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ADOS wants reparations—but at what cost?

Mike Maguire/Flickr Yvette Carnell/YouTube ADOS Apparel Co./Amazon (CC-BY) Remix by Jason Reed

On the surface, #ADOS, which stands for the American Descendants of Slavery, sounds like a hashtag for Black empowerment, perhaps a call to arms. However, dig through more than three tweets, and you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers as to what ADOS is really all about.

Founded by controversial social media figures Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore late last year, the ADOS hashtag—as well as its corresponding movement—asks the government to address the plight of African Americans who were directly connected to U.S. slavery through a list of a number of reparation demands, like reinstituting voting protections, offering a healthcare credit, forgiving student loan debt, and securing 15 percent of Small Business Administration loans for descendants of slaves. These, among others on the list, are reparation demands many Black Americans would find reasonable.

However, also built into its agenda is a distinction for who should be afforded access to reparations. ADOS believes America only owes reparations to slave descendants, not to Black people whose families freely immigrated to America. In turn, ADOS demands the government streamline affirmative action and policies like it, so that Black immigrants and other minorities are no longer allowed to take part.

Because of these polarizing sentiments, coupled with discussions of who should be the face of the Democratic Party in 2020, #ADOS has picked up steam online over the past few months. The hashtag has been mostly used to criticize Democratic leaders and publicly attack Black celebrities—like rapper Talib Kweli, actor Yvette Nicole Brown, and radio show hosts Charlamagne Tha God and Roland Martin—and anyone else who the founders believe do not share their vision for reparations. The hashtag movement also gained traction when it was used to question whether presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)—whose mother is Indian and father is Jamaican—would prioritize the needs of native-born Black people. In fact, some using the hashtag have declared “no reparations, no vote,” taking a hard stance against any presidential hopeful who does not express support of and have a plan for reparations for slave descendants. To some followers, this means not voting at all in the general election if Democrats don’t put forth a candidate with a plan.

While ADOS followers will tell you that they are the ones responsible for all the reparations talk on the 2020 campaign trail by everyone from Harris to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), critics, mainly Black progressives, will tell you ADOS followers are trolls and cultlike; some have even accused followers of being bots. Critics wonder what the movement actually hopes to accomplish with its hardline stances and at what cost—especially when people like white conservative Ann Coulter are coming to the defense of ADOS.

Ann Coulter ADOS Ann Coulter/Twitter

On its surface, ADOS should be a strategic challenge to white supremacy. But what it’s so far more successful at is creating in-fighting among the Black community.

 

The players in the ADOS fight

In recent months, high-profile celebrities like Kweli and Brown, as well as journalists Joy Reid and Jemele Hill have been some of ADOS’ most vocal critics. They haven’t taken issue with a general call for reparations necessarily; they’re upset over what they say are ADOS founders’ and followers’ anti-immigrant rhetoric and MAGA undercurrent, as well as the exploitation of the tension and resentment that has long existed between native-born Black Americans and Black immigrants and other minorities. This language can be clearly found in ADOS’ own “Black agenda,” which calls minorities “a throw-away category which includes all groups except white men.” It also specifies: “Black immigrants should be barred from accessing affirmative action and other set asides intended for ADOS.”

You don’t have to look further than Twitter to see anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiments parrotted in the name of ADOS. “Told ya these black immigrants be rats,” one ADOS follower tweeted earlier this month. Then there are the conspiracy theorists: “The black caucus is now an elite group of immigrants who, in exchange for power & money, have sold out the #ADOS community in the U.S.,” another ADOS follower tweeted. Under the hashtag #AdosIsMAGA, users have shared screenshots of tweets by ADOS followers who appear to be sympathetic toward Trump but not immigrants.

ADOS is MAGA EIMAJ78/Twitter

Yvette Nicole Brown ADOS Yvette Nicole Brown/Twitter

Then there are the “no reparations, no vote” calls by the movement’s leaders and followers. This has prompted detractors to theorize the movement is merely a conspiracy to stop Black people from voting and increase the likelihood that Trump will win another term. CNN political Angela Rye said that she believes some ADOS arguments were “paid for by Russia” and that the movement “originated from Russian bots.” Reid also did a segment on her MSNBC show titled “How to spot a bot,” in which it was theorized that bots using the ADOS hashtags were pretending to be Black Americans.

“The same thing happened in the elections in 2016,” Kweli told the Daily Dot. “I’m on Twitter more than others and I see the patterns that looked just like 2016. Are there Russian bots who are posing as ADOS to interrupt this conversation? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean every ADOS should be dismissed as a bot.”

The Daily Dot reached out to a handful of ADOS followers on Twitter, none of which were bots. In fact, some were professors and reparations scholars. ADOS followers were readily available for phone interviews and spoke passionately about the need for reparations for Black people. When pressed about ADOS’ anti-immigrant stance or its founders’ troublesome support from the far-right, many shifted the focus back to reparations.

“Since Reconstruction, the moral argument for reparations has been made by activists, political leaders, clergy, scholars, and others in the African American community,” ADOS follower Trevon Logan, economics professor at Ohio State University, told the Daily Dot via email. “The current #ADOS movement is part of that tradition, and is the reason why the movement has gained traction in spite of the controversial statements that #ADOS founders have made on other issues.”

Others were perhaps not fully aware of the movement’s more xenophobic undertones, or at least willfully denied seeing the connection.

“I’m focused on Black people’s issues, on reparations for Black people,” 43-year-old Jerome Jackson, a Chicago-based #ADOS follower, told the Daily Dot via phone. “My grandparents lived here, they suffered, they got cheated out of what they were supposed to have….  And it trickles down to my son. So, me trying to get reparations for Black people… That’s what ADOS is about. I don’t see how immigrants or any of that has anything to do with it.”

When it comes to the ADOS founders themselves, though, you can trace both Carnell’s and Moore’s xenophobic rhetoric to their online history. (Both Carnell and Moore have declined to comment to the Daily Dot.)

Carnell, who has served as a congressional aide to former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), has mostly made a name for herself as a writer and social media commentator calling out prominent figures in the Black community like Rev. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan. She also has a YouTube channel littered with videos expressing pro-Trump, anti-immigrant language, including: “Donald Trump is so right about how poor Black people are,” “Trump ain’t wrong about birthright citizenship,” and even one questioning “Why is everyone so afraid of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon?”

“Everything we do has to be based on what’s good for our group,” Carnell angrily declares in her video applauding Trump’s desire to end birthright citizenship, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born within America’s borders. “Before you come out here and try to make everyone else a citizen… You ain’t made my people citizens yet… And you [immigrants] get to come here and just have everything? How? By what right?”

While Carnell may not necessarily be an ardent Trump supporter (she frequently criticizes his presidency in her videos), she does seem to share a similar outlook on immigration with the president and his far-right supporters. Carnell has admitted to being on the board of Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR), which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identifies as a front group for Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR was founded by white nationalist John Tanton and has ties to white supremacists and eugenicists. However, instead of addressing these connections, Carnell said the people calling her out about it were just doing so to hate on ADOS.

Yvette Carnell ADOS @BreakingBrown/Twitter

Moore, a Los Angeles-based attorney, also has taken positions that have garnered support from conservatives and white supremacists who share similar anti-immigrant sentiments. In a HuffPost piece titled “President-Elect Donald Trump’s Hard Stance on Immigration Sparks a Nationalism Debate in Black America,” Moore highlights the negative impact immigration has had on the descendants of slaves. The piece quoted research from George Borjas, one of America’s leading economists and a conservative who, despite himself being an immigrant, promotes stronger sanctions against immigration.

Borjas’ work is often used by right-wingers. His estimate that natives lost $402 billion in wages a year due to immigration was cited by Jeff Sessions to drive an anti-immigrant wave in the Republican establishment in 2015. What Sessions never disclosed was the fact that a vast number of other economists who researched the subject do not agree with Borjas’ estimate and certainly do not agree that immigration has a definitive negative impact on wages. Regardless and unsurprisingly, Moore’s article garnered support from right-wing racists, including a writer from the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, who called Moore’s insights “outstanding.”

While Moore and Carnell don’t mind espousing ideas that align with the right-wing in exchange for promotion of their agenda, others came into the movement more humbly. Michael Hicks, who has his masters degree in political science from the University of Louisville, has also been with the movement since its inception.

“I didn’t start the ADOS movement, but I came on early in the scene when I noticed the political organizing,” he told the Daily Dot over email. He said he participated in multiple events at Simmons College of Kentucky where Carnell and Moore spoke about reparations and their Black agenda. In fact, according to the ADOS site, an ADOS conference is planned at that same location in October.

Hicks said ADOS is important because, fundamentally, America cannot fix what it will not face. When asked what drew him to the movement, he told the Daily Dot, “The unanswered justice claim for ADOS has been America’s most profound blind spot.”

 

The Black native–Black immigrant tension exploited by ADOS

To understand how ADOS is able to gain any traction is to understand America’s longstanding social, racial hierarchy and how immigrants are positioned within it. This system, whose roots are steeped in white colonialism and Black enslavement, has fundamentally changed very little since the country’s inception when whites were positioned as the dominant class. But just as all who fall under the umbrella term “white” do not have the same history—nor have they had the same access to “whiteness,” power, or privilege—all people grouped together as “Black” do not have the same history or ties to American slavery or oppression.

However, one thing is true of both Blacks or whites who have sought upward mobility in America: Many did so, intentionally or not, by distancing themselves from native-born Blacks and reinforcing the narrative of Black inferiority.

“Whether one arrived as an immigrant or is a descendant of U.S. slavery, the very social, economic, political, and psychological structures that propel individuals to figuratively and literally distance themselves from ‘blackness’ is rooted in chattel slavery and continues today as the juxtaposition by which ‘whiteness’ and upward mobility is defined,” Darrick Hamilton, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, told the Daily Dot. “A non-trivial social benefit from reparations for descendants of U.S. slaves would be its effect towards dismantling a narrative and system by which, more broadly, racial stratification and inequality persists and remains the status quo.”

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As we may remember from our American history class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were among the first to colonize America, dominating its financial, academic, and legal institutions for centuries. That dominance was only undermined with the gradual influx of other European immigrants, like the Irish and Italians, and not without a decades-long fight. These “lesser-than” immigrant whites fought hard to assimilate into dominant white culture, oftentimes throwing native-born Blacks under the bus—by distancing themselves from, reinforcing negative stereotypes about, and oppressing native Blacks by usurping their position in the labor market.

While WASPs spent centuries enjoying the privileges afforded to them as the first to colonize the nation, African-Americans, whose lineages date back to slavery, have had the exact opposite experience. Not even considered human, Africans who were brought to America as enslaved people had to fight for the right to occupy the lowest strata of America’s social hierarchy. A strata where basic rights like access to a decent education, drinkable water, and affordable housing have never been afforded to many, despite centuries of hard labor and dedication. While this continues, some African Americans see Blacks who immigrate to America as another source of competition.

In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, making it easier for Africans to enter the U.S.—but mostly as students or highly skilled professionals. In turn, 37 percent of Nigerians who moved to the U.S. hold a bachelor’s degree, according to 2006 Census Bureau survey. This does not mean that all Nigerians are actually more educated (or culturally motivated to be educated) than Americans, but that Nigeria is sending its most educated population to compete with native-born Blacks who may not have had access to the same quality education due to disenfranchisement.

This reality—and the misinformation surrounding it—can cause animosity and tension between immigrant groups and native-born Blacks. That tension is further fueled by some Black immigrants’ willingness to “distance” themselves from native-born Blacks in a bid to climb America’s social ladder. For example, in October, tensions flared after an old tweet was unearthed in which British Nigerian actress Cynthia Erivo, who was recently cast as Harriet Tubman in an upcoming biopic, mocked African-American Vernacular English, referring to it as a “ghetto American accent.” Such blatant disregard of African American culture by Black immigrants is commonplace, driving some of the negative sentiments between the two groups.

To further complicate matters, ADOS’s anti-immigration stance is further reinforced by the notion that immigrants from the Southern border are responsible for lower wages and higher unemployment rates for native-born Black people—a highly controversial notion predominantly promulgated by racists.

In a video titled “Data Explains How Illegal Immigration Impacts Our Communities,” Carnell drives this idea by referencing a study briefing given by late Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) in 1995. “When immigrants are less well-educated and less skilled, they may pose economic hardships to for most vulnerable of Americans,” said Jordan, who was the first African-American congresswoman to come from the Deep South. ”Particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed.”

However, Carnell fails to acknowledge that Jordan simply said “may pose an economic hardship” and that various studies have since found immigration to have “virtually no effect” on wages. In fact, a 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences said, “When measured over a period of more than 10 years, the impact of immigration on the wages of natives overall is very small.” Furthermore, a 2018 policy brief on immigration by the National Foundation for American Policy found that an increase in immigrant participation in the labor force actually reduces the unemployment rate of U.S. natives and that there is no evidence that immigration has adverse effects among less-educated American-born workers.

Even in studies where researchers did find that illegal immigration depressed wages and increased unemployment among low-skilled American citizens, who are disproportionately Black men, the research also stressed that stopping illegal immigration would not solve Black unemployment or low wages. The study concluded that “the problem cannot be solved without solving the problems of the high school dropout rates, high rates of family instability and low job-retention rates.” It also highlighted the fact that low-skilled work has a greater chance of being shipped overseas due to globalization if employers are pressured to increase wages. Black people not getting jobs or adequate pay is really about racism and oppression, not illegal immigration.

Still, ADOS has run with the view that Black immigration—and immigration as a whole—is a threat, feeding followers’ fears of displacement. When pressed about their position on immigration, many ADOS followers told the Daily Dot anecdotal stories about witnessing or being affected by the negative effects of immigration.

“From a personal standpoint, I know that a lot of these companies let immigrants come in and undercut Black people,” ADOS follower Jackson told the Daily Dot over the phone. “In order for me to get my job, I had to go to school and get specialized training … and here is a guy who is not even supposed to be in this country working right next to me making the same money.”

“I’m from New Orleans, post-Katrina, and when folks were doing contracting, a whole bunch of immigrants were brought in by all of the subsidiaries of Halliburton,” Kimberly Richardson, an ADOS follower, told the Daily Dot. “Black workers were almost never able to get work when Latin workers were in New Orleans.”

Many note that ADOS got the foundation for its agenda from economist Sandy Darity’s vision for reparations. In his paper “Forty Acres and a Mule in the 21st Century,” Darity asserts reparations should be a specific form of redress for American descendants of slaves who have endured centuries of oppression, despite laying the foundation for the country. His plan does exclude Black immigrants, citing native Blacks have the right to their own justice claim. ADOS takes this a step further, however, leaning into this exclusion with greater repercussions for immigrants and minorities, and, as critics say, marrying it to the right wing.

ADOS has expended a lot of energy to highlight the “threat” of immigration under the guise of slave descendants’ advancement. But in demanding an exclusive reparations plan to the exclusion of non-native Blacks—as well as attacking Black leaders and celebrities who have immigrant backgrounds and employing anti-immigrant language to try to secure a political win—critics say the movement undermines Black liberation by aligning with nationalist, white conservative thought and politics.

 

ADOS and the 2020 Democratic race

On Twitter and beyond, ADOS founders and followers will tell you that the movement has helped draw a spotlight to the issue of reparations and bring it into the mainstream.

Back in 2016, Democratic leaders Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama were all asked if they would support reparations and they all responded in opposition. In 2019, Democratic candidates are treading far more carefully.

“The current group of Democratic candidates are taking more liberal positions,” explained Juliet Hooker, professor of political science at Brown University and author of Theorizing Race in the Americas. “[They] seem to be signaling that they open and at least not saying that reparations are off the table or that it isn’t something we should be talking about, which is a shift.”

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In February, Breakfast Club host Charlamagne Tha God asked Democratic presidential hopefuls Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) if they had specific agendas for Black people. “I have a specific agenda for the American people,” Booker responded, likely alluding to “Baby Bonds,” a non-race-specific plan to close the wealth gap for all Americans by creating a savings account for all newborns. 

Harris has expressed support for reparations but is still uncertain about what that should look like. “We need to study the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism and determine what can be done, in terms of intervention, to correct course,” she said during an NPR interview.

Sanders was also confronted with the question in March during a Breakfast Club interview. When asked where he stands on paying reparations to African descendants of slavery, he responded: “We have to deal with the fact there is enormous disparity between the Black community and the white community.” But when pressed further by the host to declare whether he would support cash payments as reparations, Sanders said no.

However, Sanders changed course last Friday, saying that he would support a bill to fund studies on reparations for slavery. “I would say this: There needs to be a study,” Sanders said at Al Sharpton’s annual conference.

Three days later, Booker announced he will introduce a Senate bill to study reparations.

ADOS followers have credited the ADOS movement for Democrats’ about-face on reparations. “I think that it [ADOS] has attracted a degree of credibility because at this point, [reparations] is now a political issue,” ADOS follower Trevon Logan said. “You can’t run for the Democratic nomination without a statement, positive or negative, about reparations.”

Irami OF ADOS @IramiOF/Twitter

While reparations is an important conversation to have as 2020 approaches, it’s the manipulation of such a sensitive subject, often the detriment of Black people’s best interests, that critics have a hard time with.

“A lot of [ADOS followers] are saying… ‘Don’t worry about what Yvette says, deal with the fact that now we are having the conversation and that is what is important,’” Kweli told the Daily Dot. “I agree with that, if the conversation being driven is about the best way forward for reparations, but that’s not the conversation they are driving. The conversation they are driving is how do we take out the Democrats.”

The ADOS movement and its attack on and refusal to support Democrats who do not promote its agenda have very serious implications. Ravi Perry, author and chair of the Department of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Daily Dot it will only lead to Black people not participating in American politics because of “disillusionment.”

“Once this movement is over and the national story has moved on—which ultimately will happen—people will be left wondering what happened and thinking that politicians have failed again,” he said.

Though the Black immigrant population has increased five-fold since 1980 from 816,000 to 4.2 million in 2016, African-Americans still make up more the 90 percent of U.S. Black population, and thus comprise the majority of the “Black vote,” which is historically cast in favor of Democrats. Some fear that a movement which pits native-born Blacks against Dems could ultimately empower Republicans by driving Blacks away from the polls, especially in light of the decline in Black voter turnout since the Obama era. And it is precisely that fear that ADOS hopes will force the hand of Democrats to meet its demands.

Tariq Nasheed ADOS @tariqnasheed/Twitter

Michael Hicks ADOS @mrhick01/Twitter

This can be seen as a slap in the face to various organizations currently in the fight to end voter suppression. In 2013, the Supreme Court removed a crucial element from the Voting Rights Act that resulted in an onslaught of suppressive laws that affected over 110 million people and their right to vote, especially Black people. While the ACLU is fighting to end this suppression and has advised Congress to completely restore the Voting Rights Act, ADOS followers are spreading the word to throw away their vote unless all ADOS demands are met.

“I think it’s the ultimate anti-Black position because what you then are creating is a culture where if you don’t get everything you want, you aren’t going to participate—that means you are never going to participate,” Perry said about ADOS’s political stance. “Black people are going to have a harder [chance at] opportunity if we are not voting to actually protect our rights and expand them.”

ADOS’s stance is seemingly politically inexpedient, but the sentiments driving such a drastic all-or-nothing strategy have long been brewing. After years of voting for Democrats, many descendents of slaves have grown tired of the party’s failure to address the issues that affect them, including inadequate access to education, the housing crisis, and even access to clean drinking water—all of which are among the myriad of issues the movement ADOS seeks to address. Many of the movement’s followers feel duped by the election of Obama, whose platform promised he would be the “change we need.” Instead, ADOS followers point out that some of the former president’s policies significantly harmed descendants of slaves, proving that empowering a politician (whether they be Democrat, Republican, Black, Brown, or otherwise) who does not explicitly address ADOS concerns and needs could mean generations of ADOS will continue to only inherit injustice. For ADOS followers, the “no reparations, no vote” stance is simply a matter of drastic times calling for drastic measures.

However, it should be noted that this political strategy is not new. In a 1964 speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X ridiculed Black people for voting for a party that did not serve their interest, urging Black people to make sure they were going to receive something in exchange for their vote. This was actually a conservative political move, relative to the politics of the Nation of Islam, which viewed itself as independent citizens of its own nation and therefore did not participate in American elections at all. However, in 1996, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan addressed Black voters, saying they could stay home if they weren’t going to get anything out of Bill Clinton, but if Black people wanted to be “meaningful” participants, “then we have to ask Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole to address the agenda of the masses.” In other words, even one of the most radical Black organizations in America has come to accept the importance of voting and with good reason. Meanwhile, ADOS is still operating in the extreme.

Who knows what 2020 will bring; it is likely that reparations will never fully be addressed or instituted by any Democratic candidate or president without serious pressure. And for that reason, ADOS leaders and followers are sticking to their guns. Whether the movement will address the serious implications of its anti-immigrant sentiment remains to be seen. For now, the group is pushing forward with its reparations agenda, even if it ends with another four years of dog-whistling to white nationalists and adding to the systemic racism they say they are fighting against.

Tiffanie Drayton

Tiffanie Drayton

Tiffanie Drayton is a geek culture and lifestyle reporter whose work covers everything from gender and race to anime and Xbox. Her work has appeared in Complex, Salon, Marie Claire, Playboy, and elsewhere.