The Retrograde Quest for Symbolic Prophets of Black LiberationRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, radicalism
Adolph Reed Jr. is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
One little-examined legacy of the broader intellectual embrace of race-reductive thinking is something we might call the Quest for Moses(es)—the shorthand branding exercise of privileging the content of individual characters in our debates on racial injustice. We see this tendency in much of today’s wokeness-inflected discourse, which leans heavily on appealing to the authority individuals considered to be exemplary, from differing times or historical contexts, in lieu of empirical arguments to support assertions concerning how we should understand racial injustice. Some of the figures in the Moses pantheon are James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, Amílcar Cabral, Stuart Hall, the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., or the authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement.
Of course, the contributions of all these figures are estimable, and there’s traditionally much to be gained from historically informed encounters with past advocates of racial justice. Still, one striking shared trait in the revived interest in these thinkers and movements is that none is enmeshed in the particular, post-segregation neoliberal regime that confronts us today. None of them can help us figure out how to respond to the overlapping crises that now bear directly, even disproportionately, on black people—e.g., privatization of education and other public services, health care reform, the dynamics of metropolitan rent-intensifying redevelopment (a.k.a. “gentrification”), rise and reproduction of the carceral apparatus, or income inequality. And some of them—Cooper and the younger Du Bois, for example—advanced arguments that would likely be cold comfort to egalitarian interests today. Both figures assumed upper-class whites to be the key allies in racial uplift, and implied that restriction of the franchise from the “low and vicious” was fine, so long as such strictures applied equally to blacks and whites. They also held that segregation’s gravest injustice was that it did not recognize class distinctions among blacks. Cooper, in addition, was anti-union, anti-radical, and anti-immigrant.
The reflexive attribution of today’s battery of racial inequalities to a generic, transhistorical racism or white supremacy actually serves to shift attention away from the discrete, historically specific mechanisms that inform actual racialized social outcomes. For example, early in the Covid pandemic, Merlin Chowkwanyun and I cautioned that glibly categorizing its apparent racial disparities as a direct function of race or racism explains neither the origins of disparate Covid susceptibilities nor vulnerability to the disease’s worst effects. We also noted that slippage between “race” as a nominal social status and “racism” as either an attitude or a pattern of structured social relations could readily translate into its own kind of racial essentialism. A race-driven breakdown of Covid transmission could readily shore up long-discredited but nonetheless lingering assumptions that blacks and Hispanics either bear distinct racial biologies or have developed group-specific cultural practices that account for their seemingly elevated vulnerability. Other scholarship has affirmed the reality of that danger. What’s more, recent Covid research has shown what should have been apparent from the outset—that early disparities in infection and death among blacks and Hispanics result most crucially from working and housing conditions that increase exposure and vulnerability.
In much the same vein, I’ve devoted several recent TNR columns to showing how ill-suited the generic invocation of racism or white supremacy is when it comes to explaining apparent racial disparities in distribution of wealth and income. Notions such as the racial wealth gap don’t provide a causal explanation of economic inequalities; rather, they encourage us simply to ascribe mystic racial momentum to the causal mechanisms that actually generate such socioeconomic forces. Because race reductionism does not explain concretely how such inequalities are generated and reproduced, it also does not point toward practical strategies for tackling inequalities.
This, indeed, is one of the most frustrating features of the race-reductionist mindset. In underwriting characterizations of the roots of racial inequalities that are both shallow and inadequate, it has no analytic value for those who want to pursue a more egalitarian and just society, even as it seeks to give the casual name-checking impression of advancing racial justice. And the literal name-checking of Moses figures within its ambit clearly springs from the same intellectually homogenizing impulse.