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No Quick Fixes: Working Class Politics From Jim Crow to the Present

Adolph Reed Jr. has a new book that looks back to inform today and a new podcast project with a very concerned eye toward the future.

Men wearing tuxedos carry a coffin and a "Here Lies Jim Crow" sign down the middle of a street as a demonstration against "Jim Crow" segregation laws in 1944.,CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

With a new book out Tuesday reflecting on his years growing up within—and moving through—the racist apartheid order that loomed over the U.S. South in the 1950s and 60s during his upbringing and early adulthood, political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. offers his unique perspective on the Jim Crow era, but please do not call it a memoir.

Reed, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, left teaching in 2019 but has hardly slowed down in terms of his desire to educate or be involved in the national debate surrounding issues of race, grotesque levels of economic inequality, and the necessity of a politics that puts working people at the very center.

Separate from the book, entitled The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, Reed is also working on a new podcast project with friends and allies from the labor movement that recently has its debut. In an exchange over email ahead of The South's launch, Reed shared his thoughts with Common Dreams about the new book that takes a critical and unique look at the past and his ideas about contemporary politics that should be vital for anyone thinking seriously about the perils the nation is facing today and into the future.

Common Dreams: The South feels like a reluctant memoir, one born out of obligation as much as other possible motivations. One key reference made toward the beginning of the book is the "indelible" mark left on those of a specific age (yours) who "reached adulthood under that system's heel." You were born in 1947. You turned 18 the same year the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law. In the book you write, "My age cohort is basically the last, black or white, for which the Jim Crow regime is a living memory—for good or ill." How long has this book been stewing and were there any specific dynamics or trends over more recent years that ultimately compelled you to tell these stories and share these observations in the manner that you have?

Adolph Reed Jr.: The book, or something, had been stewing since the late '90s, when a couple of friends with southern roots—one seven years older, the other ten years younger—and I began musing that probably only the most precocious of those people the younger friend's age would have any lived recollection of what the Jim Crow social order and quotidian world were like. At that point I was in my early 50s, and it didn't take a lot of imagination to reflect that living memory would be gone with us. I began writing in 2002 or 2003 with no particular end in mind and, therefore, wrote myself into that uncertain terrain—about 15,000 words—of too long for an article, too short for a book. The manuscript languished on my computer in that state for more than a decade.

I appreciate that you describe it as a "reluctant memoir" because the one thing I definitely did not want to write was a memoir of my life or a coming-of-age tale.There's already far too much of that sort of writing out there, which generally comes down to something somewhere between personality journalism and inspirational narrative of overcoming adversity. Besides, I'm simply not that interesting as a person. The point of the book is to capture at least one perspective on the complex social order that was the Jim Crow South—where it came from, what it was about, its point, how people lived it and reproduced it at the everyday level as well as its formal or official strictures of racial regulation. Recently, I've thought about—without the arrogance of the Du Bois comparison—the subtitle Du Bois gave to Dusk of Dawn, An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. That magisterial book was a narrative of his life that was simultaneously a rumination on the genesis and evolution of race thinking. This book is vastly less ambitious; it's a rumination on a social order recorded by something like a participant-observer. I'm grateful to Barbara Jeanne Fields and Faith Childs for having encouraged me to pursue publication, which I'd done only tepidly or tentatively theretofore, and to expand the manuscript with more texture and to explore topics I hadn't, or had only alluded to before, and, yes, to put more of my own circumstances into the narrative. I'll resist to the death the book's characterization as a memoir, though; my sense is that the personal stuff in it is mainly lubricant to move the narrative along. I'll add, just for more texture, that 1965 was also the year that Malcolm X was assassinated (months before passage of the VRA), the first really big troop build-up in Vietnam (also months after Malcolm's assassination) and significantly therefore the year I had to register for the draft, and the Watts riot, less than a week after the VRA was passed. These comments should underscore that the South wasn't so much detached from the rest of the US.

Far from a recollection of anecdotal injustices, the book goes beyond recounting "the bad old days when bigots and bigotry reigned" by examining the ways in which Jim Crow created a "coherent social order" for those who experienced it—one not as easily reduced to segregated lunch counters and designated waiting rooms at the bus station. Busting a few myths about what the system was and what it wasn't, you describe how even as segregated black communities "were excluded from political and civic life," Jim Crow was not designed to exclude them from economic life. "The point was not to remove them from the mainstream economy," you write, "but to enforce their subordinate position within it." Was "the point" of Jim Crow to keep black Americans separate and relegated, or was it to keep them poor?

Another interesting question. I'd say the answer is both, and more still. And that's partly what's wrong with how people are inclined at this point to think about that period, as well as what's wrong with how people are, and have been inclined to think about remedies. Like all social orders or governing regimes that succeed—and 60 years or more qualifies as success—the Jim Crow order was improvised. Its main precipitant was the threat to southern ruling class hegemony asserted by the Populist insurgency at the end of the 19th century. Racial scapegoating did what racial scapegoating does; it's why "race" exists as a socially meaningful category in the first place. The Jim Crow order imposed white supremacy and apartheid, and most of all racial disfranchisement at the state level by constitutional action. The "point" certainly was to turn black people into a population without citizenship rights, which made them all vulnerable to labor discipline without recourse and therefore to keep them poor. Also, disfranchisement eliminated the closest potential electoral ally for white popular classes—workers and farmers—and thereby reshuffled the patterns of alliance available to them and altered the potential stakes of class politics.

So how big a dent did the civil rights victories of the 1960s put in that hegemonic power of the ruling class? Were opportunities missed to further upend the economic order in the more immediate wake of Jim Crow’s collapse?

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Well, I don’t know about the opportunities missed; I tend not to go far down that road. Bayard Rustin pointed out in 1965, I think somewhat mechanistically, but I take his point nonetheless, that the Jim Crow order in the South was a backwater, and that challenging it was basically a rearguard action in relation to larger problems of inequality and injustice generated by American capitalism. And support for the apartheid system had softened in the South under pressures of the New Deal, CIO unionism, federal interventions like Smith v. Allwright, the 1944 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the “white primary,” that was a major impediment to black voting, and other cultural and demographic shifts, and, increasingly after World War II, the U.S.’s Cold War image peddling. All that said, there was no shortage of elite opposition in the South to ending Jim Crow. When all was said and done, however, the terms on which the governing arrangements were improvised were totally acceptable to the ruling class.

I mentioned Rustin’s assessment. He made it in the context of arguing where the movement should go next, after the Jim Crow system had been defeated. That debate is where we can see, not so much a road not taken as an alternative approach defeated. In the mid-1960s a big debate among policy operatives and politicians in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations determined, simply put, whether what was becoming “anti-poverty” policy would focus on addressing economic inequality produced as a systemic byproduct of the capitalist political economy or as the product of conditions affecting individuals, e.g., low-skills or education, racism, or other “cultural” or “behavioral” factors. The latter side won and since then policies ostensibly addressing economic inequality, conveniently redefined as “poverty,” focus on fixing or compensating for inadequacies supposedly affecting individuals. This approach also encourages means-testing, that is, providing support only to those considered the worst-off or, perversely, most deserving. As we’ve seen, all that approach does is enflame resentment from those a little bit less worse-off who don’t qualify for the benefits. From this perspective, that defeat set the stage for Reaganism and all the slightly different bipartisan flavors of Reaganism we’ve lived under since.

As the mid-70s materialize in the book, you write that developments made clear that while the “Jim Crow order was explicitly and definitively about race, at the same time it was fundamentally not really about race at all.” Is that the kind of insight you were already having at the time? Can you explain a little bit more what you mean by that and when or how that started to become more clear to you and others?

Well, to the extent I was already having that insight, or slouching toward it, I have to credit my father, who had been making that point all my life, as he said his father had before him. I can still recall my father joking from the mid-’70s onward that he didn’t understand why it took the ruling class so long to figure out that all that was necessary for racial peace was, basically, to open avenues of mobility for black people into the governing class. I know I’ve mentioned several places that my happening to be in Atlanta during racial transition in local government during the mid-1970s was probably important for my political and social-scientific education.

Anyway, what I mean by the maybe cryptic statement is that “race,” like “gender” and other artificial categories for dividing people that come with just-so stories about the “natural” characteristics of the sets of people created by those categories (and those aren’t the only two; there are as many others as the invidious imagination can generate, e.g., “illegal immigrants” in the contemporary U.S. and generic “communists” during the McCarthy era), is and has always been a justification for imposing hierarchies and for scapegoating. The race idea came into existence, developed its familiar character, in relation to that practice over the 17th and 18th centuries. The explosion of ruling-class driven, pornographically vicious white supremacist scapegoating at the end of the 19th century in the South was clearly and explicitly about suppressing black people. The reciprocal of that goal was creating or imposing a sense that all white people were together and wanted, or should want, the same things. So suppressing black people was the point, on one level; the point of the point was also to shore up ruling class dominance that had been under threat from white workers and farmers and blacks with whom they were not unwilling to coalesce to pursue common interests. And it was not only imposition of white supremacist ideology that did the trick, as it were. Disfranchisement of the vast majority of black voters also (and significant numbers of white were disfranchised as well) divested white workers and poor farmers of potential allies at the ballot box as well, which meant that the terms for all whites’ political participation were defined by the ruling class.   

You will still hear it said that "nothing has changed" when it comes to the racial barriers and economic injustices faced by black Americans since the Civil Rights Era. Whoopi Goldberg told Chuck Schumer during an interview last month that black people in the U.S. are still "where we were under the Emancipation Proclamation"—which takes that even further. The book objects to these kinds of tropes—and you have written and spoken about this strikingly over the years—but could you briefly review, especially in light of the recent collapse of voting rights legislation in Congress, what has changed most (or most significantly) since the era of an operating Jim Crow regime in the South?

Yeah, this one takes my breath away because it's an assertion that is so clearly contradicted by the lives of those making it. As you know, I've finally come to the view that, as a rhetorical gesture, there's a silent clause that precedes that assertion, namely that some particular outrage or incident could make it seem as though nothing has changed. From that perspective, the assertion is in effect a call for redress to demonstrate the reality that things have changed. That said, the most significant changes since 1865, or for that matter 1965, have had to do with opening up myriad opportunity structures for black and other nonwhite Americans and women. And those changes have had massive sociological entailments. One reason the changes may not be so obvious as they might statistically—e.g., as in the apparent persistence in the racial wealth or income gaps since the 1960s—is that the tendencies toward racial equalization have been countered by increasing income and wealth polarization at the top overall during the same period. Matt Bruenig's work in this area is great. So what looks like lack of racial change is in fact more meaningfully an expression of the rich getting richer at the expense of everyone else. Nevertheless, simple common sense reflection should make clear, except at least among those too young to have experienced passage of time and social change, that more and more blacks and other people of color work jobs that would have been, if not unthinkable, at least much less rare, 40, much less 60, years ago, and are correspondingly more likely to hold positions of authority in the public and private world.

In light of that, is there anything you think too many people miss or get wrong about the current attack on democracy by the Republicans?

That's a great and important question. I think one thing that needs to be jettisoned from a left perspective on this moment is the moralizing tendency to treat political attitudes as given and fixed, especially those that qualify as bigoted. The right has been working overtime for decades to provide people with explanations for the insecurities in their lives that center on scapegoats—nonwhites, immigrants, LGBTQ people, etc. Democratic or "left" neoliberals haven't effectively countered those explanations. It's the left's job to do so. At the same time, there's a very disturbing, historically all too familiar tendency among some who identify as leftists—largely intellectuals and would be opinion shapers—to cater to the backward tendencies—bigoted, irrational, etc.—that have taken hold in the right's sphere of influence, presumably in hopes that catering to backwardness can win people over. It seems to me to express a shriveled political imagination to assume that the only positions available are catering to fascism or condescending liberal moralizing or hectoring about it. Vying to be part of the left wing of National Socialism didn't work out so well last time, and it won't this time either.

So what’s the alternative course to that tendency? How can the left do a better job of providing those explanations? Let’s assume more left-wing websites and magazines are not the answer.

Well, considering that we have Common Dreams, how many more left-wing websites and magazines do we need anyway? I think the most important thing leftists need to do is connect directly with working people and attempt to engage through their institutions—unions, most of all—to counter lies and disinformation AND at the same time talk honestly about who is responsible for the insecurities, fear, and misery people are genuinely suffering. As you know, this has always been our central focus with the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute and before that the Labor Party. It’s the point of our new Class Matters Podcast—as well. We don’t need to get drawn into clever-seeming scholastic debates, e.g., as to whether Trumpism deserves the label fascist or is something else. (This inclination reminds me of a comrade’s observation some months ago that it seems like too many who identify as leftists see the task as narrating the movement rather than generating and advancing it.)  If the question even comes up, that means the only really important imperative is to determine how to fight against it.

Very glad you brought up the new podcast. The key question the “Class Matters” podcast asks, as DJDI’s executive director Katherine Isaac asks at the outset, is straightforward: “What would our country look like if it was governed by and for the working?” Can you explain more about the Debs-Jones-Douglas Institute for those who don’t know, and the origins and purpose of the podcast?

Sure. The Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, named after the three great labor leaders Eugene V. Debs, Mother Jones, and Frederick Douglass, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization founded in 1998 with the mission of promoting a government and an economy that work for working people. It was initially created as the educational arm of the Labor Party. One of DJDI's main activities, but not the only, has been conducting worker-led training for union members and staff on the economy, the health care crisis, the mounting problem of runaway inequality—how to understand the nature and sources of the problem and how to think about responding to them. The pandemic has made organizing those trainings more difficult, even though we have done a good number by zoom. At the same time, both the pandemic and our growing concern about the perils of the political moment since 2020 encouraged us to think about starting a podcast as a way to get our message out more widely than through the trainings and perhaps at the same time to generate more interest in doing the trainings among a broader network of trade unionists. We believe the paramount political objective at this moment is to cultivate serious discussion among workers concerning the actual sources of economic insecurity and powerlessness in this society and to stimulate both diagnoses and responses that begin from addressing the direct material concerns that most people who have to work for a living spend most of their time anxious about. Those are the issues the Class Matters podcast will center on.

The premiere episode features you, political economist Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon, and Samir Sonti, who teaches at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. In addition to your academic work, all three of you are steeped in labor organizing and the 45-minute discussion stayed very much focused on the practical—though by no means simple—challenges facing the viability of a working-class politics today. People can listen for themselves (full audio below), but a key dynamic you discuss is whether the liberal elites—essentially those that retain control of the Democratic Party—are more afraid of the growing threat from “the dangerous right”  represented by the Trumpist GOP or the alternate threat posed by an “assertive” working class demanding material improvements in their lives. Can you briefly speak to that?

I think some of us have felt for some time that there are elements in the Democratic Party that would just as soon jettison the working class, and its institutional expression, the labor movement, from the core constituencies of the Democratic electoral and governing coalition. That's one way to make sense of how quickly and enthusiastically so many mainstream Dems rushed to quash the momentum Sen. Bernie Sanders generated in both 2016 and 2020. I know as well that you recall Hillary Clinton's infamous quip on the eve of the 2016 Nevada primary, dismissing Sandrers' call for much greater banking regulation but asserting that breaking up the banks wouldn't end racial discrimination, and I know you recall as well that in that same year Sen. Chuck Schumer and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell boasted that for every blue-collar vote the Dems lost in western PA they'd pick up two Republican votes from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs. And everyone else on the debate stage in 2020 was clearly there with one mission—to stop Bernie Sanders and his campaign's focus on pressing working-class concerns. I know some people object to characterizing the liberals' motives in this way and insist that Pelosi, Schumer et al. simply didn't think Sanders could win. But one reason they didn't believe he could win is that they've long since convinced themselves of the priority of Wall Street's concerns over those of working people. That's why every four, or two, years they come up with another version of the magical, non-existent crossover Republican constituency—usually women, usually suburban—who will be turned off by the Republicans' boorishness and backwardness.

Gordon's observation speaks to another reality as well. Substantial sectors of the capitalist class in the U.S. hate unions and actively want to get rid of them. And few are more rabidly anti-union than the tech sector capitalists who are closer to the Dems than to the Republicans, at least for the moment. I'm certain that Jeff Bezos et al. would much rather working people disappeared as such and understood themselves only through ethnic or other identities or sexual orientation and that everyone in the U.S. followed Joy-Ann Reid in treating "working class" as a euphemism for "white racist."

In the context of unionization, Sonti and Lafer raise a very interesting point about what large corporations and those that control them—and the lawmakers beholden to them—fear more than simply paying workers better wages or providing increased benefits. Can you explain what this fear is and how that fits into the larger political landscape you now see?

Well, it's kind of as old as the hills, or at least as capitalism. Employers, especially in large corporations, can be more concerned with maintaining managerial prerogative than with wages. What many people don't realize until they've been working for a while is that, unless we're covered by a union contract or some sort of civil service protection, we have no rights on the job at all, that the doctrine of "at-will" employment means that we serve at employer's whim and can be fired for no reason. Whatever rights and regular expectation of fair treatment we have as workers can be experienced as impediment to managerial authority and right to impose even draconian work discipline.

That's why, for instance, although at one point decades ago there were some rumblings that a few major industrial employers might get on board the movement for national health care in the US because they'd realize vast savings from a single-payer system, those rumblings never came to anything because those big employers considered the cost of employer-provided health insurance worth it as a deterrent to strikes. Similarly, two UK-based economists in the 1940s wrote interesting articles on the impossibility of full employment under capitalism, at a time when shift to a full-employment based economy seemed to be a real possibility. Michal Kalecki, "Political Aspects of Full Employment," Political Quarterly (1943) and Joan Robinson, "The Problem of Full Employment" (1948) argued that, even though it would be possible to overcome the concerns about inflation that were generally asserted to oppose full employment, it couldn't hold because employers would lose the power of the "sack" as a sword to hold over workers' heads.

What’s next for the podcast and the other political work you’re focused on?

The second episode of the podcast (now available for streaming or download), is what we think is an enlightening discussion with President Mark Dimondstein of the American Postal Workers Union. We discuss the centrality of a public postal system to a democratic society and the role that postal workers and their unions performed in saving the 2020 national and state elections, the danger of privatization of public goods generally, and the mounting danger of fascism in this country.

Returning to the book for one final question. The era of the Jim Crow, you write in The South, was “a very particular moment in history”—of course. It was also one, you observe, not nearly as stable as it may have seemed at the time. How stable do you think this current moment in the nation’s history is?

You know I end The South reflecting on an incident involving my former doctor and old friend, Quentin Young, who pointed out to a despairing med student early in the George W. Bush presidency, that the one virtue of living a long time is that you get to see first-hand how suddenly change can occur. Every ruling order cultivates the fantasy that it is Nature, or some version of the 1,000 Year Reich. At the same time, the national and international capitalist order that we’ve lived under for the past forty years or so is impressively, frustratingly durable. That’s partly because so much of what we understand to be oppositional to it—anti-statism, aversion to a politics pursuing broad solidarities, valorization of self-help over collective action, etc.—actually reinforces its logic and premises. Those are markers of neoliberalism’s hegemonic cultural and ideological, as well as political-economic and institutional, power. So for the foreseeable future, things don’t look great for our side, and, realistically, I doubt very seriously that I’ll ever get to see anything better. But we have to do the same things no matter what. We have to cultivate and broaden a base for a working-class politics in the country no matter what or under what conditions, and—this is another lesson that is very much overdue—there are no shortcuts, no technical or otherwise quick fixes or gimmicks, no election of Progressive or Justice Democrats as an easier, flashier alternative to organizing a working-class politics. End of story. 

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Adolph Reed Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and an Organizer for Medicare for All-South Carolina.

Jon Queally is managing editor of Common Dreams.