the case of virgil abloh: why we can't trust Black capitalists to lead the revolution
Kaila Cherry on Virgil Abloh and the deeper implications of a $50 bill.
Last weekend, Louis Vuitton art director Virgil Abloh came under fire for multiple posts on Instagram in relation to the country-wide protests to honor and value black lives in the wake of several police shootings of black individuals over the past few months. The recent protests were sparked by the death-by-suffocation of 46-year-old George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25th. On Sunday, Abloh took first to his Instagram story to voice his anger with the looting and destruction of his close friend and fellow designer Sean Wootherspoon’s vintage store Round Two on Melrose Avenue during an L.A. protest. His post only talks about the “streetwear” community, not the context for the looting itself. Abloh then commented under a post on Wootherspoon’s account depicting the damage done to his shop. Abloh said that the looters “disgusted” him.
Later that evening, Abloh posted a screenshot of a $50 CashApp donation to bail funds for protests in honor of George Floyd in Miami. This led many to assume that Abloh’sonly monetary contribution to these racially-motivated uprisings could not even buy him a pack of markers from his brand Off-White. In conjunction with his comments on the looting of Round Two, in which he was criticized for distilling the protests to a “culture war” and valuing a rich white man’s store over the importance of the black lives lost to police violence, much of the black community online had turned on him and labeled him a “sell out.”
The following Monday, Abloh posted a thread on his Instagram account addressing his comments from the previous day. He began by stating the fact that he is a dark-skinned black man and has his own fears and anxieties tied to his career and personal safety because of that. He went on to apologize for his comments on the looting of Round Two and for seeming that he cared more about the looting than the protests that spurred them. Abloh also clarified that his $50 donation was a response to a “social media chain of friends who were matching donations.” He revealed that he had actually donated $20,500 to bail funds and other mutual aid-related organizations for the protests. He did not originally publicize this in an attempt, in his words, to not “glorify higher amounts of money” and to not seem like he was simply showing off for PR. After naming several of his past and future projects intended to uplift black artists and entrepreneurs, Abloh ended his post by restating the names of the black lives lost recently, calling himself an “agent of change,” and that he is “...carrying the flag to redefine the box that we as black people have been put into.”
Virgil Abloh is right about his power and influence within the black community as one of the top young fashion designers in the world right now. His focus on streetwear in particular was monumental in the progression of the style from courtyards and skate parks to the high fashion runways of Milan. That is why his choice on Sunday— to channel his energy towards mourning the loss of a wealthy white man’s store and boosting his laughably small donation to seem more “relatable” to us who are not rich— while upsetting, did not surprise me. In his comments over the weekend, Abloh exposed the shortcomings of the Black capitalist in their role as “leaders.” These shortcomings are not exclusive to him, however. They are indicative of every Black capitalist. Virgil Abloh’s comments and attitude are a stark reminder to all of us in the black community that we cannot depend on the charity of Black capitalists to lead us to political and social liberation from systemic racialized oppression. This is because Black capitalists serve to uphold the damaging structure of capitalism for their individual gain in collaboration with the interests of society’s rich white elite, who are capitalism’s ultimate beneficiaries.
Capitalism And Blackness in the United States
In order to understand the problematic nature of Black capitalism, it is essential to know the context and application of capitalism in general. “Race” as a social identity in the United States was the creation of wealthy white plantation owners in order to prevent unity and uprising against oppressive conditions from the wealthy class. By giving poor and working-class whites a sense of superiority over their black counterparts based purely on the color of their skin, the wealthy white class was able to prevent the loss of their social, political, legal, and economic power by extending their hand in unity with the poor whites against a common enemy: Black people. With this smokescreen of blame, the white wealthy class was able to exploit all working-class people, the blacks more so than the whites.
Black people spent the first 246 years of their lives in this country under complete exploitation under the wealthy white class under the condition of slavery. This means that for 246 years, Black people had no way to accumulate wealth and capital— white people did. Once the institution of slavery was outlawed in 1865, legal bulwarks created by the white wealthy class further kept Black people from the means to capital, including land, livable wages, quality medical care, and quality education. The effects of white America’s head-start on the accumulation of capital persisted into the 20th and 21st centuries.
Black capitalism as a political ideology developed in the late 1960s under the Nixon campaign and later administration. Richard Nixon used Black capitalism as a way to push Black individualism and economic prowess. In the same breath, Nixon used Black capitalism politically to cut welfare, Social Security, and other government aid programs heavily utilized by the Black community due to a lack of capital. Socially, Nixon, then-leader of the Republican party, alongside future left-leaning neoliberal politicians and media figures, used Black celebrities and entrepreneurs as a way to demonstrate proof that Blacks are, as the theme song to the 1975 Black sitcom The Jeffersons says, “movin’ on up” in society. This is supposed to be in spite of the fact that Black people in the United States still faced a multitude of institutional and systemic problems that kept them— and now the population as a whole disenfranchised and destitute.
Criticisms of Black Capitalism
Some of the earliest critiques of Black capitalism, however, were voiced prior to World War II. In 1935, Black sociologist, activist, and writer W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of the misaligned camaraderie with the wealthy white elites instead of the Black community in his book Black Reconstruction. A far different perspective than he took earlier in his life with his “Talented Tenth” philosophy, Du Bois argues that even Black capitalists who do want to uplift the community with them are clueless as how to do so. He writes,
“The Negro's own black leadership was naturally of many sorts. Some, like the whites, were petty-bourgeois, seeking to climb to wealth; others were educated men, helping to develop a new nation without regard to mere race lines, while a third group were idealists, trying to uplift the Negro race and put them on a par with the whites. . . . In the minds of very few of them was there any clear and distinct plan for the development of a laboring class into a position of power and mastery over the modern industrial state.”
In 1973, Black Panther revolutionary Eldridge Cleaver wrote an article for The Black Scholar entitled “The Crisis of the Black Bourgeoise.” In his piece Cleaver delivers a biting indictment of Black capitalism and elitism, arguing that development of class disparity within the Black community is more sinister than Du Bois originally suggested. Cleaver argues that Black capitalists are puppets to the wealthy white elite. Their role in society is to act as a mediator to the Black population to prevent them from overthrowing institutional racism. Without a compliant Black working class, the accumulation of capital by both white and Black elites is threatened. Because of this, as Cleaver writes, the Black elites “...knew which side their bread was buttered on. They knew that they were only using the black masses, whom they viewed only as a tool for getting favors from whites.”
These “favors” gifted to the Black capitalists for suppressing Black discontent and upholding the status of the wealthy white elite at the top of the pyramid range from anywhere to financial stability, fame, property ownership, and career advancement. These privileges can only be given to a certain few Blacks in society in order to keep the wealthy white class in the complete and total power of the institutions within the United States.
In 2000, author, professor, and social activist bell hooks echoed the thoughts of Du Bois and Cleaver in the eighth chapter of her book Where We Stand: Class Matters. In the chapter entitled “Class and Race: The New Black Elite,” hooks regards Black capitalists as agents for white supremacy. They perpetuate the capitalist agenda by marketing their Blackness to the community and perpetuating the myth of the success of rugged individualism onto the masses. Using examples of wealthy black leaving their communities to live in suburbs and taking all their concern for poor blacks with them, hooks asserts that Black capitalists care more about appeasing the wealthy white elite than their own struggling community. She writes, “Allegiance to their [Black capitalists] class interests usually supersedes racial solidarity.”
In the same paragraph, bell hooks writes, “Unlike many of their middle-class peers who may be bonded with lower-class and poor people who are compelled by kinship ties to share resources, they [Black capitalists] refuse identification with the black poor, unless it serves their interests to act concerned.” She uses the example of basketball player Micheal Jordan who, after becoming one of the most prolific (and richest) athletes in the world, ventured into the business sector to sell expensive products (most notably shoes) to the Black community. The sale of Micheal Jordan’s shoes further instilled in much of the Black community an attachment to possessions as indicative of status and self-worth. The subordination to collection material possessions in order to boost one’s social status is another essential pillar to the continuation of capitalism and institutional racism.
During the era of legalized slavery, the Black capitalists were the freed Black landowners. In the first half of the 1900s, the Black capitalists were the Black intellectuals and businessmen. From the second half of the 20th century to the present day, the Black capitalists are the Black celebrities. Through mapping the course of Black capitalist rhetoric in the first two decades of the 2000s, it becomes clear that Virgil Abloh’s comments on Sunday did not come from a place of pure ignorance. His word unequivocally mirrors those with his complexion who share the same tax bracket as him. The modern Black celebrity is just as committed to the wealthy white elite as their traditional Black capitalist predecessors. They “sell blackness” not only to Black people but whites as well, sometimes even prioritizing the spending power of their white customers over their Black admirers. This is something Abloh and his contemporaries do well.
The Celebrity Black Capitalists of Today
Capitalist rhetoric peddled by Black celebrities to the rest of the Black community is not hard to find. In his infamous 2004 speech on the 50th-anniversary event for the passage of Brown v Board of Education, then loved and now ostracized comedian Bill Cosby blamed Blacks for their own oppression. Cosby said, said “Now look, I'm telling you. It's not what they're [white class] doing to us. It's what we're [black Americans] not doing. 50 percent drop out. Look, we're raising our own ingrown immigrants. These people are fighting hard to be ignorant.”
In addition to Black actors, several Black musical performers have exposed their dedication to capitalism and the wealthy white elite in recent years. In a 2015 interview with TimeOut, A$AP Rocky separated himself from the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in response to the deaths of Black people while in police custody. The dividing factor was his class. “I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist,” he continued, before adding: “I live in fucking Soho and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate. I go back to Harlem, it’s not the same. It’s a sad story. I gotta tell you the truth.”
In 2016, rapper Kanye West publicly supported Republican candidate Donald Trump during the Presidential election. This was seemingly a radical shift in ideology from the same man who, in 2005, criticized the government’s slow response to aid the Black community in New Orleans after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina by saying “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” In 2005, however, West was not yet one of the most influential rappers and producers in the music industry. He had not reaped profits from the creation of his designer brand Yeezy. In 2005, Kanye West was not wealthy, so he was able to align himself with the struggles of the Black community. In 2016, however, the liberalism of the Black community threatened to elect someone into office who would increase his taxes and thus decrease his wealth. In order to protect his wealth, West aligned himself with the interests of Trump and the rest of the wealthy white elite, valuing his own capital over the betterment of the community he came from.
The Connection to Virgil Abloh
In both his comments last Sunday and his subsequent apology the next day, Virgil Abloh perpetuated messages in favor of his capitalist interests as equal to or above allegiance to the struggles of the Black community. In regards to the looting of Round Two, Abloh speaks of the occurrence as an attack on the culture of “Streetwear.” He insinuates that the looters should put aside Sean Wotherspoon's identity as a rich white man profiting off a fashion tradition started by Black youths because “...we know Sean.”
Abloh also asserts that the Black community, particularly the Black “Streetwear” community, should show thanks and gratitude to Wootherspoon because of the “...passion, blood, sweat, and tears Sean has put in for our culture.” Never mind that this “culture” aligns itself more closely with the wealthy class than the working class. Never mind that Round Two sits on Melrose Avenue, known for its association with the rich and famous and the clothes that everyone wants but only the wealthy can afford. Never mind that Round Two in Los Angeles is only one of five stores around the country that collectively make about $20 million in sales annually. The Black community, most have never even conceived of having such a large amount of money, are supposed to not only disregard Wotherspoon and his store as an example of the wealthy white elite’s continued success to uphold capitalism, but to see him as a sort of selfless uplifter of the Black community, a streetwear white savior. By using his platform on Sunday to denounce looters and stand in solidarity with the property of the wealthy white elite, Virgil Abloh exposed his wavering dedication to the uplift of the Black community in favor of white capital.
Last Monday, Virgil Abloh seamlessly weaved between expressing solidarity with the Black community and bolstering the capitalist rhetoric of the wealthy white elite in the Notes app apology he posted to his Instagram account. By virtue of his dark skin color, Abloh, regardless of his status, has and will continue to experience discrimination and fear for his life based on his skin color because he, like all of us, operates within a racist societal structure. He also acknowledges the intersection between race and class and how his access to resources and privileges (maintained for him by the wealthy white elite) puts him a different class context than the “much more vulnerable” Black population.
In response to the backlash he received in regards to his comments on the looting of Round Two, Abloh did not seem to have a change on his feelings on the theft but wanted us to know that he is sorry that it made him look like a bad guy. He apologizes for how his comments “appeared” as if he was more concerned about wealthy white elite than institutional racism, how his words made him “seem” like he cared more white property than Black lives. Abloh said in his initial post on Sunday that “‘Streetwear is I need this t-shirt or pairs of shoes...by any means necessary….” Unless that means effects the ability for Abloh and his wealthy white colleagues to accumulate capital.
Abloh then goes on to address the screenshot he posted on his Instagram story of his $50 donation to bail funds for protesters in Missouri. Although he has actually donated over $20,500 to bail funds and other Black mutual aid efforts, Abloh did not want to initially publicize the size of his donations because he did not want to glorify large amounts of money, did not people to think he was only donating for praise or brownie points. He then encourages people to donate as much money as they can in proportion to whatever they have to spend.
Virgil Abloh’s idea that him publicizing how much money he has donated to the Black mutual aid efforts would lead people to think he was “glorifying” large amounts of money demonstrates his detachment from his class position in society. It is rare that a person is criticized for giving too much money, for being too generous. Most people aware of Abloh and his career would not scoff at him giving a larger donation. In fact, his audience would likely view Abloh’s donations, had he been more transparent about them, as a shining example of celebrity altruism and the Black capitalists’ ability to aid in the communal uplift of the Black population.
Instead, Abloh chose to feed the public the classic capitalist shtick: “I’m just like you!” His public participation in the $50 donation “chain thread” sent a message that said “If I can donate $50, then so can you! We are all in this together! (Unless you loot his friend’s store.)” Celebrities love to make themselves seem as if their wealth does not change their relationship to the working class. Black celebrities in particular often bring up their “roots” growing up in poor and working-class families to simultaneously build trust with the Black community and to spread the capitalist myth of individualism as the path to social and economic stability. "Relatability politics" are important for the continuation of capitalism because it “sells the dream” to the working class that if someone similar to them can be rich and famous, then so can they. What makes this a dream is that only so many people can be wealthy under a capitalist system, and odds of a working-class person to “making it” are horribly stacked against them.
On the final page of his apology, Virgil Abloh beacons himself as a voice for the Black population and a leader for the advancement of the race. He writes, “my voice is shaped by every black person who came before me and every person today who is fighting for this on the frontlines and in multiple other ways. i systemically want racism erased, and will do my part to ensure it is.” What Abloh presents in the second part of this statement is a paradox. Capitalism is dependent on institutional racism and the systemic oppression of a marginalized population to keep the wealthy white elite in social, economic, political, and legal power. A man with a net worth of several million dollars cannot “erase racism” because he is an active member of the wealthy class that depends on class and racial subjugation to maintain their capital.
The most telling moment of Virgil Abloh’s disconnection with the current struggles of the Black community was in his attempt to honor those who have been murdered by police. “in just one week, we lost George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade to police violence.” This would have been a touching sentiment if Breonna Taylor had actually died within the past week. Taylor died on March 13th after police shot her in her own home believing she was someone they were looking for. Abloh has yet to correct this mistake.
His misdating of Breonna Taylor’s death not only shows negligence in dedication to staying up to date to injustices happening in the Black community but a disregard for the death of Black women as well. To lump Breonna Taylor in with the other two shootings that occurred within the past week is to say that her story is indistinguishable from the others, that the names of slain Black bodies can simply be interchanged for one another like they are one and the same.
Virgil Abloh’s Instagram blunders from over the weekend are a stark reminder to Black people that Black capitalists cannot be trusted to act in the interests of liberating the Black community from institutionalized racism and oppression. Capitalism in the United States has historically dependent on the exploitation of the Black population has continued to find systemic ways of continuing this exploitation after the abolishment of legal slavery in 1865. As long as there are capitalists of any kind thriving in society, institutional racism will continue to permeate the livelihoods of the Black population.
Black capitalists exist in a purgatorial state. They are split between allegiance to the liberation of the Black population and allegiance to the wealthy white elite who provide them with all the capital they can dream of as long as they, as Cleaver wrote in the same article referenced above, “...keep niggers in line and keep them as quiet as possible.” In the 21st century, the shift of the Black person from the working class to the capitalist class is marked by career success, the accumulation of capital, and the denouncement of the realities of institutional racism. Once entering the capitalist class, Black people perpetuate the rhetoric of individualism, density, and “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” as the tried and true paths to wealth to the Black working class. This rhetoric is interwoven with "relatability politics" in order to keep the Black working-class comfortable with the economic system of capitalism. A system that, again, depends on institutional racism in order to thrive.
From his string of comments and posts, it is clear that Virgil Abloh is being pulled in both directions of his allegiances at the same time. They are both demanding things from him but the things they demand are not the same. The Black community demands that Abloh use his status as a way to better the conditions of people who look like him. The wealthy white elite demand that Abloh continues to uphold the system of capitalism by detaching himself from the interests of the Black working class. In one post he defends the private property of a member of the wealthy white elite and in the next, he acknowledges that property can be rebuilt. In one breath looters are “disgusting” and in the next, they are “...in good standing with him.” Finally, Virgil Abloh asserts himself as a leader for the Black community but could not be bothered to be even be informed on the death of Breonna Taylor.
The Black community does not have time for this kind of confusion. Virgil Abloh’s mixed messages show that when the Black capitalists’ allegiances come into conflict with each other, there is little guarantee that they will abandon the perks of being in the capitalist class to liberate the Black population. Liberation is against the best economic and social interests of the Black capitalists. They are not “one of us.” They are agents for the continuation of capitalism. Under capitalism, the end of racism is not possible. It is up to the Black working-class community to be suspicious of the motives of Black capitalists. When using a critical eye, the “success” of Black capitalism in uplifting the Black community becomes more and more of a farce. The Black capitalists will not be the ones to admit the lies behind their rhetoric. It will take a strong, educated, radicalized, and anti-capitalist mass movement of the Black working class in order to rid society of racism once and for all through the abolishment of the capitalist system. Perhaps this is the revolution the Black population has been waiting for. ✰
Kaila Cherry is a 19-year-old writer and filmmaker based in the Bay Area of California. A lover and admirer of art in all its various forms, she aims to create works that hinge on realism and gives significance to the nuances of everyday life. She likes the fact that her last name is a fruit because she knows she will never get confused for someone else.