Race Reductionism

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Rogers Brubaker:

"The Reeds are sharply critical of this new orthodoxy. Racial inequalities, they claim, are most effectively understood, and combated, in the context of political economy. But prevailing liberal discourse, Adolph Reed argues, posits decontextualized, abstract racism and white supremacy as “the definitive source of any contemporary inequalities affecting African-Americans.”

To the Reeds, such thinking is abstract, ahistorical and essentializing.

It is abstract since it depicts racism as a pervasive force without specifying the particular mechanisms through which racial inequalities are perpetuated. For example, Touré Reed argues that Southern Democrats’ indisputable racism does not adequately explain why Blacks were excluded from Social Security under the New Deal. It is true that Social Security did not cover agricultural and domestic workers, occupations that accounted for nearly two thirds of the Black labor force. But while 23 percent of agricultural and domestic workers were Black (more than double their share of the population), three-quarters were white. In addition, disproportionately white categories like the self-employed, professionals and government employees were also excluded. These limitations in coverage, Reed suggests, are better explained by factors like the administrative difficulties of collecting taxes and landlords’ interest in keeping labor costs down than by racism or white supremacy. (Reed acknowledges that racism played a much more central role in federal mortgage policies—but he insists that housing discrimination was grounded not in “primordial prejudice” but in specific political and economic configurations.)

Reed argues that Blacks did substantially benefit from many New Deal programs, especially from union-friendly labor legislation and court decisions. And as Adolph Reed has noted, Blacks also benefited from participation in Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration programs in numbers greater than their share of the population (though smaller than their share of those in need of work). The Reeds therefore reject both the argument that the New Deal was intrinsically racist and the corollary—increasingly common on the identitarian left—that universalist, class-based programs cannot reduce racial inequalities.

Race reductionist thinking is ahistorical because it treats racism as a timeless, ubiquitous force that remains undiminished across social, cultural and political contexts as different as the Jim Crow South—where racial subordination was codified and enforced by both law and custom—and present day America. H. Richard Milner IV, for example, claims that racism is “persistent, permanent and omnipresent” in American society. This ahistoricism is carried to an extreme in the Afro-pessimist philosophy of Frank B. Wilderson III, for whom “Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness,” a “condition of suffering for which there is no imaginable strategy for redress.” (As Adolph Reed dryly notes, “only the comfortable strata, and those aspiring to join them, can luxuriate in defeatism of that sort.”)

Ahistorical race reductionism, according to Adolph Reed, blinds us to the historically specific mechanisms that have produced different forms of racial injustice—as well as to the differences between the struggles that have sought to overcome them:

[This] sleight of hand … turns earlier struggles against concrete injustices like slavery, convict labor, sharecropping, disfranchisement, state-imposed segregation, [and] housing and employment discrimination into generic struggles against racism and white supremacy. These generalized struggles can never be won because, like terrorism, the target is an abstraction that can never be definitely identified and vanquished.

Race reductionist thinking is essentializing because it assumes that Black people share a single culture, and that their interests cannot be at odds. This is an example of what I have called “groupism”: the tendency to treat ethnic groups, races and nations as substantial, homogeneous entities to which interests and agency can be attributed. Such invocations of a putatively unitary community, Adolph Reed argues, often serve the elites who claim to speak in its name, while those spoken for disappear “as all but a communitarian abstraction to be ventriloquized” by the spokespersons. In reality, there is no “universal or near-universal set of singularly racial concerns that override their interests as workers, parents, teachers, students, realtors, real estate investors, tenants [or] homeowners.”

Race reductionism not only distorts the way we understand the world: it influences the way we seek to change it—in a surprisingly conservative direction. By “racializ[ing] the working class as white,” Adolph Reed argues, it steers working class Black (and brown) Americans away from class solidarities, folding them instead “into the concerns articulated by the professional and middle-class agenda-setting strata.” And by portraying broadly redistributive, universalist programs as “inimical to black people’s particular interests and concerns,” it undermines support for policies that would disproportionately benefit Black and brown people." (https://www.persuasion.community/p/the-danger-of-race-reductionism?)

Toure Reed

Toure Reed:

"Race is not a useful biological category, if only because the continental groupings that comprise the races are far too large and fluid to share meaningful genetic commonalities. Instead, laws and customs — informed by demographic, political, and economic developments — determine the parameters of so-called racial groups. Simply, race is a two-centuries-old ideological project that insists on treating inequities that are the product of human endeavors — slavery, colonialism, and inequities organic to capital accumulation — as if they were hatched by natural processes.

Racism is thus not about ignorance or even hatred, though racists can be guilty of both, of course, but is, at its core, an attachment to the existence of biological or quasi-biological races.

If racism is an unambivalent or even vague belief in the existence of races, then to suggest that race is not real is not to deny the existence of racism. Since we are social animals, people’s commitment to a belief system ensures an ideology’s influence — its “realness” in the realm of social interactions.

For example, by definition, Christians believe that Christ was the son of God. The fact that billions of Jews, Muslims, and atheists necessarily reject this belief does not change the fact that billions of Christians embrace it. Likewise, the fact that more than half the world’s population rejects this fundamental tenet of Christianity is inconsequential to Christianity’s influence over political and social movements — ranging from colonialism to the modern civil rights movement.

To cut to the quick, racism — the belief in races — is unquestionably real, even if races are not.

By demonstrating the potential deadly implications of racial discourse that casts black men as dangerous predators, Christian Cooper’s video validates long-standing complaints about racism and shines harsh light on a chronic source of anxiety felt by African Americans across class lines. Indeed, Christian Cooper’s video amplifies the realness of racism and offers a glimpse onto its consequences.

Since racial discrimination can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, anti-discrimination policies are necessary. But to insist on the necessity of policies like affirmative action is not to imply that they are sufficient.

Anti-discrimination legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 has mitigated racial inequities by opening pathways, principally, at this point, for well-educated blacks to the middle and upper classes. But these and other anti-discrimination policies have failed to eliminate disparities, because earning power for all but top wage earners has been on a fifty-year decline.

According to sociologist Robert Manduca, median black household income increased, between 1968 and 2016, from the 25th percentile to the 35th percentile, while median white household income moved from the 54th to the 57th percentile. Despite the relative gains blacks have made — with the aid of anti-discrimination policies — the wage and wealth gap has barely budged since 1968 because automation, the slow death of the union movement, and public-sector retrenchment have contributed to a decline in real income for the bottom 80 percent of American workers.

The good news is that the relative gains blacks have made over the past few decades have prevented the racial income gap from worsening. Indeed, according to Manduca, had blacks not made any relative progress over a period in which income gains have been confined to the top 20 percent of wage earners, the ratio of median black to white household income would have fallen from 57 percent to 44 percent between 1968 and 2016.

But had wages remained constant over the past fifty years, black-white family income ratio would have risen from 57 percent to 70 percent.

It’s not unreasonable to attribute neoliberalism’s disproportionate impact on blacks, in part, to the historic legacy of racism. But it is important to situate African Americans’ historic and contemporary experiences within the broader currents of American political economy." (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/06/christian-cooper-amy-central-park-racism-black-birder)