A Serious Discussion of the Political Thought of Kwame Brown
by Benjamin Studebaker
Have you seen those Kwame Brown videos? Kwame Brown is a retired NBA player, and he’s been advancing a critique of the culture industry. Brown never went to college and he doesn’t work for anybody, so he isn’t bound by the usual rules of contemporary discourse. This means his critique has rough edges, but it is also free from careerism. Many commentators have focused on the rough edges, fixating on Brown’s tone or the norms Brown is violating. Brown himself has pointed out that no one in the media has discussed his arguments. I’ve been waiting days for someone to take a close look at the things Brown is actually saying, but no one is doing it. So it’s down to me…
The Basketball Backstory
If you don’t know Kwame Brown, he was a highly touted NBA prospect drafted #1 straight out of high school in 2001. Brown was really athletic and a great defender. He was very good at setting screens to get other players open for shots. He played 12 years, but he never became an elite scorer and never made any all-star teams. Because of this, many in the media consider his career disappointing. For the last 20 years, they turned Kwame Brown into a punchline. Brown stayed quiet through all of this, and this made him an easy target for media personalities trying to build careers. Here’s an example of Stephen A. Smith using Kwame Brown to get ahead in 2008:
Kwame Brown has remained the butt of journalists’ jokes even though there are many other players who have been drafted high who have had less successful NBA careers. Brown himself mentions Adam Morrison, the 3rd pick in 2006. Morrison only played 3 years. Darko Milicic was picked 2nd in 2003. He played 10 years, but scored more than 1,000 points fewer than Brown. Anthony Bennet was picked 1st in 2013. He only played 4 years. None of these players established themselves as quality defenders. They were all worse players than Brown.
Brown stayed quiet because he didn’t think people would take his side. He was using his NBA salary to enable his mother to retire and live in a comfortable home. He didn’t want to say anything that put his job and his mother’s retirement in jeopardy. Kwame last played in 2013, but as recently as 2017 he attempted a comeback, participating in the Big 3, a minor professional league popular with retired NBA players hoping to receive another look. He didn’t post his first YouTube video until he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to play again, in 2018.
Even though Brown hasn’t played since 2013 and many less successful high draft picks have come and gone since 2001, media professionals continue to make fun of Brown to draw laughs and attention. Just recently, the podcast All the Smoke had a go at Brown. All the Smoke is hosted by former NBA players who played with and against Brown, and Brown views their participation as a violation of the bonds of fraternity which bind former players and especially former teammates. Brown decided this time to respond to the criticism. The podcasters continued to give him a hard time, and he continued to hit back. Other journalists began covering the story in ways Brown found offensive. One media personality–Charlamagne tha God–insinuated that Brown himself might be a violent or dangerous person because estranged members of Brown’s family have committed violent crimes. This has prompted Brown to release a whole series of videos. Sports journalists are covering Brown’s videos, but they are mainly portraying them as attacks on various journalists and media personalities. The coverage often implies–or even directly states–that Brown is aggressive or crazy.
What’s the man actually saying?
Kwame Brown’s Theory of the Media
In Brown’s videos, he often refers to the “go along get along gang”. For Brown, this “gang” consists of the media professionals who profess to care about black people. They associate themselves with radical movements while continuing to attack young black men:
You niggas gotta come out of that sunken place where you can scream ‘Wakanda’ one motherfucking minute and then all you do in real life is disrespect black men in real life.
Brown points out that many of these media professionals are themselves black. Their blackness allows them to attack young black men without receiving the scrutiny that white professionals might receive. But it goes further than this. There have always been Uncle Toms, but these Uncle Toms drape themselves in the language of liberation. They use superficial radical commitments to give themselves–and their employers–cover. As Brown says:
Y’all niggas don’t got no connection to nothing. Y’all niggas would do anything for a check. Y’all niggas would sell out anybody for a check, say whatever out yo mouth for a check, no matter who it disrespects.
I don’t gotta disrespect my beliefs and what I stand on. And I don’t gotta stand on another black man’s shoulders to collect a check from the same people that I’m out marching against every motherfucking day. See I don’t gotta do that. That sounds like a conflict of interest to me.
Many people see a problem with figures like Tim Scott, the black Republican senator. But Brown is pointing out that even black elites who profess progressive and radical commitments often use these slogans to advance their careers. Brown argues that these people aren’t bothered by the contradiction between their stated commitments and their behavior, because they would do “anything for a check”. They will “go along” to “get along”.
This critique is very similar to the one offered by Frantz Fanon. Fanon famously argued that in the colonies a “black” or “native” bourgeoisie used colonial independence movements to grab wealth and power for itself. Because these black elites were black and professed radical commitments, they provided cover to fundamentally conservative independence movements. These movements constructed African nation-states on the European model. They remained within the global economic system constructed by the Europeans, and the new countries remained in the same position they previously occupied in that system. This kept the African states subservient to the same set of European states which once ruled them directly. For Fanon, this kind of independence was insidious. By making the leaders black, the colonial system was obscured and mystified. It became harder for Africans to see what was being done to them, because it was being done in their own name, by people nominally of their same group.
More recently, Adolph Reed has offered a similar critique of the black professional class in the United States. These black elites purport to be interested in improving the situation of poor and working class blacks, but their actions tell a different story. Instead of pursuing programs and policies that would make a material difference for black folks, they leverage racial discourses to get lucrative jobs for themselves. For these people, the movement is primarily a vehicle for their own enrichment. They rationalize this by arguing that their career success is itself a victory for black people, that if the ruling elite becomes racially diverse, that itself constitutes equality. But this leaves the vast bulk of poor and working people behind. As Reed puts it:
Exhortations to celebrate and demand accolades, career opportunities, and material accumulation for black celebrities and rich people—e.g., box office receipts for black filmmakers or contracts and prestigious appointments for other well-positioned black people—as a racial politics are consistent with the sporadic eruptions of “Buy Black” campaigns since the 1920s and 1930s. Such efforts stood out in stark contrast to more working-class based “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns that demanded employment opportunities in establishments serving black neighborhoods. Like “Buy Black” campaigns, which seem to have risen again from the tomb of petit-bourgeois wishful thinking, projections of successes for the rich and famous as generic racial victories depend on a sleight-of-hand that treats benefits for any black person as benefits for all black people. This brings to mind comedian Chris Rock’s quip that he went to his mailbox every day for two weeks after the not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial looking for his “O. J. prize,” only to be disappointed.
To make matters worse, because these black professionals build their careers on the idea that they are the victims of racial conflict, they have an active incentive to perpetuate that conflict. The more racially antagonistic the discourse becomes, the more valuable their status as victims of racism is in their pursuit of lucrative jobs. This division crowds out discussion of useful measures, and it makes it harder to build the kind of broad political movement that might be able to achieve something useful. As Brown points out:
We got some real problems we can address if you niggas stop talking about each other all goddamn day.
But these black professionals won’t stop. Their careers depend on their willingness to say whatever their bosses take to be profitable, regardless of whether this involves targeting black men or preventing poor and working people from coming together. The fake radical movements they affiliate themselves with exist not to accomplish radical objectives but to frustrate them. They are ways of laundering elite perspectives through superficially radical aesthetics.
There is however something missing in Brown’s account. At no point does Brown make explicit reference to class. Fanon talks about a black “bourgeoisie”, while Reed talks about a black “professional class”. In both cases, the argument is that there is no unitary “black” interest or perspective, and the myth of such a perspective causes people to be taken in by black elites. They think these black elites espouse a black perspective when in reality they espouse an elite perspective. They claim to speak for a race when in reality they speak for a class. If poor black Americans can be persuaded they have more in common with rich black Americans than they do with poor white Americans, poor black Americans can be induced to support political movements which defend the interests of the rich. It’s a divide and conquer strategy, and it can only be fully visible if we are able to discuss it in terms of class. In America today, the language of class is so thoroughly absent that when someone like Kwame Brown tries to discuss the the rich people who employ the professionals, he can’t use a term like “the oligarchs”, “the bourgeoisie”, “the elite”, or even “the rich”. He has to refer to them as the “white daddy”. If we call these elites “white”, we are, by the very terms we’re using, encouraging poor and working class white people to identify their interests with this elite. If we view our country as principally divided up into racial groups, this itself becomes an obstacle to the kind of effective mass movement which can draw on the energy and resources of all those experiencing domination and exploitation.
We should be talking about all of this, but of course the oligarchs who own our media will cover Kwame Brown the same way they cover everything else. They’ll continue to focus on Brown as an individual, attempting to discredit his perspective by painting him as crazy or aggressive. The clever ones will, with faux sympathy, frame him as “troubled”. They’ll employ black professionals to cover Brown in this way, and because the journalists disseminating these disparaging narratives are black and claim to care about black lives, very few people will notice or care.
This is the way things are going in our country. Elite perspectives receive too much pushback when they are put forward honestly. The only way to get people to buy into the elite’s worldview is to find people they trust, people they like, to spout that worldview. In a world where we increasingly assume that if someone is black or female or queer they must be radical, it is all too easy to hire such people to give the same old elite perspectives a woke veneer. It works even more effectively if these professionals do everything they can to present themselves as woke, as radical, as deeply committed to social justice. Very often the people who are loudest about these things are the people least interested in accomplishing anything of value for our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. It’s a grift.