The Presumption of Belonging

In my occasional attempts to learn from people I disagree with, I watched an episode Briahna Joy Gray’s Bad Faith podcast. Her guest last week was Irami Osei-Frimpong, a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Georgia and podcaster who has self-branded as The Funky Academic. She invited him on to talk about SCOTUS decision ruling affirmative action unconstitutional (among other topics), but embedded in the first 40 minutes or so of the conversation (beginning around the 16th minute) was a description and critique of American identity from Osei-Frimpong that I found so challenging that I found myself replaying it to make sure I was actually hearing what I thought I did. What kicked off Osei-Frimpong’s response (which I attempt to transcribe below) was a prompt from Gray regarding a recent interview Senator Tommy Tuberville did where he conflated what white supremacy is with what being an American is.

Osei-Frimpong: I think it’s fair to conflate American identity with white national identity insofar as we are the other. No one conflates American identity with the descendants of slaves. Our Americanness is as a degradation of our being. So we exist as like a not real people. There is a way in which black failure is American, but black self-determination would be communist. Part of an American identity is to treat black people like garbage.

Gray: So the condition of our American status is to be a second-tier, third-tier, fourth-tier member of the society.

Osei-Frimpong: And a condition of their American status is to think of us as second-tier, third-tier, fourth-tier. I think part of the middle class identity is to flee black people. Lineage is the American identity. People have to think about Jim Crow as a forward-facing regime. They were saying that not only are you not anything, but your grandkids won’t be anything. The regime as always not just about you, but of your line. Your great-grandparents weren’t anything, and your grandkids won’t be anything. The regime is realized when you look at the outcomes today. The problem is we think of the Jim Crow regime and race in general as like a static moment … when it was always a statement about a line in the past and a line in the future. And I think that line has held. Anywhere there’s a congregation of black people–80% or above–it’s not someplace that you necessarily want to drink the water. And that is not an accident. People think that Jim Crow just affected lineage property holders–which is true. But it’s not just in property holding. [Jim Crow] overdetermined all of our institutional relationships, including the church, education, and family. I think the black family was overdetermined by the needs of surviving Jim Crow.

a recent Bad Faith Podcast with guest Irami Osei-Frimpong

Osei-Frimpong’s argument regarding the status of black people in America isn’t entirely new (as captured in book-length treatments of the subject I’ve read this year), but neither Wilkerson nor Reed make the case as bluntly that this lower status is a condition of being seen as being American and belonging in America. Through the lens of Osei-Frimpong’s argument, the ongoing discourse around Florida’s recent changes in what is taught about slavery can be seen as a variation on this idea of belonging. Defenders of these changes (including Florida governor and 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis) insist on the idea that black people benefited from enslavement because of the skills they gained–as if black people had no skills other than those taught by their enslavers. These are not the arguments of those who actually see black people as equals.

Some defenders of these new standards, such as Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review, have gone so far as to call Vice President Kamala Harris a liar in print for characterizing the changes this way. But the list of items he compiles, rather than refuting Vice President Harris’ point, actually does more to confirm it. Some examples:

  • Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit
  • Instruction includes how slavery was utilized in Asian, European and African cultures
  • Instruction includes the similarities and differences between serfdom and slavery
  • Instruction includes the comparative treatment of indentured servants of European and African extraction
  • Exams the condition of slavery as it existed in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe prior to 1619
  • Instruction includes how trading in slaves developed in African lands (e.g., Benin, Dahomey)
  • Instruction includes the practice of the Barbary Pirates in kidnapping Europeans and selling them into slavery in Muslim countries (i.e., Muslim slave markets in North Africa, West Africa, Swahili Coast, Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Indian Ocean slave trade)
  • Instruction includes how slavery was utilized in Asian cultures (e.g., Sumerian law code, Indian caste system)
  • Instruction includes the similarities between serfdom and slavery and emergence of the term “slave” in the experience of Slavs

These and other examples make it clear that the aim of this new curriculum is less to educate children regarding the nature of slavery as practiced in American colonies and what would later become the United States, than to draw false equivalences between it and how slavery was practiced in other cultural contexts. Not once in Cooke’s analysis or his numerous bullet points does term “chattel slavery” appear, which would make clear that enslavement was not merely permanent for those originally enslaved, but generational–passed down to any and all descendants.

Others of Cooke’s bullet points seem selected to convey the message that other enslavers were worse than colonial (and later American) ones, such as these:

  • Instruction includes the harsh conditions in the Caribbean plantations (i.e., poor nutrition, rigorous labor, disease).
  • Instruction includes how slavery was sustained in the Caribbean, Dutch Guiana and Brazil despite overwhelming death rates.

Still other select bullet points seek to valorize those in power and the prevailing system of governance as actually working to end slavery, such as these:

  • Instruction includes examples of how the members of the Continental Congress made attempts to end or limit slavery (e.g., the first draft of the Declaration of Independence that blamed King George III for sustaining the slave trade in the colonies, the calls of the Continental Congress for the end of involvement in the international slave trade, the Constitutional provision allowing for congressional action in 1808)
  • Instructions includes how different states passed laws that gradually led to the abolition of slavery in northern states (e.g., gradual abolition laws: RI Statutes 1728, 1765 & 1775, PA 1779, ma & NH 1780s, CT & NJ 1784, NY 1799; states abolishing slavery: VT 1777).
  • Analyze the contributions of founding principles of liberty, justice and equality in the quest to end slavery
  • Instruction includes the contributions of key figures in the quest to end slavery as the nation was founded (e.g., Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay).
  • Instruction includes how Abraham Lincoln’s views on abolition evolved over time.

The word “ordinance” appears a handful of times, but never in connection with the ordinances of secession, the resolutions drafted and ratified by each of the 13 Confederate states regarding why they were leaving the Union (at least 3 of which mention slave-holding in the context of property rights as their rationale).

One of my personal frustrations with this curriculum controversy being focused on slavery is or isn’t taught is the ways in which it has diverted attention from the virtual absence of any instruction at all, proper or otherwise, about Reconstruction and Jim Crow–a period of history spanning nearly an additional century after the end of the Civil War of what Osei-Frimpong described as “a degradation of our being”. Cooke’s analysis mentions Reconstruction just 3 times. Here is one of those three mentions:

Instruction includes how whites who supported Reconstruction polices for freed blacks after the Civil War (white southerns being called scalawags and white northerners being called carpetbaggers) were targeted.

Florida’s State Academic Standards — Social Studies, 2023, page 16

Cooke’s callout on how Reconstruction impacted certain white people (rather than the black people it was intended to protect) reveals as much or more about his priorities than it does about the curriculum in question. References to the word “compromise” in the standards do not appear to include the compromise of 1877 (of which Florida was one of 3 key states), which ended the Reconstruction era and helped usher in Jim Crow. Entirely absent from his analysis is any mention of the Great Migration, which was at least in part motivated by the abandonment of Reconstruction by the federal government (which rates a scant 6 mentions in an academic standards document 216 pages long).

Jim Crow is mentioned just once in Cooke’s analysis, and only five times total in my own search of Florida’s new academic standards. This takes me to Osei-Frimpong’s second point regarding Americanness and blackness, that Jim Crow is incorrectly seen as a static period in time. His characterization of Jim Crow as a statement about the past and future lineage of black people being “nothing” crystallized for me in a way few previous commentaries have that the intent of Jim Crow’s architects was to ensure a permanent black underclass in the same way their predecessors intended chattel slavery to be permanent. When Osei-Frimpong says “there is a way in which black failure is American”, to me it is a reminder of the ways the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, and Jim Crow, deliberately omit from the record all the ways in which black achievements were consistently hidden, threatened, stolen, and/or destroyed. As a result, well-meaning bureaucrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan would write The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which would be used by some to reinforce their previously-held stereotypes of black people with no acknowledgement of how the necessities of surviving Jim Crow might have meaningfully and durably damaged black families. I’m reminded also of the ways in which prominent conservative black public intellectuals (Thomas Sowell in particular) both in the past and in the present have used the economic success of black immigrants like my own parents as a rhetorical cudgel to beat native-born black Americans for their relative lack of success with no acknowledgement of the differences in the circumstances between us or the impact of the multi-generational denial of the benefits of first-class citizenship on black citizens.

Defenders of these new standards include two members of the working group who created them. Dr. William Allen’s training is in political science (not history). The initial defense has been thoroughly discredited by Twitter threads like the one below:

Start of a thread discrediting the examples provided by members of Florida’s African American History Standards Workgroup

The thread above calls out numerous errors in the examples provided, such as:

  • Numerous black men who were actually born free, or born after 1865
  • Multiple incorrect professions
  • Including the free white sister of George Washington
  • Including a man never actually freed from enslavement

At least so far, I have yet to read or hear any responses the working group to these errors.

One of the things the Supreme Court did in striking down affirmative action was essentially state that black people do not belong in elite higher education. Antonin Scalia said exactly this during oral arguments for Fisher v University of Texas in 2015, a case brought by the same activist behind Students for Fair Admissions v President and Fellows of Harvard College. By contrast, the much older practice of legacy admissions–despite its history and origins as an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Asian set-aside for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants–went unchallenged by the Asian students of Students for Fair Admissions. Legacy students are presumed to belong at elite institutions, even though in many (if not most) cases their academic marks would disqualify them for admission absent their legacy status. The presumption of –if not entitlement to–belonging in elite higher education is apparently acceptable for everyone except (most) black people. It is very much at odds with the metaphorical pats on the head black people receive for their achievements in Florida’s new social studies curriculum.

CRT bans in schools, book bans in schools and public libraries, and threats to corporate diversity initiatives are far from the only things I expect to see when it comes to challenges to the presumption that black people in this country belong anywhere we can currently be found. Within the past day, Matt Gaetz introduced legislation intended to end birthright citizenship–a direct challenge to the text of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former enslaved people (as well as to me). Gaetz has plenty of company in seeking to restrict citizenship, including presidential candidates who themselves would not be citizens without the 14th Amendment like Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy. We’ve reached a sad state as a nation when those who seek its highest office have closing the constitutional path to citizenship as part of sales pitch to the GOP electorate.