The writing was on the wall late last summer. Back in August 2019, Popeye’s created a fried chicken sandwich complete with a pickle, mayo, Louisiana hot sauce, and Cajun seasoning on a brioche bun that instantly became a phenomenon. Business Insider called it the “fast food item that defined 2019.” By November, Forbes stated that Popeye’s “reaped” a staggering $65 million in marketing value from the phenomenon — and Black people were the reason for the sandwich’s lucrativeness. There wasn’t a day that passed during that hot and sticky month where one could avoid a meme, tweet, or taped review about the tastiness of that sandwich and because of that, Popeye’s sold out of it in less than a month.
The criticism was swift, however, and it was coming from within our house. Ja Rule excoriated Black people for playing into stereotypes, the O’Jays lead singer Eddie Levert condemned those who ate the sandwich as a bad reflection of the African American community, and Janelle Monáe suggested that there be a voting booth at each Popeye’s location (to which she later apologized for the comment). None of this is surprising as Black people and fried chicken have been negatively linked to each other since the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. But this hyper-obsession with what and how Black people spend their money has taken both a familiar and unforeseen angle during the Covid-19 pandemic when Black social media users shame one another for how they intend to spend their $1,200 stimulus checks. Not only is this scrutiny unfair, but it also demonstrates the anxiety our community battles with by purporting that only certain representations of who we are can prove our social and economic value as akin to that of White people.
The encouragement for Black people to start a business or pay off loans with stimulus checks has its roots in the racial uplift ideology of over a century ago. Black elites such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and, later, John H. Johnson believed that the best way to uplift the Black race was to embody respectability. According to Ayumu Kaneko, senior assistant professor in the School of Political Science and Economics at Meiji University in Japan, the racial uplift ideology “was a discursive strategy which constructs a representation of Black lower-class people as the uncivilized Other and the black elites as respectable and civilized as the White middle-class, thereby justifying Black claims to citizenship and bourgeois privileges regardless of race.”
In other words, it is the responsibility of the most privileged Blacks to lead the race to prosperity, which can only come with the policing of Black life and behavior. And though we live in an era of the Black Lives Matter movement and “Respectability Politics Won’t Save You” slogans, we cannot shake the ghost of racial uplift’s past and this delusional belief that a chicken sandwich or a $1,200 check will make us just as good as White people. It won’t, and it never will. To propagate this myth is to ignore the facts and chastise Black people for making their own individual choices. It’s a complexity we often deny ourselves to either make our own lives seem better than what they are or worse, to disingenuously promote the idea that it is by sheer effort that we can close the income wealth gap.
The Covid-19 pandemic did nothing more than to expose the bare bones of our nation for how poorly it treats its own people. Black people have known for years that the emperor has no new clothes. According to the New York Times, the median income for a White family is $171,000, while that of a Black family is a mere $17,600. Nineteen percent of Black households have “zero or negative net worth,” while only 9% of White households can say the same. In journalist Trymaine Lee’s own words, “today’s racial wealth gap is perhaps the most glaring legacy of American slavery and the violent economic dispossession that followed.”
Even if we may not know all of the hard data and statistics, why do we finger-wag at one another for not being “better” with our money and time in both leaner and prosperous times?
African American home ownership has fallen to a 50-year low, our unemployment rate is twice that of Whites, and the difference in wages between Black and White people is growing larger and larger by the day. On top of this financial devastation, we are dying. Fast. In majority-Black counties, we are dying three times the rate of those in majority-White counties and in 14 states, we make up a third of 1,500 hospitalizations. There’s not a carb-heavy sandwich or a stimulus check that can totalizingly ruin or improve any one of our lives.
So this raises the question: Even if we may not know all of the hard data and statistics, why do we finger-wag at one another for not being “better” with our money and time in both leaner and prosperous times? The harsh truth is that we have internalized biases against ourselves and we’re too anxiety-ridden over what White people think about our affairs. Kara Stevens, blogger of The Frugal Feminista and author of Heal Your Relationship With Money, among other books, says these shaming tactics carry an expectation “that Black people have to have a higher financial and moral level in terms of our relationship with our bodies as compared to our White counterparts in order to be seen as human. It’s an either/or dichotomy because we’re so used to being under surveillance that we do this to ourselves.”
Within the realms of Black Twitter, there are — like many other internet communities — different factions. Under the capitalistic umbrella, there are those who advocate that Black people should spend more time traveling than buying Jordans (“Passport Twitter”), those who harangue us to use whatever discretionary income we have to start a business (“LLC Twitter”), and then there are those who believe that having lunch with billionaire rapper Jay-Z is more advantageous to our growth than $10,000 (“Roc Nation Brunch Twitter”). While these subcultures may seem laughable to an outsider, they all indicate an unhealthy belief in what capitalism can do for the average Black person, leading adherents to nothing more than a mirage that ignores structural and material realities of what it means to be Black in this country.
What’s worse is that this projection of shame about how Black people spend their time and their money disguises a more devastating undertone, which is that Black people need to be suffering and/or in labor at all times to be of any worth to themselves, to the Black community, and to society. It is yet another belief that has its precedents in both hyperproductivity during late-stage capitalism, and an often misunderstood or overlooked theory: Afropessismism. Theorized by Frank B. Wilderson III, alongside other scholars such as Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe, Afropessimism concerns itself with “Black nonexistence.” It is a denial of Black life and subjectivity since slavery. Though we have been emancipated, the idea is that the degradation of Black life is a necessity so that White livelihood and freedom can be seen as the archetypal idea of positivity and bourgeoisness.
Or, to put it more simply, our labor and bodies need to be overexerted into obliteration for the racial caste system to remain how it is. We are not enslaved any more, but the vestiges of enslavement fester in these conversations surrounding Black behavior toward our finances because enjoyment is nowhere to be found. The implied question is, “Why aren’t you working?” Those who shame are too preoccupied with the White gaze and, from this oppressive angle, Black joy, freedom, and volition do not exist. Our lives can only be marked by labor, unworthiness, and to its extreme, death.
As Stevens said, we as Black Americans are all too familiar with what it means to be under surveillance. There is not a place we can go without feeling as though there is a set of eyes on our bodies. The least we can do is relieve one another of that stress and to remind ourselves that in spite of our fictive kinships and bonds across the digital space, we don’t know each other that well. This lack of familiarity doesn’t destroy our solidarity but complicates it, mainly because we cannot — and should not — have complete access to what other Black people are doing privately. That interiority is precious and necessitates our growth in not being wealthy entrepreneurs, but rather in being abundantly and contradictorily human. In a time where the world is in a state of panic and our collective stress knows no limits for the foreseeable future, we need to subsume our own economic anxieties into a different kind of uplifting, which is to provide space for Black people to do what they need and want to do — in the time and capacity that they can do it.