This episode of the podcast features a discussion with Brandi Collins-Dexter, the author of the new book BLACK SKINHEAD: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future. Brandi is both an academic and a civil rights activist in the fight for media and tech justice, and her book is a rollercoaster ride through those issues through culture and music and politics. Part media and cultural criticism, part memoir, and part warning, the book takes us to the fringes of Black communities and tries to make sense of our political moment.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.
So we’re going to talk a little bit about this book today, which has everything, politics, wrestling, football, road trips, music, just about everything you could possibly imagine. I think before we start that though, I’d like to just start a little bit with you and who you are. You start this book with an introduction that focuses on your father and your experience with him throughout your life and also his illness. Can you start us there? This book seems like it’s important to you, not just intellectually of course, but it’s also a very personal exploration of your identity and experience.
It’s actually kind of funny because I didn’t intend to get quite so personal with the book. And so the premise of it, it’s a collection of essays that draw from a number of different spaces. But as part of that, I interviewed Black voters between the ages of 18 and 108 of all different political identities that I could find. My parents were kind meant to be some of those interviews, right? Because it’s easy to ask your friends and family and expand from there.
So I’d spent several hours with my dad in the summer of 2020 interviewing him and talking to him about his life and how his life shaped his politics. And then as I was going into the writing in fall of 2020, he fell unexpectedly ill. He had a surgery that he didn’t necessarily need to get in 2020, but they pushed it for various reasons and the surgery didn’t turn out well. So he was declining from a health standpoint.
I found myself thinking about how many times I told him I was going to write the story of his life and finding myself running out of time to do that. So I actually stopped. I was in the middle of writing, you mentioned wrestling. I was in the middle of writing the essay that would become the one on wrestling and populism, and I stopped it to write the story of his life so that I could try to read it to him before he died.
I didn’t fully get there. He was in hospice when I read him what became the prologue, but I didn’t intend to put it in the book. I needed to submit some writing to my publishers and so I sort of submitted it to buy time and they were like, “You have to include this.” I went through a lot of hand wringing around whether or not to do that. And then I realized that ultimately why I wanted to include that is because there’s so many different Easter eggs in it that cues up the themes that I’ll talk about throughout the book.
So his story is about the pursuit of the American dream as we understand it despite all the odds and things working against him. And then the way in which that taught me sort of my politic. So doing that did a couple things. One, it introduces you to me, to my family, where I come from, how the personal is political, but then also just from a practical standpoint once I did that, the gloves were off. There was no place that I was afraid to go to throughout the book, and so I was able to be more fearless with my writing because of it.
You are an activist and intellectual. You have led a bunch of campaigns that people are probably aware of, even if they’re not aware of your own attachment to them. Accountability for Fox News, the push to get R Kelly dropped from RCA for his behavior, net neutrality, efforts against hate groups, et cetera. Is this book in some ways a retrospective intellectual scaffolding for some of that work? Is that one way to see it?
It’s interesting you asked that question. I mean, I think it is. As I was writing it and my husband was reading different parts of it, he kept saying, “This is a philosophy book,” and I was really offended by that because I hate philosophy to be honest. Well, hate philosophy is a weird way to say that, but it always just feels really up in the air. To me it doesn’t feel tangible or concrete. And so I resisted that idea. I thought of it more as a pop history of media justice almost. But what I realized is that I started out wanting to write a story around misinformation and misinformation and the tech economy and all of the things that happen when we lose physical space and place.
And then we try to reconstruct our communities online with strangers like what does that mean? What do we lose? What I realized is I couldn’t get to that story of modern technology without telling a story of how we got here and really showing in all of the big and small ways what we’ve lost as people. And even though I focus that through the lens of the Black experience, I think that there’s a lot of aspects of it that feel universal. And my hope is that as people read it, they’ll think of spaces that they’ve lost and what that smacked for how they engage politically now.I mean, I do think it’s all of those things you said, whether I wanted it to be or not, but I found so much of the work that we’ve done together and the work that I’ve done in my life as being interconnected in this big way. So I’m trying to make sense of all those different pit stops.
So let’s get into some of the ideas. You spend the first part of the book kind of pondering how the reaction to Barack Obama resulted in, of course, the election of Donald Trump. And looking at somewhat at the narratives between Trump, between Biden, of course, who was the alternative to another four years of Donald Trump, you know that in some ways their rhetoric is not that different. I feel like that’s maybe a way into talking about what the kind of core of this book is about.
I think there’s tensions in the book that reflect tensions for me as well. And that’s the difference between a nostalgia for days gone by and then what does it mean to imagine a future beyond some of the most darkest and traumatic experiences that we’re having right now. Certainly what I felt like on election day in 2020 and the run up to that was that you had both of these candidates, President Biden, then President Trump talking about restoring things to the past, and Trump did that through this Make America Great, Keep America Great Again phrase that has a lot of historical connotations to it stemming back to the KKK and others.
But Biden is also drawing from this nostalgic era of days gone by. And what neither one of them is talking about is to the extent that that nostalgia was real. It was made possible through big government, through regulation. It was made possible through the new deal policies that came into play and how that’s cured trade, how that created certain possibilities for access to the middle class, how labor was built, how unions were built, and how all of those things have been unwound frankly by both parties and different iterations.
So this idea that we could go back to Leave it to Beaver without having concrete economic policies is not real. Moreover, it’s not desirable for a lot of people for whom the past represents a certain amount of trauma and hurt and being told that we are not part of this American fabric, American dream. So that’s part of what I’m trying to delve into there and also finding where are the places where we should allow ourselves to look nostalgically upon things that we once had and where do we have to leave those things behind in order to have a future that’s inclusive for all of us.
So I want to talk a little bit about just the concept of a Black skinhead. And you define the book… Pretty early on, you offer three definitions, but it might be useful for the listener just to hear it in your words. Why did you call this book Black Skinhead, apart from the Kanye West reference, which we’ll get into? But what does the term mean to you?
So some of this more or less starts when I lived in the UK for a couple of years in the 2000s and this movie came out that was called, This is England, and it was about the rise of the skinheads as a subculture. And through my work with Yulan Grant, who’s one of my researchers on the book, I unpacked more the history of the skinhead, which I wasn’t aware of. So it’s the first multicultural subculture in the UK after World War II.
So after everything gets bombed, there’s mass loss of spaces, loss of labor, all of these things. And so the UK brought in or England brought in people from their sort of colonized countries. So Jamaica, Trinidad, other places, put them on boats, brought them to London to try to rebuild London. So this country, England that had been quite monolithic culturally in a lot of ways was suddenly confronted with what to do with this question multiculturalism, particularly in the context of economic struggle.
So the skinhead subculture is this working class subculture of Black, Asian, white youth in the UK coming together around ska music, soul music, rocksteady, creating their own aesthetic that’s based of the practicalities of having to go workplaces and wear combat boots or having to keep their hair low instead of long as most people were in the 60s.
So they create this unique subculture. And then over time, because of the economic strife and a number of other things, nationalism, and this idea of who gets to define nationalism, it starts to fall apart. And what emerges from that are white skinheads and what we today most associate, many of us with skinheads, which are like neo-Nazis. So I was playing around with this question of what does it mean to define America as this monolithic identity in some ways with these different set of values when there’s so many different cultures embedded within that?
And then how does economic loss and the zero sum narrative hinder our ability to actually have this universal identity? So instead of thinking of white skinheads, neo-Nazis, what is that looking like with Black people in this country?
So when you start to unpack this disillusionment and perhaps populism and some of the other forces that are at play here, you arrive at a canary in the coal mine, Kanye West. So perhaps somewhat distinct from Barack Obama of course, but two men from Chicago, influential in their own way and yet very different visions of America. How does Kanye play into this book?
Yeah. So I prattled on, right? And I should give my shorthand with the previous question you asked. So Black Skinheads are disillusioned outliers who feel like they are not represented as voters or as a political base within mainstream definitions and understanding of Black voters. So really talking about how Black people are understood to be like capital D, staunch Democrats no matter what. And that leads first and then who are all the people for whom that doesn’t feel true, that feel let down by the Democratic Party that feel underrepresented in mainstream spaces.
So that’s what takes me to this kind of idea of the Black Skinhead and how I view Kanye within that is I define him as essentially a late stage Black Skinhead. So at the idea of what animates a Black skinhead or a skinhead is feeling like you’ve lost space and place in society and people don’t see you. What happens when you truly lose all senses of community and you’re only left with individual interest of trauma and strife and that’s all that you’re sort of battling for?
What happens when you lose your sense of linked fate or accountability to the people around you? That’s the late stage skinhead. I think for Kanye, he is somebody who has lost all of those connections to authentic community. I think he’s somebody that’s surrounded by a lot of figures. Candace Owens is one of the ones that I talk about in the book who are not interested with a pretense of either community or democracy, but they want to blow it all up.
So that’s the kind of what happens if we don’t get our act together essentially. I think as I was writing this, it felt like Kanye was getting there. I think I held a certain amount of hope or nostalgia that there could be an interruption of that. And then as we’ve seen over the last weeks and months, it feels like he’s getting to that place of no return. So it feels like the book in this odd way is even more resonant than I would’ve wanted it to be.
And Kanye himself, of course, media figure now of technology figure entrepreneur apparently attempting to purchase parlor the sort of fringe social media platform that was favored by supporters of Donald Trump. I do want to kind of bring in the sort of media and tech element of this, not just because this is the Tech Policy Press Podcast, but also because Kanye West, it is an underlying theme throughout the book. You write early on in the book, “it’s important for us to talk publicly about it and collectively understand why these sorts of fights for media ownership and tech accountability,” which you’ve been part of leading, “often take place at regulatory agencies like the FCC or FTC, why they matter as much as other justice fights like criminal and economic justice. I would even go so far as to say that without media justice, there is no chance for criminal or economic justice.”
How is media justice part of this book or how did you think of it as one of the underlying themes?
I mean, I don’t think if someone would’ve told me in the beginning that I was writing a media justice book. I would’ve necessarily thought that I was explicitly, but it has become so clear to me that the lessons learned from these fights that we’ve been in around the ability to have autonomy over our own communication structures and platforms, the ability to have at least an idea or pretense of a marketplace of ideas in order to make our individual communities safer or us as a society safer by organizing against powerful institutions that seek to keep us divided, and on the losing end of the economic cast.
I think that that ability to tell our own stories and our own words and all of the ways and fights that manifest in that quest. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is bind ourselves in our community, within society, within country, within community, this broader community in order to be our fully realized selves and to achieve a certain amount of autonomy, freedom and economic liberation, I guess I should say. That’s a lot woo-woo ya, ya words. But I feel like that’s what we’re striving for.
How somebody frames us dictates what’s possible for us in the policy realm. It dictates whether or not people that make decisions about our life see us as who we are or see us as the other threat that they have to keep on the other side of the door. So for me it’s media and tech justice fights. If we don’t win those, then that means someone else is telling our story. It means in the case of this sell of Twitter to Elon Musk as we’re already seeing, I don’t want to be so naive as to act like Twitter was ever this fully realized democratized media space. It’s always had gaps in it.
But that transition from that era where you had the rise of the first wave of BLM, Arab Spring, Euromaidan, these different movements that we’re able to use tech and platforms like Twitter to speak to people outside of those spaces, not only are those days gone because of ad models, algorithmic segregation, number of other things, but now we see with the sell of Twitter somebody coming in who really wants to create this unambiguous pay to play space.
Whether that’s people having to pay for their blue checks, which we can have a lot of critiques of blue checks, but this idea that you literally have to have the means and resources in order to maintain what is seen as a mark of you being credentialed or valid, and then what that means for then who is amplified, who gets to speak and the amount of resourcing that they have.
When you see all of those things playing out, when you see some of the mass amount of data that Musk is probably going to try to get even more than they already get from us in order to authenticate people and get rid of bots and where that data and information may go, who it may be sold to, there’s just all of these ways in which any idea that we could have these democratized communication spaces in order to move a truly liberatory agenda, they’re under attack right now.
It’s the same thing when you look at Kanye trying to buy Parler. It’s the same thing when you look at Facebook’s quest for global domination and the failure of institutions of government to actually adequately reign in and regulate these companies at scale. What we’re looking at is almost like what would’ve happened during the Gilded Age if there had been no alternative media to challenge and identify the struggles that we’re experiencing.
They’re taking that away. So we’re in this Gilded Age and it’s going to be, by my estimation, a hell of a lot worse than the Gilded Ages we’ve experienced in the past.
The book does contain a media history. You go back in time, you talk about the kind of creativity of Black people in adopting media technologies often as early adopters. You point out that in the ’90s the Aughts, Black people created their own digital safe spaces, technological innovations often to fill a void left by the traditional media.
I think part of this also goes back to this idea, I would say nobody’s in love with themselves more than journalists. I think journalists have such this idea that they’ve always been the saviors or gatekeepers of democracy, and there are cracks within that analysis in some spaces. But what’s also true is whoever gets to tell our story in our own words and to force public conversations on our own terms gets to set the agenda in all of these other realms.
Joe Torres talks about this in the book… Just in general, Joe Torres over at Free Press, but Joseph Torres and Juan Gonzalez wrote this book, News for all the People, which was one of my entry points into the media justice work was reading that book and having that be a game changer for me in terms of understanding how marginalized communities have consistently used media in order to move society forward.
So when we think about our ability to organize around an agenda that serves us, that’s the media justice fight. That’s everything that we have been able to use and wield to have power. And it’s true. Again, I talk about it for Black people, but when you look throughout history, you see this with Jewish communities. You see this with Italian and Irish communities in the early part of the 20th century organizing around labor fights and rights.
You see this around LGBTQ communities throughout history, but particularly we associate that with those civil rights fights of the 70s. You see that within the feminist movement. Every movement led by people who are locked outside of power who want to be seen as their authentic selves and have access to different spaces, the way in which those movements have been able to win to the extent. They were able to win was through shared media and ability to tell our own stories and shine a light on the injustices happening within our communities.
There are so many different aspects of this book that are media theory or cultural consideration of aspects of media. You get into hip hop of course. And you talk about drill as a phenomenon. Perhaps maybe we could just go down that path for a moment and maybe connect that back some of these ideas.
I think this is the other thing about it. We talk about media justice and the importance of narrative and storytelling and then we tend to do it in the most dry ways possible. I think part we do that sometimes because we are so much in these regulatory spaces. So it’s like you’re not necessarily going to go to the FCC and talk about why drill matters. You’re going to speak a certain way in these conversations. And so I think sometimes we carry that over into our movement spaces.
So I tried with this book to be a bit almost Media Justice 101 and leading with narrative and leading with these examples that can really help people feel and see what the issues are. And in the case of drill, one of the many aha moments that I had as I was researching the book and tried to write into the book was being able to contextualize the rise of drill and the broader context of what was happening globally.
So music culture, art has always been something that has politics embedded within it. And that is true of the rise of hip hop. It was initially a very sort political art form. A lot of the lyrics that you go back to, yeah, it’s about party anthems, but even little things when they’re The Roof is on Fire. I haven’t been able to verify this, but according to urban legend, where The Roof is on Fire comes from is being in the Bronx when buildings were going up in flames because people were being displaced.
So landlords and stuff were setting fire to buildings. So it’s literally the roof is on fire, we don’t need no water, let it burn. So it’s all these little political things. And so then I’m looking at drill emerges in out of Chicago or around the 2008 era, and it’s arriving at this time of mass loss. By the end of the 2008 recession, Black people will have lost anywhere to 50 to 60% of Black wealth. And many of that will come through mass land loss. And Chicago, south side of Chicago, which had concentrated Black wealth and land that was particularly profound.
So people were seeing the closing down of businesses. They were seeing churches get lost. They were seeing in schools closed down. Just this full on descent to the urban decay and this kind of nightmare image that people already had of this outside of Chicago. People were experiencing that. At the same time that people are organizing around Occupy and talking about the housing crisis and the concentration of wealth, you have this art form, and I describe it as almost like a musical riot.
Occupy in a lot of ways was kind of intellectual. It was in a lot of ways… Not completely, but it was led by a lot of people that were connected, had access to the internet, who had access to the internet then and now. It tends to be people of a certain class. It was students occupying camps. It had all of these different elements to it, not all the way through.
But for me, I think drill music was a form of talking about what was happening in a way that didn’t feel neat, that didn’t feel clean, that didn’t feel like protesting in a way where comfortable with protest rhetoric, but was definitely talking about the need to preserve our spaces through these kind of different gang affiliations. I talk about that as a way for us instead of looking at this music. It’s also one of the most surveilled musical art forms right now. It’s constantly censored on YouTube and in other spaces.
People are arrested based on their lyrics or start to be monitored based on their lyrics. And what’s the quirk of that is usually if you are a successful music artist, that means you’ve moved away from certain spaces because you’re doing this art form. But the way in which it’s under surveillance, censored and all of these other things, part of what I’m saying in that analysis is that we actually have to look at why do people feel this angry? Why do people feel this loss? Why do people feel like they have to protect their communities?
It’s because of this mass land loss. So look at the system’s failures and what are we doing about those things? And if we’re not doing anything to fix those things, what are the darker spaces that we’re going to lead to? And in a lot of ways, I think we’re seeing that through a number of ways being unleashed globally right now.
I want to take this back to Kanye a little bit, because you take us back to 2005, this moment after Katrina, which maybe to some extent is the most extreme version of what you’re talking about, of a devastation of a Black community. Kanye kind of emerges as a sort of, I don’t know, spokesperson almost for something that a lot of people are feeling. You point out his famous words, “Of course, George Bush doesn’t care about Black people in this consideration of portrayals of Black suffering in the media.”
It’s an interesting moment of politicization. Would that be the right word? Are people getting really political in a way that I don’t think I realized until hindsight for a couple of different reasons. One because I actually in fall of 2000 moved to London and lived there for a couple years, so I think I missed a lot of different things like the starts of color of change in an organization I used to work for in a number of other Black led organizations. It’s also kind of pre-mass saturation of social media platforms. And some of the ones that we regularly use. I’m not even sure existed then or was in the early days. And I feel like I was still on MySpace. I don’t even think I got on Facebook until I was back in the States. We didn’t necessarily have these broad levels of discourse and information moving quite as fast as it is today.
So a soundbite could kind of last a little bit longer than it does right now. But Kanye comes out and he talks about… Within that speech, he actually talks about the failures of media. A lot of that gets lost. We talk about the George Bush doesn’t care about Black people, but what he’s saying in the speech is that the media when they see white people waiting through the waters and Hurricane Katrina, they’re saying they’re finding food. When they see Black people, media saying that they’re looting. The media through its rhetoric and narrative is giving law enforcement and people acting outside of the orders of law enforcement, giving them permission to literally gun Black people down in our communities and I’m heartbroken over this.
That’s essentially what he’s saying. And that critique of media doesn’t last nearly as long as the critique of President Bush. But I think that really landed with a lot of people who did feel locked outside of media or locked outside of the story. And one of the things that was interesting about even the interviews that I did with Black voters, because I interviewed Black leftists, I interviewed Black MAGA people, I interviewed people even in that drill chapter. One of the people in it, Vic, I’m not sure if I left this in there, but he explicitly says he doesn’t vote because it’s not going to do anything for him.
He repeatedly calls President Obama “the feds,” which I thought was interesting on a number of different levels, but no matter what political identity they were part of, a lot of the Black people that I interviewed of a certain age named Katrina as a radicalizing moment for them.
So they were Black Republicans that said seeing how much we were abandoned during Hurricane Katrina made me realize that government is never going to show up for us. And so we have to lean towards building out our capital. I don’t want big government. I want guns to protect my community. I want businesses and I want to build my own economy. And then you heard people on the left saying like Hurricane Katrina was a radicalizing moment for me because I saw how corrupt the system was.
I saw the corrupt policing and I saw the failures of government to provide the social safety nets that we need to survive climate disasters and a number of other disasters. And that’s what brought me to the left. So it was really interesting for me to talk to a number of Black people in the US and realize that particularly between a certain age range, that was such a politicizing moment because I feel like for a lot of people outside of that space, it was a moment, it was a Kanye moment.
Maybe people think of Hurricane Katrina as this broad climate change disaster especially after disaster capitalism. But I don’t know how many people understand it to be this uniquely Black politicizing moment. And in a lot of ways fracturing our politics because in both instances people are seeing people of both political parties not showing up for Black people.
In some ways, I guess that aspect of the book that deals with these questions, you deal a lot with kind of precarity, economic precarity. And I think that was exposed in Katrina and just how precarious the situation really was underneath and how it left that way in many ways. But you get at this in a bunch of different ways. One is a section on only fans, which is one of a number of other, I guess, media queries. But maybe I’ll launch you in that direction.
That’s the other thing. I feel bad because I do these podcasts and for whatever reason, I don’t know why. I just get super intense, but I actually do want to take this moment to say that there is some levity in the book. I maybe think I’m funnier than some people. But I mean I try to bring these absurd moments as, because I don’t necessarily want to read a book that even though I lead with one of the most traumatizing moments of my life, I didn’t necessarily want to write a book that just the whole time you’re just angry or feeling disempowered.
So one of the things that I did in the course of writing the book starts from a really serious place, and that is I wanted to talk about what I identify as the kind of Black feminist political identity and the Black skinhead within that. So I didn’t want to write this book without talking to sex workers because sex workers, particularly in general, are at the front lines of any number of economic fights. But right now, particularly in the tech space, sex workers are under attack or involved in a lot of different fights.
So whether that’s fights around the ability to have control over your own image. So for porn people, sometimes what happens is people will take a clip of the porn video and they’ll circulate it and they’ll completely remove the person’s name and all of these things from it. They don’t have an ability to make money off of it or even to own their identity within that.
You see most social media platforms, and particularly payment platforms usually start with a history of sex work and people needing to exchange funding through these kind of anonymized ways. And you see these different platforms perfectly fine with them being spaces for sex workers until they hit the saturation point of crossing over. And then they want to apply all of these kind of, I don’t know, Christian family puritanical values to their policy making about it in a way that displaces sex workers.
And then you see a lot of increased censorship of sex workers. I wanted to talk to somebody and I did that thing where you go on Twitter and you’re like, “Hey, sex workers, I’d love to talk to you.” I got a lot of DMs that were kind of like, “Girl, I’m not going to out myself as a sex worker, but I feel you. Good luck to you.” Or different things like that. But I couldn’t really get a lot of interviews with people.
So finally, I just picked two porn actresses who’s work I’m a fan of, and I decided to go on only fans and reach out to them. Let me say I’m a fan of their work as advocates as well as their other work. And so I went and reached out to them. I went out to only fans. I’d never been on there. It’s like it’s obvious, it’s in the name, right? It’s only fans. Obviously, it’s about creating this intimate environment with their fans. But I was naive, I didn’t know that.
So I go on there, pay the amount of money, reach out to them, and I wasn’t expecting it to be such a dynamic experience. So I’m getting photos, all sorts of photos of people and offers to do any number of things on video. And then I’m like, “Hey, so I’d love to talk to you about your politics and your experience. I’m writing this book.”
So I was trying to write this thing that felt like it got to the point. I asked my good friend to help me with it. He sent me this long text and I didn’t edit it. So I just cut and pasted it. And so basically I ended up reaching out to these two women and being like, “Hey,” instead of being like, “I don’t want to make things weird, but I love to interview you.” I say to them, “Hey, I’d love to make things really weird for you. Get in touch with me.”
So after I realize that it happened, I was like, “I’m going to get kicked off.” And I don’t know, the only fans police are going to come to my house. I don’t know. But one of the women actually wrote back and we were able to have this amazing conversation. I hope to write or release more of it because a lot of the text stuff got out of it. But we were talking about deep fakes. We were talking about the future of cryptocurrency. We were talking about her work around… She works with NorCal ACLU around a number of issues around surveillance and privacy and anti-censorship.
And it was just getting able to present that story and that person as somebody that also has stakes in this tech justice fight that we engage in. That was definitely one of my favorite parts of the book.
Well, it’s extraordinary that you went to those length and I’m sure there was-
Anything for the story.
I don’t want to distract the listener from the core themes of the book by pushing you in the direction of these media and tech themes. Let’s spend just a minute on the experience of Black conservatives. You call out specifically this movement of conscious Black conservatives, which I found very interesting. The idea of the Republican Party as an empty vessel there for the taking was one that stood out to me.
So let’s just talk a little bit about that, about what you learned talking to Black people who were supporters of Donald Trump or supporters more generally of some of the direction that he would like to take the country into. What did you learn and what do you think it tells us about tomorrow?
There were a few things that I learned. So one, I think going back to this idea of what does it mean to truly build consensus for the greater good? I think we have these things right now around how we want bipartisanship. We want people to civility. We want all of these things. But civility is not justice. Civility is not equity. And when we look throughout history, I think when people had shared spaces, what it meant to build consensus looked a little different than it did today.
So throughout history of Black media, you have had Black Republicans and Black democrats working together or trying to organize together or occupying space and newspapers together around an economic agenda. And in the modern era, we don’t have that anymore, so when people are at the same level. So when people go online looking for community, Black people don’t find other Black people and have a conversation about how do we build a Black agenda for economic power?
Instead, people that are like your data body is identified as Republican, it takes you in this direction. Your data body identifies you as… Whatever it identifies you as you go further down that rabbit hole. And then we don’t necessarily have shared spaces like churches or businesses where we can reconcile those things.
So point one that I learned was that because of those divisions, people were not able to see the humanity in each other. So even when I was talking to Black MAGA people, they had all of this fear of these unhinged socialists that are going to go off and ruin the country. And it was these complete one dimensional ideas about what that was and feeling like they were the only ones that were actually working in service of a pro-Black agenda which I thought was interesting.
Two, there’s no one way into Black MAGA, which I mean I guess that’s probably to across the board, but I found people that have been conservatives before Trump and didn’t even necessarily like Trump as a figure, but felt like if that was attracting people to a conversation about the working class and trade and economics that they were willing to take that. I found some people who saw Trump as a third party on to himself and who felt his ability to disrupt politics as usual was something that they were looking for.
And so they gravitated towards him as a figure, but didn’t necessarily see themselves as Republicans. There were some people that were drawn to Republicanism and MAGA through a family values frame and feeling like Black families are under attack in these interesting pathologizing ways, but interesting nonetheless. And then there were some people that were hardcore libertarians that were, to me, it’s not about the family values, it’s not about all this.
I feel like the only way that Black people can be free is by building our capital. So I’m supporting the political people who are removing government bureaucracy from our lives, so we could do that. And so these people were a hodgepodge of figures and yet they had found community with each other, so they were able to build an agenda for what they wanted, but it was separate from a broader Black agenda.So I thought that was really interesting. Also, not all Black Republicans, are built to light. A lot of the media oxygen goes towards people, Herschel Walker, Kanye West, Candace Owens. I write a chapter talking about that type of grifter, what I call avatar Black conservatism, where it’s a Black face used to launder white [inaudible 00:41:50] talking points.
And then I show that in contrast to people who see conservatism as a vehicle for a pro-Black agenda, especially through local politics and people who feel like they don’t necessarily the National Republican Party, but that there aren’t the resources or infrastructure to create a third party. And so most Black Democrats run unopposed in predominantly Black districts.
So an easy way in, that’s the empty vessel is to run as a Republican and then to use that to push back against the party and then also forward a Black agenda. I came away with it at least more sympathy or empathy than I had going into it around who those folks are. At that time I wrote the book, it was this big hypothetical. And then I finished writing the book in December 2021. And then in 2022, a historic number of Black Republicans ran for office. I think over 30 are running for Congress.
A lot of them I think are on serious elections, but because the bar is so low, we could potentially see the most Black Republicans in Congress than we’ve seen since the reconstruction era. And so I think that will force a lot of questions around what does that mean in terms of how people within the Congressional Black caucus may think about working together to thwart agendas that do not forward economic autonomy at scale.
What does that mean in terms of people that are Republicans but are representing districts where working class people have truly seen mass amounts of loss. So it’s not somebody that’s representing a suburban mom who just wants to feel safe in her bubble and they can come on the floor and say whatever and have a social media spectacle, but people for whom they have a certain amount of accountability back home, how does that change the way they engage in bipartisan politics? That’s some of the stuff that I think we’ll see in November.
You say in the book that you would probably place yourself somewhere in the disillusioned liberalism, Black Marxist, Black feminist realm. Perhaps that describes your politics. “It depends on the day and what someone has done to me off,” you write. Do you think this book is kind of a warning in some ways. Was that intended?
Yes. It is intended to be a warning. It’s intended to… Again, I keep going back to this thing of one, I think identity politics matter. And I say this as somebody who has occupied a lot of spaces where we’re having a lot of conversations around “woke” culture and how that’s harmful to leftist causes, and this idea that we should take a race or ethnic neutral approach to talking about economic justice issues.
Again, even though I’m focused on the Black community, I think when you look throughout history, identity politics has been a potent activator for economic struggles and people coming together for their community. So it’s a warning for us not to forget about that. Even when we talk about these romanticized rainbow coalitions of the ’60s, it’s like the Black Panthers coming together with the Young Patriots coming together with the feminists and all of that.
The Black Panthers weren’t telling the Young Patriots not to be Young Patriots. And the Young Patriots weren’t telling the Black Panthers not to be Black Panthers. There was an economic agenda and people organized within their community. And so I wanted to peel back the layer on that. I also think ultimately, as I said, I see this as a media justice book and a tech justice book and a little bit of a sneaky antitrust book as well.
It is really saying, when we lose control of independently owned media, we are losing our voice. We are losing our ability to move an agenda. We are trying to have a conversation about how to move an agenda in someone else’s house, on someone else’s terms of service in ways that allow for us to be segregated in any number of ways that allow for amplification of wedge speech that drive us apart, and that we have to pay attention to what’s happening at the FCC. We have to pay attention to what’s happening.
We can’t even get an active FCC. If somebody had told me that Gigi Sohn could not get confirmed to the FCC like five years ago, I would’ve laughed at you. And the fact that we have a neutered FCC means that there’s a lot of communications issues that are getting unresolved right now.
If the midterms go in the way that some people are predicting the FTC will be probably also hindered in a number of ways. So it is a warning that it’s like these things that seem like boring regulatory issues, if we’re not paying attention to them, our ability to tell this big story to move us towards where we want to get to will be taken away from us.
You write in your conclusion that your nightmare is that we will inevitably live in President Mark Zuckerberg’s America, “a place where essential government services are turned over to Silicon Valley wiz kids and managed by a consultant class charged with delivering basic needs.”
So I guess that kind of dystopian future is the place where you imagine this kind of convergence of extremist elements might happen if in fact we continue to go in the direction of the sort of future that Silicon Valley seems swamp, that it may in fact be our undoing.
I think maybe now it might be President Musk instead. I mean, or President Sandberg, who knows. But I mean, yes, I think we’re moving further and further towards this idea of this manufactured concept of rugged individualism, which I think we’re in love with as an idea, but really takes us pretty far away from being able to chip away at inequities.
I’ll say this. So this is the 50th anniversary of The Godfather. I had not watched The Godfather movies in a really long time, and so I binge watched Godfather’s one and two. I actually like three more than most people, but I didn’t have the bandwidth for that. But it was a really interesting… I forgot that there was this element of storytelling that was about the building of the mafia and these families through this idea of identity politics.
The Godfather comes to power because he sees the Black hand taking advantage of these local communities, and he is like, “This is not right. This man is taking money out of our pockets. He’s starving us. We’re not getting anything in return.” He gets rid of him, he emerges as this godfather. They build out this family structure. I’m romanticizing, so obviously there’s a lot of shooting and stuff like that, but then the son comes along who wants so bad to be seen as American, not Italian, but he wants this access to this idea of being an American.
So he goes into the military, becomes this businessman, and he treats this business that his father built as a family, as a business. And by the end of it, not only has he killed all of these people, he starts killing his own actual family and he’s alone. I was like, “Damn, we’re about to be like Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather 2, just sitting in a chair by ourselves after we killed our brother, Fredo and everybody else and then we don’t have anybody.” And that’s the future that I fear that I think we’re heading towards
Quite a place to end. We could probably spend another hour talking about The Godfather, and I don’t know if you saw part three, the sort of re-edited version or if you saw the original edit.
Well, I saw they changed the name of it, so didn’t… That’s why they changed the name of it because they reedited it. Oh no, maybe I should watch it.
They had to distinguish it, of course, from the prior one. I’m sad to tell you it’s not much improved on the original episode three. That’s a good place for us perhaps to stop. We’ll come back together and talk about that at another time. Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future by Brandi Collins-Dexter. I hope folks will read it and I hope we’ll get to talk about these issues again.
Thank you for having me.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.