A Necessary, Timely Reckoning
By Raquel McGee
The ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) movement has set off shockwaves throughout the sociopolitical discourse in the African diaspora, with the insistence on centering the experiences of those who are descendants of American chattel slavery rankling many a detractor. Many bristle at the thought of ADOS carving out a specific space for this lineage, which runs counter to the Wakanda-esque, “flat blackness”* (as Yvette Carnell, one of the thought leaders, would say) being fully embraced by black millennials like myself.
The two core principles that drive the ADOS movement are:
- The belief that American descendants of slavery are a distinct ethnic group with a distinct justice claim
- The moral and material urgency of the reparations claim, as the group careens towards zero wealth. [i]
It is uncanny to hear the fragile reactions to this simple message, as though these two principles are somehow untoward or unethical. We should be viewing the way ADOS has shifted our collective sociopolitical discourse as a part of Dr. King’s long “arc of the moral universe.” We should not be bristling at the idea of a distinct ADOS identity, but instead taking the time to have frank conversations about how we Diaspora folks (my parents are Jamaican immigrants) use the concept of universal blackness when it suits us in order to stake a claim over ADOS cultural capital, and then proudly wear the flags of our respective nations when we choose to do so.
Analyzing the Role of ADOS
First, let’s understand that the distinct nature of ADOS identity is not a new concept, and the enraged reactions to it are illogical and unfounded. In his first speech at the Inaugural Pan African Convention circa 1900, W.E.B. DuBois elegantly outlined the distinct freedom struggles that black people were engaging in all over the world. He chastised Christian missionaries for their role in colonialism across the African continent. He rebuked white colonial powers for not granting self-rule to the black nations they were oppressing. DuBois lauded independent black nations like Liberia and Haiti for their importance in bringing up ideas of global black self-determination into fruition, and then he talked specifically about the task that faced the “American Negro.”
We would do well to remind ourselves of his stirring words as we analyze the role of ADOS in our current context:
“Let not the spirit of Garrison, Phillips, and Douglass wholly die out in America; may the conscience of a great nation rise and rebuke all dishonesty and unrighteous oppression toward the American Negro, and grant to him the right of franchise, security of person and property, and generous recognition of the great work he has accomplished in a generation toward raising nine millions of human beings from slavery to manhood.”
Would any of us dare to take DuBois to task for this kind of specificity? Would we tell him that it was improper to specifically name the “American Negro” as a distinct freedom struggle worthy of particular attention? Absolutely not. So why do so many of us who are rooted in a Pan-Africanist ethos consider the ADOS call for specificity an unethical approach? We should instead be lauding this movement for continuing in the same tradition of carving out a specific identity for ADOS, in the same tradition of DuBois, Dr. King, Baldwin and, notably, Mother Audley Moore. Mother Moore, the founder of the Reparations Committee for the Descendants of American slaves, would probably be shocked to find her legacy used as a moral argument against the presence of ADOS, as she asserted that reparations would be used as a poverty-ending measure for the “American citizens of African descent.”
To the justice claim itself, I want to first point to the fallacy that flat blackness exists as a material reality within this country. I will first point out that the vast majority of black immigrants, my family included, have come to the United States in a post-1980 wave[ii], making the claim that a distinct ADOS identity is an impossibility to untangle an intellectually dishonest one. We need to be honest about the fact that many black immigrants arrive in this country with access to resources and educational attainment that is made exceedingly more difficult for ADOS living in the “belly of the beast,” a system of white supremacy that has found various mechanisms to subjugate ADOS people since the end of chattel slavery.
Indeed, we find that 28% of black immigrants have attained a college degree, which makes sense given that our current immigration system favors those with education and resources. We would do well to understand Suzanne Model’s theory of hyper-selectivity, which contends that those who gain access to this country are among the most favorably positioned in their respective home countries.
So where does that leave us in a material sense, in terms of wealth? In Boston, we find that ADOS households have a median net worth of $8, while Caribbean black households have a median net worth of $12,000. In Los Angeles, we find that ADOS households have a median net worth of $4,000, while African black households have a median net worth of $72,000. In Miami, we find that ADOS households have a median net worth of $3,700, while Caribbean black households have a median net worth of $12,000. You might argue that these three cities can’t be expected to represent the entire story of black wealth here in the United States, but I don’t think it is unfair to extrapolate some context for how we understand black wealth here in the United States.
Having It Both Ways
Additionally, we (Diaspora folks) can’t have it both ways. We can’t both be proud of what we deem our “model black minority” success stories, and then pretend as though ADOS wealth has not suffered short shrift from specific mechanisms since the end of the chattel slavery. We can’t both be vocal about frequently growing up in majority-white suburban enclaves, and then pretend as though many ADOS folks don’t still reside in hyper-segregated cities, casualties of historic and current redlining, contract buying, subprime lending, and other insidious forms of wealth extraction.
Black Americans need to have frank, honest conversations about how a system of white supremacy has reinvented itself to derail ADOS progress, and often used our successes as confirmation that ADOS cultural inferiority is the problem here and not mass incarceration, Jim Crow, the War on Drugs and all of the other apparatus used to subjugate ADOS.
So I end with a final charge. Having read an analysis of the two core principles of ADOS, and (hopefully) been convinced of the righteous urgency that drives the movement, I encourage you to join the clarion call and raise your voice in support. If you care about the fate of black people in the United States, you should be in full agreement with a movement that strives for the collective uplift of ADOS, which make up 82% of the black population. I urge you to cast aside the dispersions and embrace this movement for what it is: an outpouring of strategic, “righteous indignation,” as Dr. Cornel West would say, striving to create substantive change for a group whose ancestors built this country.
Aja, Alan, et al. “The Color of Wealth in Miami.” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, Insight Center for Community Economic Development, Feb. 2019, kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/The-Color-of-Wealth-in-Miami-Metro.pdf.
Anderson, Monica, and Gustavo López. “Key Facts about Black Immigrants in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 24 Jan. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/24/key-facts-about-black-immigrants-in-the-u-s/.
Carnell, Yvette, and Antonio Moore. “About ADOS.” #ADOS, ados101.com/about-ados.
De La Cruz-Viesca, Melany, et al. “The Color of Wealth in Los Angeles.” UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Duke University, New School, University of California Los Angeles, Insight Center for Community Economic Development, 2016, www.aasc.ucla.edu/besol/color_of_wealth_report.pdf.
Lartey, Jamiles. “Median Wealth of Black Americans 'Will Fall to Zero by 2053', Warns New Report.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Sept. 2017, www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/sep/13/median-wealth-of-black-americ...
Munoz, Ana Patricia, et al. “The Color of Wealth in Boston.” Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Duke University, The New School, 25 Mar. 2015, www.bostonfed.org/-/media/Documents/color-of-wealth/color-of-wealth.pdf.
* All people grouped together as “Black” do not have the same history or ties to American slavery or oppression.
[i] Lartey, Jamiles. “Median Wealth of Black Americans ‘Will Fall to Zero by 2053,’ Warns New Report.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Sept. 2017, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/24/key-facts-about-black-immigrants-in-the-u-s/.
[ii] Anderson, Monica, and Gustavo López. “Key Facts about Black Immigrants in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 24 Jan. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/24/key-facts-about-black-immigrants-in-the-us/
Raquel Levy is a literacy educator at Oak Park River Forest H.S., in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago
Caption: Yvette Carnell, cofounder of ADOS at Philadelphia chapter meeting
Credit: ADOS Philadelphia chapter