We Need a Social Bill of Rights

Last night I interviewed Dr. Nathan Connolly, a history Professor at Johns Hopkins University. The topic was capitalism in the black political imagination. The entire interview will air on Monday, May 23rd, during Breaking Brown, but Connolly rehearses a few arguments that are sticking with me.

Property rights and gun rights, since they are guaranteed in the Constitution, are simply easier to defend than other social rights. The US Constitution is clear concerning property rights, less clear concerning other social and political rights, including voting, education, healthcare, legal representation, union representation, clean water, housing, vying for political office, and employment.

This is not to say that the state doesn’t support social rights; rather, insofar as the state supports individuals realizing their social rights, the state has, for the history of the nation, largely done so asymmetrically in way that punishes black people and black communities for being black people and black communities.

As it stands, the ability to vote; receive education, healthcare, legal representation, clean water, housing; and vie for political office and employment are not equally available, which means that they are not rights. Rather, since the ability to exercise these rights is racialized through our political economy, these so-called rights are actually privileges that extend to certain people and communities that aren’t black.

As a defensive measure, black people want to depend on the most stable rights in America, which are property rights. And that, my friends, is the where the illusion of black capitalism gains its vivacity. The subterranean argument powering the illusion of black capitalism runs that since black people can’t depend on anything accept property, the trading of property is where black individual and community uplift must reside.

(Think about how Milton Friedman’s arguments against Jim Crow and discrimination were that the policies interfered with the market. By his lights, the free market will end discrimination.)

In the interview, Connolly argues that black people even have a dubious relationship with property rights because history shows that with the capacity to destroy and forge documents, together with a dominant anti-black political culture, the war against black property ownership was successfully waged by white people with the help of the state.

With the result that there are a few very good reasons for black people to identify the state with anti-black interests. This accounts for why there are so many black people who believe that the government has ever done anything for black people. Insofar as these people are political active, it is not with any eye towards accountability for goods and services; rather, they vote as a political ritual in the name of political symbolism. They really believe, and not without cause, that black individual and community uplift has to be done without politics. In contrast to this belief, however, is the realization that all levels of government have provided for the uplift of the black community, just as all levels of government have been agents of black individual and community destruction.

The government has never been indifferent to the American Negro. Since we were brought here, the government presses on our lives as either an existential threat or an instrument of freedom. Furthermore, there are pockets, crucial pockets, were black politics has been organized in a way to make government responsive to the claims of black people, and those maneuvers have led to moments of progress in black life.

The deep problem is that in the modern American political economy, we cannot cede the organizational power of government to white people, and if we are not aggressive about making government work for us by making good on our specific claims for political redress, the dominant anti-black political culture will avail itself of all of the social freedoms that make for a good life, while weaponizing state power to exploit black life for non-black comfort.

The solution has two parts: 1) We need a social bill of rights. As it stands, the free form of non-Constitutional rights, along with the biases built into our current legal system, is a mish-mash of anti-black and anti-poor politics. This morass calls for a federal guarantee of the rights that are congruent with freedom, including healthcare, child care, elder care, housing, water, and legal care to defend those rights. I sit down with Richard Dien Winfield here, and he gives the arguments for what a social bill of rights would look like and why its necessary.

2) We need reparations that give black people, especially black descendants of slaves, a comparative advantage in exercising social freedoms, including housing, education, and employment, because the history of the nation has taught us that when black people are not given a comparative advantage, anti-black incentives are institutionalized for non-black people to profit by organizing to exploit black people, e.g., if we give everyone a voucher for a down payment on a first house, poor white people would use it flee black people, then, once assimilated into polite white society, use their political power to starve black communities. The history of white feminism over the last 60 years testifies to the way non-black women weaponize their redress to punish black Americans. White women tend to have no problem adding all 77 cents they get to their husband’s dollar to make sure that little Sophia, Andromache, and Hunter don’t go to school with descendants of slaves.

To get any of this redress going, we need to support independent black media, the quality of media that will offer the political education America needs to get the politics we deserve. As it stands, anti-black forces invest tens of millions of dollars using television, drama and sports as a means of social control, using a handful of chosen Negros like Oprah and Shonda Rhimes to program black people to avoid seeking reparations as redress for the historical and political record make it clear that we are owed.

So check out Monday’s Breaking Brown — Live ft. Yvette Carnell, for the entire Connolly interview; and if you are curious about the arguments legitimizing the social bill of rights, check out my interview with Richard Dien Winfield here.