Transcribed from the 11 May 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
We’re not just looking at a problem of policing black people. Even black people are selectively policed. We’re looking at specific zipcodes that constitute the majority of people who are in prison. We’re looking at specific demographics even within the black population who are bearing the brunt of over-policing and conviction and incarceration. So we need to think more specifically about who is being policed and why.
Chuck Mertz: It turns out black political life isn’t as monolithic as many on the left believe, especially those who are white and on the left. Believe it or not, class differences have an impact on black political life too. Who knew?
Here to tell us how and why the white left gets black politics so wrong, African-American studies and political science scholar Cedric Johnson wrote the article “What Black Life Actually Looks Like,” which appeared in Jacobin but was originally published at New Politics.
Welcome to the show, Cedric.
Cedric Johnson: Hey, thank you so much for having me.
CM: It’s great to have you on the show.
You write, “Like most great slogans, Black Lives Matter advanced a rather straightforward if not simplistic analysis of the issue at hand: that the problems of policing were primarily racial. Black Lives Matter’s fervor also unleashed a torrent of historical misinformation, conspiracy theory, and wrong-headed thinking about politics.”
Was any of that historical misinformation, conspiracy theory, and wrong-headed thinking about politics that happened in response to Black Lives Matter not intended to be in opposition to Black Lives Matter? That is, did Black Lives Matter lead to liberal misinformation related to race, when the intention wasn’t negative but intended to be positive? Yet it reinforced some stereotype or bias?
CJ: There are a lot of good intentions. First off, I celebrate what Black Lives Matter has done, for the most part. It opened up a different kind of conversation about policing and about the carceral state. It’s not that people weren’t already criticizing some of the practices, but it galvanized many different forces that had been struggling in isolation, and it helped a lot of different organizations that had been campaigning to try to change laws at the state level, groups that had been fighting for justice for specific families. There are a lot of great things that have happened as a result of it.
At the same time, though, the way these things get taken up, and the way the slogan works, it really obscures the fundamental dynamics at play, which is to say that when we look at the problem of over-policing, and particular police killings—even if we were to stop the numbers of black civilians being killed by police tomorrow, and we were to bring that number down to zero, the United States would still outpace all other civilized nations in terms of police violence against civilians. Just from that very basic metric, we’re not looking at a problem that is fundamentally racial.
Black people are over-policed—in particular, working-class black people are over-policed. But in that regard they share a similar predicament of whites, Latinos, and other groups who are also situated as working class people and located in places where the informal economy is dominant, or where the drug economy is dominant—even if they don’t participate in it, they are subject to the same scrutiny and the same harassment by police.
There’s great intentions in a lot of this stuff, but the way people take it up loses sight of what we need to do. As well as creating slogans, we also need serious investigation of our world and serious attention to history before we jump to conclusions.
CM: You write, “In elevating a race-centric interpretation of American life and history, Black Lives Matter has actually had the effect of making it more difficult to think critically and honestly about black life as it exists in all of its complexity and contradictions.”
Why does making it race-centric also make it more difficult to think critically and honestly about black life as it exists? Why doesn’t making it race-centric lead to more of a focus on black life and therefore more of an understanding and a learning experience about what black life is really like?
CJ: Maybe we can add a finer point to it. Certainly there are people who have taken this moment and began to explore and read, and I feel fortunate being able to participate in some of the debates that have happened since the Trayvon Martin killing and the creation of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Just to be clear, there’s definitely some of that happening; there is some discussion, there is some debate. People are sharpening their perspectives.
At the same time, there is the prevalence of a view that we could summarize as a “New Jim Crow” interpretation of mass incarceration, which again doesn’t necessarily account for the dynamics beyond cities and beyond the viral videos which tend to be so memorable and reprehensible. That’s one of the issues that I’m concerned about in this series of articles I’ve written: pushing people to think about how we address this problem more broadly. How do we go beyond mass demonstrations and social media rants towards building power? That doesn’t just involve the “woke” (to use the phrase of the movement itself) constituencies but also includes people in other parts of the country who may not even have the language to address the problems that they have.
For instance, the states with the highest per capita killings of civilians by police are places where there are negligible black populations. How do we think in those terms? We can build struggles that go beyond places like Baltimore or Chicago or Ferguson, but actually encompass the country more broadly and lay bare the dynamics at work. We’re not just looking at a problem of policing black people. Even black people are selectively policed. We’re looking at specific zipcodes that constitute the majority of people who are in prison. We’re looking at specific demographics even within the black population who are bearing the brunt of over-policing and conviction and incarceration. So even then we need to think more specifically about who is being policed and why.
For me, it goes back to the broader problem of moving away from the kind of affluent society that many Americans enjoyed during the 1950s and ’60s when there was a rapid expansion of suburbia, there was a tremendous amount of manufacturing that was still happening in the country, and many people were enjoying that. Blacks—in particular working-class and poor blacks—didn’t get a chance to get incorporated into that great moment, and we’re still reeling from that. Especially now with de-industrialization, we’re seeing the problems spreading: joblessness, lack of opportunities. And what we’ve done as a society is move away from using the welfare state to manage inequality, and move towards using the carceral state as the fundamental way of managing inequality.
That’s a problem that includes black people in some states. But in other places, like Kentucky, the majority of those who are incarcerated are white. Again, Black Lives Matter opened the door, but we have to spend some time trying to think critically about what society looks like, what the fundamental dynamics at play are, and how we can build majority support for a different kind of order which doesn’t rely on jails and policing to manage inequality.
This is where we can really develop an understanding of black politics that’s sophisticated: if we pay attention to specific issues and where people stand in real fights. In most cases, you’ll find black people on both sides of the issue.
CM: You wrote an essay in 2017 for Catalyst called “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” and you had a couple responses to it—one from urban studies scholar Mia White and another one from labor studies scholar Kim Moody, two people you have the utmost respect for but you disagree with on their analysis when it comes to what is happening with black political life.
I don’t want to get bogged down too much into their writing, but where do you agree and disagree with White and Moody? Do you agree to a point and they veer in another direction? I’m curious for my own sake, for my own thinking and our listeners’ thinking: is there a fork in the road? Is there a choice that we should all be aware of when considering black political life that may misdirect us toward a position that ends up reinforcing stereotypes, biases, or even racism?
CJ: One target of my criticism in a lot of the work I’ve done has been of the notions of black political life that come out of the black power movement, so I’ll start there. Those ideas still circulate. They’re still popular. I’ll clarify what they are in a second, but they’re still prevalent. And they’re true up to a point. They have some legitimacy.
During the 1960s, as black populations in places like Detroit, New Orleans, and Atlanta began to reach pluralities—or even majorities in some cities—black people were emboldened, ready to take over and to pursue the same model of urban empowerment that had been pursued by other groups before them. We saw the same thing play out in other cities when the Irish reached a critical point where they were the majority. They would elect their own mayors, city councilpersons, and what have you. Because of the major civil rights legislation and a lot of the changes of the 1960s, blacks were now in a position to do what other groups had done, and to engage in the same process of ethnic incorporation.
We recall a lot of black power rhetoric as being really militant, but underneath it, when people really tried to operationalize the idea of black power, what it really meant was taking control of institutions in the places where black people lived. For a short period of time we saw the elections of waves of black officials, beginning in the late sixties with the election of Walter Washington as the chief executive in the District of Columbia. Then we would see the election of Kenneth Gibson (who recently passed away) in Newark, New Jersey; Carl Stokes in Cleveland; Richard Hatcher here in Gary, Indiana; and they would just keep coming for the next couple of decades.
By the time we get to the end of the 1980s, every major city—Chicago, Los Angeles, and even New York—would elect a black mayor, and many others would have a black urban regime: black control of city council as well as control of the mayor’s office. You’d have black power across the board. That mattered in a certain way.
Here’s where I would disagree with the kind of focus on black ethnic politics that we hear both in Kim Moody’s work and also in Mia White’s response: this was complicated at the local level. When we look at a place like Detroit, the choices that were made by black regimes, by black city councils and black mayors, were at times beneficial to their constituencies and at times at odds with different parts of their constituencies. The whole idea about black power and seizing control of city hall was that once you’ve elected blacks into office, they would govern differently from whites. That was the optimistic view that people had. That’s not exactly what played out.
Once blacks took control of city hall, in many respects they had to govern in the same way as their predecessors, and they were subject to the same pressures to pursue an economic development path that involved the same kinds of practices: giving tax breaks to corporations to try to lure investment, shifting money towards downtown, building a tourist economy and infrastructure. In a lot of cities, in that first wave of black elected officials and urban governments, we actually saw them trying to balance the needs of their electoral constituency and the needs of developing the city as a whole, and trying to pull cities out of the post-industrial slump. Ultimately, a lot of them would have to break from that path and commit almost exclusively to downtown development. That would bring them into odds with public sector unions, and it would would bring them into contradiction or conflict with neighborhood organizations.
One of the best recent books about this is by James Foreman, Jr., who is a Yale law professor. He’s also the son of James Foreman, the civil rights activist with SNCC. James Foreman, Jr.’s book Locking Up Our Own really gives a sense of what those contradictions look like on the ground. He focuses on the District of Columbia during the 1970s and ’80s, and he tries to answer this question: why would a place like Washington DC pass some of the most punitive crime and policing policies, even though they had a majority black population and black control of the mayor’s office and the city council?
What he finds is that it’s a complicated scenario. There are people who are making decisions that in the short run seem like the right decisions to make, but ultimately they would have unintended consequences. When you look at his work, it stands in sharp contrast to the kind of race-thinking that’s repeated in both White and Moody. It’s really meticulous. He interviewed a lot of people; he did a tremendous amount of historical research. With each specific issue that he takes up and with each specific actor, you see how the politics shift. What it reminds us is that the basis of political life is not racial identity. It’s actually interests. It’s what people want in specific contexts and specific fights.
I’ll give you one quick example. Forman talks about the attempts to legalize marijuana in the District in the 1970s—which would seem, by today’s standards, like a progressive thing to do. He also looks at the efforts to ban the handgun in Washington DC—again, by today’s standards, most urban dwellers would say that’s a progressive thing to do. Both of those things were defeated in DC during the seventies, and were defeated because of black opposition to them.
There were some blacks who supported marijuana legalization, but there are others who felt that it’s a gateway drug. They brought in Jackie Robinson, the baseball player, to talk about how his son had gone from using marijuana to using harder drugs, and many people were swayed by that. So they criminalized it; they didn’t legalize marijuana, and that has had unintended consequences for the high numbers of people who would be incarcerated during the eighties and nineties in the District.
In the other example, that of trying to ban the handgun, the reason some blacks were opposed to it is really fascinating. On the one hand, there were people thinking, “We don’t need handguns because they’re the source of a lot of violence against black victims.” On the other side there were people like Douglas Moore, who was a black nationalist—he had been a classmate of Martin Luther King in divinity school, and he had been part of the North Carolina sit-in movement. Douglas Moore basically said black people don’t need to give up guns, because they need to have guns and be ready for armed struggle if it happens, to protect themselves. His argument is persuasive.
Many people in society are not presented with the kind of space they need to really develop and sharpen positions and think critically about political life. And that’s not an elitist point. That’s true across the board. It’s true for people who are in college and for people who are nominally educated.
So they oppose the handgun ban—and that has incredibly dramatic and dangerous effects for a place like DC. When I moved there in the early 1990s, it still had the reputation of being the murder capital. Going back to the initial question, this is where we can really develop an understanding of black politics that’s sophisticated: if we pay attention to specific issues and where people stand in real fights. In most cases, you’ll find black people on both sides of the issue.
That’s true now if we’re talking about charter school expansion in cities—there are blacks on both sides. If we talk about public housing demolition beginning in the 1990s with Clinton and HOPE VI, you find black people on both sides. For me, it’s difficult to do the thing that Mia White does in her article, or Moody does. Her language is that we as black people have a certain position; his language is this respect for black self-organization. Neither one of those notions holds up whenever we talk about black life in a concrete context.
We saw that even here in Chicago. Last example I’ll use. In this past election, black people were choosing different candidates for different reasons. There was no unified black perspective. There was no unified black choice. Even though Lori Lightfoot ultimately won the election, and some prominent black people supported her, I would argue that some of the things she’s already suggested she’s going to do will be clearly at odds with the kinds of black constituencies that people might assume she’ll help, based on her identity.
We have to get away from that kind of thinking, and really focus in on where people stand, what their politics are, and what kinds of choices they’re going to make when they’re in office. That’s the only way we can talk about this, is to focus on interests.
CM: Why is black political opinion seen as so monolithic? The only other group that I can think of that we do this with is Latinx voters. The Democratic Party is saying, “Well, they’re all going to vote for us,” because apparently they believe that they all have monolithic thinking and have no diversity of opinion.
Why do we have this idea that there’s a monolithic political opinion and that everybody shares it—that Barack Obama shares the same opinion with you? That Lori Lightfoot shares the same opinion with Toni Preckwinkle? Why do we have that opinion?
CJ: It’s a function of racism. That’s one of the things that racism does. It denies individuality. It assumes that you share all of the same traits as the group. A “scientific” racist will assume that blacks are inferior, genetically. If you’re Hitler, you assume that blacks can’t compete at the same level, don’t have the same capacity for intelligence as whites. That’s a function of racism—whether it’s the “scientific” version or the cultural version, the assumption that the group is somehow fundamentally the same, and dissimilar from everyone else.
I’m going to try to historicize this. For a long time, from the end of federal Reconstruction, in 1887, and the birth of Jim Crow and segregation at the end of the nineteenth century, all the way up until the 1950s, there were many black people in the country—the majority of black people in the South—who could not participate in a basic way. They could not participate as citizens. The result of that disenfranchisement is that the spokesperson is empowered: the broker who is able to speak on behalf of the group is empowered. Booker T. Washington and all his minions, and even more benign or more progressive figures like W.B. DuBois and others—because they’re educated, because they have a certain stature, because they have organizational power, they are able to speak on behalf of the broader population and act as brokers.
That’s what sets in motion a lot of this thinking in the American population, even now, that somehow the leader speaks for everybody, the leader can speak the voice of the broader population. That was not even true during the Jim Crow period, even though it’s where that set of dynamics takes root; it’s not true during that period that all black people agreed with Booker T. Washington. He had all sorts of critics, and critics who he tried to silence. DuBois had his critics. It’s the power of their status, the organizational power that they had, which promotes the view that they’re speaking on behalf of the voiceless. But when we look closer, we see that there’s all sorts of roiling conflicts and fights within black life, even during Jim Crow segregation.
That’s where it comes from, and it survives now because the investigation is not there. There’s not enough time being spent getting a sense of what people actually think, and paying attention to fights—real fights, real political fights—and where people stand within those fights.
The last thing I’ll say about that: social media has taken us back, in a bad way. It allows certain kinds of flat historical thinking to flourish—ahistorical thinking. It allows us to make claims without evidence. Some of the things I’m criticizing here belong to the same general problem, the same general malaise, as the other kinds of conspiracy theories—the flat-earthers and all sorts of other things—that flourish now. Because on the one hand, people distrust experts—that’s a bigger problem in our society. But a lot of folks have been set afloat and don’t really have some of the things that used to be in place, historically, that might have allowed for more disciplined kinds of thinking.
We’ve seen the decline of trade unions, which once provided a space for thinking about politics. We’ve seen the public sector ravaged, gutted, one year after another. The kinds of spaces that might have nourished more critical thinking—whether universities, public schools, or whatever else—these things are now in decline, and we have to fight just to save the bare things that still remain. That’s a problem.
And without celebrating the old media, one thing we can say about the old corporate media, the old television stations, is that everybody kind of watched the same things. They got news from three sources. ABC, NBC, CBS—and maybe PBS. That’s no more. My kids don’t watch the news like that. They don’t pay attention to the same stories. They don’t sit together with other people and comment on the news as they’re watching it. They pay attention to whatever’s streaming through their social media feeds.
And even then, a lot of times they’re reading headlines and not necessarily engaging. They may get some of what they need at school, because there’s a structure, but many people in society are not presented with the kind of space they need to really develop and sharpen positions and think critically about political life. And that’s not an elitist point. That’s true across the board. It’s true for people who are in college and for people who are nominally educated.
CM: You were just discussing why we don’t do a deeper investigation. Why doesn’t the left do a fuller class analysis? Why do they seem to be avoiding critiquing capitalism? We’ve had a lot of people on the show who have discussed how white supremacy and white privilege are ways you can avoid talking about the shortcomings of capitalism and how it’s affecting your life—so you don’t have to scapegoat capitalism, you can scapegoat somebody else instead of capitalism. But why wouldn’t people on the left—people who are supposed to have an understanding of a full class analysis—why would they avoid critiquing capitalism?
Marxism does the most to help me understand why the society is as it is, and how we’re all connected, how our predicament is actually common for the most part. There may be specific differences, idiosyncratic differences, differently-situated experiences, but overall the problem is capitalist class power.
CJ: People are trying to move in that direction. We’re still reeling from the Cold War, in a way. Anti-globalization struggles at the end of the 1990s, the response to the hurricane Katrina disaster, protests against the War on Terror, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Sanders campaign—all of these things, as well as the plain worsening conditions of people, have had the cumulative effect of softening the ground for that kind of class analysis. It’s created the space for us to have that.
I’m excited about it. I can feel it when I’m teaching classes, in how students respond to different criticisms of capitalism I’m able to bring into class. I can see it in students. People are open to it now in a way they were not when I was a student. If you talked about being a socialist in the late eighties and early nineties, nobody was going to listen to you. You certain couldn’t run for nationwide public office and have a shot. So I think people are opening up to it.
The concepts of white privilege and white supremacy have their roots. The white privilege notion in particular has its roots in the New Left, and it was well-meaning as far its origins. People like Noel Ignatiev [Rest In Power] and others during the late sixties and early seventies—a lot of those guys had trade union backgrounds. They came out of antiwar struggles during Vietnam. They were committed activists. One of the things they ran into was that on the one hand there were mass demonstrations by black people, and radical organizations cropping up like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, and other groups. There’s that on one side. On the other side, there are whites who are being incorporated into the consumer middle class. They’re enjoying an enviable standard of living that many people in the world cannot approximate, lavished with all sorts of consumer goods, being entertained to death with all kinds of new media. And those activists, people like Ted Allen and others, those folks are looking at this and wondering how we address this. They used the phrase “white privilege” to get at what they were witnessing.
Today, in hindsight, I would say that there were other people being incorporated into that consumer middle class. If you were to talk to Japanese-Americans in California or Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, especially those who were well-established—or even blacks in places like Pontchartrain Park in New Orleans, which was built in the 1960s—they would have some of the same attitudes about life and about politics, and the same commitments to capitalism, and maybe the same dismissive attitudes towards the Black Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers as their white counterparts.
New Left activists like Ignatiev used that concept to get at a problem that they were witnessing, and it makes a return a bit later. It’s taken up now in the various whiteness studies, with David Roediger in the eighties and early nineties kind of resurrecting the notion. But it’s not helpful now. It’s not helpful for talking about white people, because many white people have seen their wealth hollowed out. Many more never were a part of that consumer middle class. Others may have enjoyed it for a little while, but if you drive through any of the old industrial towns around here, people are on their heels, and they have been for some time. And some places never really developed in the ways that we might have imagined.
It’s a concept that does come out of a set of class contradictions that were born out of the postwar period, but it doesn’t keep pace with what’s happening now. And it also leads to the kinds of dangerous over-generalizations about whites that we hear about blacks. In both cases, whether it’s whiteness, white privilege, or Black Lives Matter/New Jim Crow—they do damage to us. They don’t take us in the direction of a real class analysis, the kind that we can use.
If we start with a view of class—and by that I don’t just mean focusing on how much money people make, but focusing on class as a set of social relations, the relations of production. If we think about capitalist class power, and the demands that the capitalist class places on most of us in the society (and on the environment and on the resources that we have)—if we think about it in those terms, it opens up different possibilities.
We can explain the deteriorating conditions of black people, even middle class blacks, through a class analysis. What we witness in that regard is that much of black middle class status came out of public employment. As the state has been hollowed out as a result of neoliberalization, it’s been gutted—who’s going to suffer the most? Blacks who work for the postal service; blacks who have public sector jobs who have seen their pensions raided along with everybody else; blacks who are public school teachers have felt the brunt of changes in different districts. It’s easy to see how the conditions of black people are actually connected to the resurgent power of the capitalist class. It’s not separate from that. It’s deeply connected to it.
It’s the same thing if we talk about working class blacks in cities or poor blacks in rural and small towns, and poor whites in those same places. Their conditions have worsened from the choices that the capitalist class has made, whether that’s to hollow out the state, or on the other side, within their own firms, to relocate production to other parts of the globe, or to implement labor-saving technologies that rob people of the means to sustain themselves.
I was in a convenience store on my campus the other day, and they’re trying to implement self-checkouts. We’ve seen across the board—even the little service industry jobs that people might try to work at to make ends meet are under siege by fast food companies now beginning to move in the direction of almost full automation. Touchscreens for orders, and also automated technology like using robots in the back at McDonald’s.
I’m not trying to argue that the robots will take our jobs—I think people overdo that. But we do see where it is profitable, the adoption of technologies that reduce the need for living labor and produce hardships for working class blacks and also for working class whites, Latinos, and other people. There’s a way we can talk about all of these things if we bring a critique of capital to bear.
Many people on the left are warming up to it. Some people want this analysis. They want to move in that direction. Marshall Berman said it best: you have to be a grownup to appreciate Marxism. It takes nuance and complexity. If you can deal with that, then it might be the right analysis for you. For my money, it does the most to help me understand why the society is as it is, and how we’re all connected, how our predicament is actually common for the most part. There may be specific differences, idiosyncratic differences, differently-situated experiences that we’ve been talking about here, but overall the problem is capitalist class power.
CM: Why does a focus on class not lead to a dismissal of race? Aren’t discussions over race and class a zero-sum game, and the more you blame one, the more you dismiss the other?
CJ: I’ve been baited in the past into the race/class debate. I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think that class analysis can help us understand first of all where race comes from as a notion. Where does it come from and why did it become so powerful in society? And why does it retain this certain power? We can see this now in the machinations of the Democratic Party as they try to figure out who’s going to be their presidential candidate. It’s interesting how quickly they embraced reparations. All these candidates down the line have not only embraced it, but have begun the workshop their own ideas, often with technocrats whispering in their ears. Why is it easier for them to embrace that and not embrace strong collective bargaining rights? Why is it easier for them to embrace a national conversation about reparations and not national healthcare or decommodification of housing, decommodification of higher education?
There are all sorts of things they could do which would immediately have vast impacts on improving the lives of millions of Americans. But it’s the kind of easy win that they want: to talk about race in a high abstract manner, or confine the problem to history, rather than deal with inequality in our own midst, and their own culpability in producing those inequalities. I don’t want to hear Corey Booker or anybody else talking about reparations when he’s pursued some of the same policies as people in other cities, people like Rahm Emanuel, that are to the detriment of black teachers and to the detriment of working class black students.
There’s a problem here with how race is taken up. Race can actually be a class politics nowadays. The focus on race-and-race-exclusively can be a form of class politics when it’s taken up by people like Booker and others. That’s a concern for me. I don’t think it’s an either/or. For me, the critique of capital is foremost. But I think it actually helps us. It clarifies the meaning of race, the power of race, and its power historically, both as a justification for slavery (which is where it becomes cemented in this society) and how it’s used now in a way that is equally pernicious. But if you’re so committed to it, you won’t be able to see the class maneuvers of people like Corey Booker or Kamala Harris…
…Or even Barack Obama. Let’s be clear about it. This guy was able to master, on the one hand, the pursuit of a new Democratic politics, which is a deep commitment to neoliberalization, hollowing out the state, moving in the direction of a pro-market politics (even his healthcare plan was pro-market. It didn’t disrupt the insurance industry. It was a boon for some insurance companies), and on the flipside engage in really unforgivable moralizing of working class black people whenever he was put in front of them. When he came to Chicago after the death of Hadiya Pendleton, what did he engage in? Did he talk about deep commitments to addressing black unemployment? No. He engaged in victim-blaming and moralizing of the poor as responsible for their own plight. What he said was there needs to be more fathers. There needs to be more people taking responsibility for themselves, not any kind of structural response or any state intervention that might have helped. He did the same thing after the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore.
So again, I think it’s not an either/or, race or class. Class analysis helps us to understand the ways race is deployed, and to see through the way that sometimes a focus on race can be a class politics.
CM: Cedric, I really appreciate you coming on the show today.
CJ: Thank you so much.
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