When Africans were enslaved, one popular narrative used to justify their enslavement, was that they were "lazy." “If we don’t enslave them they won’t work” was one of the fears expressed pre-emancipation. In fact, black men found without a job could be remanded to forced labor post-slavery. In a strange psychic double bind, black bodies were coded as bodies meant for manual labor and as suspicious when at leisure. But because manual labor was so closely tied to the degraded black body, it too became degraded. The previous century’s labor struggles were also struggles for the dignity of labor.
As we enter post late stage capitalism, black people now make up a hyper-proportionate amount of the consuming class. And now, consuming is denigrated. Now the narrative is, black people "wear their wealth.” Black people "will stand in line for tennis shoes, but won't stand in line for a job."
But, I remember President Bush II telling us to “go shopping” After 9-11, and as the economic recession loomed in 2007, he said, “Go shopping more.”
Damned if we do. Damned if we don’t.
So why is it that denigration follows black capital, whether it is in the form of labor or consumption?
Karl Marx said, "consumption is production and production is consumption."
One simple way to put this is: if there are no consumers then there is no reason to produce goods.
For too long black people have felt as if their lack of production meant a lack of power. But how could McDonald's, the largest landowner in the U.S. and a billion-dollar company, exist if we stopped buying their hamburgers?
Have you noticed that when you go to stores like Walmart and Target, that there are somewhere between 10 and 15 registers but maybe only three are being used? Have you also noticed that the self-checkout in these stores is placed nearest the door, in order to make it more tempting to avoid human cashiers?
It seems to me that labor has become much less of a factor in the U.S. economy while consumption continues to be central.
Over the last few weeks I have joined a movement named #StrikeForBlackLives. On the website at strikeforblacklives.com, the movement is explained thusly:
“Slated to begin the day after Labor Day, and last the remainder of the week, #StrikeForBlackLives asks US to have AT LEAST ONE day of absence (Tuesday, September 6) which is the #BlackFolksOffDay. The remainder of the week can be taken off if you can RISK or AFFORD it. The minimum sacrifice is ONE DAY of work strike and ONE WEEK of economic boycott.”
After I thought about what #StrikeForBlackLives was proposing, I realize that the consumer boycott may be the most powerful part of the proposal.
In 2015, it wasn’t the University of Missouri football players’ missing labor that changed the president’s mindabout resigning. It was the combined FIVE MILLION dollars of tickets, sponsorships, and advertising revenue “Mizzou” stood to lose.
Those football players decided to lend their support by striking after #ConcernedStudents1950 had already submitted detailed demands to the university’s administration, and after a particularly egregious incident where the university president’s car hit a protester. The president’s resignation was added to the demands, and after the team refused to play, he resigned. Their strike produced what MLK named “creative tension,” and what Derrick Bell named “interest convergence,” which asserts that “historically, African Americans gained social justice primarily when their interests converged with the interests of the white majority.”
But what does this have to do with #StrikeForBlackLives?
Just like at the University of Missouri, clear “demands,” action steps and ways forward have been submitted at the national level. In 2014, after the death of Michael Brown, (and the incredible pressure of young people in the streets), President Obama convened the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Their report is here.
The Black Lives Matter movement throws its support behind Campaign Zero, which has a policy solutions focus which is brilliant in its simplicity.
Until person’s accountable and dates are added to any of these examples, however, they are, essentially, wish lists.
Now, let’s say that all of the black ticketing agents, TSA screeners, baggage handlers, and air traffic controllers at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport or D.C.’s Dulles airport stayed home on September 6. It’s not their missing labor that will create what MLK named ”nonviolent tension,” but the millions of dollars that will be lost when customers require tickets refunds.
Then, “interest convergence” would be created and like the brave students at Mizzou, the nation would see the wishlists turned into bills, policy, and federal oversite.
Viva la #StrikeForBlackLives!