In a heated confrontation during a Democratic primary debate in July, Senator Kamala Harris criticized former Vice President Joe Biden’s history of siding with segregationists when it came to bussing. In 1975, Biden sponsored a bill that defanged court-ordered desegregation and an amendment that "barred the federal government from withholding funding from schools that remained effectively segregated.” Harris made the issue personal when she said that she was one of the black children able to obtain an education through integration.
This moment gave Harris a brief bump in the polls and led to an outpouring of sympathy. Yet some accused Harris of co-opting black identity due to her lack of African-American heritage — Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, is not technically a descendant of slaves. Antonio Moore, a Los Angeles based lawyer and documentary producer and one of the founders of the American Descendants of Slavery movement, better known as #ADOS, said as much on his radio show when he remarked, “You don’t voluntarily immigrate into a community that is supposedly segregated, and then claim the struggles of people who have been here chained to chattel slavery for multiple generations.”
#ADOS, which Moore co-founded with former congressional aide turned YouTube political commentator Yvette Carnell, believes that descendants of slaves in the United States have a primary claim to reparations, due to the atrocity of slavery itself, as well as the disenfranchisement of former slaves after emancipation. Following this logic, Harris cannot claim the mantle of black struggle even if she is phenotypically black. In January Carnell made a similar point when she argued that Harris was claiming “a lineage that doesn’t belong to her.” She further insinuated that Harris probably descends from an Indian “elite caste,” because her “grandfather was a diplomat,” and that her father being Jamaican did not make him an “#AmericanDOS.” Of course, with this kind of thinking, Barack Obama, who was born to a white mother and a Kenyan father, would be similarly disqualified.
Facing criticism from people who argued that critiquing Harris's identity was akin to birtherism, Moore and Carnell have tried to distance themselves from any racial invective launched Harris’s way. They argued that their main problem with her was her horrific record on criminal justice. However, their focus on Harris’s parentage implies a belief that one’s lineage is consequential, and though Moore and Carnell reject the nativist label, it would be hard to argue that they are not, at the very least, black nationalists. What makes #ADOS different from the black nationalists of yore is the fact that they do not extend the struggle past American borders — their rebellion is a national one disconnected from class or international solidarity.
#ADOS has managed to synthesize the black left-wing critique of America’s origins with a right-wing belief in the inherent superiority of those who were born in America. What the movement draws from the former is a simplified argument that black people and only black people were exploited to produce the wealth of the United States, and what they draw from the latter is that this makes them and other descendants of slaves the true inheritors of American wealth. To do this, they accommodate right-wing policy, a move that is not without precedent. Marcus Garvey famously said of the KKK that they were “better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together.” Dialogue with a white supremacist organization was not a contradictory move, because both agreed with the fundamental premise that America was a country for white people.
#ADOS has managed to synthesize the black left-wing critique of America’s origins with a right-wing belief in the inherent superiority of those who were born in America.
Similarly, #ADOS do not reject right-wing narratives when arguing for the primacy of the rights of the descendants of slaves over those of more recent immigrants — this is simply what conservatives argue about the imagined nativist white working class, with the races changed. For example, in a Huffington Post article written shortly after Trump was elected, Moore used the research of conservative economist George Borjas to argue that hardline immigration laws under the Trump administration could benefit native-born black people. While Borjas is known for his argument that unchecked immigration leads to declining wage growth for low-income workers, Moore goes further and argues that “immigration influx has resulted in tens of thousands of additional African Americans serving time behind bars.” For someone who is supposedly committed to criminal justice reform, this is a strange case to make, as it ignores the root causes of mass incarceration — economic disenfranchisement and a two-tiered legal system — in favor of a right-wing fantasy.
In fact, #ADOS constantly flirts with right-wing framing in their form of black advocacy. For example, when #ADOS was first gaining media attention, one fact that stood out was that Yvette Carnell was “previously a board member of Progressives for Immigration Reform, which has ties to right-wing immigration groups.” Carnell argued that the group was a liberal organization because the name contains the word progressive, but this is an obviously ridiculous claim. One need only look at the group’s website to get a sense of their “progressive” ideals, as the main page presents a bizarre infographic: a map of the U.S. crammed with people overlaid with a Statue of Liberty with a broken arm (the text stating that “every eight seconds the U.S. adds 14 people”) and animated pictures of polluted lakes. Some articles on the site argue that high immigration will lead to environmental catastrophe; many are reposted from Breitbart and Judicial Watch. The group is more accurately described as a front organization for far-right anti-immigration lobbyists — they even share board members with the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Defenders of #ADOS argue that they do need to be specific on who is allowed to receive reparations. In a Washington Post article, Duke University Professor William Darity made it clear that it would be “hard to argue that those who immigrated voluntarily deserve the same reparations as the descendants of those brought to the United States in chains.” Yet this distinction displays the problem with #ADOS politics.
What does it mean to “voluntarily” immigrate to a country whose government constantly meddles in the affairs of other nations, often to catastrophic effect? The people currently fleeing violence and desperation in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala may not be #ADOS, but what remedy will they receive from being locked up, having their children stripped away from them, or worse due to the crime of seeking an unmolested life. Similarly, migrants of African descent left to linger in Mexico due to the Remain in Mexico program are left out of the conversation.
When a movement claims to be non-nativist, and they respond to criticism by questioning the ethnicity of the critic, it lends credence to the idea that they believe that only speakers from their preferred ethnicities are the ones who are allowed to speak up.
That there is a conversation to be had at all is largely thanks to the work of black intellectuals like Darity and, most obviously, Ta-Nehisi Coates. But ironically, the question of who can speak to issues of black liberation itself betrays the tortured logic of #ADOS supporters. Simply put, black immigrants have been at the forefront of the civil rights struggle since its inception. Is Malcolm X not to be regarded as a hero because he had a Grenadian mother? Or is he only half a hero, thanks to his father, Earl Little, who was descended from slaves? Carnell has argued that people like Shirley Chisolm and Kwame Ture qualify as #ADOS because they “adopted our struggles” but she fails to define what that actually means. The struggle that #ADOS currently seems to be waging is for reparations and reduced immigration — the former is contested within the black community, and the latter is generally popular with the right-wing.
This rigorous in-group mentality is also used to justify hostility toward their critics. For example, when the musician and activist Talib Kweli Greene said that even though he supported reparations, he didn’t know if it was the most pressing issue for him in the upcoming election, he was attacked by #ADOS followers. In a Medium post, Kweli wrote that “they collectively decided I was a Haitian immigrant (weird flex) as a way to justify their dismissal of my position.” When a movement claims to be non-nativist, and they respond to criticism by questioning the ethnicity of the critic, it lends credence to the idea that they believe that only speakers from their preferred ethnicities are the ones who are allowed to speak up.
The lack of an organized left, fractured social movements, and an ascendant right-wing have formed the perfect cauldron for a faction like #ADOS to arise. Fragmenting races into smaller and smaller groups is not a new, emancipatory way of thinking — it is as old as the paper bag test and the one-drop rule, repackaged for the social media age with a hashtag.
#ADOS manages to sneak this conservative message into a liberatory framework. As Manning Marble argued in his work How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, black conservatives have “a theoretical and programmatic commitment to capitalism as an economic system in which Blacks can take part as full and equal partners.” Only those they recognize as “black” deserve the fruits of exploitation, and #ADOS is committed to this conservative ideal of racial hierarchy. This ideology was summarized best by Daily Dot writer Tiffany Drayton, when she asserted that “ADOS believes America only owes reparations to slave descendants, not to Black people whose families freely immigrated to America.”
And while this logic has so far been contained to the issue of reparations, it’s not difficult to imagine it contaminating other discourses. Does, for example, knowing that Amado Diallo was not born in the United States make his killing any less tragic? Diallo does not fit into #ADOS’s categories either. He may have been black, but he was an immigrant from Guinea. As the Fields sisters write in Racecraft, “it was the officers’ definition of him, not his definition of himself, that held the balance between life and death.” The cruel ideology of the #ADOS movement is a combination of race-reductionism and immigrant hatred. On the one hand, they believe that black people were abused by this country. On the other, they argue that immigrants gain from the destruction of black lives.
#ADOS defines itself as a movement for which some black lives matter. By engaging in a bad-faith dialogue, #ADOS has made it more difficult to criticize a neoliberal candidate like Harris and given ample evidence to the nativist right that their anti-immigrant agenda can be shared by non-whites as well. Neoliberalism and nativism will continue to harm the black community so long as it does not face a concerted resistance.
Perhaps the way to resist this is to reject the divisions that #ADOS sells. There is a connection between the black immigrant and her American-born friend: Labor. Every worker in America, documented or undocumented, black or white, sells their labor to their boss who profits from it. Similarly, every worker is impacted when they have to pay insane insurance premiums or go without insurance when they are sick. Workers of all different races can find themselves in a situation where their family is separated by ICE or the discriminatory criminal justice system. Call it class reductionism, but those ever recurrent outrages are overwhelmingly visited upon the working class. The only way to resist the divisive tactics of groups like #ADOS is to be conscious of this fact.