Disparity Discourse

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Contextual Quote

"A society where making black and white people equal means making them equally subordinate to a ruling class is not a more just society, just a differently unjust one. That’s the trouble with disparity."

-Adolph Reed [1]


A Critique of Race-Based Democracy Discourse - By Adolph Reed

Adolph Reed:

"Even as a program for addressing racial disparities, antiracism is not much of a remedy for inequality. If the racial wealth gap were somehow eliminated up and down the distribution, 90 percent of black people would still have only 25 percent of total wealth, and the top 10 percent of blacks would still hold 75 percent. And this is only to be expected because in a society with sharp and increasing overall inequality, eliminating racial “gaps” in the distribution of advantages and disadvantages by definition does not affect the larger, and more fundamental, pattern of inequality.

That inadequacy becomes clearer when we consider the argumentative sleight-of-hand that drives disparity discourse. What we’re actually saying every time we insist that the basic inequality is between blacks and whites is that the only inequalities we care about are those produced by some form of discrimination—that inequality itself isn’t the problem, it’s only the inequalities produced by racism and sexism, etc. What disparity discourse tells us is that, if you have an economy that’s getting more and more unequal, that’s mainly generating jobs that don’t even pay a living wage, the problem we need to solve is not how to reduce that inequality and not how to make those jobs better but how to make sure that they aren’t disproportionately held by black and brown people.

It’s true, as political scientist Preston H. Smith II has shown, that in the form of what he calls “racial democracy,” some black people have championed the ideal of a hierarchical ladder on which blacks and other nonwhites would be represented on every rung in rough proportion to their representation in the general population.2 But the fact that some black people have desired it doesn’t make racial democracy desirable. As we have noted, separately, together, and repeatedly, the implication of proportionality as the metric of social justice is that the society would be just if 1 percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the resources so long as 13 percent of the 1 percent were black, 14 percent were Hispanic, half were women, etc.

Complaints about disproportionality are liberal math. And a politics centered on challenging disproportionality comes with the imprimatur of no less a Doctor of the Church of Left Neoliberalism than economist Paul Krugman, who asserted in his role as ideologist for the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign that “horizontal” inequality, i.e., inequalities measured “between racially or culturally defined groups,” is what’s really important in America and dismissed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ elaborate program for social-democratic redistribution as “a pipe dream.”

It’s the fixation on disproportionality that tells us the increasing wealth of the one percent would be OK if only there more black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ billionaires. And the fact that antiracism and antidiscrimination of all kinds would validate rather than undermine the stratification of wealth in American society is completely visible to those who currently possess that wealth—all the rich people eager to embark on a course of moral purification (antiracist training) but with no interest whatsoever in a politics (social-democratic redistribution) that would alter the material conditions that make them rich.

By contrast, the strain in black politics that converged around what Smith calls the social- (rather than racial-)democratic ideal proceeded from the understanding that, because most black Americans are in the working class—and disproportionately so, partly because of the same effects of past and current racism we allude to above—black people would also benefit disproportionately from redistributive agendas that expand social wage policies and enhance the living standards and security of working people universally. The tension between those two ideals of social justice, as Smith indicates, was, and is, a tension arising from differences in perception and values rooted in different class positions.

Thus the fact that, over the last half century (as American society has reached new heights of inequality and as Democrats have done very little more than Republicans to combat it), the racial-democratic principle in black politics, and in the society in general, has displaced the social-democratic one, has been a victory for the class—black and white—that has supported it. In its insistence that proportionality is the only defensible norm and metric of social justice, antiracist politics rejects universal programs of social-democratic redistribution in favor of what is ultimately a racial trickle-down approach according to which making more black people rich and rich black people richer is a benefit to all black people.


Even though (and here’s where the graph does a little counter-hegemonic work) poor white households are a majority, the gap between rich and poor only gets traction today if it can be redescribed as the gap between white and black. There are no headlines trumpeting the discovery that poor people have worse health care than rich people, much less announcing that they are more often killed by the police. You might as well announce that poor people have less money than rich people. In fact, the commitment to addressing disparities has become so central that even when it’s clear that addressing the problems of poor people rather than black people would be more effective in solving the problems of black people, the move toward universality is rejected as a refusal to “center” black people.

In other words, centering black people has become a way of ignoring poor people—even poor black people! After all, every step in the direction of universal redistribution advances, however minimally, equality between rich and poor and works toward correcting racial disparities. No step in the direction of reducing disparities advances equality between rich and poor and, without universal redistribution, even the steps we do take toward reducing disparities are minimally effective. What does it mean, then, to make disparity the focus of our political agenda?

What we’re trying to do here is show that seeing inequality as disparity is seeing it through a neoliberal lens. (It’s worth recalling in this context that Margaret Thatcher, when asked what she considered her greatest achievement, replied “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”) Of course, many people committed to BlackLivesMatter may understand themselves as committed also to social measures that go beyond rectifying the disproportionality problem. But, if they are, that commitment in no way follows from identification of disparity as the most important metric of inequality. And, as we have argued, that commitment, no matter how earnestly felt, is not borne out by the substance of antiracist political practice. For the record, this means that those who assert a “both/and-ist” posture—from the most self-satisfied, moralizing youthful enthusiasts to the most decrepit troglodytes steeped in their nostalgic Trotskyite fantasies—to denounce advocates of political-economic analysis and working-class politics as “class reductionists” are trying to delude either themselves or the rest of us, or both, regarding the extent to which they’ve capitulated to neoliberal vision.

Finally, although some antiracists—and certainly many liberals—express indifference toward or disdain for poor and working-class whites, it is practically impossible, as generations of black proponents of social democracy understood clearly, to imagine a serious strategy for winning the kinds of reforms that would actually improve black and brown working people’s conditions without winning them for all working people and without doing so through a struggle anchored to broad working-class solidarity.

And if it were possible, it would be wrong. A society where making black and white people equal means making them equally subordinate to a (mainly white but, really, what does it matter?) ruling class is not a more just society, just a differently unjust one. That’s the trouble with disparity." (https://nonsite.org/the-trouble-with-disparity/)