Moving Past Race Reductionism12-17-2020
I recently wrote about a study by Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert D. Putnam who argue that—contrary to popular expectations—the years in which black Americans performed best on metrics of economic and social prosperity were before the Civil Rights Movement; Garrett and Putnam show that since the 1970s, black achievement has stagnated. How does this fact require that we reassess both the Civil Rights Movement and the new Movement for Black Lives?
One answer comes from Adolph L. Reed Jr., who will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center on February 17th. Reed celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, a landmark study of Black life in Chicago in the 1940s. Reed is interested in the ways that Drake and Cayton approach Chicago’s racial hierarchy “grounded in their account of material social relations—showing that, for example, competition for employment underwrote racial discrimination in labor markets, and that housing market dynamics established white exclusivity as a basis of real estate value.” In attending to the economic and social relations, Drake and Cayton assumed that the obstacles to Black advancement were complicated and were not reducible to racism or prejudice. This of course is not to deny racism or the impact of racism then, or now. But Reed does argue that we need to move past a reductionist approach that sees racism as the root of the problem facing black Americans.
[T]hey insisted, “racism” and even “prejudice” did not constitute in themselves adequate explanations for patterned racial inequalities: “The intimate tie-up between strong folk-prejudices, economic interest, and social status is so intricate that it is difficult to unravel the threads.” And, they insisted, “Race conflict in northern urban areas arises when competition is particularly keen—for jobs, houses, political power, or prestige—and when Negroes are regarded (with or without foundation) as a threat to those who already have those things or who are competing for them.”
For Drake and Cayton, the goals of Black American progress were best to be pursued not through antiracism, but through “development of a world program for emancipating the Common Man.” For Reed, recalling Drake and Cayton—along with similar work—raises question about Afropessimism, “which postulates that much of, if not all, the history of the world has been propelled by a universal “anti-blackness.” Reed argues:
Drake and Cayton also provide a suggestive (if inadvertent) explanation of a core paradox of the Awokening age: that, as actual class inequality intensifies among black Americans, the fervor of anti-racist politics escalates to ever more irrational lengths to deny this state of affairs, or to subordinate it to a race-reductionist set of priorities. The authors observed, “The Negro middle class views the white middle class as its competitor, and the Negro lower class sees it as an exploiter.” Of course, it would not have occurred to them to ask in 1945 how the black working class would view the black middle class if the latter were to replace its white counterparts; that possibility was then beyond the scope of pragmatic political imagination. Ventriloquizing the interests of a fictive, undifferentiated racial population has become an important source of political capital for advancing identitarian agendas skewed to benefit the upper strata and aspirants—a key development that in turn suggests the Great Awokening represents a form of cognitive dissonance within that class. That is to say, the more obviously the premises of race-reductionist politics are at odds with the daily realities of black Americans’ lives and expressed concerns, the more insistently the Woke must double down on the fantasy of monolithic, unchanged race-driven oppression. In this way, the vital contrasts of unequal life outcomes arbitrated by class, or other forces beyond the scope of race reduction, are simply factored out of the equation. This, indeed, may mark the point where wishful thinking approaches pathology. Or it may just show the deep wisdom of Upton Sinclair’s famous dictum: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Professor Adolph L. Reed Jr. will be speaking at Bard College in the “Tough Talks” Lectures Series sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center’s Courage to Be Seminar Series. His talk, "Model of Courage," will take place on February 17th, 2021, and will be available over Zoom.