This article originally appeared in Campus Reform on December 7, 2017.
Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, recently wrote an op-ed that called for a “Black Christmas” protest against “White Capitalism.”
Abdullah said that the protest would be a collective blow against President Donald Trump, who she said represents an economic system that “literally kills [black] people.”
The Root, a popular black website, repeated Abdullah’s call for a Black Christmas, but the idea is hardly new. Black activists have encouraged a Christmas season-boycott every year that I can remember. When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I heard “woke” relatives and community members encourage the same action.
Professor Abdullah’s claim that capitalism literally kills blacks ignores American successes such as Michael Jackson, Booker T. Washington, Tristan Walker, Oprah Winfrey, and George Washington Carver, but we should use her call for a Black Christmas as an opportunity to glance at some of the crosscurrents in the black political conscience.
For conservatives who only hear another SJW doubling-down on neo-segregationist invective, a descriptive analysis of why blacks have called for a “Black Christmas” is in order.
To begin, I should state something blacks all know, but seldom admit in front of white audiences: black Americans’ status as a consumer class is a national shame. When I sit for my haircut in my predominantly black area of Bedford-Stuyvesant, I may hear my barber say something like, “Man, y'all need to stop spending [your] money on bullshit and leave something for your kids.”
It’s worth mentioning that these conversations seldom scapegoat whites. Gentrification stirs similar sentiments among many blacks because the millions of dollars that sparked the Brooklyn Renaissance didn’t come from inside the black community.
Are the black men at my barbershop spreading malignant black stereotypes?
The latest data on the financial state of black America confirms my barber’s contention. According to the Urban Institute’s study on wealth inequality, the average black family has $19,000 in retirement savings against whites’ $130,000. Additionally, the average white family has a month’s worth of liquid savings. Blacks have five days’ worth.
Although critics have long flagged claims that blacks waste their income on what University of Chicago Professor Nikolai Roussanov called visible goods—clothing, cars, and jewelry—as racist, Roussanov confirmed what common sense had shown any black American who has lived in a predominantly black city. Between the years 1986-2002, blacks spent 30 percent more of their income on visible goods than did whites.
Roussanov stopped short of attributing this trend to culture, however, and argued instead that economics can explain blacks’ poor spending habits. But Roussanov should consult with blacks who have attributed their condition to culture for years. And although blacks have admitted as much in confidence, black intellectuals’ refusal to separate their public admission of this fact from identitarian rhetoric prevents us from hearing this concession clearly.
Consider that the Nation of Islam (NOI) prescribed cultural practices social conservatives have advocated for years. Black Muslims challenged their members to practice moderation, sobriety, fidelity, frugality, fatherhood, and submission to a pseudo, yet nonetheless strict, rules-based Islam. As one sociologist noted when he visited one of the earliest NOI communities, many black Muslims were model citizens when judged against Protestant and secular blacks.
I am not arguing for a Black Muslim revival. Malcolm X’s attacks against the tenets of Western liberalism harmed our civic culture immensely. Still, we should understand that the NOI program was a radical effort at social engineering and tells us that blacks thought such reforms were necessary.
Cultural conservatives might better understand what I am getting at. When we praise Chinese-Americans for being a “model minority” we are celebrating their ability to master the Anglo-American way. But how have Chinese-Americans managed to nail the Anglo-American model so quickly?
One explanation is that their shared Confucian heritage converges with the liberty-ordering principles of the Abrahamic tradition and that Confucian values gave Chinese-Americans the self-mastery required for success in market-capitalism. Consider an excerpt from a recent Forbes article that described the financial practices of Chinese-Americans:
“They tend to have higher incomes, higher asset levels and greater equity in their homes. They’re self-described savers, with more knowledge about debt management and investing. They also own a greater diversity of financial products. They have the highest levels of investment in individual stocks and retirement plans and are more likely to trade stocks online, too.”
The above paragraph describes a sensibility that doesn’t emerge overnight. English culture prepared the first American settlers for American liberty in a similar way that the Eastern tradition has helped propel many Chinese Americans into the upper-middle-class. In a democratic capitalist society that doesn’t sanction virtue, culture works in tandem with liberty, ordering it in such a manner that individuals exercise their freedom with the understanding that, as John Locke wrote, liberty isn’t license.
Blacks’ embrace of Islam was a recognition of the role religion plays in shaping the human person and reflected a desire to attain the kind of self-discipline that propelled Anglo-American society to the heights of civilization.
In some sense, blacks have caught onto what Daniel Bell pointed out in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: although successful capitalists observe the virtues of thrift, honesty, and industriousness, market-capitalism thrives on consumers’ unvirtuous behavior.
Think of no-down-payment mortgages, payday loans, installment-plans for the latest iPhone, and the many ways companies create demand for products unnecessary for the fulfillment of good lives. Now, think of all the black parents who dole out $200 on Air Jordan sneakers for their children instead of placing that money into a savings or investments account.
With this in mind, some might still ask: why must black professors stir resentment and division when they are merely asking white America, as Jason Riley did in 2013, to “please stop helping us?” This is because American blacks have a “kinfolk” sensibility that forbids black intellectuals from making a broadside against Black America. Instead of speaking thoughtfully to citizens of all stripes, black leaders obscure their message with performative language.
This pattern exist elsewhere in higher education. I observed it up close when I visited Columbia University’s Black Student Union (BSU) chapter for its kickoff meeting this fall. After a period in which the BSU students maligned the classics of Western Civilization featured in Columbia’s core curriculum, one student said in a hushed tone: “but you still have to read their books so that you can work their system.” The BSU E-Board agreed.
If blacks boycott the most significant consumer holiday of the year, it will be another example of how they have attempted to unite Malcolm X’s spirit with Anglo-American values. After all, Professor Abdullah challenged blacks to practice delayed-gratification, or what Benjamin Franklin might have called virtue.
Perhaps such a reset shouldn’t be out of the question.