Towards a Politics of Sacrifice: Zaid Jilani, Americanness & the #ADOS Movement

I’m beginning to think that you can do this with all of them. All of them.

So when the next Progressive of Color appears with their smug and absolutely unctuous ridiculing of race-conscious historical analysis and policy goals, just ask Google to reveal everything that race consciousness in America has made possible in their life.

Like Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor-in-chief of Jacobin who last year chided proponents of reparations for being essentially useless impediments to a progressive future, Zaid Jilani gave an interview earlier this week deriding the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project”, at points literally scoffing at the many, many people whom he feels are so simpleminded as to insist on the primacy of race in shaping U.S. life over the last four-hundred years. It may come as no surprise that—also like Bhaskar Sunkara—Zaid Jilani was raised in a neighborhood in which the black population is estimated to be at 0.01% or less.1

Jilani grew up in Cobb County, Georgia in a neighborhood called Saddlebrook Farms. It was built in ’93, when Jilani would have been around 5 years old. The stone wall that stands at one of the entrances to the subdivision describes it as a “Classic Equestrian Community,” and it is referred to in other real estate marketing lit as a “Swim and Tennis Neighborhood.”2 The homes—which are constructed in the French provincial style of the 18th century—range in price from 640k to 1 million. They typically have 5-8 bedrooms and the kitchens sound Downton Abbeyesque in design.3

It is, in other words, precisely the kind of enclave of wealth one would anticipate finding in the “first tier suburbs” that Rebekah Cohen Morris notes started appearing in Cobb County after white people didn’t “want to risk their children having to go to school with black children.” An educator and anti-poverty advocate herself, Morris details how that history of intense white hostility to Atlanta’s school integration efforts was part of a continuum of ADOS lockout in America that began with slavery and has extended right up into our present, still fixing opportunity and determining today’s winners and losers. Pointing this out, though, is of course something to which Jilani would object. After all, during his Skype appearance on The Hill, throughout which he wore an absolutely simpering and pompous little smirk and looked like a newly whelped mole straining to adjust its eyes to the light, he dismissed the supposedly lazy tendency of some people to “pretend as if every malady in American life is a matter of something that happened between 1619 and maybe, uh, the Civil Rights Act of 1960.”4

That’s quite a statement coming from someone whose family was able to step into a very comfortable and opportunity-rich life in 90s Georgia precisely because of the state’s historically anti-ADOS attitudes and discriminatory state policies. When the Ku Klux Klan staged a motor rally in Cobb County in 1960 to express solidarity with the Cobb County White Citizens for Segregation—who, as historian Mary E. Odem says, “successfully pursued policies [to] separate themselves and their tax dollars” from the region’s American Descendants of Slavery—it’s worth thinking about how it was exactly those anti-ADOS efforts that shored up the property value in the county’s white regions where the Jilani family would eventually settle. Or how later in the run-up to the ’87 referendum on the MARTA expansion (Atlanta’s public transportation system), it was Cobb County residents ginning up opposition and stoking anti-ADOS anxieties with bumper stickers on their cars that read “Share Atlanta Crime—Support MARTA.”

These emphatic remonstrances screened the land on which the Jilani house now stands from what Antonio Moore has coined ‘the contagion’ of property value liability that ADOS, as a bottom caste, were made to be seen and treated as. And as Odem highlights, Northern Cobb County’s fierce defense of its exclusivity (which is to say the total fortification from ADOS encroachment) is not a thing of the past; as late as 2008, residents were adamantly opposing MARTA expansion proposals that would facilitate greater mobility between the area’s urban center and the suburbs. At that time, Jilani would have been a sophomore at UGA.5 And the home in which he’d grown up would have been doing what the shielding of American whiteness had naturally allowed it to do: appreciating by nearly half a million dollars. That wealth—which ADOS were terrorized out of and legally excluded from—is something that Jilani and his family now (and will for a long time to come) very much enjoy.

And so it’s interesting: Jilani has made a name for himself writing, in part, impassioned defenses of the need for historical accuracy in the school curricula. When the GOP proposed revising educational material in an effort to indoctrinate students with more traditionally conservative principles, he took to the Internet and proclaimed how understanding history in a way that corresponds with what actually happened is “the first line of defense for preparing children to be engaged and active citizens in the political process” (emph mine). And when—in another article—he talks about the student walkout demonstration in response to the Ed Boards’ proposals to change the curriculum, there’s a detail Jilani includes about how some of the kids were carrying signs that read “people didn’t die so we could erase them.” Arguably, it is that very same appeal at which Jilani now nakedly sneers.

And while he has extolled the virtue of historical truth informing a person’s politics, he is, at the same time, seemingly very much committed to policing how some people are choosing to engage politically with their truths. From his and his family’s position of such close-knit inclusion into American society—his position of such unmitigated advantage—he berates and heaps scorn upon the very people who for four-hundred years have sought their due for that same kind of access that he had growing up in America, that same abundance of opportunity. And so what does it mean for a person whose whole life is attributable to his country’s instinct to murder and exclude ADOS to then go around giving interviews and writing articles disparaging the idea of insisting on that group’s history being the very marrow of our contemporary political discourse?

Indeed, of those people who’ve died, I cannot think of a death suffered more in vain given someone like Jilani’s eagerness to suppress the centrality of race, of why they died, of what they fought to fix. And if he actually cared about those people—if he actually gave a shit about justice for the group—then he’d know that you don’t go around bleating on about how your politics are so much superior than a politics that actually tries to honor their dead. Truthfully, someone like Zaid Jilani has no actual politics. Not really. It’s a little buffet-style belief template that allows him to breezily invoke damaging rightwing tropes about black families in one interview and then, on another day, write articles posing moralistic Lefty questions like “[H]ow is it we can all start to see that breadth of the American identity so that we can associate people who are non-white with being Americans, too?”

The question sure is rich, considering the speaker and his refusal to accept the idea that Americanness has always been (and still is) whatever’s left over for everyone after you bottom caste a specific lineage. That might be a lot for some groups of people, and it might be a little for some others, but make no mistake, those people who have even just a little of it will fight tooth and nail to deny the bottom caste any share of it whatsoever. So the real question is: how do we make American the specific people from whom Americanness has always been withheld?

It will no doubt aggrieve many who are sympathetic to that project to hear that the answer is through something like a politics of sacrifice; an advocacy that necessarily entails your own loss. It will entail something that—not only will we need to learn why and how we need to make—but which we then will also have to teach our children why and how they need to make it, too, and so on. And any fellow “ally” who is quick to tell you that—even on some small level—they don’t struggle or wrestle with that reality of sacrificing their own advantage is outright lying to you. They shouldn’t be trusted any more than Jilani, who is either simply an idiot or whose deliberate and total absence of humility in the face of his own personal history should inspire fear and rage. Indeed, it is precisely that obvious and blatant disregard for what the group is owed that, when we observe it, should move us past whatever qualms we might have and toward a firm belief in the righteousness of #ADOS politics. Because the kind of politics needed to make ADOS American exists completely outside the little circle-jerk cliques that Jilani so casually moves in and out of. It is a sort of politics that, in practice, looks exactly unlike the careerism that is so obviously at the core of his political commentary, and which—at the absolute most basic level—demands we disabuse ourselves of the false comfort that we can or even should try to circumvent the leviathan that is the lineage-based disadvantage of ADOS, a thing which has made so much possible, for so many people, and all at their group’s complete expense.

n o t e s

1. This is according to the most recent census data on policymap.com. The black people who do live nearby don’t exactly seem representative of the group’s general economic condition, either. Black household income, at the median, is just over 75k. And you’d have to drive several miles until you start seeing a situation where more than .07% of black people are living in poverty.

2. The Saddlebook Farms HOA’s annual fee covers maintenance of the swimming pool and tennis courts. In general, Saddlebrook Farms is almost caricatural in its whiteness and privilege. Blind wine tasting parties are apparently a regular thing, and there’s a Yard of the Month contest, which sounds absolutely tyrannical and anxiety-provoking.

3. Interesting to note here that this particular structural aesthetic refers to the provincial nobility in France who wanted to distance their community from the metropolis they considered “too urban” for their tastes. The very same thing appears to have animated the development of this residential area in Cobb County, but the area’s history doesn’t suggest that the white people were eve remotely interested in using any polite euphemisms like ‘too urban’ to describe their motivations; they pretty explicitly made it clear they didn’t want black people around, which will become apparent in the main text’s next paragraph…

4. For his own high school education, Zaid attended Kennesaw Mountain High, which was founded in 2000 as a magnet school. Ruthie Yow, the author of “Students of the Dream: Resegregation in a Southern City”, describes these magnet programs as “mini ivory towers because of subtle gate keeping that locks out poor children.”

5. His sister, who now works for the Pentagon’s top weapons supplier and Fortune 100 company Lockheed Martin, would have been studying at Parsons, an elite art and design school in Manhattan. From there, she would make the not-exactly-lateral move to pursue a Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2014, the New York Times announced her marriage to Gregory Whitten, who works as an “independent consultant to Fortune 500 companies on healthcare, including the pharmaceutical industry, health IT, and both federal and private sector entrants.”