Reflections on the ADOS Movement

Sunday, March 3, 2019

What is ADOS?

Over the past several months the ADOS movement has entered the national dialogue. ADOS stands for the American Descendants of Slavery, and its raison d’être is to seek redress for the injustices visited upon black people who can trace their ancestry back to slaves on American soil. The movement has spread through Twitter and YouTube, and its major advocates are Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore. Carnell, according to her own website, is a Howard University graduate who served as a Congressional aide to Senator Barbara Boxer Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Berry. Moore is a practicing attorney in Los Angeles. Both Carnell and Moore have sizeable digital footprints with their channels “Breaking Brown” and “Tone Talks”, respectively. They have also created a website explaining the movement — “ADOS101”.

Two major claims underpin the movement. First, the movement “seeks to reclaim/restore the critical national character of the African American identity and experience”. This statement draws a line between people of sub-Saharan African descent who can trace their lineage to slave plantations in the United States, and other peoples of African lineage. The movement “sets out to shift the dialogue around the identity of what it is to be African American in an effort to move the discussion from melanin, and properly center the discussion around lineage.” Needless to say, this has caused controversy. It creates tension by challenging our current understandings of what it means to be African-American. Jamaican immigrants are not ADOS. Barack Obama is not ADOS. The movement has created a climate in which Kamala Harris — who is definitely not ADOS with her Jamaican and Southeast Asian heritage, must assert on The Breakfast Club:

“I am black and I am proud of it…I was born black and I’ll die black and I am proud of it. And I am not gonna make any excuses for it, for anybody, because they don’t understand.”

Kamala Harris is certainly a person of color…but is she ADOS? The leaders of the movement say no.

Just one year ago, the caramel complexioned Harris would not have needed to utter such words. Despite her proclamation of blackness, Harris is doing just what ADOS rejects — using her skin tone to place her in the same category as the descendants of slaves.

Second, the ADOS population has specific needs that necessitate narrow, focused policies: “As a specific group with a specific justice claim, the #ADOS movement demands a specific agenda with policy prescriptions that address the losses stemming from the institution of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, convict leasing, mass incarceration and immigration.” To address the justice claim — or rather claim of injustice — Carnell and Moore propose a series of policy prescriptions. Most notable among these are reparations for slavery. The thread running through all of these prescriptions is that they are not targeted at an abstract population of “minorities” — which would include religious minorities, sexual minorities, women, and other people of color — but specifically ADOS.

In many respects, this is an old argument. There have been calls for the mythical 40 acres and a mule since the end of the Civil War. But there is something different about this argument in 2019.

Maybe it is because of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ now iconic 2014 Atlantic article The Case for ReparationsCoates’ article reintroduced the idea to a mainstream audience and presented a compelling argument. Or maybe it has been the careful empirical work done by scholars such as Thomas ShapiroTrevon LoganWilliam “Sandy” Darity, and Darrick Hamilton. These social scientists have demonstrated the enduring impacts of slavery and other racist practices on wealth in the 21st century. Hamilton and Darity have been singular (for academics) in this regard, being unusually active in promoting their ideas about reparations. One of the more easily digestible pieces on the issue is a report entitled “Umbrellas Don’t Make it Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans”, co-written by Hamilton, Darity, and other researchers.

Or maybe — and I am partial to this explanation — social media has made it possible to articulate an agenda and find like-minded others. There have always been people, both ADOS and non-ADOS, who are sympathetic to reparations. But Moore and Carnell’s relatively large digital footprints have extended the argument outside of the ivory tower and into the vibrant world of Black Twitter and Black YouTube. Now it really matters.

Whatever the reason, ADOS discussions are prominent enough that several presidential candidates have made reparations a part of their platform. To my knowledge, the aforementioned Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Marianne Williamson have all supported reparations in some form. Williamson has even appeared on Moore’s YouTube podcast to discuss her support of reparations.

I support the ADOS movement, and I am an ADOS. I want to contribute to what I believe is an important development in American politics.

The Case for ADOS

The singular event in the ADOS case is bondage. This is the essential fact among a series of other attacks great and small — convict leasing, sharecropping, public lynchings, Jim Crow, redlining, white flight, and mass incarceration. These attacks act as a kind of sociological barbed wire, penning ADOS into poverty. There are some commentators who would disagree with these claims, but few social scientists will. There is no “alternative” rendition of events. ADOS were mistreated. Plain and simple.

The real debate is about what society should do. ADOS movement supporters suggest economic redress. Others say no and raise many objections. One of the more common is to argue that “the past is the past”. These injustices are legacy issues, the argument goes, and cannot be realistically addressed by present political action. Another common objection is to point out that “other groups also faced obstacles”. They may tip their cap to slavery but then quickly talk about the struggles of European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. They will highlight the success of segments of the Asian population who presumably have done well under the same burden of racism and discrimination. These groups made it, why not ADOS? Asians have done so well that they are the model that all other minorities, including ADOS, should follow.

In the following paragraphs I wish to address these objections, and by extension throw my support behind the ADOS movement. I don’t want to simply reiterate what is already in the ADOS social media sphere. This is my own, sociological take on justifications for ADOS. This take describes a history of categorical exclusion and uniqueness in lived experience that if taken seriously, would make it hard to argue that “the past is the past”, or that “other groups also faced obstacles”.

ADOS and a History of Exclusion

The leaders of the ADOS movement argue that descendants of American slavery faced exceptional barriers to skill development and wealth accumulation. I understand that slavery is the biggest weight on the scale, but the path that ADOS has taken from then to 2019 has no comparison.

It is well understood that Emancipation meant freedom to toil, but not freedom to pursue happiness. A population with no education or wealth had to navigate spaces where openly hostile whites were determined to exclude them and hoard opportunities.

The totality of this exclusion is hard to imagine. ADOS were excluded from the government (save for a few moments in The South during Reconstruction). They were excluded from the courts. No black man dare bring a charge against a white man. They were excluded from mainstream media — at that time, the newspapers. ADOS eventually developed a thriving black press, but this was by and for them and never had any influence on whites.

ADOS were excluded from all spaces of competition — the labor market, the housing market, the educational market — ADOS were told to not even try. There were no games open to them in which they could succeed. They had some skill in farming, but they had no money to purchase land. Even if they could purchase land, they were often cheated by the whites who sold it to them. Some were highly skilled in trades, but they rarely got market price for their labor. Either their employer or their white coworkers resented paying ADOS equal to whites. Some were inclined to intellectual pursuits, but they could only attend the small and underfunded HBCUs that were just beginning to arise in the South. Even with a degree, leveraging their credentials was questionable as they were not allowed to compete against whites for jobs in law, education, or medicine. W.E.B. Dubois earned degrees from Fisk University, Humboldt University of Berlin, and his doctorate from Harvard University. He could only wrangle a position at Wilberforce University.

There is little wonder why the majority of ADOS began their post-slavery history as sharecroppers — perpetually indebted to their white landowners.

There was a galling irony here, pointed out by Martin Luther King in his 1967 “Three Evils” speech. While ADOS — key contributors to the nation’s growth and participants in all the nation’s wars — were scuffling in cotton fields, first-generation European immigrants were practically given land through the Homestead Acts to settle the American West. This exclusion continued throughout Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and well into the 20th Century. In the South, ADOS struggled under Jim Crow laws that excluded them categorically from most opportunities.

But up North, the exclusion was less categorical — there was room to breathe. And there were jobs that paid above subsistence wages. And so, during the first half of the century, a large percentage of ADOS moved north. They moved in two waves. The first wave from around 1916 to 1940 and a greater wave from 1940 to 1970.

I tend to think of these Great Migrations as ADOS seeking spaces where they would not be entirely excluded from the growing prosperity of the United States. They could earn an honest living, acquire some property, and carve a better way for their children. It is no coincidence that the catalyst for both migrations was a tight labor market created by growth in Northern industry and a simultaneous shortage of workers because of world wars. A tight labor market meant that employers could not exclude ADOS without hurting their bottom line.

The move North meant positive changes for ADOS (keep in mind, though, most ADOS still struggled under the boot of exclusion in the Jim Crow South). Their incomes rose and they could vote. There was less fear of a white woman sending a black man to his grave by accusing him of something.

But as Coates described so eloquently in his Atlantic piece, even in a post-World War II society, racism hamstrung black folk’s efforts to gain a foothold in American society. It is an oft-told story now. Coates detailed how, in Chicago, a combination of redlining and fraudulent lending practices ensured a low return on their investment in home ownership. One way to think about this is that white lenders, real estate agents, and homeowners were being racist. Well, yes. But we can also describe this shameful episode in American history as black folk once again being excluded from the growing prosperity in America.

Government efforts to spur wealth creation or develop human capital, until the Great Society Years, also excluded ADOS. As Ira Katznelson has argued in When Affirmative Action was Whitethe New Deal was primarily a series of set-asides for whites, with most programs discriminating against or outrightly excluding ADOS. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the GI Bill, has been hailed as a major force in developing the middle class in the United States. The GI Bill assisted veterans and their families in buying homes, paying for college, and starting businesses. Between 1944 and 1971, this welfare system totaled, according to Katznelson around 95 billion dollars, and was a prime factor in creating the American middle class. Katznelson describes how policies were crafted at their creation to exclude ADOS. This was done primarily by Southern legislators. As an example, Southern politicians made sure that the administration of benefits laid in the hands of local administrators, ensuring that “white privileges could be secured in the face of powerful impulses demanding equal treatment for whites”.

The issue that commands the most air time today is mass incarceration. It took a while for most in society to accept the research done by sociologists and criminologists, but there seems to be a consensus at this point. The general thrust, as I see it, is that Americans across the political spectrum have decided that locking up people (1) does more harm to society than good as people are removed from their families and communities (2) does not help the incarcerated individual by rehabilitating them, and (3) disproportionately impacts ADOS and Hispanics.

That is the colorblind version of the argument. Another way to describe mass incarceration is that is was powered by racism towards black Americans. The one can take the angle adopted by Michelle Alexander in the The New Jim CrowAlexander analogizes mass incarceration to the production of a new caste system in the United States. Black people are swept into the criminal justice system through a variety of means, including drug stings in black communities and through police stopping black motorists and using a questionable interpretation of the 4th amendment to search vehicles for drugs or weapons. Once swept into the system, as Alexander describes it, the poor representation that people of color routinely have and how harsh laws and sentencing practices ensure prison times that are not equal to the crimes committed. Finally, once released, ex-offenders have little chance of living a normal life as they are legally denied employment, public housing, education, and more.

I like the Jim Crow analogy. Alexander is using the analogy to indicate that black men are being relegated to second class citizens with no hope of social mobility. This is equivalent to exclusion — removing a group of people from competing in markets and institutions.

Any history of ADOS exclusion is easy to tell because there are so many examples. I left out convict leasing, public lynchings, residential segregation, white flight and more simply because I think the point has been made with the examples given. It is hard to argue that “the past is the past” when people are still feeling the effects of this exclusion.

In Umbrellas Don’t Make it Rain, Darrick Hamilton, Sandy Darity, and other researchers point out that “The median black family has $7,113 in wealth, while the median white family has $111,740 in wealth.” This is a direct result of the categorical exclusion of ADOS from the American Dream.

This wealth can be used as a safety net during financial hardship — it can pay a mortgage, or a car note when a job is lost. It can help in an emergency — I can imagine someone tapping into their savings to supplement their healthcare during a medical emergency. It can act as a kickstarter for a child or grandchild by helping pay for a college education or paying for a home. The home or land itself can be passed down and lived in or sold.

In the main, White Americans rightfully earned that wealth. But it was not done in a vacuum. It was because they lived in a society that cultivated their talents with public education, protected their lives and property with the rule of law, and made investments in them through welfare programs or set-asides like the GI Bill.

If you believe the “past is the past” and ADOS should not be concerned about the missed opportunities of earlier times, please donate this wealth — the houses, land, stocks, cash payments, and other valuables to your nearest Salvation Army and let your children start from scratch.

ADOS and Lived Experiences

Detailing only social exclusion may not make a compelling enough case for the ADOS movement. The argument could be made that other groups have also had their share of obstacles. Jewish Americans had to deal with anti-Semitism, yet they have managed to do extraordinarily well. Asian immigrants are non-white and are often hamstrung by language difficulty. Yet they have the highest family incomes in the country, and the children of Asian immigrants are found disproportionately in America’s top schools. A more recent version of this argument, articulated most notably by Coleman Hughes, compares ADOS to recent African and West Indian immigrants:

“Although black immigrants (and especially their children, who are indistinguishable from American blacks) presumably experience the same ongoing systemic biases that black descendants of American slaves do, nearly all black immigrant groups out-earn American blacks, and many — including Ghanaians, Nigerians, Barbadians, and Trinidadians & Tobagonians — out-earn the national average.”

If one concludes that the obstacles ADOS face are either the same or only marginally more challenging than other groups, then at least two conclusions can be drawn. The first is that no government intervention is needed. The problem does not lie with society, but with the behaviors of ADOS themselves. A second is that if government intervention is needed, then it needs to be for all groups who have faced discrimination or prejudice. Both conclusions run counter to the motivations of ADOS supporters, who want not only economic redress, but for it to be aimed specifically at people who can trace their lineage to the descendants of African slaves.

I suggest that ADOS is a population navigating a world that is very much different than other non-whites — including immigrants from Africa or the West Indies. This world is different enough in degree that we should consider it different in kind.

Monique Morris’ Black Stats lists broad descriptive statistics about black Americans in the United States. The statistics below are culled from the “Lifestyle and Identity” chapter of that book:

  • Approximately half of the Black population in the United States still lives in neighborhoods that have no White residents.
  • 30 percent of Black households are headed by single women, three times as many as White and Asian households.
  • 51 percent of Black households are in rented homes, compared with 18 percent of White households.
  • Black Americans are the most likely of all major racial groups in the United States to report a formal religious affiliation.
  • 59 percent of Black Americans attend historically Black Protestant churches.
  • 5 percent of Black Americans are Catholic, compared with 25 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Since 2003, the proportion of African Americans favoring gay marriage has increased from 27 percent to 40 percent. However, 48 percent of Black Americans still oppose gay marriage, compared with 43 percent of White Americans and 43 percent of Latinos.
  • 53 percent of Black people report feeling that “gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should not be legal,” compared with 29 percent of Whites who feel the same.

Although these are coarse statistics, they do suggest that ADOS interact in worlds that is wealth deprived (giving the lack of home ownership), more segregated than most, more Protestant than most, and socially conservative.

ADOS must navigate the most virulent strain of racial antipathy. All people face degrees of prejudice and discrimination. So when Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, Jews, or any other minorities claim they have been discriminated against, there is no reason to doubt it. However, the United States is intensely anti-black. As Robin DiAngelo writes in White Fragility that “in the White mind, black people are the ultimate racial ‘other’”. I am not talking about an individual black person who someone comes to enjoy watching on a television show or the one or two black people one may get to know at work. I am talking about the stereotypes associated with blackness. These stereotypes are much more harmful than images Americans have of Hispanics or Asians. The pervasiveness of antiblackness is the primary reason why there has been so much exclusion of blacks, and that exclusion has been so airtight for centuries. Consider these social patterns:

  • Research cited by DiAngelo, showing that “White flight has been triggered when a formerly white neighborhood reaches 7 percent black, and in neighborhoods with more than a few black families, white housing demand tends to disappear.” 7 percent. If only 7 out of 100 people in a neighborhood are black, then whites begin to have doubts about moving in.
  • Non-blacks have historically avoided blacks as marriage partners. As a result, the rate of intermarriage for blacks has always been much lower than for Hispanics and Asians. Intermarriage is one of the ways that barriers to exclusion are lowered and wealth is shared. There is actually some good news here. The gap seems to be narrowing. In 1980 33% of Asian and 26% of Hispanic newlyweds married out of their race (overwhelmingly their partners are white) while only 5% of black newlyweds married outside of their race. By 2017 the numbers were 29% for Asians, 27% for Hispanics, and rise to 18% for blacks.

Intermarriage has indeed increased for blacks, but is still well behind Asians and Hispanics.

  • The numbers of studies showing the impact of an ADOS name on hiring are so numerous now, and the quality of these studies so high (audit studies that are analogous to controlled experiments) that few doubt those conclusions (see here or here). These studies are rarely discussed in conservative media because their experimental design makes it hard to poke holes in them and offer alternative explanations.
  • Even in online dating, as shown in Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm, black folk are disadvantaged. Rudder, the co-founder of OkCupid, uses data from the company to conclude that “the research set represents a large chunk of the young adults in this country, and the data shows that non-blacks discount African American profiles.” Although the focus for me is on white attitudes towards blacks, notice that Rudder is not saying only white adults discounting black profiles. It is Americans discounting black profiles. There is something unique about being black in America, and there is no comparable anti-Asian or anti-Hispanic attitude in the United States.
  • Hispanics reject selecting “black” as a race on the census. The reasons for this are complex, but one primary reason is anti-blackness, as argued by Jomaira Salas Pujols:

“…in the 2010 census, only 2.5 percent of Latinos selected “black” as their race. For many Latinos, selecting “white” or “some other race” in the census is aspirational. It is an attempt to join a category that they are often excluded from. Latinos of all races carry with them the anti-black baggage that colonialism and slavery imposed upon them.”

This may come as a surprise to whites who wish to imagine a rainbow nation of “people of color” or educated Americans who tend to interact in multiracial settings with comparative ease.

Social scientists have long understood that White Americans reserve their strongest racial antipathy for black Americans. The theory du jour is implicit bias. This theory asserts that Americans have unconscious prejudices and stereotypes about black people, and this biases their decisions about black people. These biases, as the logic goes, power the prejudicial and discriminatory actions in hiring, dating, residency, policing, and more. Conservatives love to poke holes in the research surrounding implicit bias. Every so often, I will read something about how the test used to measure implicit bias is not valid or reliable. I usually say to myself, “OK fine. Now go and address all the other studies, numbering in the hundreds of thousands I’m sure, consistently revealing the anti-black sentiment in America”.

I’ll end with one other unique quality. And it may be the most significant. ADOS are first and foremost American. There is no other culture for them to reference. This is often described in terms of a loss or deficiency. ADOS have been ripped away from their culture, their language, and all they knew in Africa. Yes, that is true.

But they also gained an unadulterated Americanness. They have a right — more than any other group save the original colonizers, to call themselves American.

The food they perfected is an exceptionally tasty, if not artery-clogging, sui generis blend of foods imported from West Africa and the crops and livestock on Southern plantations. It has no duplicate anywhere else and is not a derivative of cuisine from another time or country. You won’t hear — “that’s not how we cook collard greens in the ‘old country’”, or “what you are eating is not really soul food…this is an Americanized version of soul food…” As a side note, I’ve always thought that if it wasn’t for anti-blackness, you would have a Soul Food restaurant on every corner, not a Chinese restaurant. But let’s move on.

Given their religiosity, they may be the last bastion of mainline Protestantism in the United States. As American society has become more secular, ADOS have been exceptionally stubborn, still leveraging religion to build community and provide meaning in life.

Even their last names, drawn from former Anglo-Saxon slaveowners, are a link to America’s primordial families. Here is something you can tell an immigrant to the United States. If you want a key to the original founders of this country, you don’t need to speak to a representative of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Just take the name from the jersey of every second or third NBA All-Star, and it will tell you who our founding families were. James, Curry, Davis, Thompson, are all surnames one would come across in a book on Colonial America or the Antebellum South. Or, we could go in the opposite direction. Take the surnames of the first seven or eight presidents, and then see how many pro football players have these names. The point here is to say that these are quintessentially American, Anglo-Saxon names adopted by ADOS.

They did not want to play soccer or cricket. They wanted to play baseball, basketball, and football. They did not concern themselves with the political intrigues of their home country. They were only ever concerned about what happened in this country. There are no remittances. Despite the label African-American, there is little connection to Africa, and no money needs to be sent back to family and friends in the home country.

The observation that ADOS are American may seem rather mundane, if not redundant (American Descendants of Slavery are American). But the repetition is meant to underscore the profound consequences for how an ADOS judges the world. Injustice sits about as well with them as it did with Patrick Henry. The pursuit of happiness is an inalienable a right to them as it was for Thomas Jefferson. They feel that it is as possible for them to work as a clerk in Brooks Brothers and later become a billionaire as it was for Ralph Lauren. They are rightfully angered when they enter a game and know that it is rigged.

There is just a different mindset that an immigrant brings to a new country, and it cannot be adopted by natives simply by admonishing them and urging them to do so. ADOS expect the same privileges that their white brothers and sisters have. Their white brothers and sisters have historically stood up to injustice and are as free as any peoples have been in world history.

I imagine that for many immigrant groups, it is indeed a “privilege” to have a chance to make it in America. They can compare their existence here in the United States to their past or potential existence in their home countries, and surmise that they are much better off here. The microaggressions they experience and the prejudices they observe are as nothing compared to the grinding poverty or rigid caste system they left behind.

Some may argue that “other groups also faced obstacles” and they managed to succeed in the United States. I agree with this in the abstract. All groups face obstacles. White Okies in the early 20th century faced obstacles mining zinc and lead. It was a rough life (or so I’ve read). Dominicans immigrating to the United States face language barriers and the fact that they are dark skinned. Muslim immigrants have certainly been discriminated against in recent decades, with hate crimes against Muslims spiking recently.

But just because all groups face obstacles does not mean that (1) you should not do anything, or (2) ADOS does not have a specific claim based upon a particular set of circumstances. As for the first derivation, it is up to each specific group (or the advocates of the group) to articulate why politicians cannot be standpatters on the issues. I attempted to address the second by describing the unique lived experiences of ADOS.

The same way one would not address the challenges of growing up white in zinc-mining Oklahoma mid-century with the same policies one would use to address with Spanish speaking Dominicans trying to find jobs in a knowledge economy, one should not believe that policy prescription for an abstract “minority group” will address the challenges ADOS face.

Moving Forward

What I have done above is provide evidence for the claim that ADOS is a unique population within America. Policies that do not consider this uniqueness will miss their mark, and in many cases help groups that may not necessarily need that help. Imagine a company realizing that they are too white and too male and decide to diversify their workforce. The company then takes steps to diversify by hiring (white) women, several Southeast Asians, and a group of Nigerian students on H1 visas. By most accounts, the company has done an admirable job. But one can imagine that white women did not face the same barriers as ADOS. Neither do Southeast Asians. Yet, they are the beneficiaries of a cultural ethos that has its origins in a Civil Rights Movement carried by ADOS. This scene can be replicated for any type of program, initiative, or set-aside that targets “minorities” or aims for “diversity”.

I am a professor at a University in a town that is about 50 percent black in a historically significant region of the country. The remains of the Jamestown Colony, where the first Africans arrived in the New World, is in the region. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon at the church I (occasionally) attend. Civil Rights advocate Ella Baker was born and raised here. Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, is 90 minutes up the road. This area of the country is redolent with the history of ADOS.

The leadership at my college has made a public statement in support of diversity, and I believe they are genuine. Unfortunately, diversity does not necessarily mean the inclusion of ADOS. The university may hire many well qualified and deserving Asians and Hispanics, and — all people of color. They may hire will qualified and deserving members of the LGBTQ community — most certainly facing prejudices and discrimination in their lives. As they drive to work, this new diverse set of faculty can make furtive glances over to the public housing filled with ADOS.

Set-asides and wealth transfers need to be tied directly to ADOS, and not to an abstract minority group. This does not mean, then, that set-asides are not needed for other groups with justice claims. It simply means that for other groups with compelling cases, policies need to be crafted just for them. The ADOS101 website lists some of these policy prescriptions:

  • Reinstituting the protections of the Voting Rights Act
  • A multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan targeted to ADOS communities
  • Legislation to triple the current federal allotment to HBCUs
  • A health care credit to pay for medical coverage for all ADOS
  • The passage of H.R. 40 (the Reparations Bill)

I support all of these policy prescriptions and more to some degree. These are not favors to an undeserved group of people. These are specific policy prescriptions no different than what would be prescribed to veterans, senior citizens, victims of a natural catastrophe, farmers, low-income college students, professors writing grant proposals, and people of Israel and Afghanistan (who benefit from billions of American funded by taxpayer dollars). ADOS are equally if not more deserving than all of these groups.

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