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DeRay Mckesson’s Misguided Case for Hope

In DeRay Mckesson’s newly published book, readers are left with more frustrating questions than answers.

Activist DeRay McKesson speaks at Build Studio on March 19, 2018, in New York City.

There are two histories which have always battled each other, publicly and loudly: domination’s history—the history of the class in position to dominate the masses—and the people’s history, which is the history of colonized and oppressed peoples struggling and triumphing from the ground up. Between these two histories, narrative and autobiographical writings have been a key tool in correctively challenging the historical narratives placed onto oppressed and colonized people, from the era-defining writing found in Malcolm X’s autobiography, to the consciousness-shaping contours of Assata Shakur’s Assata. And still, one must wonder if such a definitive, important piece of autobiographical writing has come from our generation yet, or if any attempts have been made. However, as we move into a new generation characterized by celebrity activists steeped in social media rather than intellectual study, it seems domination’s recent history finds a comfortable bedfellow in the work of some high-profile activists, including activist DeRay Mckesson’s On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.

Who Is DeRay Mckesson?

In an incredibly short time, DeRay Mckesson — in his branded blue vest — has become almost synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement for many outside observers.

Mckesson is, as Mychal Denzel Smith recently put it, a frustrating figure. To people on almost all places on the political spectrum, aside from the liberal center, he is controversial. On the left he’s often described as a “neoliberal” whose entanglement with celebrities and Hollywood signify a covert love affair with capitalism, and whose oversimplification of inequalities seems to be designed to cater to white liberals. In addition, those on the left have critiqued Mckesson’s practice of consistently perching himself above the Ferguson Uprising, contrary to the wishes of Ferguson residents. For those on the right, DeRay’s very existence as a Black, gay activist speaking against police violence has opened him up to the violence of racist trolls, harassment and ad hominem diatribes.

In the thick aftermath of the Ferguson uprising, Mckesson and other celebrity activists like Shaun King and Johnetta Elzie became online beacons who shared images, videos and articles related to protests taking place around the country. As their followings grew, organizers around the country waited for something; a manifesto, a plan, a political framework, a radical beginning. Years later, upon the announcement of the publication of On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, many believed this would be it — an etching of futures imagined.

The False Dichotomy of Reform vs. Revolution

Black resistance has occurred at every stage in American history. Liberty, the right to act according to one’s own will, was denied to Black people, and the conditions Black people suffered from the state during the periods of slavery and its afterlife have developed radical tendencies within our community. As C.L.R. James said, “What Negro, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line, believes that the bourgeois state is a state above all classes, serving the needs of all the people? They may not formulate their belief in Marxist terms, but their experience drives them to reject this shibboleth [principle] of bourgeois democracy.” Ultimately, the Black Experience is one which constitutes an ongoing struggle by Black people to both ideologically and physically challenge and free themselves from exploitation and domination. The goal of many social struggles is freedom, but, for McKesson, the “goal of protest” is simply “progress.”

In his collection of essays, McKesson limits the radical capacity of protest by merely defining it as an activity that “creates space that would otherwise not exist, and forces conversations and topics into the public sphere that have been long ignored.” But protest, or more accurately direct action, is more than that. Direct action can refer to various forms of activities that people themselves decide upon and through which they organize themselves against injustice and oppression. They are processes of self-empowerment and self-liberation. Through direct actions individuals collectively seek to end, or at the very least, reduce harm inflicted by oppression and exploitation. For example, what W.E.B Du Bois described as a “general strike against slavery” was not an attempt to create space for further national debate on the humanity of enslaved Africans, but an extraordinary attempt by enslaved Africans to be actors in their own liberation. The Harlem rent strikes of 1934, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Mississippi Summer Project were not about forcing conversations, but forcing concessions and transformations of society.

Unfortunately, McKesson consistently both romanticizes and ill-defines protest. By narrowly reducing direct action to “protest” and divorcing it from its rich legacy of revolutionary theory and tactics, he boldly makes assertions that are at odds with both history and reality.

In the essay, “Taking the Truth Everywhere,” Mckesson confuses criticisms of reformism with criticisms of reforms. He first claims his more radical opponents “decry reform as a weakening of the spirit of protest.” He then goes on to say, “A radicalism that at its heart is about dismantling the status quo in favor of an unimagined ‘better future’ is not in fact radicalism but a cold detachment from reality itself.”

However, the struggle around immediate issues and reforms is not the same as reformism. Within both the Marxist and broad anarchist traditions are views that stress the necessity of creating popular movements built through struggles around reforms: concrete changes in policy and practices that improve people’s lives and mitigate harm. Reforms that are won from below can not only improve popular conditions, but also strengthen radical mass movements by developing confidence and building capacity among individuals and political organizations. Nineteenth-century Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta said, “We shall carry out all possible reforms in the spirit in which an army advances ever forwards by snatching the enemy-occupied territory in its path.” Revolution isn’t a spontaneous event. It’s a process of self-realization, self-organization and self-liberation through education, community building and direct action. The pursuit of incremental reforms absolutely has a place in radical activism.

Not only does he seem to intentionally misunderstand the concepts of protest and “radicalism,” Mckesson also seeks to utterly delegitimize the entire idea of revolution or revolutionary action. By painting an image of the left that sets up a false dichotomy between leftist organizing and reforms, he makes the opposite of reformism seem idealistic, unrealistic, sophomoric. The distinction he misses, however, is simple: to support immediate reforms is not the same as being reformist.

In the recent nationwide prison strike, for example, the most vocal and ardent supporters of the strike were prison abolitionists such as ourselves who are against the notion that prisons can be reformed in a way that would turn them into a positive force. Instead, we struggle to win what abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls non-reformist reforms — reforms that produce “systemic changes that do not extend the life or breadth of deadly forces such as prisons.”

As abolitionists, we also understand the need to meet the immediate needs of those facing the brunt of violence from the prison machinery, and thus we support each demand from the prison strike organizers while knowing we must continue to build momentum toward its abolition.

The Choreography of Racism Is Structural, Not Just Interpersonal

The book, which is a collection of mostly brief essays composed into chapters, covers a wide range of subjects in a surprisingly narrow scope, with personal experience rather than researched analysis guiding each topic. Throughout its entirety, glaringly oversimplified and intentionally reductive descriptions are put forth on several key topics.

“I understood whiteness before I had the language to describe it,” Mckesson states early into the book. However, most of what follows shows the opposite. He describes whiteness as an “idea made flesh”, and confers that the lifeblood of this “idea” is situated within a power dynamic. Moreover, even while mentioning the idea of whiteness being sustained by “manipulating systems and structures,” Mckesson promotes a notion that whiteness, and thus race, are mostly a relation of individual problems and choices.

This “understanding” of whiteness leads to Mckesson reducing the entirety of whiteness to one main point: white privilege. Whiteness, for Mckesson, is a set of mostly interpersonal privileges manifest in communities that sets white people as “the norm” and others as deviation from that norm. Using an analogy of purchasing rulers for a middle school classroom to describe how whiteness “perpetuates harm,” Mckesson illustrates a story of two sets of kids in the same classroom: those who had defective rulers, and those who had the correct ones. From there, he moves on to portray racial economic or social gaps as a case of happenstance or accidental defectiveness rather than intentional alignment of oppressive structures. This analogy, one of many throughout the book, simply falls flat, and we’re shown a fatally flawed understanding of whiteness as something that is personal and possibly even coincidental, not structural or oppressive.

The most basic look into the works of David Roediger, W.E.B Du Bois, bell hooks, Theodore W. Allen and Nell Irvin Painter, as well as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin (names that appear in any serious inquiry into whiteness studies), will elucidate the many flaws with understanding whiteness in these terms. Whiteness is not just an idea, nor is it the phenomenal response to a set of choices; it’s a construct rooted in the legacies of Western colonization, chattel slavery and capitalism. If those are the sets of choices Mckesson vaguely refers to when he says that “white people benefit from a set of choices in the past that still have an impact today,” then the lack of mention of what those “choices” actually were, is wildly belittling. Moreover, speaking of such grand and oppressive structures such as chattel slavery and colonization in terms of “choices” reduces the harm of these things to the level of personal guilt and eclipses the fact that these were not chosen options but rather the bases our entire current capitalist state is built on. Above all else, whiteness is a relation to the means of production — the mechanisms, land, capital and resources to produce goods — and a more distant proximity to state violence. As intellectual Theodore W. Allen put it, whiteness is a “ruling class social control formation,” not just a “privilege.” Why are these terms all missing from his text?

In one of the more lucidly misguided moments of the text, Mckesson bases his definitions of racism and white supremacy on this (mis)understanding of whiteness. He states that racism is “rooted in whiteness,” while rejecting the notion that class interests could play a chief role in racism’s roots.

To assert that racism is rooted in whiteness is to completely misunderstand both the beginning and current reasons of racism. As Mckesson previously states, whiteness is situated within a power dynamic. Under capitalism, what is the actual “power” of that dynamic? Capital. Racism is not “rooted in whiteness.” It is rooted in exploitation and domination, which are predicated on capital. As historian Walter Rodney put it, “it was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labor. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule.”

Troublingly, Mckesson flat-out denies the instance of “self-interest or economics” as being foundational to white supremacy or racism. He states:

There was a time when I believed that racism was rooted in self-interest or economics—the notion that white supremacy emerged as a set of ideas to codify practices rooted in profit. I now believe that the foundation of white supremacy rests in a preoccupation with dominance at the expense of others, and that the self-interest and economics are a result, not a reason or cause. I believe this because of the way that white supremacy still proliferates in contexts where there is no self-interest other than the maintenance of power.

Mckesson attempts to define the large ideas of racism and whiteness without interrogating the decades of work that has been done in this field. Discussing structures of oppression without mentioning their roots in capitalism—while simultaneously mentioning “power dynamics” and perpetually unnamed “systems”—is both bewildering and dishonorable.

First is the notion that racism and white supremacy act independent of class, which is simply untrue. To mention the maintenance of “power” under capitalism is to mention class; to mention a claim to domination is to mention class interests. The places where Mckesson engages with terms like “economics,” “self-interest” and “power” could be instances of insight, but instead intentional vagueness takes place. He never names what racism’s “power” actually is under capitalism, which is to own property, to own capital, to exploit workers, to dispose of or “disappear” those deemed as surplus laborers, and to define and name violence. As revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon once put it, racism’s power is in its ability to achieve “a perfect harmony of economic relations and ideology.”

Second, the omissions in the approach to these passages on race and racism are glaring. The truth is that there exists a wealth of work that Mckesson never cites, engages, or even challenges. While reading, one wonders why the crucial works of so many activists, authors, scholars and thinkers who’ve struggled in this field of work over the years have been completely disregarded by Mckesson.

So why, then, is Mckesson fixated on the notion that racism is a purely individual set of choices rather than an intentional division of class and tool of social control? Racism is a potent means of codifying the interests of white capital, and white people are “preoccupied with dominance” because dominance carries social and financial benefits. However, the wages of whiteness are that, even when it defies the class interests of the ones seeking to uphold it, it will still be maintained; white people will vote and act against their own class interests for the sake of maintaining whiteness, as seen in the last presidential election.

Hope for What?

The most frustrating part of the book may be the constant pithy messages of hope and liberation. Not that hope is a bad thing, and that optimism of the will, as Antonio Gramsci once stated, shouldn’t be the founding blocks of our political organizing. What does become apparent throughout the entire book, though, is that Mckesson doesn’t quite know what he’s “hoping” for, if anything at all. “The case for hope” remains a vague, aimless case that he never articulates beyond self-aggrandizing Instagram-caption-friendly lines.

Hope, as a vehicle for change, as an organizing tool, as a rallying cry and connecting force, is only as powerful as it is defined and aimed. Some are organizing for socialism, others specifically for a living wage, prison abolition, ending US imperialism, free education or health care, environmental justice, and so forth. So, what is it that Mckesson’s “case for hope” is aiming toward?

In the chapter, “The Problem of Police,” a well-written and standout chapter in the book, we’re given a detailed look into Mckesson and others’ work chronicling instances of police violence into a national database, and we’re shown the massive faults of our policing system, from body cameras to a lack of a database for recording instances of police violence or a mandatory process for reporting them. Still, the essay ends with a message on “making different choices” and no mention of abolition, or even any relevant reforms to the policing system Mckesson spent the previous pages dissecting.

Is this the future of our movements? Naming problems without creating solutions and calling for hope, but a hope that is empty — void of optimism, of the will to do, to change? Maybe Mckesson doesn’t name what he is “hoping” for because he’s afraid it will alienate some portion of his massive—and growing—following. Maybe what he is hoping for is too radical for many, or too reformist for many others. Either way, if this book was meant to outline the “other side of freedom” as the name entails, it misses the mark by a long shot.

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