I had not read anything by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar until the last few months. I have recently seen a few columns by him in Time Magazine, and I have been impressed with his analyses, logic and even-tempered approach. His August 17 column is no different in its tone, taking a serious look at class in America and what Ferguson means. However, while his writing is excellent, I find his analysis and conclusion to be fundamentally flawed.
To start, I will say that Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s lead paragraphs are very interesting. While I had heard of Kent State, I had never heard of the Jackson State shootings – which is precisely Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s point. The Jackson State shootings, as he explains happened as follows:
On May 14th, 10 days after Kent State ignited the nation, at the predominantly black Jackson State University in Mississippi, police killed two black students (one a high school senior, the other the father of an 18-month-old baby) with shotguns and wounded twelve others.
There was no national outcry. The nation was not mobilized to do anything. That heartless leviathan we call History swallowed that event whole, erasing it from the national memory
And, unless we want the Ferguson atrocity to also be swallowed and become nothing more than an intestinal irritant to history, we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.
Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s first point here is well-taken: the murder of white student protestors at Kent state elicited an outcry while the murder of black students did not. That was unfair in a society where all people are supposed to be equal. However, it isn’t surprising. Society in the 1970s was fairly racist across the board. Furthermore, in the 1970s the country was dominated by a small oligopoly of media outlets who exercised control over the news and decided what was and was not important. If those outlets decided that the murder of black boys was unimportant, there were no significant outlets that could change that. Today, there is less of a chance of that occurring due to the fragmentation of the media and new technologies. Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s second point, that Ferguson is representative of class warfare, is not so well-taken. While I agree with many of the points that are made in the column about how the poor are often poorly served by the state (and Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s central point is that it is not race, but class that makes incidents like Ferguson a reality), to say it is class warfare is to mistake an outcome for a motive.
And it is here that Mr. Abdul-Jabbar not only goes off course, but uses conspiracy rhetoric to attempt to explain the United States. That starts with such phrases as “[a]nd that’s how the status quo wants it” to creating a mass of people called the “One Percent” (capitals in the original) who, according to Abdul-Jabbar, need to “keep the poor fractured by distracting them with emotional issues like immigration, abortion and gun control so they never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.”
This argument fails on two levels. The first is that the claim of the “One Percent” itself is utter nonsense (a point which Mr. Abdul-Jabbar himself recognizes later in the piece when he says there are a few good apples who are wealthy and he doesn’t mean to include everyone who has money in his One Percent). There is no One Percent in the sense of a large body of people conspiring to keep the underclasses down. The wealthy in this country comprise free market Republican energy tycoons, big government Democratic venture capitalists, industrialist, newspaper magnates, highly paid trial lawyers, surgeons, small business owners, etc. They come from all over the country and hold vastly different views. While they certainly share wealth, status and move in the same circles, they are not a monolithic group – by any stretch of the imagination – when it comes to their politics and their views on class. The second is that the “One Percent”, or even a small percentage of that group, wishes to keep the poor fractured. The top one percent may be wealthier than other citizens, but I will guarantee you that they are no different in terms of their humanity and their compassion. If Mr. Abdul-Jabbar were to ask the wealthiest people in our society whether they want a more just, more equal, less discriminatory society where everyone does better, I doubt he would find one person who would say no. He might find vastly different views on the means by which those goals are achieved and their order of priority (which is more important, equality of opportunity or result, for instance) but he won’t find many who oppose the concepts themselves.
Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s column, at best, over-simplifies societal divisions to the point of meaninglessness. At worst, it seeks to explain US social policies as the result of some conspiracy amongst a wealthy, privileged class against the poor in America. It is an absurd assertion, not only because there is no evidence, but also because even the concept that the 3.2 million people that comprise the “One Percent” share a vision is laughable.