Perhaps We Cannot Do Both

As I mentioned in the welcome post, Substack suggested that I not paywall anything for the first two weeks. This is the end of the second week, so subscriber-only posts will start next week. Still figuring out how I want the regular schedule to look.

In my post on canceling this week I said “you wanted reparations, you got Dr. Seuss.” People didn’t like that, but you could pick many similar comparisons. We wanted an end to the Drug War, we got a new voice for Dr Hibbert. We wanted to close the Black-white wealth gap, we got diversity statements from Goldman Sachs. We wanted to feed Black children, we got Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben taken off the shelves. We wanted clean water in Black communities, we got white college students at $78,000/year colleges weeping on the quad in shame for their whiteness before leaving for Pilates. The thing is that we can do this forever; we can have white writers waxing poetic about the incredible inherent nobility of the Black race in the New Yorker while the architecture of material racism remains utterly unchanged, for the rest of our lives. And if you’re more optimistic about this than me then I think you have to provide a logical rationale for why. Why would things change?

When people are hungry, you give them food. You don’t put hungry people in the Google Doodle or have a special section on Disney+ for films about hungry people. You give them food. Black people have specific material needs; expressed broadly, they need money and they need power. Which of the developments since the murder of George Floyd meaningfully increases Black wealth or Black power? What about the economic depravation and material oppression of the average Black person?

I don’t know. People have faith that it’s all adding up to something bigger, deeper. But how? What’s the theory of change? Explain to me how we get to the real stuff. Please.

When I have said this before, I have always been told the same thing: we can do both. We can do these little rhetorical, symbolic things and also the big things. Do both! After years of this I am force to ask… can we really? If we can do both, why do we never do both? Why do we always only end up with the meaningless but well-publicized things that look like Doing Something but actually do nothing? Maybe it’s time to admit that, in fact, we never do both because we can’t do both. Because there’s such a thing as priority and a budget of attention and limited political and personal resources. Because when the national conversation about race is rapturously attentive to the trials of the Duchess of Sussex there is no time or energy for the real work. Because sometimes it really is zero sum. At least consider the possibility that we don’t get meaningful change because we’ve been bought off by discussions that are incredibly remote from the concerns of ordinary Black people once again.

The average net worth of Black families in the greater Boston area is eight dollars. Gandhi supposedly said “Think of the poorest person you have ever seen, and ask if your next act will be of any use.” I think that’s good advice.