Really Existing Antiracism



Adolph Reed Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is definitely on the short list of people worth listening to regarding the intersections of class and race in American politics. In the latest issue of Left Business Observer (currently available only to subscribers), Reed calls into question the analytical and political usefulness of an enduring article of left wing faith – antiracism, or what I’m tempted to call “really existing antiracism.”

For Reed, the basic problem with “antiracism” as it is commonly understood today is that it is not a properly political category:

The contemporary discourse of “antiracism” is focused much more on taxonomy than politics. It emphasizes the name by which we should call some strains of inequality – whether they should be broadly recognized as evidence of “racism” – over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them…As the basis for a politics, anti-racism seems to reflect, several generations downstream, the victory of the postwar psychologists in depoliticizing the critique of racial injustice by shifting its focus from the social structures that generate and reproduce racial inequality to an ultimately individual, and ahistorical, domain of “prejudice” or “intolerance.”

While racism certainly persists in many peoples’ personal attitudes and in everyday social interaction, “from the standpoint of trying to figure out how to combat even what most of us would agree is racial inequality and injustice, that acknowledgement and $2.25 will get me a ride on the subway.” Instead of getting caught up in debates as to whether or not the fact that people of color are disproportionately affected by broader social problems constitutes a form of racism, Reed makes the case that “it’s more effective politically to challenge the inequality and justice directly.” Unlike movement leaders and scholars from the past, today’s apostles of antiracism typically don’t understand that the struggle for racial equality can only succeed when situated within a larger movement for social and industrial democracy. As Reed puts it, people like A. Philip Randolph “would have understood that the struggle against racial health disparities, for example, has no real chance of success apart from a struggle to eliminate for-profit health care.”

Like Walter Benn Michaels, Reed argues that today’s antiracism does not constitute a challenge to neoliberal capitalism, nor does it necessarily have anything to do with the creation of an effective left politics. Indeed, when antiracism is divorced from and placed above class politics, it only reinforces the dominance of the existing regime:

We live under a regime now that is capable simultaneously of including black people and Latinos, even celebrating that inclusion as a fulfillment of democracy, while excluding poor people without a whimper of opposition. Of course, those most visible in the excluded class are disproportionately black and Latino, and that fact gives the lie to the celebration. Or does it really? From the standpoint of a neoliberal ideal of equality, in which classification by race, gender, sexual orientation or any other recognized ascriptive status (that is, status based on what one allegedly is rather than what one does) does not impose explicit, intrinsic or necessary limitations on one’s participation and aspirations in the society, this celebration of inclusion of blacks, Latinos and others is warranted.

As such, upwardly mobile people of color are “positioned to benefit from the view that the market is a just, effective, or even acceptable system for rewarding talent and virtue and punishing their opposites and that, therefore, removal of ‘artificial’ impediments to its functioning like race and gender will make it even more efficient and just.” Just look at the Oprahs, Bill Cosbys, and yes, Barack Obamas of the world, who point to their success as “proof” that the system is fundamentally just, and that anyone can attain success as long as they work hard and play by the rules.

As someone who has long been uneasy with the diversity industry and some of the more ridiculous aspects of multiculturalism, I find Reed’s critique to be dead on. After decades of increasingly frustrating postmodern/multiculti forays into identity politics, it’s exciting to see the argument that the basic program of the left should be class politics plus vigorous enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws (and the enactment of new ones as necessary), making something of a comeback. But I’m curious as to how Reed’s argument differs from the one William Julius Wilson has made about the declining significance of race, which gained a lot of traction among Clintonites in the 1990s and was used to justify their retreat from racial equality. Those of you who are more familiar with the sociological literature should jump in here.

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