Christian Smalls and Amazon Labor Union Members Celebrate Vote to Unionize in New York City on Aril 1, 2022 (Photo: REUTERS/ Brendan McDermid)
The allure of Black representation in high places can be very dangerous. A Black man organizes an unprecedented union victory but gets less attention than one celebrity slapping another. Yet it is the union organizer who will have a real impact on the lives of Black people.
Because most of what passes as Black thought nowadays has been criminally captured by white capital (philanthropic foundations, corporate advertising, government funding, academia, business roundtables etc.) it was inevitable that the recent union victory against Amazon would fail to trend in the same spellbounding way as recent stories have in the Blacksphere. As a consequence, a feeble smack from one rich negro onto another and a token "First Black" woman judge appointed to a supreme court that regularly rules against (Black) labor is naturally lifted above the story of the first union to form against the insidiously hostile employer, Amazon, that was led by a working class Black man, Chris Smalls. A well needed victory considering as of 2020 Black people made up 31 percent of the lowest paid employees at Amazon.
But this is not about representation in the narrow sense of what group of Black people deserves visibility over the next as it so often goes. It's a question of what indeed serves the needs of the people.
Most Black people are workers (or flat out unemployed). We are not celebrities. We are not influencers. We are not business owners. We are regular people trying to make ends meet, usually working for stingy employers who barely pay us enough to make those ends meet. Yet, popular conversations in the Blacksphere are disproportionately consumed with talk of Black faces in elite spaces or "Buy Black" campaigns that rarely seem to take the worker at said Black business into consideration. Rather, these conversations tend to privilege a small minority of Black people who most of us will never become, and as a result, do not represent our needs. So why are they the center of conversation?
As stated at the opening, most of Black thought has been bought off by white capital. As in the Black artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, journalists, academics, influencers, activists who have the most sway over our day-to-day discourse are employed by, funded by, and/or backed by white capitalists whose interests are antithetical to our own. Behind this group of neo-colonial ventriloquists is a whole other striver class of Black folks auditioning for the same Black elite roles. Their overall class function is to herd the rage of the Black sheep back into the stables of the State.
The more we strive to be like this class of Black herdsmen the more we work against our own interests. As emancipatory journalist Dr. Jared Ball regularly reminds us, most of Black media are too invested in obtaining white ad dollars to center the Black working and lumpen class. To do so would potentially threaten the market share of the corporate backers they so desperately covet. Their backers are not so partial to a Black worker-led labor movement. Instead, they foolishly want us to believe celebrity deathmatches "protect" Black women more than collective bargaining. However, it's fair to say more Black people work at Amazon-like facilities than receive Oscars.
So what does serve the needs of the people? What does representation look like divorced from elite capture? If representation holds any value at all it must be to represent the needs of the people: food, shelter, healthcare, education, safety, resources, dignity, power just to name a few. The newly formed Amazon labor union by no means fills all those voids nor is it the most revolutionary act to be done. What it does is give Black workers a power base to struggle with alongside other oppressed people. If the victory sparks unionization across other Amazon-like facilities it will build a much larger power base than any "First Black" politicians, "Buy Black" campaigns or Black celebrity meltdowns combined.
This reality is not missed on white capital hence why cosmetic diversity and repressive action are used to counter such a possibility. I, like many Black folk in this settler colony, understand the need to escape the grips of our daunting reality from time to time. Entertainment and Black visibility can certainly aid in that endeavor but ultimately the goal has to be to transform our reality — not simply escape it. Celebrity centered analysis fails this goal. Shedding the Black peddlers of white capital is a start. Perhaps then the Black masses can serve our own needs.
Too Black is a poet, member of Black Alliance For Peace, and host of The Black Myths Podcast on Black Power Media. He is based in Indianapolis, IN and can be reached at [email protected] or @too_black_ on Twitter.