bourgeoisie and the capitalist class, doctor, we always leave out the managers in this discussion. We always talk about those at the very top, the 10%, the 1%, and then the business class, but we leave out this sort of middle management kind of layer of gatekeepers that really does play a part in continuing to perpetuate an idea that really is not helpful to the black masses. And the current conversation around these ideas, I think is a good example of that because several very popular and famous rappers have gotten involved in politics, which is not a bad thing. That’s great. And they’re seeking to speak for black America by presenting plans that they say would benefit all of us to whichever political party would listen.
And I think the anger at who any of these people speak to is a lot less important because that’s what people are very angry about, that Ice Cube has spoken to the Trump campaign and who is speaking to this other campaign or whatever. I think that’s less important than what’s in the plans themselves, what the plans advocate. And I think that’s just as important in regard to the Trump platinum plan as it is in regard to the Biden administration’s ridiculously titled Lift Every Voice plan. So if the purpose of either one of these plans is to uplift black people left behind by disenfranchisement and oppression, how do these plans that are heavy on the ideology of black capitalism accomplish that, or maybe the better question is, do they?
Dr. Burden-Stelly: No. Next question. I’m kidding. But I don’t necessarily think that plans is to uplift the masses of black people. Again, I think that they’re meant to, as I always say, put a couple of chips in the cookie to give the valence or the propaganda of black success and of black economic improvement at the same time that you build up the military and police state to control the overwhelming majority of black people. And so I happened to take a look at the contract with black America, and it is a contract with black bourgeois America, right? So there’s this idea of more access to loans, more access to credit. And what was really striking is that there’s a sort of last plank in there that’s about, all right, well, if this contract is implemented, then basically the black poor and the black mass need to act right. We need to do our part.
Jacqueline Luqman: Wow.
Dr. Burden-Stelly: We need to quit engaging in crime. We need to, essentially adopt the right attitude, this long played out narrative of black deviance, which is black, poor deviance because there’s no critique of the black petty bourgeoisie. There’s no critique of the black elite and the white collar crime in which they’re engaging, it is the behavior of the black masses that’s being put on display as something to be eradicated in exchange for these crumbs from the government. And I think it’s really telling who the contract with black America is really with. And it is not for the most exploited and oppressed of black folks.
Jacqueline Luqman: Wow. That is pretty shocking, I’m sure for some people to hear. And I love the way you put it that black people need to act right in exchange for these crumbs because when we’re talking about a contract, isn’t that what a contract is? You will do this, we’ll do this for you if you do that. And the dos that that we’re supposed to subscribe to is behave ourselves and be perfect, upright, upstanding citizens. And I always, Dr. Burden-Stelly, bring up whenever people have this response about the misbehavior of the black masses. I always bring up a book that I read probably two, three years ago, maybe a little bit longer than that, but written by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, which is called, The Condemnation of Blackness.
Dr. Burden-Stelly: [inaudible 00:09:08].
Jacqueline Luqman: I’m a student of history. I love history, but this particular book blew my mind because it outlined the way in which just this very thing you’re talking about, criminalizing and pathologizing black crime and black misbehavior was not done to immigrants from Europe who exhibited the same behavior because of the social conditions that poor people were forced to live in. They received assistance from the government and acceptance into society where black people continue to receive condemnation of their behavior because they’re black. So yeah, we do need to put these breadcrumbs in these conversations when we have them to point people to another step in the process to get us a little closer to deconstructing the way that we’re indoctrinated to think about ourselves and our own behavior in this society that has basically built this foundation off of profiting, off of saying that we’re just a bunch of criminals and we don’t know how to act.
But I’m sure, doctor, that there are some black people who would benefit from something in each of these plans. But I think the question remains, how much would these plans affect the material conditions, not necessarily of the working class and the poor because we’ve seen that that’s not true, but even the entrepreneurial class, how much do these plans help them?
Dr. Burden-Stelly: Well, I think that it’s a fact, again, if you look at the data around black business, the overwhelming majority of black businesses fail. And so it’s this, and because the discourse of the United States and the American dream is sort of equality of opportunity, if it is that these loans and this access to credit, and this favorable lending environment is constructed and the business has failed nonetheless because of the ways in which they’re unable to compete with large corporations, they again, have less access to things like primary materials, the government can then say, “Well, at least we tried. It’s a failure of will. It’s a failure of adopting the right attitude.” And so I think that while there may be some businesses that are successful and some people who are able to accumulate well a modicum of wealth, the overwhelming majority of businesses in general fail.
And it’s sort of like, we’re essentially asking the wrong questions, right? If this is really about uplifting, not only the standards of living and the structural material realities of the black community as a whole, then we cannot start the idea of black business saving us. It’s just not, it’s not correct. And of course, you recently had a conversation with Dr. Jared Ball who talks about the myth of black buying power, black consumerism, black entrepreneurship starting in the middle in that way is just, it’s simply not the solution to improving what are pervasive, deteriorating conditions of the overwhelming majority of black people. It does not resolve the crisis of unemployment. It does not resolve the housing crisis. It does not resolve the erosion of the public sector and the welfare of state. None of these things are resolved by increasing the entrepreneurial spirit of black folks.
Jacqueline Luqman: And so I think the next question for me is, do we finally have to get to the point in this conversation about what is going to free black people from oppression? If we are talking about advocating for freeing all black people from oppression, including the black masses, the poor and working class and oppressed black masses, are we finally going to have to have that really uncomfortable conversation about class amongst ourselves that we seem to not have an honest and full conversation about, or maybe it’s just too painful to deal with? Do we finally need to just have that conversation about class to move this issue forward in a way that actually met some kind of results for the black masses?
Dr. Burden-Stelly: The question is painful for whom because really the evasion of that class conversation is about an obfuscation. It’s this idea that because of racism or white supremacy, the outcomes or the realities for black people are the same across the board, but as we know, violence and suffering a cruise around particularly class black bodies more so than any others. So when Skip Gates experiences discrimination from the cops, number one, he leaves. And number two, he called Barack Obama. We do not see that… Regular black people, poor working class black people do not have that same access and they’re much more subjected to the occupying forces, which is really how we ought to describe police. They’re meant to keep people in where they belong and to keep them out where they ostensibly don’t belong.
And so I think that the class conversation is very important. And a lot of research shows that since the 1970s, there is an increasing class divide in the black community and that there’s much less identification between the black middle and upper classes and the black working poor than there was historically because of black flight and because of the ways in which the black community, even though there’s conditions of re-segregation, there’s not the same ways in which black people, irrespective of income and irrespective of occupation have to live together as there was during Jim Crow.
Jacqueline Luqman: [inaudible 00:15:10].
Dr. Burden-Stelly: So to make a short story long, we absolutely need to have that class conversation because oftentimes racism not withstanding, white supremacy not withstanding, are the questions that we ask and the ways in which we frame the problem are not necessarily the same because the ways in which we experience material lack and the ways and the forms of domination and oppression, and exploitation that we experience are not the same. And even parts of the petty bourgeoisie and the ruling class to understand that ought to be willing to have that conversation.
But that conversation necessarily requires redistribution and it necessarily requires a shift in focus from allowing the most qualified or the most deserving blacks to participate in the capitalist system to a conversation about like, how do we actually stop negotiating the terms of our immiseration and actually begin to improve the lived realities of all black people?
Jacqueline Luqman: I can’t help but think of two things from your comments. One is the fact that we are talking about people who are presenting themselves as advocates for the black masses who themselves are a part of the petite bourgeois class and maybe they don’t even realize that that’s where they are. People like Ice Cube and certainly 50 Cent who just came out and said, “I’m not supporting Biden because I don’t want to pay more taxes.” Now, this is not an endorsement of Joseph Biden, but that I think is a reflection of the class allegiance that some people, not all, not all entertainers, but some entertainers who some people may be looking to for some type of political guidance who they should vote for, that’s the kind of class allegiance that some of them have.
And so I think it’s very important that we understand the class divisions that we’ve been subjected to and that we’ve bought into some of us. And we need to also deconstruct that in the framework of this system. But I also can’t help but think about Dr. Gary Kushner’s comments just a few days ago about this platinum plan that came out of this coordination between Ice Cube and the Trump administration where Kushner said that black people have to want to be successful but the president, Donald Trump can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful. And we don’t have the same voices challenging that kind of narrative coming from the people that they’ve commiserated with on this plan.
So how, Dr. Burden-Stelly, how do we push the powers that be in the direction of truly listening to an honest and clear, I hate to say conversation because I think we’re beyond continuing to talk about these issues. How do we push this issue to getting actual results for our people, for the black masses apart from continuing down this path of advocating for black capitalism?
Dr. Burden-Stelly: This might be an unpopular perspective, but I don’t think we need any more black leaders. I think that we really need to turn to the people who are in the street protesting and organizing, and engaging in mutual aid and who are sort of gesturing toward the type of approaches that we need to sustain our communities. I think that we need a strong black political party or some sort of way in which we can vote as a block not just objectively defect to the Democratic Party because FDR, whatever the argument is, but actually have accorded a way in which we strategically cast our votes in national and localized election where we have an agenda that is based on dialogue, and debate, and discussion between ordinary black people.
I really think that the role of the black elite and the black petty bourgeoisie is to redistribute their wealth and take a step back so that people, collectives of people can actually have their concerns and their voices heard. And it’s really a question of how much can we negotiate with the federal government? Because in the final analysis, this is a white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist society, perhaps another unpopular opinion. And so anything that they’re willing… So one might argue that anything that they’re willing to give is going to have dire, dire consequences. That being said, I think that we need to continue to mobilize and put pressure on the state pending other forms of political strategy.
Jacqueline Luqman: This society, this capitalist, white supremacist, imperialist society owes us a debt, but we also have to be very clear that we can’t trust the people who created the debt in the first place to fix it without there being some serious, serious pushback and a lot of strings attached. So I think we have to be a lot more strategic and very careful in not just the demands we make, but as you said, in how we go about making them. I’m going to give you the last word, Dr. Burden-Stelly. How would you like to see the conversation about these issues continue past this election?
Dr. Burden-Stelly: I would like for the conversation to… Number one, another unpopular opinion, but the vote mongering and the vote shaming, that needs to stop. I think that people should vote if they choose to vote, but I think that the positioning of voting as the way to save this democracy and the final frontier of justice, I think that that is, it is a mystification of voting as a strategy among many others. And I think that perhaps we need to do less talking on television. Perhaps we need to do less speeches and really get to craft or take our own spaces to have these conversations in ways that can’t be co-opted and that can’t be manipulated by those in power.
So after the election, whichever way it unfolds, I would like to continue to see the protests in the streets in whatever form they take. I would like to continue for us to have more broad based collective conversations perhaps that won’t be tweeted and that won’t be televised, but that are happening nonetheless.
Jacqueline Luqman: Just because an opinion is unpopular, it does not mean that it is not actually true. And I thank you so much for all of your opinions, whether you think they’re unpopular or not, I actually agree with them. I appreciate your time and your input today, Dr. Burden-Stelly. Thanks you so much.
Dr. Burden-Stelly: Thank you for having me.
Jacqueline Luqman: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with the Real News Network in the belly of the beast, Washington, DC.
Studio: Will Arenas
Post-Production: Will Arenas