Antiracism as a Neoliberal Alternative to the Left

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* Article: Antiracism: a neoliberal alternative to a left. By Adolph Reed Jr. Dialectical Anthropology volume 42, pages105–1152, 2018


"Antiracist politics now is fundamentally antagonistic to a left politics of broadly egalitarian social transformation."

Contextual Quote

"In the antiracist political project white supremacy/racism is—like “terrorism”—an amorphous, ideological abstraction whose specific content exists largely in the eyes of the beholder. Therefore, like antiterrorism, antiracism’s targets can be porous and entirely arbitrary; this means that, also like antiterrorism, the struggle can never be won. .. Winning anything concrete is not the point. The “politics” that follows from this view centers on pursuit of recognition and representation on groupist terms—both as symbolic depiction in the public realm and as claims to articulate the interests, perspectives, or “voices” of a generic black constituency or some subset thereof, e.g., “youth” or “grassroots.” It is not interested in broadly egalitarian redistribution. .. this antiracist politics is neither leftist in itself nor particularly compatible with a left politics as conventionally understood. At this political juncture, it is, like bourgeois feminism and other groupist tendencies, an oppositional epicycle within hegemonic neoliberalism, one might say a component of neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness; it is thus in fact fundamentally anti-leftist. .. The current race-reductionist politics centers on exposé and demands for recognition, not egalitarian redistribution. Its project is elimination of disparities within a regime of intensifying economic inequality, which antiracism takes as given. .. Antiracists are not concerned with trying to generate the large, broad political base needed to pursue a transformative agenda because they are committed fundamentally to pursuit of racial parity within neoliberalism, not social transformation.

- Adolph Reed [1]


Adolph Reed:

"Antiracist activism and scholarship proceed from the view that statistical disparities in the distribution by race of goods and bads in the society in which blacks appear worse off categorically (e.g., less wealth, higher rates of unemployment, greater incidence of hypertensive and cardiovascular disease) amount to evidence that “race” remains fundamentally determinative of black Americans’ lives. As Merlin Chowkwanyun and I argue, however, disparity is an outcome, not an explanation, and deducing cause simplistically from outcome (e.g., treating racially disparate outcomes as ipso facto evidence of racially invidious causation) seems sufficient only if one has already stacked the interpretive deck in favor of a particular causal account (Reed and Chowkwanyun 2012, 167–168). We also discuss a garbage in, garbage out effect in studies that rely on large-scale aggregate data analysis; gross categories like race may mask significant micro-level dynamics that could present more complex and nuanced understandings of causality. Put another way, if you go out looking for racial effects in data sets that are organized by race as gross categories, you will be likely to find them, but that will not necessarily lead to sound interpretations of the factors that actually produce the inequalities. As likely as not that purblind approach can lead to missing “the extent to which particular inequalities that appear statistically as ‘racial’ disparities are in fact embedded in multiple social relations” (Reed and Chowkwanyun 2012, 150–151, 158–159). This issue is not a concern for antiracist politics because its fundamental goal is propagation of the view that inequalities or injustices suffered by black Americans should be understood as resulting from generic white racism. Its objective, that is, is rhetorical and ideological, not political and programmatic.

Antiracist discourse posits White Supremacy/racism as a totalizing phenomenon, a force impervious to changing institutional circumstances—a primordial foundation of being, just as the White League contended in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The thrust of the Take ‘Em Down NOLA argument, for example, is that: (1) the monuments were erected to celebrate white supremacist power, which was the foundation of slavery, lynching and brutalization of black New Orleanians, disfranchisement, imposition of Jim Crow, and denial of blacks’ basic civil rights. (2) The fact that they remain on display in the present underscores the continuity of White Supremacy’s power. (3) That continuity indicates that, as in the past, contemporary racial inequalities most meaningfully result from white supremacy, which therefore must be the primary target of struggles for social and racial justice.

But adducing a causal dynamic that underlay a political conjuncture in the past to support a claim about causality in the present presumes that the same dynamics operated in the past and present. That is, the race-reductionist formulation advanced to validate the claim of white supremacy’s overarching power presumes what it needs to demonstrate. Sociologist Mara Loveman follows Rogers Brubaker, Pierre Bourdieu, and others in arguing that this interpretive problem and the confusions that generate it can be addressed by “abandoning ‘race’ as a category of analysis to gain analytical leverage to study ‘race’ as a category of practice” (Loveman 1999, 895–896; Brubaker and Cooper 2000; Bourdieu 1991). She embraces historian Barbara J. Fields’s assessment that “attempts to explain ‘racial phenomena’ in terms of ‘race’ are no more than definitional statements” and argues that “Rejection of ‘race’ as an analytical concept facilitates analysis of the historical construction of ‘race’ as a practical category without reification, and thus provides a degree of analytical leverage that tends to be foreclosed when race is used analytically”" (

Antiracist politics is a class politics

Adolph Reed:

"Antiracist politics is a class politics; it is rooted in the social position and worldview, and material interests of the stratum of race relations engineers and administrators who operate in Democratic party politics and as government functionaries, the punditry and commentariat, education administration and the professoriate, corporate, social service and nonprofit sectors, and the multibillion-dollar diversity industry. That stratum comes together around a commonsense commitment to the centrality of race—and other categories of ascriptive identity—as the appropriate discursive framework through which to articulate norms of justice and injustice and through which to formulate remedial responses. It has grown and become deeply embedded institutionally throughout the society as an entailment of the victories of the 1960s. As the society moves farther away from the regime of subordination and exclusion on explicitly racial terms to which race-reductionist explanations were an immediately plausible response, race has become less potent as the dominant metaphor, or blanket shorthand, through which class hierarchy is lived. And as black and white elites increasingly go through the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods, operate as peers in integrated workplaces, share and interact in the same social spaces and consumption practices and preferences, they increasingly share another common sense not only about frameworks of public policy but also about the proper order of things in general.

Those quotidian realities put pressure on the reductionist premise that racial subordination remains the dominant ideological or material framework generating and sustaining systemically reproduced inequalities and class power. This tension underlies a source the appeal of ontological views of racism as an animate force that transcends time and context. Because it is an evanescent Evil that is disconnected from specific human purposes and patterns of social relations, racism, again like “terrorism,” can exist anywhere at any time under any manifest conditions and is a cause that needs no causes or explanation.


Antiracism’s class character helps to understand why its adherents are so intensely committed to it even though it is so deeply flawed analytically and has generated so little popular traction politically. One layer of its appeal derives simply from habit buttressed with a simulacrum of familiarity engendered by the naïve conceptions of black political history that prompted Willie Legette’s deathless observation that “The only thing that hasn’t changed about black politics since 1965 is how we think about it” (Warren et al. 2016). People think about black politics as a unitary, transhistorical “freedom movement” or “liberation struggle” because that is how scholarly and popular discussion of black Americans’ political activity has been framed almost universally since the academic study of black politics and political thought took shape during the 1950s and 1960s, and especially after the institutionalization of black studies as a field of study in the academic mainstream through the 1970s to 1990s. The guild interest in carving out and protecting the boundaries of a field of study and interpretive authority over its subject matter converges with the broader class interest in maintaining managerial and interpretive authority in the political economy of race relations.


Neoliberal privatization also has produced greatly expanded commercial and career opportunities for black (and Latino, female, etc.) entrepreneurs under the rubric of community “empowerment,” “role modeling,” or “social entrepreneurialism” in a vast third sector economy driven by a nonprofit sector likely as not committed to privatizing public goods in the name of localist authenticity and doing well by doing good, as well as the steadily growing diversity industry. These developments legitimize an ideal of social justice shriveled to little more than enhancement of opportunity for individual upward mobility—within the strictures of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession.

Black professional-managerial class embeddedness has become increasingly solidified with the Clinton/Obama/Emanuel wing of the Democratic party’s aggressive commitment to a left-neoliberalism centered on advancement of Wall Street and Silicon Valley economic interests and strong support for social justice defined in identity group terms. But that is necessarily a notion of social justice and equality that is disconnected from political economy and the capitalist class dynamics that generate the most profound inequalities in the society."