“Who Is Black?”: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Erasure Of Blackness In America Dismisses The Fight For Social Justice

speaks onstage at Featured Session: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the New Left during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 9, 2019 in Austin, Texas.

“Who Is Black?”: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Erasure Of Blackness In America Dismisses The Fight For Social Justice

Blackness is only blurry when beneficial.

Published March 19, 2019

Written by DeMicia Iman

Whatever “reparations” could look like in the future, there is no question that the rightful recipients of said payback are Black people. While the Blackness identity is vast and millions of Black people exist throughout the world with dark skin, who we are as Black people, stands loud and proud, despite centuries of attempted erasure.

As reparations, once again, have become a popular political topic, more journalists are asking politicians their stance on this question of righting a wrong. Interviewed during the annual South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) by Senior Politics Editor, Briahna Gray, U.S. Representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez paused before answering the reparations question.

When asked, “What is the political cost...of saying that you’re going to throw your hat in with a reparations program? How much do you think those considerations should be made?”

Ocasio-Cortez vaguely responded, never completely answering. Instead of sharing if her platform stands for or against reparations of any kind, the representative doubled down, expanding on the wiping out of Blackness.
“There are a lot of systems that we have to dismantle, but it also does get into this interesting area of where we are about identity, as a country. Because, like what does it mean to be black? Who is black and who isn't? Especially, as our country becomes more biracial and multiracial.”

Continuing to propose the same questions about Latino identity, Ocasio-Cortez says, “I think it’s important that we have substantive conversations about race, beyond like what is racist and what is not, and if someone says something racist, does that make them a racist.”

Never addressing the question about reparations, Ocasio-Cortez managed to devolve Blackness in America as existing as slaves and three-fifths of a human being to encompassing an entire country of mixed races and ambiguity. Asking, “What does it mean to be Black?” followed up by, “Who is Black?” suggests the centuries of torture and triumph endured by Black Americans becomes absolved into, “justice for all.”

With instances such as the infamous Rachel Dolezal scandal, Ocasio-Cortez raises a valid point. The social construct of race, including Blackness, as an identity, leaves room for imposters. Of course, if reparations were to be enacted, tons of non-Black people would flock to DNA labs and ancestral records, claiming the one-drop rule to get their share of the metaphorical, “forty acres and a mule.”

The obscurity of “Blackness” does not go without definition. Speaking specifically to the United States, a country whose politics are consumed by turmoil, Blackness still refers to people of African descent, who were taken and transported from African countries and held as slaves on American soil.

F. James Davis writes in, Who is Black? One Nation's Definition, “The nation's answer to the question, 'Who is black?’ has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South, it became known as the "one-drop rule,'' meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person a black.”

Laws were created to attempt to draw a stark line between whiteness and Blackness. As amendments were passed to free enslaved Blacks and grant the freed, citizenship, racist politicians went to work to ensure Black Americans remained inferior despite the new laws. Racial Integrity Laws, passed in Virginia in 1926, prohibited interracial marriage, defined as marriage to a white person, someone "who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.” For decades, The Jim Crow Laws enacted in states across the nation, relayed a strong message of hate and segregation, with effects that still linger, today.

Of course, we do have to dismantle many systems that disproportionately leave Black people, drawing the short end of the straw in every aspect of life. The NAACP reports Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of their white counterparts, and the imprisonment rate for Black women is twice that of white women.

To uphold whiteness, it has and will continue to take countless generations’ commitment to untangle the knots tied with strings of injustice that have been stitched into a system of oppression, under which Black people continue to bear.

These realities, however, are no reason for the United States government to disavow the concept of reparations. The point stands that the people who live with Blackness have endured centuries of tragedy, as well as triumph. To define their experience with nebulous terms does a deep disservice to the ancestors. Despite the flagrant institutional racism, Blacks remain defined as a group of marginalized individuals who have operated under an oppressive label, which has united them in ineffable ways.

If ever and however reparations are to be delegated, identifying Blackness and who gets to rightfully claim theirs, should not boil down to,`who gets to be Black.’ Blackness, undeniably, exists because of historical qualifications and legal definitions. Diasporic experiences and racial congruity should not be something politicians, like Ocasio-Cortez, can conflate for the purpose of hers or the public’s political agenda.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


(Photo: Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW)


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