Adolph Reed, who researches race and politics, warns that “identitarian” politics can conceal the structural inequities of capitalism
Adolph Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, talks to the Institute for New Economic Thinking about the elections, race, and economic disparities in America.
Lynn Parramore: As the elections approach, media pundits seem focused on the idea that the country is facing a racist and xenophobic breakdown promoted by Trump and the GOP. The Democrats posit themselves as the answer to this threat. What do you make of this framing?
Adolph Reed: Immediately after Trump’s victory, I was particularly struck by the debate over how to interpret the victory. In my mind, this was always a debate over how to respond strategically and point towards the midterms and 2020.
The debate got condensed around the notion that Trump’s victory shows or has spurred a complete breakdown in the country around race and gender and homophobia and nativism. A lot of scholars have done intellectual work purporting to show that the white vote for Trump in 2016 was a reflection of status anxiety rather than economic anxiety. It boggles my mind that people think that it’s possible to separate the two in a neat way. But the big problem all along for those who wanted to push the white supremacist line is those 7-9 million people who voted for Obama and later for Sanders, then voted for Trump. How does racism explain that?
I had a very sharp and studious black undergraduate student wholly inside a race-first understanding of politics. When I mentioned the white people who had voted for Obama once if not twice who also voted for Trump, his response was, well, of course you can’t say that voting for Obama means that you’re not a racist. I said, yes, that’s true, but by the same token you can’t say that voting for Trump means you are a racist, right? Which they don’t want to accept.
LP: Thomas Ferguson, Ben Page, and their colleagues have just published a study for the Institute for New Economic Thinking revealing the intertwining social and economic factors that drove Trump voters in the Rust Belt, including those who switched from Obama to Trump. They find that long-term anguish over trends like globalization, imports, and slow growth were strong motivating factors that Trump was able to exploit by drumming up, for example, fear of immigrants. Yet many seem unwilling to confront this complexity. Why is that?
AR: My concern, and I’ve gotten more emphatic about it over time, is that if this argument is fundamentally an argument about the strategic direction that progressives and/or the Democratic Party should follow, then it’s really a debate about whether we try to mobilize around a politics that challenges the economic inequalities that are reproduced and intensified under capitalism, and especially neoliberal capitalism, or we pursue a response that accepts the logic of those inequalities and seeks to mobilize around a notion of fairness within that regime of fundamental inequality.
From that perspective, the notion that the fault line in left-of-center politics now is between people who take a class perspective and those who take an identity-based perspective miscasts the actual tension. The identity position is itself a class position. It’s just a position of a different class from the working class.
LP: An essay you wrote in the ‘90s criticized black public intellectuals who had become skilled, as you put it, at soothing white liberals in retreat from challenging economic unfairness by making them feel better about being on the side of “the black community” on matters of race. Are black pundits still doing this kind of soothing? I’m thinking of those who have tended to embrace neoliberal politics represented by figures like Hillary Clinton, who was offered as a presidential candidate in 2016.
AR: Yes, and what a sour offering that was. I think one difference between now and the time I wrote the essay is that the internet has democratized—and not in a good way—access to the racial voice or race spokesman profession.
I never liked the notion of public intellectual. After Russell Jacoby, an old friend of mine, wrote a book called The Last Intellectuals, people picked up this idea that black people who write commentary are somehow black public intellectuals. That’s really at bottom a racialist premise—the notion that any random black person who gets access to the public microphone has a kind of authenticity and that he or she expresses and speaks deeper truths.
To get more directly to the soothing function, yes, I think it’s even more perverse now. Take a figure like Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose message appeals to white liberals partly because of the moralism that lets you feel good about yourself in a particularly Protestant kind of way—in the sense of publicly performing one’s moral standing. But the real beauty of it is that since Coates’s message is that white supremacy is transhistorical, trancontextual, and always there, with whites committed to it ontologically, then the only thing you can hope for is repenting and individual atonement. Which is cheap and easy.
LP: How does that stance prevent us from challenging fundamental problems like economic inequality? How does it demobilize us?
AR: That’s maybe the most important question and that’s what we’ve seen play out since Trump’s election. Going back to the 2016 campaign, first we get the sort of Clintonites of whatever color who invent the bogus idea of the “Bernie Bro” [a pejorative label characterizing supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as white and male]. Since the election, the stakes have been getting raised perpetually, especially among the internet chattering class. At this point the charge operates like the telephone game [a game in which a word or phrase is whispered around a circle and alters in unexpected ways]. Any claim or proposal concerning durable patterns of economic inequality is now taken as being tantamount to making excuses for white supremacy.
It’s kind of interesting to see this de facto alliance of Wall Street and corporate democrats and the nominally left identitarians who come together on premises like the one [Paul] Krugman started pushing, I think even before the  election, concerning what some people are now calling “horizontal inequality.” [“Vertical inequality,” in contrast, focuses on overall income and wealth disparities].
The idea is that there is only inequality between groups, whatever that means, or between individuals. From that formulation it means that class and class inequality disappear from the equation. There’s no space in that dichotomy for considering structural dynamics that reproduce patterns of inequality among all people who have to work for a living.
LP: In the country’s history, people of different races or backgrounds have worked together to promote policies that give ordinary people a better life. In North Carolina, for example, there were powerful black and white coalitions in the great Fusion victories of the late 19th century, when Populists and Republicans joined forces against elites. People wanting economic reform came together despite racism. Are we missing opportunities like this by focusing on what divides us rather than the things most of us want, like good schools and affordable health care?
AR: A few years ago when Barbara Fields was president of the Southern Historical Association, I was asked to join a presidential panel and I talked about the populist insurgency story, of which the North Carolina populist Fusion victories are the high point. I pointed out that yes, there was as much racial prejudice as you can find but that was not the undoing of those movements. It was violence, fraud, murder, and intimidation. When the panel was over, a black woman came up from the audience and wanted to catechize me about the limits of populism. She mentioned the racism and white supremacy, and I said, yes, there was that but there was also violence, intimidation, and murder on a grand scale. Her response was, yes, well, that’s true, but it was really the racism. Well, what can you say to that? She couldn’t see that the larger objective was to eliminate the threat that the insurgency had posed to planter-merchant class rule.
LP: As somebody who has ties to the North and the South, how to you view efforts to redress the wrongs of the country’s racial history, such as the removal of Confederate monuments?
AR: I’m sort of half Southern in my upbringing. I did my first communion in Washington, D.C. on the day before the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down. We were living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in ’57 and were there at the time of the Little Rock Nine [when nine teens braved violent protests to attend school after the Brown decision]. Then I was in New Orleans for high school. Before that I’d had the experience of being a Northern kid first from New York and then from D.C. who would go into the South during the last decades of the Jim Crow era. I’d have to learn the rules and get explanations from adults as to what this was all about, how you were supposed to act and why. From the time that I was old enough to recognize what they actually were, I detested those monuments completely, and I was very happy to see them gone.
I made the point in an essay that it’s beyond time for them to be gone, but among the reasons that they could be taken down is that the social order that they were meant to memorialize is also long since gone. They were never really about celebrating the Confederacy. If you look at when they were constructed, they were meant to memorialize the version of the solid South behind white supremacy that the planter-merchant class was imposing between the end of the 19th century and WWI as a direct response to the defeat of the populist insurgency.
LP: You’ve recently highlighted that this is a tricky time for historians and those who want to examine the past, like filmmakers. Well-intentioned people who want to confront the injustices of history may end up replacing one set of myths for another. You point out the distortion of history in films like “Selma” which offer uplifting narratives about black experiences but tend to leave out or alter meaningful facts, such as the ways in which blacks and whites have worked together. This is ostensibly done to avoid a “white savior” narrative but you indicate that it may serve to support other ideas that are also troubling.
AR: Exactly, and in ways that are completely compatible with neoliberalism as a style of contemporary governance. It boils down to the extent to which the notion that group disparities have come to exhaust the ways that people think and talk about inequality and injustice in America now.
It’s entirely possible to resolve disparities without challenging the fundamental structures that reproduce inequalities more broadly. As my friend Walter Benn Michaels and I have been saying for at least a decade, by the standard of disparity as the norm or the ideal of social justice, a society in which 1% of the population controls more than 90% of the resources would be just, so long as the 1% is made up non-whites, non-straight people, women, and so on in proportions that roughly match their representation in the general population.
It completely rationalizes neoliberalism. You see this in contemporary discussions about gentrification, for example. What ends up being called for is something like showing respect for the aboriginal habitus and practices and involving the community in the process. But what does it mean to involve the community in the process? It means opening up spaces for contractors, black and Latino in particular, in the gentrified areas who purport to represent the interests of the populations that are being displaced. But that has no impact on the logic of displacement. It just expands access to the trough, basically.
I’ve gotten close to some young people who are nonetheless old school type leftists in the revitalized Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and I’ve been struck to see that the identitarian tendency in DSA has been actively opposing participation in the Medicare for All campaign that the national organization adopted. The argument is that it’s bad because there are disparities that it doesn’t address. In the first place, that’s not as true as they think it might be, but there’s also the fact that they can’t or won’t see how a struggle for universal health care could be the most effective context for trying to struggle against structural disparities. It’s just mind-boggling.
LP: If politicians continue to focus on issues like race, xenophobia, and homophobia without delivering practical solutions to the economic problems working people face, from health care costs to the retirement crisis to student debt, could we end up continuing to move in the direction of fascism? I don’t use the word lightly.
AR: I don’t either. And I really agree with you. I was a kid in a basically red household in the McCarthy era. I have no illusions about what the right is capable of, what the bourgeoisie is capable of, and what the liberals are capable of. In the heyday of the New Left, when people were inclined to throw the fascist label around, I couldn’t get into it. But for the first time in my life, I think it’s not crazy to talk about it. You have to wonder if Obama, who never really offered us a thing in the way of a new politics except his race, after having done that twice, had set the stage for Trump and whatever else might be coming.