Does ADOS racialize or de-racialize the struggle of Black Americans? How does ADOS fit in the broader human rights discourse?
The polarization of the discussion about the merit and utility of American Descendants of Slavery, ADOS, as a social group label with the social, political, economic, and legal implications it entails is not unique to ADOS. The Black Lives Matter movement, which also found prominence via hashtagging, #BLM, was and still is controversial. Some rejected it because they wanted to address the killing of Black men and women at the hands of the police under the banner of All Lives Matter. Even the institution whose actions triggered this specific movement, the police, and its supporters appropriated the slogan’s format and launched, Blue Lives Matter.
The 2020 protests in major U.S. cities after the police killing of George Floyd, however, show that more Americans, especially white Americans, have accepted the specificity of Black people’s grievance and are increasingly supportive of their demand for systemic change. More people have realized that BLM is a movement that speaks to specific historical circumstances and systemic instruments that made Black persons more likely to be killed by police than any other social group—in proportion to the size of their respective population.
It is true that others, too, are killed by police and that their killing, too, is systemic, but the systems that lead to the killing of a Black person are historically and socially different from the systems that lead to the killing of any other person. The distinction does not diminish the loss of life in non-Black communities; it only articulates the specific conditions of Black people and thereby making the specific articulation of the kind of change that is needed.
With the recent transformation in the human rights discourse in general, and the continued specific discrimination against specific social groups, it is only natural that further differentiation takes place. The idea of ADOS as a specific social group with specific grievances, requiring specific remedial actions is a natural outcome of such transformations in society and the human rights discourse.
At this point in time, some of the proponents of ADOS seem to limit the purpose of the new designation to remedial action: economic compensation. This framing is clear in the public declarations of the founders of the hashtag #ADOS: the “movement aims to make U.S. descendants of slavery whole by foregrounding the necessity of recompense for the wide-ranging damages done to black America throughout our nation’s history.”
Many of the opponents worry that such a distinction would isolate ADOS from the large segment of society and other people who are also victims of systems of harm and injury. Specifically, some activists argue that limiting redress to ADOS will allow the State to continue to abuse non-ADOS African immigrants, Caribbean Blacks, and other social groups who have been subjected and continue to be subjected to discrimination because of the color of their skin.
Specifically, some Black Americans worry that the separation of ADOS from other communities of color will diminish the fight against racism. For example, Professor Kevin Cokley appealed to ADOS activists, “don’t pit slavery descendants against black immigrants. Racism doesn’t know the difference.” Other civil rights advocates worry that political opportunists could use ADOS to divide-and-conquer marginalized communities in pursuit of anti-immigration agendas–a goal of white supremacists.
Some proponents of ADOS reject the accusation of lack of solidarity with other social groups. They point out that they support all social groups who have not benefitted in the current American system. But they emphasize that they also want schools, employers, and governments (federal and state) to “prioritize” ADOS.
They contend that affirmative action policies, originally designed to help ADOS, have been used largely to benefit other groups. They suggest that the wording of affirmative action statements by employers and schools, for example, include women, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and persons with disability as beneficiaries of affirmative action policies and laws. And such packaging of affirmative action allows employers to hire one social group, say women, specifically, white women, and check the box for meeting their obligations to affirmative action, leaving ADOS in the same conditions they were born in. This packaging is behind the continued exclusion of ADOS due to persistent historical and racist reasons.
Considering that the ADOS designation is primarily used and useful for the purposes of reparations, it can hardly be argued that affirmative action beneficiaries should also be eligible for compensation for the crime of exploitation, dehumanization, and discrimination of enslaved Blacks. Indeed, many of the social groups named as beneficiaries from affirmative action derived from the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century have legitimate claims and legitimate grievances. But for the purposes of specific remedial actions, the distinction between ADOS and other social groups is warranted and necessary.
The subjugation of ADOS was made possible through a plurality of systems. Some of these systems, but not all, were also employed to subjugate other social groups. Remediating the effects of systems applied to ADOS require a differentiated approach—one that takes into consideration the emotional, psychological, physical, cultural, and economic toll American Descendants of Slavery have experienced and continue to endure.
At the edge of the atrocities of the European wars of the first half of the 20th century, the push for universalizing human rights was founded on the idea that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Decades later, some of the successful legal challenges to affirmative action (and other remedial policies) initiated by white men and women were also rooted in equality and appealed to fairness. It is clear that the principle of equality cannot be used as a basis for addressing historical injustice because NOT all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Literally, some of us were and still are born in detention centers or to incarcerated parents; some are born under occupation, many are born shackled with physical, mental, and economic chains with no legal path to freedom and personhood.
Professor Cokley might be correct about the fact that racism does not discriminate between the hue of the skin color or the place of birth of marginalized people. However, the racism to which enslaved Black people were subjected is not the same racism–in terms of cruelty and deployed instruments—now used to ostracize migrant Africans or brown people. For the same reason racism is adapted and optimized, remedial action should be different and specific, too.
Success in achieving human rights and human dignity can no longer be premised on equality; it must be joined to and based on diversity and uniqueness, the factual reality we are all born in.