Adolph Reed Jr., the distinguished political scientist and commentator, became interested in politics early in life. Born into a family of academics in New York, he moved around a bunch—to D.C., Arkansas, and eventually New Orleans, which he considers home—and often found himself discussing politics around the dinner table.
When he became a student at the University of North Carolina, Reed launched his career as an activist, getting involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements and organizing for cafeteria workers at his school. For nearly fifty years, he’s been teaching political science—most recently at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently professor emeritus.
After college, Reed, a Black Marxist, went on to help found the Labor Party in the 1990s. In the 2020 U.S. Presidential race—and earlier—he was a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter. But in 2020, Reed’s scheduled talk for the Democratic Socialists of New York was cancelled—his criticism of what he sees as “race reductionism,” or using race, as a construct, to explain injustices—has been controversial. But he sees this kind of resistance to his ideas as “self-righteous and performative.”
I spoke with Reed on the phone about his views on the Black Lives Matter movement, the “rich peoples’ wealth gap,” and why he became a Marxist. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: Is race reductionism the act of pointing to problems and using race as a category to explain them? Is there a problem with using race as a category?
Adolph Reed, Jr.: Well, let me put it to you like this. The sociologist Rogers Brubaker makes a sharp distinction between categories of practice, as he describes them, and categories of analysis. Categories of practice are the categories that we use in everyday life and we want to examine. It makes sense that race can be an object of study and an object for study. What the problem is, is when we use race as a category of analysis, what we’re doing is employing the notion that presumes an abstraction to be a real thing that has impact in the world.
Race reductionism is ultimately a couple of things. One of them is a presumption that race as a category can explain social phenomena. The other is that every grievance, injustice, beef that in any way affects a person of color, or a person of non-color, can be reduced to race, or can be reduced causally to race or to racism. Is that clear?
Yes. Essentially, you see race as an important category, but not sufficient to explain complicated issues—like the racial wealth gap—which has deeper structural roots.
Exactly. And the policies may not have anything to do with race at all.
Can you give me some examples of this or just a couple of recent things that you’ve noticed that fall under this race reductionism category?
Well, one is the way we talk about COVID. There’s all the talk about there being a special need to be concerned about Black people’s resistance to getting the vaccine—because, I guess, of the muscle memory of the Tuskegee experiments—but it turns out that that’s just not true.
Black rates of vaccination are lower than White rates. But to the extent that they are lower, what accounts for the difference is access. That doesn’t have anything to do with any bizarre memory of the Tuskegee experiments, which most people get wrong anyway. They’re often confused with The Tuskegee Airmen. It’’s really crazy.
Robert Manduca and Matt Bruenig have done really interesting work on the wealth gap. One of the things that they find is that, while from one perspective there is no significant change in the Black-White wealth ratio or Black income as a percentage of White income in the last 50 years, actually, what accounts for the persistence of the aggregate difference, since Black incomes have been rising over the last 50 years in the aggregate, is that rich people’s incomes have been rising fastest and that both Black and White people outside of the top 10% have been falling behind.
What looks like an overall racial income gap that’s not closing, that’s persistent, turns out to be more an effect of rich people getting richer than the rest of us. What Bruenig finds is that 70% of so-called White wealth—or rather, close to 75% of so-called White wealth and close to 75% of so-called Black wealth—are held by the top 10% of each group, and that 97% of the racial wealth gap exists above the median.
To oversimplify it a little bit, it’s a rich peoples’ wealth gap. You can see the same stuff with even patterns of police killings. The work that race reductionism does is to skewer the actual or the more complex causes of the actual inequality.
You’ve pointed out problems with the “first black” rhetoric—or seeing a lot of significance in the election of Black Americans to high office. How so? In that vein, how do you see the election of Kamala Harris? Or Raphael G. Warnock, in Georgia?
I understand the power of the trope, which is partly inertial: Jackie Robinson entered major league baseball the year I was born, and I’ve lived my entire life partly in relation to the narrative of celebrating black firsts, which have become more tightly specified over time. Such as, in the mid-1970s, Clarence Lightner in Raleigh, NC, had his 15 minutes as the first black mayor of a medium-sized southern city between Chapel Hill, NC, and Atlanta, GA.
What “firsts” like those you mention tell us is that circumstances of context have changed enough to enable the “first.”
You’ve been accused of not being aware of race.
I’ve been amused when that’s happened, but it’s a standard move that people make. It’s an arrow in the quiver. To be honest, I’ve come to find it especially irritating when White people give me a lecture that I don’t understand the depth of racism in America. It means that their Black friend told them.
What do you think of the approach of the Black Lives Matter Movement? Do you think that the focus on race is misguided in this case?
Well, look, this is one of the things I find irksome—not your question, but the formulation that I and other people who make comparable arguments underestimate the phenomenon of racially skewed policing, to put it mildly. That’s crazy, of course not.
The problem isn’t that police disproportionately kill and maim Black people—that’s not good and it’s not to be defended—but if the problem is cast that way, then the logical response would be, the structures of policing can be left in place, but that the Black people shouldn’t be more than 10% to 12% of the people who are killed or brutalized.
From a non-race-reductionist perspective, you’d see that yes, there is as much individual racism among police forces as you might want to find—but the fundamental problem here is an approach to policing and the functions of police under neoliberalism. They’re basically protecting a property and the suppression of the unruly classes. What we know, the unruly classes basically come down to the strata of the population who make people with property feel uncomfortable.
In areas where there are a lot of Black and Brown people, they are overrepresented among the class of people who make people with property feel uncomfortable. Lo and behold, in places like Wyoming, and Montana, and the Dakotas, and places like that where there are virtually no Black and Brown people, there are White people who disproportionately make up the classes of people who make people with property feel uncomfortable. Guess what? Police treat them exactly the same way as they treat Blacks and Hispanics.
Even if I hypothetically agree that this deep structural inequality—as seen in the wealth gap and neoliberalism—is the core of the problem, isn’t this emotional appeal of banding together by race effective, politically?
This is a focal point of a lot of my political work in the labor movement. Not everybody who is hurting under neoliberalism is Black, and not all Black people are hurting under neoliberalism. Some of them are doing pretty well, actually, as the wealth gap shows.
What happens is that, to the extent that one of the features of the way that neoliberalism has evolved in the US as a political order—and there’s an irony here because if you go back to Clinton, race, race played exactly the opposite role—we’re encouraged to think that the only forms of actionable injustice that there are, are forms that apply to people on the basis of who they supposedly are instead of what they do. That’s what my colleague [Carlos Figueroa] and I have often called “categories of ascriptive difference.” Those are based on what supposedly are, race, gender, to some extent, sexual orientation. There are actually a lot of others, like people mindedness, and there still are others.
What that means, though, is that, if, say, the reciprocal of the contention of either, explicit or de facto, is that the only real injustice is discrimination, because that’s what differential treatment based on what you supposedly are comes down to. If the only actionable injustice is discrimination, then there’s not really any basis anymore to talk about economic inequality as a problem. That happens as the society is becoming increasingly unequal in economic terms.
What can ultimately ensue is an ideal of society such that if 1% of the population controls 90% of the resources, as long as that 1% were apportioned in a way that more or less faithfully reflects the composition of different ascriptive groups within the population, then that society could be considered just. That is to say, if the 1% were [approximately] half women, 12% Black, 14% to 15% Hispanic, et cetera, it would be a just society, even though 90% of the people are getting the short end of the stick. That’s the logic of a neoliberal notion of social justice.
Look, just in practical terms, one of the big stories to me about the 2016 election is that between six and a half and nine million people who voted for Obama at least once and for Sanders in the primaries voted for Trump. That gives a light to the story about how they were grossed out by the Black president and they wanted to get their White power on or whatever.
The reality is, they voted for Obama because he was supposed to be the guy who would make things better and jump out of politics as usual. The only reason that we were supposed to believe that about Obama was his race. It didn’t have anything at all to do with his record. You vote for Obama, and then eight years after that, you’re still screwed. The next guy comes along and says, “No, I’m the one who can really change things for you. I could take a shot at that.”
One other thing I’d like to make sure I say, it’s a non-sequitur a bit at this particular moment, but I find it really instructive that in the race reductionist bill of particulars against the United States, or against the left, or liberals, or whatever, insist on taking us back to things that happened before 1965. Either slavery, or the Middle Passage, or Jim Crow, or Tulsa, or the 1919 Chicago Riot. I think that that’s instructive, because I think that the race reductionist line and race reductionist politics, it depends on being able to make a case that race defines the life chances of every Black American most fundamentally, and in ways that, by the way, weren’t even true prior to 1965, but are, obviously, much less true since then.
This is one reason I’ve written about popular culture stuff so much. It’s part of constructing a narrative that presumes that nothing will ever change for Black Americans, and that racism always has been and always will be the fundamental determinant of every Black person’s life.
It requires making louder and seemingly more outrageous and totalistic arguments to press that claim because it’s so at odds with the material facts of everyday life, what people see. I’m not just talking about Oprah, or athletes or entertainers—I mean local governments around the country. Black people, and other than that, non-Whites, of course, are incorporated all the way up to the top. They share a class position.
Then that begs the question: Why is it so important for those who advocate race reductionist views that we see the world in that way? There are multiple answers. Some people are just ideologically committed in a religious sense, almost. There are class imperatives operating there too.
To oversimplify a little bit, the people who are most insistent that race solely determines the character and quality of every Black person’s life are people who are dependent, in one way or another, on selling or pimping that view to make their own living.
You’ve been in academia for a while. What do you see of how race is taught in universities?
I don’t like it, partly because of the distinction that I mentioned on the phone between categories of analysis and categories of practice. Race should be treated as an historical phenomenon comparable to others—a category I call ideologies of ascriptive differentiation—that comes into existence at a certain point in relation to specific patterns of social relations and institutions. “Race” is more often taught in universities in a way much closer to how Victorian era racists used it.
Back in 2014, you wrote a Harper’s piece about how the Left is disappearing—how Nixon actually did more for the working class than Clinton and Obama. How do you see the Left in this current state? Are we still stuck in a neoliberal era with Joe Biden?
I think it’s up for grabs. I’ll tell you what my take is based on my own work, and my own work in the political realm. The 2020 Sanders campaign left us in a really nice position in the sense that even in South Carolina, where I worked a lot, more than half of Democratic voters said that they favored Medicare for All. That was true in like 20 straight primaries all over the country.
One of the things that the Sanders campaign did was help to soften the ground, as I sometimes think of it, for those of us who wanted to try to build broad, popular support for single-payer healthcare. Now, this pandemic obviously got in the way. When we come out of this, on the other side, the same problems are going to be there. They’re going to be even more intense or exaggerated for a lot of people. That’s one thing.
It’s really not clear yet how far the Biden administration is going to go in actually trying to move onto or beyond the periphery of the neoliberal constraint. He’s got pushback from inside his own party. What my thought about the Biden presidency has been from the beginning, even before he was elected, is that the one thing I’d hope that we could hope for is a little bit of breathing room, so that we won’t have to spend every minute trying to fend off yet more dangerous attacks coming from the right and could actually try to build something.
Not surprisingly, there’s massive public support for the infrastructure program and for the stimulus. Really, one of the most important things for us to do is to preempt this siren song of the dangerous right-wing now, because those authoritarian forces out there are well-funded, they’re deeply entrenched, they’re well organized, and if we can’t find ways to appeal broadly to working people in this country across larger superficial division, then things could get really ugly here.
Like everybody else in the country, I’ve been living in what I’ve been calling a dystopian Shangri-La for over a year, under lockdown. I think I know what the challenges are that face us and what the tasks are that we need to try to work on. I’m hopeful that the Biden administration is at least going to give us an opening to try to push the envelopes and to help in building a broad-based movement that’s joined by the concerns that all working people share.
Your talk for the DSA was canceled in 2020 because you were seen as controversial. Do you think people misunderstand you?
The DSA thing—that was a bunch of stupid kids. I know that probably sounds condescending. In fact, the sponsors of the event, really wanted to go ahead with it, but my colleague and I, in keeping with the judgment that these were some stupid self-important kids, just made a determination that it wasn’t worth our time, to be honest. There are these tendencies out there, the self-righteous and performative. This is the same kind of thing that happened to Sanders in 2016. When I’m confronted with them, they roll off me like water off a duck’s back, because they don’t amount to anything anyway.
The reason that they have to be so loud and flamboyant is to cover the fact that they don’t speak for anybody except themselves.
What first drew you to become a Marxist? And how does Marxism still matter in the 21st century?
I’ve considered myself a Marxist since I was about 12 or so, before I had any sophisticated sense of what Marxism is. It was part of a deeply visceral hatred of exploitation and oppression I got from my parents and paying attention to the world around me. Marxism to me is also a way of interpreting the world, guiding inquiry and action. I’ve often said that Marx’s famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach—“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in varying ways; the point is to change it”—is not only a moral exhortation but an epistemological one as well: that one can only ascertain the limits of a particular historical moment by trying to move beyond them.
As to Marxists of color, I’ve known and encountered, read, and worked with a lot of them in my life, again beginning with family associations. There’s never been anything unusual about that. Marxism is a critique of capitalism as a political, economic, cultural, and ideological order; we all live within and under capitalism. As long as capitalism is capitalism—and it’s important to note, in fact a Marxist perspective helps to recognize them for what they are, that every few years some faddish formulation will pop up suggesting that capitalism is no longer capitalism, or has been shed of exploitative tendencies and become an egalitarian force, in rather the same way that get-rich-quick schemers tout investment programs that are loss-proof. Marxism will be the most important vehicle for making sense of it.
The term socialism, this has been thrown around a lot, especially by the right, even towards the neoliberals. What do you think is the meaning of this kind of overuse?
The reemergence of the term I think has a prosaic foundation. Bernie Sanders had long been identified as a democratic socialist. When he decided to run for the Democratic nomination in 2015, he knew that this was a charge, based on American history, or it was a label that people were going to try to turn against him. It was important for him, and I’d say, strategically necessary for him to get out in front of it and ditch the label. I thought it was unfortunate that he had to, but I realized that he had to. That’s just the way it goes.
Then, like everything else in shallow mass-mediated popular culture, the label itself becomes a thing, and then people get excited because calling oneself a socialist seems like it has a certain political heft and seriousness. In the same way, I noticed in the 90s, in the academy, postmodernist and poststructuralist discourse, that if you went into a bookstore and saw books titled The Political Economy of Victorian Poetry, 1881-1885, and you took the book off the shelf, you’d realize that it’s got nothing at all to do with political economy, it was just a gravitas-claiming gesture.
That’s how a lot of people are treating socialism—or the word—now. Of course, it backfires, because the right deploys it as the exact opposite of a gravitas-claiming gesture. For them, it’s a backdoor entry to rehabilitate all of the crazy Cold War, anti-communist hysteria. Even in the principle of the avatar of the resurgence of the notion of DSA—I have a lot of friends in DSA; this doesn’t apply to them—but it applies to others that we talk about, and notice, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the majority of active members in DSA across the country now, just based on the way they vote about stuff.
I don’t know what they mean by the notion. They don’t mean anything by it that Michael Harrington would have meant, or that anybody else who had used the term in the last 100 years would have meant.
Whenever I hear people talking about it I think of, 25 years ago, when I gave a talk to the anthropology class of a friend of mine at a community college in California. It was about a project that the Labor Party had at that point, calling for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee a right to a job and a living wage. It was an interesting chat with these community college students, but this one guy said to me, “Well, I’m disturbed by the fact that you just don’t call this socialism because it feels like you’re not being entirely honest.” He said, “I might even support it if you would just call it socialism.”
Now, this is like 1996. In the first place, it’s a very evanescent notion at this point. Nobody knows what it means. It doesn’t have a concrete meaning that people attach to it, so it doesn’t make sense to call this program by that label. What it comes down to is two very simple propositions. One is that everyone who is willing and able to work for a living should have a right to a job. The other is that everyone who works for a living should have a right to earn enough to live on.
I said, “You could call that socialism if you want. You can call it left Keynesianism, you can call it capitalism with a human face.” I said, “Finally, if you want, you could call it Teddy Pendergrass, but it doesn’t really matter.” I felt that way about the socialism discussion 25 years ago; I feel that way about it now.