March 7, 2020 Abdul Haqq

Get Rich or Black Trying: The Fallacy of ‘Social Immunization’

As the coronavirus – COVID-19 – exceeds 100,000[1] cases and reports of panic buying increase across the world,[2] this article will examine the pernicious climate that exists in which the most vulnerable constituents in society are likely to be politically and economically exploited. The article will also adopt a slightly different approach by referring to particular terminology, normally used to define specific ethnic groups, in a more encompassing manner. Professor Kehinde Andrews’ explanation articulates this point succinctly:

Blackness has never been simply about colour, but a commitment to liberatory politics that our colour ties us to.” [3]

It is within the context of the liberatory politics plus societal strata of particular communities, the term Blackness shall also be utilised. Such use should not however, be conflated with long established contexts relating to the lived experiences of ethnic groups to which this terminology is more commonly attached and indeed, claimed. In fact, when examining totally different racial groups, often diametrically opposed culturally, similarities emerge when each is compared within certain socio-economic contexts.

White underprivileged: The Great Unwashed?[4]

Karen B. Halnon highlights middleclass perceptions regarding the poorer, working class in the US, describing the existence of:

“…a deep-seated ideology of contempt for white poverty…” where “ideological dimensions of White Trash Stigma, including exploitative utilization of poor whites [are used] as measuring rods for economic and moral superiority and/or the creation of a scapegoat boundary of class savage Otherness.”[5]

The panic buying referred to above is likely to disproportionately affect these and other poor communities as a result of their marginalised positions in society. One only has to read frequent headline news to determine the disparity between the priorities of both upper and lower echelons of society:

Investors, fearing that the spread of the coronavirus is tipping the global economy into a recession, handed the stock market its largest weekly loss since the 2008 financial crisis on Friday amid worries that one of the longest economic expansions in history may be coming to an end… “This feels different than the other market crisis in that it involves disruptions to daily life,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “This isn’t financial. This is not some obtuse thing on a screen. Schools may close. I may not be able to get pasta or oatmeal.”“[6]

This disparity is further compounded when considering the fears among poorer communities:

“…neglected diseases can strike people in any nation where the gap between rich and poor is wide and growingIt is estimated that upwards of 12 million Americans have a disease linked to extreme poverty.

Already, we have a group of chronic and disabling conditions — the “neglected diseases of poverty”- afflict hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. These diseases exist almost exclusively among the poor…and are a major contributor to the vast social and health disparities.[7]

The above quote refers, in the first instance, to communities of colour; however it is also applicable to white groups from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

At this juncture, it is necessary to elaborate on the pretext for contrasting white disadvantaged communities with the socio-economic affluence of the entrepreneurial elite. The structural apparatus of western societies afford privilege – to varying degrees – for predominantly white populations. However, such privilege is only apparent when compared with non-white minorities who have been historically disadvantaged. Only when placing such white privilege within the context of class do the disparities between the same ethnic group become blatantly obvious:

“…poor whites remind them [middle class whites] of what they used to be…and were lucky enough to escape. It’s a deep-rooted ancestral antipathy. In White Trash, rich whites see crude Norse demons they like to think they’ve civilized out of themselves.” [8]

The intent behind this type of economic hegemony is deliberate and emanated from a capitalist strategy first tested 30 years before introducing it among western societies. Milton Friedman was the inspiration behind a movement of ‘unfettered capitalism’ and introduced his ‘shock or crisis’ strategy in Chile during the mid-seventies when acting in an advisory capacity for the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.[9] Friedman, alongside influential disciples and friends, like Donald Rumsfield, had been perfecting the above strategy beforehand:

“… waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making reforms permanent.[10]

It has since been deployed successfully on a number of occasions – the War on Terror in 2001 and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, 2005, to name a few.[11] Its relevance to the current context is such that there are likely to be renewed attempts at privatising the NHS due to its perceived inability to tackle the scale of the emerging coronavirus pandemic. In view of palpable concerns among the working classes dependent on the NHS, any political petitioning for its privatisation during or following the pandemic, (under the guise of providing improved services), is likely to receive support.[12]

Thus far, focus has been on white disadvantage and the lack of privilege afforded to the working class strata of society in comparison to the middle and upper classes. Questions remain regarding the opportunities available for this constituency in view of the economic limitations surrounding them. What parameters – if any – does society afford them to excel because, after all, “…’the trailer park’ (within a UK context, the council estate) is like the ‘black ghetto’, saturated with stereotypes”?[13] In addition to this, “…unlike black poverty, white poverty is the quintessence of uncool.”[14] Perhaps this latter observation goes some way to explaining why many, from white communities, display a preference for black culture, often [mis]appropriating particular fashions, language and lifestyles. David Starkey once controversially remarked, “The whites have become black“, underscoring the pervasive influence of black urban street culture among white communities in the UK.[15] It follows that focus now shift to black culture in an effort to chart the interaction between these two racially different groups.

21st Century Blaxploitation

Success among black communities is witnessed at various levels and to varying degrees; however, these are arguably within the boundaries permitted within the structural limits prescribed by western society:

Although with commodification of Black cultural forms, you could argue that the process continues of exploiting raw materials (this time cultural) to be sold to Black communities…

In terms of political domination…the ghetto is controlled by a system of indirect rule, with the people elected to represent the ghetto serving as puppets for the mainstream parties.[16]

Even within the criminal justice system black criminality is in vogue to the extent that prisoner attire is now fashionable in mainstream popular culture:

“…Prison Chic is an ideological phenomenon because its commoditized fads, fashions, and media carry damaging, if not assassinating, information about black males: what they are like, the life they live, and where they belong—which ultimately points to the prison[17]

…Mimicking these racialized and increasingly privatized incarceration realities are designer baggy saggy pants, worn as essential hip-hop attire. Besides being a style, the pants symbolize wearing hand-me-downs, a necessity for the poor, and not wearing belts in prison…

Prison Chic is a compelling albeit troubling phenomenon, not only because it makes profit-producing recreational spectacles of African American incarceration, but also because it plays with and upon sociological factors that predict it.[18]

From the height of power – President Barack Obama reached the upper echelon – to the lowest, i.e. prison, black people have been lauded for achievements on the one hand and demonised for displaying demeaning, nihilistic culture on the other; all within a structural framework designed to contain such autonomies while facilitating the two extremes of the same cultural continuum. Halnon refers to this chic and urban black spectrum as, ‘Black Ghetto Cool’, asserting it is, “As such…a prototypical weapon of mass distraction.[19] Unfortunately, a significant minority among black communities – especially the middle classes – have bought into a perspective of having smashed the illusory glass ceiling and achieved similar, if not equal, status as their white counterparts in western societies. If they slightly sharpened their perceptive abilities and examined the obstacles more closely, they would see the ceiling is, in actuality, impenetrable and more akin to corrugated iron. Professor Andrews is emphatic in countering this presumption, stating:

Many of us have integrated to the point where we comfortably benefit from the fruits of imperialism. So we are also not immune to the psychosis of Whiteness.”[20]

The psychosis of Whiteness is described here:

Whiteness is in the DNA of the social system. Therefore, overcoming Whiteness is impossible because it is a product of the structural condition; a psychosis caused to ensure the system remains intact. There is no reasoning with a psychosis, just as there is no point in engaging in a rational debate with Whiteness.[21]

It is only ever Black & White: Another ugly face of Disaster Capitalism

This article has highlighted the contrasting paradigms of some poorer working class white communities vis-à-vis two divergent socio – economic and cultural populations. The wealthier, more hostile strata – middle and upper classes – seldom afford the poorer working class the sort of economic security, let alone opportunity, to achieve similar aspirations. Insofar as black communities are concerned, even fewer opportunities exist within the same context except among the parameters highlighted earlier:

Naomi Klein writes of a kind of capitalism that pervades in our times that involves “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.” She calls it “disaster capitalism.” Exploiting large-scale crisis situations with extreme makeovers and “rapid-fire transformation(s)” are disaster capitalism’s key characteristics.”[22]

Achille Mbembe discerns:

The age has seen the massive transfer of wealth to private interests, increasing dispossession of the riches wrested from capital during previous struggles, and indefinite payments of massive debt. Even Europe, struck by the violence of capital, has witnessed the emergence of a new class of structurally indebted people.[23]

He also observes:

Foreign corporations, powerful nations, and local dominant classes all in turn present themselves as helping with reconstruction or use the pretext of fighting insecurity and disorder in order to help themselves to the riches and raw materials of countries thrown into chaos…” [24]

It should not be too difficult to distinguish the degree of uncertainty, not to mention fear, disseminated at economic and political levels as societies grapple with seismic adjustments with Brexit and climate change. It should also be apparent that amid such turmoil, a recurring theme of opportunism – with capitalism at its core – thrives due to components entrenched within the fabric of today’s western economies. One such component is racism:

“…there is no prospect of racism being eradicated from capitalism. One cannot exist without the other; racism is the system.”[25]

Conclusion

In previous articles, issues of race, Islamophobia, anti-semitism and polarised perspectives have been discussed with a view to providing alternative narratives. The difference in approach on this occasion has been in regard to highlighting a degree of convergence between two often differing ethnicities – black and white – and the challenges each face amongst a wave of capitalist sentiment, which by design, excludes all but a few. The remit of this article is not anti-capitalist; it is however, anti-hegemonic inasmuch as it relates to some of the political strategies utilised to maintain the status quo.

Returning to the term, Blackness, its initial use was for the commodification of African and indigenous Americans as slaves. This has long been rendered obsolete; however, in light of what has been conveyed throughout this article, its meaning should be reconsidered alongside broader implications due to its new functionality potentially encapsulating most, if not all, ethnicities in today’s 21st century digitised world:

The potential fusion of capitalism and animism presents a further implication: the very distinct possibility that human beings will be transformed into animate things made up of coded digital data. Across early capitalism, the term “Black” referred only to the condition imposed on peoples of African origin… Now, for the first time in human history, the term “Black” has been generalized. This new fungibility, this solubility, institutionalized as a new norm of existence and expanded to the entire planet, is what I call the Becoming Black of the world.[26]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] March, S; Sullivan, H & Gayle, D: Coronavirus latest updates: all countries must make containing outbreak ‘highest priority’ says WHO,’ The Guardian, 6th March 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2020/mar/06/coronavirus-update-latest-live-news-symptoms-cases-global-infection-rate-uk-usa-australia-italy-china-updates?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[2] Farzan, A N: ‘’It’s been nuts’: Costco’s sales spike amidst coronavirus panic-buying of bottled water, hand sanitizer and toilet paper,’ Washington Post, 6th March 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/06/costco-coronavirus/

[3] Andrews, K: ‘Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century,’ ZedBooks, 2018, p.154

[4] Urban Dictionary definition of The Great Unwashed: ‘A person of a lower order who is looked down upon by most of society’: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=the%20great%20unwashed last accessed 6th March 2020.

[5] Halnon, K B: ‘The Consumption of Inequality: Weapons of Mass Distraction’, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, p.10

[6] Corkery, M: ‘Coronavirus Fears Reverberate Across Global Economy,’ The New York Times, 28th February 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/business/economy/coronavirus-economy.html

[7] Ellis, G: ‘Is coronavirus a greater threat to health of blacks?’ The Philadelphia Tribune, 4th February 2020: https://www.phillytrib.com/news/health/glenn-ellis-is-coronavirus-a-greater-threat-to-health-of/article_e712a00e-b6ea-560c-9570-510519352abf.html

[8] Halnon, K B: ‘The Consumption of Inequality: Weapons of Mass Distraction’, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, p.88

[9] Klein, N: The Shock Doctrine: The rise of Disaster Capitalism,’ Penguin, 2007, pp. 6-11

[10] Ibid, p. 6

[11] Ibid, p. 4

[12] Lintern, S: ‘The public has a right to the truth’: NHS staff speak out on coronavirus fears’, The Independent, 6th March 2020: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-nhs-deaths-test-positive-intensive-care-matt-hancock-a9376101.html

[13] Halnon, K B: ‘The Consumption of Inequality: Weapons of Mass Distraction’, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, p.83

[14] Ibid, p.10

[15] Hamed, S: ‘Young British Muslims: Between Rhetoric and Realities,’ Chapter 4 ‘Urban young Muslims,’ Abdul Haqq Baker, Routledge, 2017, p.61

[16] Andrews, K: ‘Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century,’ ZedBooks, 2018, p.76

[17] Halnon, K B: ‘The Consumption of Inequality: Weapons of Mass Distraction’, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, pp.45-46

[18] Ibid, 44-45

[19] Ibid, p.70

[20] Andrews, K: ‘Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century,’ ZedBooks, 2018, p.199

 

[21] Ibid, p.195

[22] Halnon, K B: ‘The Consumption of Inequality: Weapons of Mass Distraction’, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, pp.62-63

[23] Mbembe, A; Dubois, L: ‘Critique of Black Reason,’ Duke University Press, 2017, p.5

[24] Ibid

[25] Andrews, K: ‘Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century,’ ZedBooks, 2018, p.282

[26] Mbembe, A; Dubois, L: ‘Critique of Black Reason,’ Duke University Press, 2017, p.5

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