Kanye West is back in the spotlight again because of more outlandish comments about racism in America. He’s followed up his pro-Trump rant on Saturday Night Live with a tweet proclaiming that “we will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment’”, all while wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Whilst the 13th amendment allows for prisoners to be kept in legal slavery, as featured in Ava Duvernay’s excellent documentary 13th, it was also the provision that ended slavery in the United States.
Let’s take Kanye at his word and accept that he was talking about ending mass incarceration rather than reinstituting slavery (although some of his fellow Trump supporters may not be averse to that idea). However he has rightly been ridiculed for apparently opposing the prison industry and at the same time promoting Trump, one of the racist system’s biggest supporters.
Kanye’s support for Trump is following in the footsteps of a long line of black conservatives who believe that the key to success for black communities is embracing hard work, individualism and supporting the mythical “black family”, rather than relying on the state. This is the Booker T Washington, “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” approach that you can find in churches, barbershops and on television in Britain, as much in the United States. Ironically, Bill Cosby was the standard bearer of personal responsibility and moral hygiene who once blamed the reversal of progress after civil rights on “black knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English” and suggested the solution was better “parenting”. In Britain we have figures like Trevor Phillips bemoaning not being able to tell the “truth’” about black criminality because of the liberal media, and Tony Sewell declaring that racism is not the problem for black boys in schools, but the fact that they are too “feminised” by society.
Even more supposedly critical groups like the Nation of Islam, mobilise a conservative vision of self-reliance and traditional family values as the solution to racism. The 1995 Million Man March was in order for black men ‘to atone for their failure as men and to accept responsibility as the family head’ rather than to campaign against the racism inflicted upon black communities. The Nation have also historically had links with the American Nazi Party and far right figures because of such messages of self-reliance and separatism. So Kanye’s support for Trump should come as no surprise, as it fits neatly into the masculine black conservativism which prioritise individual responsibility, hard work and centre the role of men in restoring the community.
Malcolm X famously denounced many black leaders as “Uncle Toms”. This was someone on the plantation who the Master handpicked and “dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education… and made all the other slaves look up to him”. Malcolm argued that this tactic was used in the modern day to create black leaders who deluded the black masses into following politics that were bad for them. But in Kanye’s case he is so unread, and ill-informed with his various pronouncements, that he is more a source of ridicule than leadership. Unlike our other examples he has zero credibility and is an advert for the fallacies at the heart of black conservativism.
What perhaps makes Kanye useful in that respect is that his struggles with the obvious contradictions in his arguments – people like Trump clearly do not have the community’s best interests at heart – are more a turn-off for other black people than an inspiration. Black conservatives are wrong, but their debates around the importance of self-reliance, moral accountability and the utility of a small state, have a veneer of respectability. However, there is no doubt that Trump is pursuing a policy agenda that is harmful to African Americans.
On criminal justice he has given a major boost to private companies and his attorney general Jeff Sessions has been undoing racial justice reforms. But rather than brushing over their links to Nazis, like the Nation of Islam, or passionately defending the institutional racism of the British school system at the Oxford Union, like Tony Sewell, Kanye is instead publicly exposing the contradiction of his position by having to repeatedly walk back pronouncements like saying staying enslaved was a “choice” African Americans made; and defending Trump because of his “dragon energy”. He even admits he doesn’t fully agree with Trump on everything but is nonetheless cornered into supporting him. His bizarre political posturing is more of a cry for help than a political programme.
African American intellectual WEB Dubois spoke about the “twoness of being an American and a Negro” because of the racism in the country, but his concept of double consciousness applies perfectly to the conflict of the black conservative. Kanye is taking the public on a tour of the “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”. In that sense he is doing a public service, exposing the irrationality of black conservativism. Hopefully, he will be a warning for people to stay far away from tumbling down that dangerous rabbit hole.
Kehinde Andrew is a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University and has a new book out ‘Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century’
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