- Interview by
- Jennifer C. Pan
At forty-seven million, the African American population in the United States is roughly equivalent to that of Spain. Despite the size of one of America’s largest minorities, discussions of black politics tend to be reductive and ahistorical. In cavalier fashion, critics of racism chart a long line of oppression that has its origin in the United States’ earliest days. Similarly, the forces that have, according to the dominant view of American racism, sought to oppose this monolithic racial tyranny have all fought under the single banner of “the black liberation struggle.”
Admittedly, these attempts to examine the history of discrimination offer correctives to right-wing defenses of forms of ascriptive hierarchy. However, they do so at the cost of flattening the complexities of actually existing black politics. This approach ignores, the political theorist Adolph Reed Jr tells Jacobin, that black politics is not immune from the economic and class forces which have and continue to shape American politics more broadly.
You’ve been a longtime critic of the notion of a cohesive or transhistorical “black freedom movement,” or the idea that one can trace an unbroken line from the fight to abolish slavery to the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter. Why isn’t this framework helpful for understanding black politics either now or in the past?
When people talk about something called the “black freedom movement” or the “black liberation struggle” or the “long civil rights movement,” they’re rehashing an old trope that goes back to the beginnings of the study of black American political history and black American political thought. At that time, that construct was called something like the “Negro’s struggle for freedom” or “Negro’s quest for equality.” Both then and now, the construct presumes, first of all, that black people are a singular collective entity. It also presumes an overarching struggle where black people have always unanimously wanted the same thing, and that whatever disagreements you might encounter if you go through the archives of black politics are just disagreements within a fundamentally shared commitment.
So the main problem with the idea of a timeless black freedom movement is that it’s a single-thread narrative and a reduction of a much more complex reality. The narrative posits racial unity as the essential foundation for understanding black people and constructs and imposes an anti-historical understanding of black people’s experiences in American political life. It defines black people as being somehow outside of history and collapses differences in historical moments by presuming that people are fighting for the same things in 2020 that they were fighting for in 1860 — or 1619, for God’s sake — which is absurd.
Why do you think people find this idea of a singular and cohesive black freedom movement so compelling?
I think there are several reasons. One is simply that people have heard it over and over, so it seems to comport with commonsense knowledge. It’s a framework that gives you the familiar dyads of Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. Du Bois, Du Bois versus Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King Jr. That’s convenient for people who don’t think there’s anything complex that goes on among black people.
Then there are people who have an interest in propagating the narrative. The black freedom movement construct has always functioned to obscure real distinctions among black people. Fundamentally, the most aggressive and insistent proponents of this view have been people who are pushing a class program: any interpretation of black politics that doesn’t account for political conflict among black people — as opposed to politics between black people and everyone else — is intrinsically a class politics because it’s part of a discourse of what Barbara Fields and Karen Fields call racecraft, which obscures class differentiation among black Americans, with or without conscious intent. If the black freedom movement narrative were even a reasonably accurate account of black American political history, then you could say, okay, well, it doesn’t hurt to talk about it. But it’s not. It’s false and it works for the other side.
The alternative to this kind of simplistic approach is to recognize that black people, like all people, live within historical circumstances. They’re diverse and have different interests and perceptions, not only at different points in time, but also at the same point. That was true in the nineteenth century and even true to some extent in the eighteenth century. It’s certainly true after Emancipation and once black people were able to claim some kind of civic participation, however badly the deck may have been stacked against them. Eric Foner has compiled a list of black people who held elected office in the South by the end of Reconstruction, and there were hundreds of people who had been elected to all kinds of offices. And that suggests that there was a lively culture of political debate and struggle, and that blacks engaged with nonblacks, as they always have and continue to do today.
It really comes down to following an injunction from Ralph Ellison: he cautioned observers of American life against the tendency to believe things about black people that they would not believe about any other human beings.
How, then, should we think about black politics now, particularly after the 2020 racial reckoning?
I’m probably getting more crotchety by the day, but I would almost argue at this point that the most crucial racial reckoning in US history was at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1864.
Anyway, to answer your question, at the beginning of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, Touré [Reed] was talking to a mutual friend and colleague who was part of the campaign’s inner circle and encouraged the campaign not to concentrate on pursuing something called the “black vote” as much as they could possibly avoid it. His argument was that what we think of as “black politics” today is a class-specific interest-group politics that’s rooted entirely in the black professional and managerial strata, whose approach to political life is race reductionist. It’s an elite-driven activity that really has no base at all. And the reality is that once you start catering to the idea of a coherent “black vote” or “black community,” it’s going to drag you down and lead to demise.
And then there’s the Potemkin thing that happens whenever there’s a police atrocity or some other outrage: people respond to the outrage with protest actions, and then somebody who’s articulate and MSNBC-ready jumps out in front of the protest and talks to the media and is declared the new voice of the black youth or the rising wave of the future.
The dynamic of outrage and protests as a response is at least a half-century old. In fact, when Touré was an infant and we lived in Atlanta, I got to see that role acted out firsthand in the local political scene by Hosea Williams, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr whose political persona was all about being true to the activist roots of the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. Whenever there was something like a police shooting, Hosea would march it off — he’d jump out and lead a protest march someplace. And then he’d go inside and essentially negotiate payoffs with the people who were in charge. And I’d already seen the same thing happen when I lived in North Carolina before I went to graduate school. So it’s not anything new, but it’s hegemonic at this point.
There’s another tendency in this type of politics that I trace back to the buildup to the anti-WTO demos in Seattle in 1999. There were activists during that moment who complained that the movement was too white and wasn’t doing enough to reach out to affected “communities.” And I’d say to people, look, if there’s some constituency that isn’t involved that you think ought to be — and you purport to have connections to that constituency — then the thing to do is for you to go out and organize them and bring them into the movement.
Well, of course nobody who was complaining actually wanted that; what they wanted was just the opposite. They wanted to represent or embody the amorphous, voiceless masses. And that’s really the only context — that and nineteenth-century race theory — within which it makes sense to assume that the black American population, which is bigger than the entire population of Canada, can be spoken for in the first person plural.
You and Walter Benn Michaels have a new book out, No Politics But Class Politics. Over the years you’ve both been sharply critical of the tendency to focus on racial disparities. While there do exist plenty of liberals whose idea of justice is a diverse ruling class, what would you tell leftists who oppose the capitalist order but also want to take racism seriously? What does it mean to fight racism today?
Of course we should do what we can to protect and buttress the antidiscrimination apparatus, which includes an affirmative dimension. But this might also be of interest to readers:
In 1945, when the Full Employment Bill was still in play in Congress, the civil rights activist and legal scholar Pauli Murray wrote an article in the California Law Review on employment discrimination. In the article, she addresses the argument that you have to fight racism or discrimination before you can win social democracy. She points out that the reality is that racism becomes most politically viable in conditions of scarcity: when jobs are scarce, that’s when people get anxious, and that’s when employers and right-wingers can mobilize the anxiety. And so Murray argues that because of that, the only way to move forward as black workers is to win the social democratic reforms — in particular, at that moment, the struggle for a real political commitment to ground national economic policy on the pursuit and maintenance of a full employment economy — and that those are ultimately even more important than the antidiscrimination measures themselves.
Most people in this country who work for a living need the same things, right? And we don’t necessarily need to have a fight over what happened in 1860, or a fight over what happened in 1890, or even 1920, or even 1960 to recognize that we all need economic security, health care, jobs, and education. And the way for us to get to those things is to articulate our needs and to come together around the things we have in common.
When the anti-racist sensibility now is that making a reference to the working class is somehow conceding to white racism, it’s pretty clear what the class character of this politics is. And this is even before you start counting up all the billions of corporate and investor-class dollars that have gone to Black Lives Matter and other nominal antiracist activist groups since the murder of George Floyd.
So it’s time for us to stop playing around and to be serious and hardheaded about this. Especially for those of us who are professors, part of our job is trying to get the story straight, to demystify the mystifications. That’s what we do for a living, right? Otherwise, we should all just go to church.