Skip to main content

The Marxist Who Antagonizes Liberals and the Left

The renowned Black scholar Adolph Reed opposes the politics of anti-racism, describing it as a cover for capitalism.

Adolph Reed, Jr. Speaks at Omni's Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration by tsweden.,

Within the world of racial politics, Adolph Reed is the great modern denouncer. His day job, for forty years, was as a political scientist. (He is now emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.) But by night he has maintained a long-term position, too, as a left-wing lambaster of figures he believes are selling some vision of race for political expediency or profit. In Harper’s, the Village VoiceJacobin, and smaller factional outlets, not all of them still operating, Reed has called out Barack Obama as a “vacuous opportunist,” and the scholars bell hooks and Michael Eric Dyson as “little more than hustlers, blending bombast, cliches, psychobabble, and lame guilt tripping in service to the ‘pay me’ principle.” For Reed, class is what divides people, and far too many political actors treat race as an all-explaining category.

Like his friend and ally Barbara Fields, a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of “Racecraft,” Reed tends to look skeptically on diversity programs or campaigns for reparations, which he believes redirect political energies for change into symbolic efforts that help just a few powerful Black people; these stances have put him in opposition to activist anti-racist thinkers, like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, and to mainstream liberal figures, such as Isabel Wilkerson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “I taught Obama’s cohort—the Yale version,” Reed told me. “And I was struck by how many of them were so convinced that the whole purpose of the civil-rights movement was that people like them could go to Ivy League colleges and go to Wall Street afterward, how many of them were dispositively convinced that rich people are smarter than the rest of us.” It was the same perspective, Reed went on, that suggested that “more Oscars for Ava DuVernay is like a victory for the civil-rights movement, and not just for Ava DuVernay and her agent.”

Cornel West, at times one of Reed’s targets (Reed once denounced him as “a freelance race relations consultant and Moral Voice for whites”) and lately an ally, told me, “Brother Adolph has three deep hatreds. He hates the ugly consequences of predatory capitalist processes. And he hates the neoliberal rationalization for those predatory capitalist processes. And he hates the use of race as a construct that promotes the neoliberal rationalization of predatory capitalist processes. A trinity of hatreds—you could almost put that as the epitaph on his grave.” Among the left-of-center, this puts Reed at odds with just about everyone, which means that there are few more interesting developments in intellectual politics than the news that Adolph Reed is on the warpath.

In the summer of 2020, Reed began a new campaign, which had both a technical element and a polemical one. The technical observation was that public-health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic had overemphasized racial disparities. With Merlin Chowkwanyun, a professor in public health at Columbia, Reed published an essay in The New England Journal of Medicine that was drained of his usual combative glee. It urged medical practitioners to collect socioeconomic data, to be leery of suggesting that a person’s race made him more likely to catch a disease, to remember that emphasizing racial disparities can “perpetuate harmful myths and misunderstandings that actually undermine the goal of eliminating health inequities.” With his close friend and collaborator Walter Benn Michaels, Reed wrote the polemical version, which argued that, shortly after the death of George Floyd, an anti-racist fervor was clouding the political judgment of progressives. “That thing got rejected in more ways by the Times than you could possibly imagine,” Michaels told me. (In fact, he later clarified, it was rejected twice by the Opinion editors.) Eventually they published it under the title “The Trouble With Disparity” in two smaller and more ideologically aligned outlets: Common Dreams and Nonsite. “The problem (thought to be so ingrained in American life that it’s sometimes called America’s original sin) is racism; the solution is antiracism,” Reed and Michaels wrote. That point of view, they went on, is “mistaken.”

On the basis of his article with Chowkwanyun, Reed was invited to give a talk, on Zoom, to the New York City and Philadelphia chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America. On the morning of the event, the D.S.A.’s Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus formally demanded that the New York City chapter “unendorse” and remove all promotion for the event or that it be turned into a debate over Reed’s “class reductionism.” The event’s organizers tried to reassure Reed that they could use Zoom to manage the discussion. But Reed, who had been accused of “class essentialism,” on and off, for decades, decided against it. Eventually there would be debates, in the Times and on podcasts and in private conversation, about whether Reed had been “cancelled,” and whether the episode suggested that even the socialist left was uninterested in an analysis that didn’t center on race. To Reed’s allies there was irony in this. Michaels told me, “The Times was outraged that Adolph was cancelled by the D.S.A., but the Times had zero interest in publishing the views for which he was cancelled.” (A spokesperson for the Times said, “The suggestion that this reporting ‘expressed outrage,’ and that Opinion editors rejected Reed and Walter Benn Michaels’s essay because of it, is completely false.”) But to Reed himself the situation was simpler: “This is a handful of jerkoffs who had their Cheerios that fucking morning.”

Next month, Reed will publish a book that is, in the context of his polemical writing, unusual. Called “The South,” it is an account of growing up in segregated Arkansas and New Orleans, and of navigating, as a young man, Jim Crow’s immediate aftermath. The book read to me as a memoir, a term he adamantly rejects. He told me my interest in the book made him regret writing it; he did not want to receive mainstream attention for his reminiscences. But the argument in the book is both pointed and characteristic of Reed. By assembling the “quotidian” details of his early life, Reed suggests that the everyday experience of Jim Crow was defined by the formal racial-apartheid regime, but that class and simple contingency played large roles, too. There is an unacknowledged offensive action here. In returning to the material of his childhood, Reed also engages a central history for many anti-racist writers, Jim Crow. He is in his own childhood, but on their turf.

Reed has a very specific story to tell. He was born into the Black middle class—his father was a political scientist who taught at Black colleges—and raised largely in Creole New Orleans, one of the most urban settings in the South and one where racial categories tended to be more fluid. In his recollection, a phenomenon like racial passing was not so much an expression of internalized subjugation as an instrumental reaction to it—an impulse evident in his own family when they sent their lightest-skinned member, his grandmother, to a notoriously racist bakery to buy beignets. In his neighborhood, he writes, there was a duplex in which both units were occupied by branches of the same family, bearing the same surname, one of which lived as Black and the other as white. He remembers Black and white men on one another’s front yards kibbitzing over radio broadcasts of baseball games. Reed recalls that, in ninth grade, he was caught shoplifting a bag of chips by the white couple who ran a corner store. The proprietors sat him down on the stoop, and to his great relief, he writes, talked to him “more like concerned parents or relatives than as intimidating or hostile storekeepers.” They told Reed that he seemed like a good kid, that they wouldn’t call his parents or the police, but that if he tried this again he might find that other storekeepers were not so understanding.

Neighborliness did not necessarily extend to real acceptance. “Many of those white people who were cordial in the neighborhood’s everyday confines would snub or feign to not recognize their black neighbors when encountering them elsewhere,” Reed writes. And the harshest aspects of the Jim Crow regime often could not be mediated at all. He writes, of an adolescent friend who was caught joyriding, sent to the notorious Angola prison, and was dead within a year, “No intercession by his parents could save him.” Even the gestures of neighborliness were always contingent, subject to changes in the political climate that served to extend “white supremacy’s radar range.” In his own neighborhood, an early post-Brown desegregation attempt at a local school brought “police barricades and riot control dogs” and left behind a “blockbusting frenzy.” As a teen-ager, Reed noticed the presence of Black social clubs, fraternities, and sororities, which, he writes, existed in part to distinguish their members from lower-class Blacks. “We were all unequal,” Reed writes, “but some were more unequal and unprotected than others.”

In the two decades that form the core of Reed’s memoir, his experience of race changes. Reed grew up in the years before the Voting Rights Act; by his late twenties he was living in an Atlanta presided over by its first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Reed describes this period, the late nineteen-sixties and seventies, as one of uncertainty in racial manners—of “flux in the order and the order in flux.” In 1965, shortly after bus segregation ended, Reed, on a bus in Arkansas, saw a white driver try to move some Black college students to the back to make space for an elderly white couple; the students resisted, and Reed feared violence. About seven years later, Reed was driving with his family when a white police officer pulled them over on the side of a dark South Carolina road. They grew nervous, but the officer had just been confused by a political bumper sticker on the car calling for a boycott of Gulf Oil, and Reed, now a doctoral student at Atlanta University, wound up giving an impromptu lecture on post-colonial politics and resource extraction in Angola. When he writes of white supremacy in “The South,” he puts it in the past tense: “White supremacy was as much a cover story”—for, as he later puts it, “a specific order of political and economic power”—“as a concrete program.”

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

In this slim book, one line in particular read to me like a manifesto: “A danger,” Reed writes, “is that, when reckoning with the past becomes too much like allegory, its nuances and contingencies can disappear. Then history can become either a narrative of inevitable progressive unfolding to the present or, worse, a tendentious assertion that nothing has ever changed.” I asked Reed what he had in mind. He said, “This won’t come as a surprise but one thing that was on my mind was the 1619 Project. I mean that ‘nothing has changed’ line is one I have found bemusing and exasperating.” That project, he went on, wiped away any historical specificity, so that racism operated as an unchanging force. “And so you get to say that the murder of Trayvon Martin or of George Floyd is the same as Emmett Till or of the slave patrols.” Reed told me, “I don’t like the frame of the declining significance of race narrative—I didn’t like it in the nineteen-seventies and I don’t like it now, right? But racism is less and less capable of explaining manifest inequalities between Blacks and whites.” Liberals, he said, wanted it both ways. “It’s a common refrain: ‘I know race is a social construction, but—’ ” Reed said. “Well, there’s no ‘but.’ It’s either a unicorn or it’s not a fucking unicorn.”

Since roughly 2015, every part of politics has been pressured by the possibility of authoritarian developments on the right. When I reached Reed on Zoom in Philadelphia, he confessed that he’d been feeling those pressures, too. For his Zoom background he’d chosen a diagram of a mounting tsunami, which he said represented his fears of an imminent surge of authoritarianism and the retreat of American democracy. “I’ve basically been haunted by that image of drawback for a couple of months now,” Reed told me. In the fall, he said, he’d begun to doubt that the democracy would survive the 2022 midterm elections. That so many “voices among the governing class and the corporate media” had since expressed a similar alarm made him a little less panicked, without making him doubt that the situation is existential: “Either the Biden Administration and congressional Dems begin to deliver material benefits to the American people, to the working-class majority, or the right, which seems pretty uniformly bent on imposing authoritarian rule, will succeed in expunging nominal democracy.” He later e-mailed me that one possibility he foresaw was something like Biden running with the Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney on a national-unity ticket, “which wouldn’t resolve the contradictions—the problems of mounting inequality and economic insecurity—but, in kicking the can down the road, could help buy time for the real working-class organizing that I think is the only way to turn the tide.” (Later, he said, of Vice-President Kamala Harris, “To be clear, I’m not part of the tendency that sees Harris as a liability to Biden.” He also seemed to have reconsidered the idea, saying, that it might “cater to a supposed Republican constituency I’m not even sure exists.”)

Some of the things Reed said struck me as surprisingly bleak, coming so soon after the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaigns. I had imagined that Reed might take some comfort from the swelling young membership of the D.S.A., but instead he dismissed it, comparing it to the late-period Students for a Democratic Society, full of political naïfs, and noting that Socialism was a somewhat “vaporous concept at this point,” anyway. “It may sound odd, but where the hopefulness lies is in recognizing that, as the real left, we can’t have any impact on anything significant in American politics,” Reed told me. “So we don’t have to constrain our political thinking.” To illustrate how far the left is from power, he said something I’d heard him say before: “The most significant left force in the Biden Administration on domestic policy is the asset managers of BlackRock, and on foreign policy it’s John Mearsheimer and the foreign-affairs crowd.” Reed did not mention that these developments—that his ideological enemies in the Administration were pushing large amounts of social spending in the domestic sphere and retreat from forever wars overseas—might count, from another perspective, as a left-wing victory.

Reed seemed confident that American politics are turning away from him; this seemed less clear to me. It is possibly, but not definitely, true that authoritarianism is a nearing possibility, and possibly, but not definitely, true that a spending program that delivered “material benefits to the working class,” in Reed’s term, would stave it off. Maybe most relevantly, it is possibly, but not definitely, true that anti-racism has become the essential progressive creed, even though conservative and contrarian media outlets insist that it has; in the past few months its presence in politics has faded, as Democrats have focussed on the lingering emergency of COVID and the economic projects of infrastructure and inflation.

What does seem more obviously true is that, at a moment of very high political stakes, it isn’t clear what the Democratic Party will organize itself around. The Sanders campaigns shook liberalism without transforming it, Biden—tacking always toward the center of his party—has not exactly been a figure of change or a figure of retrenchment, and the Democrats have not been able to replicate the electoral success of Obama’s high liberalism without Obama himself. In such a period, very basic questions come to the fore: how fixed or fluid racial categories are, and whether history has moved or is stuck in an unimprovable loop. In such a period, a Marxist factionalist might see both danger and opportunity, and write a gentle first-person book, speak to the mainstream press, and try to persuade people whom he might not ordinarily reach to see politics as he does.