An Open Letter to the Nation about their Insipid, cliched misreading of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Dear The Nation blog:

I realize that you are not to be out done by the fact the American Conservative is sometimes more “progressive than your editorials on the police” and that you have generally run off all your Marxists to which you magazine was founded to be a dialogue  between about even ten years.   I also realize that you have taken the success of the click-bait model of Salon to heart.    What is interesting that is while you are always lecturing radicals, Marxists, and even further left-than-you-liberals about the not letting the “perfect being the enemy of the good,” the moment someone mentions that the framing of police violence in class terms, you start talking about absolute preconditions.  Furthermore, you somehow get a Marxist to do it for you?

Forgive me if I think a white liberal (or in this case, Marxist or Trotskyist), nomatter his or her anti-racist credentials, lecturing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the realities of racial violence, particularly in the police, is kind of funny in the way that this must either be ironic or just out-and-out bad faith in the magazines’s part.  David Zirin, I have no doubt, actually believes what he says.  In fact, David Zirin is a Trotskyist in the Tony Cliff-inspired tradition, even if he is functionung as a liberal in this instance. Zirin’s sincerity is not part of my claim, but to get to my claim, you need to see Zarin’s claim:

Michael Brown was shot dead by the police because he is black. If he was white, no matter how poor, he almost certainly wouldn’t have died. If that is not your starting point, then you are lost without a compass. Yes, Ferguson is in so many ways a “class issue”. But Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown is about racism. If we don’t acknowledge the centrality of racism both in this case and in how racism is used to divide people, then the unity of the 50 million poor people that Kareem wants to see will forever be a pipe dream.

I would say Zirin didn’t actually seem read Abdul-Jabbar’s piece at time because frankly he is not arguing with what Jabbar said:

[Un]less we want the Ferguson atrocity to also be swallowed and become nothing more than an intestinal irritant to history, we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.

By focusing on just the racial aspect, the discussion becomes about whether Michael Brown’s death—or that of the other three unarmed black men who were killed by police in the U.S. within that month—is about discrimination or about police justification. Then we’ll argue about whether there isn’t just as much black-against-white racism in the U.S. as there is white-against-black. (Yes, there is. But, in general, white-against-black economically impacts the future of the black community. Black-against-white has almost no measurable social impact.)

Then we’ll start debating whether or not the police in America are themselves an endangered minority who are also discriminated against based on their color—blue. (Yes, they are. There are many factors to consider before condemning police, including political pressures, inadequate training, and arcane policies.) Then we’ll question whether blacks are more often shot because they more often commit crimes. (In fact, studies show that blacks are targeted more often in some cities, like New York City. It’s difficult to get a bigger national picture because studies are woefully inadequate. The Department of Justice study shows that in the U.S. between 2003 and 2009, among arrest-related deaths there’s very little difference among blacks, whites, or Latinos. However, the study doesn’t tell us how many were unarmed.)

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor.

If you read that, you will clearly see that NO WHERE does Abdul-Jabbar deny the claim that Michael Brown is a target because he was black.  Abdul-Jabber clearly thinks systemic racism is involved, he just doesn’t think that claim is enough to explain the situation nor does he think this will stop with black men.  Clearly, Zirin, has ignored that this is and what has slowly begun happening to white poor and under-privileged, but at NO WHERE near the rate it has been happening to black men.  That is the kicker, the black community is the vanguard for how an entire class will be oppressed as it is rendered surplus.  Racial discrimination and generational poverty from a three centuries of oppressing and hyper-exploiting black labor has increasingly started to see black labor systemically be rendered surplus–no longer exploitable, the apparatus around the state sees no need not to crack down.  We have seen this historically happen already: the rendering surplus of the surviving indigenous peoples of the US, although it was done in a much more quiet manner than now.   Increasing unemployment in that community makes them open to this and used as surplus.   Make no doubts about it, but you and I both know that it is not going to stop there.   The SWAT team is increasingly used even in suburban and mostly white police distractions with often fatal results there too. The black community has faced this since the Detroit riots and are still the locus of its intensity, but do not kid yourself Nation blog, it is not going to stop there.   If anything Occupy should have shown you that it won’t. 

What Abdul-Jabbar is saying is clear:  if this is framed as a “race narrative,” the larger media apparatus has a way of defusing that and defanging that narrative.  Furthermore, the competing of identities actually provides cover for the cops to move into the larger war on the poor.   Zirin says,

“The point of all of this is to say that fighting racism, sexism and anti-LGBT bigotry is not a distraction from building a united struggle but a precondition for building a united struggle.”

Yes, sure, but the larger struggle has to deal with the realities of the media narrative to which you, Nation Magazine, are profoundly complicit.  Zirin prior puts all the liberal whistle words and ideas: woman’s right to choose, civil rights, the wall street looters.   Now I have no problem with feminist concerns or civil rights–although wall street looters is a distraction from the larger nature of capitalism–putting all this in an article about the police systemic use of violence is frankly confused. It includes such a checklist for solidarity while calling for solidarity:

Kareem wants to see solidarity. It starts with solidarity with the people in the streets of Ferguson. It starts by arguing explicitly with white workers that their sympathies should lie with the people of Ferguson and not the politicians or the police. With one voice, we need to say that the real looters are on Wall Street, and without justice there can never be peace.

Zirin is right, these things must be dealt with and not ignored, but this makes it sound like this is all it is a matter of attitudes. Attitudes can be dropped as a precondition, but struggle must be dealt with in the realm of the material world. Such a precondition is predicated is problem vision and one that can we can see in action:  individual attitudes of workers will get a mixed-race Black President or a reactionary tea party using code-talk, but attitudes to do not change the material conditions of an increasingly impoverished black community nor does it change the reality of working class having more and more of members rendered surplus with only some sign of recovering but at much lower levels than 2007.  Abdul-Jabbar is right: the racial narrative abstracted in an increasingly segregated community of the working class won’t work. Something has to bring those people into contact first, and then the materiality of racial conditions may open people’s eyes.   The funny thing about US segregation now–it has been predicated on self-enforcement from both communities, and trying to keep what little bit of the black middle class that exists down by systematically treating it as if it were a class or class faction lower than it is.  Nothing new about that:  the black family in the white neighborhood almost always is actually earning more money than that’s family’s white neighbors. 

But just repeating inter-sectionality narratives without dealing with the material conditions that led to that situation is basically magical thinking: far from Abdul-Jabbar being the naive one, the assumptions of Zirin seem to think this is all about ideas. It’s not.  The police will be the police either way.    He is a Marxist–he probably knows better but also much write for his audience, which at the Nation is overwhelmingly liberal.

And let’s not be romantic in our appeals to the civil rights movement: if that move had been able to complete its work–to finish its social revolution–would Michael Brown be dead?  If history is the judge of ideas and tactics, what does that say? Is a Marxist using such rhetoric missing something, Nation Magazine?  Think on that hard.

I have no reason to doubt Zirin’s sincerity, Nation magazine, but I have every reason to doubt yours.

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2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Nation about their Insipid, cliched misreading of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  1. I have become increasingly convinced that race and other social identities are used as proxies for greater and more fundamental systemic issues. The poor black population is where oppressive tactics are implemented first. It is an experiment to see what works before they try to implement it on the rest of the population. This is similar to how the English practiced colonialism on the Irish before attempting colonialism on a larger scale.

    • Very much so: Racism and racist tactics are generally practice for a larger group. You start with the minority and work out. That is what some of this narrative is missing.

      It also misses that these things are more than just attitudes, they are reflections of material everyday life. You have to get people together because they can drop their bullshit, not the other way around.

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