Black Agenda Radio Commentaries
News, analysis and commentary on the human condition from a black left perspective.

peniel joseph hucksterBy BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon


Dr. Peniel Joseph Peddles Slick Marketing Constructs As “Black History”

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

...branding is not history, branding is not policy. Branding is the manipulation of images, words and symbols to call up real and imagined memories that evoke a particular emotional response from an audience.”

The job of historians in the service of democracy should be to explain and clarify historical trends for ordinary people, to help us better understand where we are, where we came from, and where we're headed. But not all historians serve democracy. As long as there have been intellectuals a great many have made their careers spinning fables which obscure more than they reveal, histories that reinforce rather than challenge illegitimate power, ill-gotten wealth, and undeserved privilege.

Dr. Peniel Joseph is a young and highly acclaimed scholar. He's the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights, From Black Power to Barack Obama. But Dr. Joseph is no peoples' historian. In a recent appearanceon Dr. Jared Ball's Jazz & Justice show on WPFW-FM in Washington, Joseph declared one of the main threads of his most recent book was explaining the campaigns and career of Barack Obama as part of what he called the “radically transformative” outcome of the Black Power movement, which he traces through Malcolm X, Kwame Toure, the former Stokely Carmichael, and the 1980s electoral campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Chicago's Harold Washington.

Actually, for black politicians campaigning inside the black community, trying to brand your campaign as the fulfillment of the Freedom and Black Power movements is pretty standard stuff. The Obama campaign managed the neat trick of turning itself into two separate brands, one fungible inside the black community and another outside it as the multiracial apostle of “there is no black America, there is no white America.” When you went to Obama's campaign web site you were greeted with a gorgeous fuzzy photo of Barack, Michelle and the kids with the slogan underneath “Join the Movement.

When black historians accidentally confuse branding with history, they are fools...”

But branding is not history, branding is not policy. Branding is the manipulation of images, words and symbols to call up real and imagined memories that evoke a particular emotional response from an audience. Branding is the tool of marketers who sell us everything from new cars and prescription meds to lifestyles, whatever those are. When blackchanginesshistorians accidentally confuse branding with history, they are fools. When they do so deliberately they are charlatans and mercenaries. Advertising Age, the flagship magazine of the marketing industry doesn't have to fool anybody. It gave the 2008 Obama presidential campaign its 2008 Brand of the Year Award.

Dr. Joseph himself said that a nuanced view of Barack Obama's place relative to the Black Power movement would necessitate examining his policy positions, issue by issue. But when the show's host used the word “imperialism” to describe the actual policies to which Barack Obama subscribes, Dr. Joseph pronounced it a “totalizing” term, called it “sloganeering” which he said puts an end to any useful dialog. So in Dr. Joseph's world we can prattle on about the “radical transformations” of democracy engineered by the Black Power movement which resulted in the Obama presidency. But with fleets in every ocean and hundreds of military bases scattered across every continent, we can't talk about empire. What's wrong with that picture, huh?

When Dr. Joseph awards Barack Obama status as a direct descendant of the Freedom and Black Power movements, which were fundamentally pro economic justice and anti-imperialist he abandons the clarifying role of peoples historian for a comfy seat in the establishment chorus. Dr. Joseph is reselling black people somebody else's marketed image, somebody else's brand name screed as our history. Dr. Joseph is the fake Wizard of Oz telling us to pay no attention to that wealthy handful of corporations behind that curtain.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Atlanta. He can be reached at bruce,dixon(at)


Direct download: 20100328_bd_no_peoples-historian.mp3
Category:politics -- posted at: 2:12am EDT

rikersA Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford
Degradation of captives is central to the culture of the American criminal justice system. The City of New York spares no expense to allow jail guards to routinely violate inmates’ rights and court orders through illegal strip searches – a “pattern and practice” that has cost taxpayers at least $81 million.
NYC Spends Tens of Millions to Illegally Humiliate Prisoners
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford
Guards at Rikers Island jail continued their practice of blanket strip searches in brazen violation of the court’s specific orders.”
Way back in 1986, a federal judge ruled that it was illegal for guards at New York City’s super-jail on Rikers Island to strip search peoplearrested on misdemeanor charges, like marijuana smoking, subway fare-beating, or shoplifting. That was 24 years ago, but the city’s Department of Corrections never stopped the routine strip searches, even after a series of successful law suits wound up costing the taxpayers a total of $81 million in damages.
The original court decision found that subjecting prisoners held on minor charges to automatic strip searches violated their 4thAmendment Constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure. But New York City jail officials apparently believed that court rulings were meant for inmates to obey, not themselves. The Corrections Department violated the order for 15 years, until a class action suit by former inmates forced the city to pay $43 million in damages, in 2001. Still, they kept on strip searching everyone, as if the suit never happened.
The next year, in 2002, the city settled another strip search suit, costing the taxpayers $5 million. This time, the city promised to replace strip searches with a piece of equipment called a Body Orifice Security Scanner. Prisoners would disrobe, put on a gown, and sit in a specially-built chair that would allow guards to electronically look into the inmates’ body cavities for drugs, weapons or other hidden contraband. New York City bought 50,000 gowns for the inmates to wear as they
sat in the chair. The judge thought the issue was settled.
Jailers strip search inmates to humiliate them – not for security purposes.”
But the guards at Rikers Island jail continued their practice of blanket strip searches for five more years in brazen violation of the court’s specific orders. By 2007, Rikers Island inmates had won yet another class action suit – this one for $33 million. Jail authorities had illegally strip searched 150,000 inmates, and hadn’t even used all the 50,000 gowns that had been purchased to comply with the judge’s order, most of which were still sitting in a warehouse.
In the ensuing investigation, practically every Corrections Department guard and official questioned swore to have never even seen anyone strip searched at Rikers Island – a sprawling facility through which about 130,000 inmates pass every year, more than the prison populations o35 states. Finally, the city admitted to having carried out a “pattern and practice” of illegal strip searches – nearly a quarter-century after a court ordered them to stop the practice, and at a cumulative cost of $81 million.
The moral of this sordid little tale, is that jailers strip search inmates to humiliate them – not for security purposes.Even when there are technical means available to find contraband, jailers prefer to degrade and dehumanize their prisoners. And city governments are willing to pay out tens of millions of dollars in damages to immunize lawless jailers from punishment, just as cities routinely fork over millions in damages for police officers that abuse, maim and kill citizens. Police and prison lawlessness is institutionalized in the United States. Covering it up is a big-budget item. For Black Agenda Radio, I'm Glen Ford. On the web, go to

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted 

Direct download: 20100331_gf_StripSearches.mp3
Category:politics -- posted at: 1:50am EDT