They should have ‘simply worn red’

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Fig. 1. Photograph via CNN, June 8, 2020, fair use. The photographer is not identified.[1]

Those congressional leaders (figure 1) should simply have worn red. And Nana Efua Mumford uses the word to describe what Congressional leaders did with those stoles when they kneeled[2] that I suspected applied: appropriation.[3]

The word “kente” derives from the expression “kea ԑnte,” meaning “no matter how hard you try, it won’t tear.” These cloths have specific names and convey unspoken yet strong messages. The stoles worn by the group were strips of a much larger fabric that is customarily worn in times of celebration.

Indeed, Democrats wrapped themselves in the colorful, bright kente, which can be considered inappropriate or insulting for somber moments. A more appropriate traditional cloth for death, especially a violent death, is a red and black adinkra cloth. If the lawmakers wanted a culturally authentic acknowledgment of the vile and inhumane death of George Floyd, they could have worn that cloth — or, better yet, simply worn red.[4]

I think Mumford enriches my understanding of ‘appropriation’ a bit. It isn’t just that these colonizing politicians used a cultural artifact without understanding and respect for the culture it was drawn from,[5] but that through their lack of understanding, they misused it.[6]

If we are to understand the wearing of the kente cloth, as Nancy Pelosi and other leaders did, as ‘celebration,’ I suppose we would be celebrating “their new police reform legislation[7] that I expect will go nowhere in the Senate and is therefore an empty gesture. And given that understanding of this ‘celebration,’ we would then be obscuring the colonization that abducted Africans from their homelands and coerced them into slavery and all that Blacks have been subject to since,[8] including no less than a century of police murder.[9]

But even if we accept celebration as appropriate, the bill just ain’t so hot:

This bill includes much-needed provisions to help end racial profiling, ban chokeholds, create a national database for police misconduct and use-of-force, as well as establish a national use-of-force standard. But this bill fails to fully address issues like police militarization and the use of quick-knock raids. These policing practices are deadly tactics of the drug war, disproportionately used against people of color in drug investigations. This legislative measure is not the bold solution this moment requires.[10]

And that’s before we get to the danger of authorizing anyone to use even lethal force in our society, to enforce laws written principally by wealthy white men,[11] largely to apply to the poor and to people of color[12] and adjudicated through a system, also run largely by wealthy white males, that reinforces bigotry[13] and that generally puts as many poor people and people of color behind bars as it can[14] in the context of a system structured to keep the poor poor.[15] The peculiarity of the police role in our society seems tailor-made to attract bullies, and the notion of ‘police reform’ does not even begin to scratch the surface of what’s needed.[16]

But the most glaring failing of the Justice in Policing Act is that it neglects to reimagine public safety. It continues to fund police departments rather than redirect resources to communities, particularly Black and Brown communities that have been most harmed by over-policing and the war on drugs. This moment calls for investing in infrastructure that increases public safety such as ensuring all of have equal access to quality education, affordable housing, a living wage, and infusing money in non-carceral responses to social issues like harm reduction programs for people who use drugs problematically. It requires that we end the criminalization of work that people engage in to survive, such as sex work and drug sales.[17]

In this light, the bill is much more a celebration of the status quo. There’s much more to mourn here than to celebrate. And I just don’t know how you rescue the Democrats’ use of kente cloth stoles.

  1. [1]Alicia Lee, “Congressional Democrats criticized for wearing Kente cloth at event honoring George Floyd,” CNN, June 8, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/08/politics/democrats-criticized-kente-cloth-trnd/index.html
  2. [2]Nana Efua Mumford, “Democratic leaders’ kneeling was fine. The kente cloth was not,” Washington Post, June 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/11/educate-yourself-before-you-wear-kente/
  3. [3]David Benfell, “On kente cloth and appropriation,” Irregular Bullshit, June 9, 2020, https://disunitedstates.com/2020/06/09/on-kente-cloth-and-appropriation/
  4. [4]Nana Efua Mumford, “Democratic leaders’ kneeling was fine. The kente cloth was not,” Washington Post, June 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/11/educate-yourself-before-you-wear-kente/
  5. [5]David Benfell, “On kente cloth and appropriation,” Irregular Bullshit, June 9, 2020, https://disunitedstates.com/2020/06/09/on-kente-cloth-and-appropriation/
  6. [6]Nana Efua Mumford, “Democratic leaders’ kneeling was fine. The kente cloth was not,” Washington Post, June 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/11/educate-yourself-before-you-wear-kente/
  7. [7]Robin Givhan, “Congress’s kente cloth spectacle was a mess of contradictions,” Washington Post, June 9, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/06/09/congresss-kente-cloth-spectacle-was-mess-contradictions/
  8. [8]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
  9. [9]Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Do We Change America?” New Yorker, June 8, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america
  10. [10]Maritza Perez, “The Congressional Police Reform Bill Fails to Meet the Moment,” Common Dreams, June 12, 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/06/12/congressional-police-reform-bill-fails-meet-moment
  11. [11]David Benfell, “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10,” Not Housebroken, June 7, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/22/a-constitutional-oligarchy-deconstructing-federalist-no-10/
  12. [12]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2004).
  13. [13]Dan Simon, In Doubt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).
  14. [14]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons (New York: New Press, 2011).
  15. [15]David Benfell, “Keeping the poor, poor, even when they serve their country,” Not Housebroken, May 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/27/keeping-the-poor-poor-even-when-they-serve-their-country/
  16. [16]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  17. [17]Maritza Perez, “The Congressional Police Reform Bill Fails to Meet the Moment,” Common Dreams, June 12, 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/06/12/congressional-police-reform-bill-fails-meet-moment

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