By Blake Simons
The present day Movement for Black Lives, which I argue was revived by the people of Oakland after the murder of Oscar Grant, and came into fruition because of the rebellion that working class Black folks started in Ferguson after the murder of Mike Brown, has been co-opted by Black capitalistic neo-liberals.
Neo-liberalism is a type of politics that favors free market capitalism with little to no government interference. Furthermore, neo-liberalism brings “massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services.” Essentially, neo-liberalism is a branch stemming from the tree of capitalism.
Capitalism in America is an economic system that is rooted in the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Afrikans. Thus, the country’s wealth was created at the expense of enslaved Afrikans who built this country for the white elite ruling class. Capitalism is inherently racialized, and it is most harmful to working-class Black people.
While it has been working-class Black folks who have laid the foundation of the Movement for Black Lives, Black neo-liberals are weaponizing their Blackness – through identity politics (usually single issue politics), which uses their Black identity as an “excuse” for exploitative capitalistic behaviors. It’s important that we critique Black neo-liberalism, a system which seeks to commodify Blackness, especially Black pain.
One of the major ways the Movement has been commodified is through the #BankBlack Movement. This Movement has been “spearheaded” by Kevin Cohee, who is the CEO of OneBank United, the nation’s largest Black bank. Kevin himself enjoys capitalistic lifestyle, which includes once living in a six-million-dollar oceanfront mansion that was paid for by OneBank United’s corporate account.
The #BankBlack Movement is dangerous because it suggests that Black capitalism is better than white capitalism. In fact, it poses Black capitalism as a solution to white supremacist racial terrorism. But, as revolutionary Black Panther Fred Hampton once said, “you don’t fight capitalism with capitalism.”
OneUnited Bank operates no differently than any other white owned bank. It is owned by one person and has the same corporate for-profit structure as other banks, like Wells Fargo, that have harmed our communities. This corporate structure is capitalism with a Black face, and it does not provide material benefits to Black communities across the country.
OneUnited recently partnered with Black Lives Matter and its network of chapters across the nation. According to a press release from OneUnited, “A historic partnership has been born between OneUnited Bank, the largest Black owned bank in the country, and #BlackLivesMatter to organize the $1.2 trillion in spending power of Black America and launch the “Amir” card during Black History Month”. It suggests that if we all #BankBlack and harness our “spending power” that somehow we won’t be shot dead by the racist right-wing police. If only Michael Brown had a OneUnited debit card before encountering Darren Wilson.
I have said previously that the idea of Black people having “spending power” under capitalism is a lie. The term “spending power” is a capitalistic idea that refers to how much a community spends on consumer goods. Wealth, on the other hand, is ownership that is passed down from generation to generation. In this case, “power” implies that you have ownership over the means of production. Black people do not control capitalism, white elites do. So how can “Black spending power” actually exist?
The #BankBlack Movement is not about the people though.Rather, it is making money off of the deaths of mostly Black working class people for capitalistic gain.
This Black conservative nationalist politic, which is a politic that uses racial separation as a means to practice Black capitalism, is not new. According to Guy Emerson Mount at AAIHS, “Cornel West identified this key paradox in black nationalist politics back in 1982 where he exposed black nationalists/capitalists as a petite bourgeoisie cynically profiting from racial segregation by promoting a very conservative brand of black capitalist self-help respectability politics.” We need to understand the Bank Black Movement for what it is: anti-revolutionary at its core.
We are also seeing the commodification of Black Lives Matter in the television and film industries. Netflix’s series “Dear White People” – and the previous movie of the same name – is a prime example, displaying Black student experiences at a historically white institution (HWI’s) in a TV show format directed towards the white gaze. The show profits from the racial terrorism that many Black students face at HWI’s. If Netflix was Black owned and owned by the workers, and the profits were being used to fund Black Student Unions, that would be another story.
While the show is employing Black people, the majority of this money is being made for Netflix, a white owned company that does little to help the Black community.
As a former Black student organizer, it pains me to see the Black student struggle commodified. Being an organizer on a hostile campus ain’t cute. It comes with a mental, social, physical, and academic tax. Simply put, “Dear White People” is the commodification of the racist experiences facing Black students across the country all buttoned up for white capital gain. And a Black liberal is the director of it all.
Another prime example of the commodification of Black Lives Matter by Black liberals is Van Jones. The ex-Obama appointee recently made headlines for signing with Roc Nation for “activism”. I, like many other organizers doing work in Black communities, didn’t realize you needed a management firm to do something meaningful for our people.
What makes this dangerous is that Van Jones has taken the spotlight in the Movement even though he isn’t in movement spaces. He has been appointed as the token Negro by white corporations such as CNN, which funds his hot takes on activism. This even includes him praising Donald Trump.
Van Jones has used the Black Lives Matter movement to propel his own career. He is using faux activism to make a name for himself and to collect a (presumably large) check. His signing with Roc Nation shows us that our own people will corporatize activism. If Roc Nation was a worker-owned company and if Van Jones actually had leftist politics, this might be a different story. But that simply isn’t the case.
It is our duty to call out the ways we see capitalism leeching off of radical movements. If it is not called out, it cannot be corrected.
I believe it is important to educate the masses on the harmful systems that are rooted in white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism. The goal of critiquing is to provide the people guidance, in order to build up our ideology. Though I am doing the critiquing, myself, and this piece are also not above critique.
There are solutions to the commodification of Black struggle, and the most immediate way to end it is by abolishing capitalism. Fred Hampton said we must fight capitalism with socialism. To add onto chairman Hampton’s words, we must fight white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism with an intersectional decolonial socialism. While the task ahead of us is daunting, there are a ways to work towards an intersectional socialist revolution.
There are many ways to show you are down with the Movement without participating in its commodification. In response to the #BankBlack movement, an anti-capitalist solution would be to begin creating not-for-profit people-owned credit unions. While this is still operating under the umbrella of American capitalism, it is an anti-capitalist effort which divests from major banks which historically have been an enemy to the Black community.
Another solution is Black worker-owned businesses. I’ve been to plenty of Black businesses that are owned by one Black person and don’t employ any other Black folks. This is not changing the system, it’s replicating it.
An example of a Black business that is anti-capitalist is Mandela Food Coop, which is a Black worker owned grocery store in West Oakland. Instead of one owner making the majority of the profit, the profit is equally distributed amongst the entire staff.
Likewise, the Dream Defenders, which is a social justice organization based in Florida, created Rebel Threads, a worker owned company that makes movement wear and helps fund the organization.
We must dream of a world without exploitation, and our dreams must be followed with anti-capitalist actions.