An article in the New York Times suggests that the cancellation of an event initially organized by the Democratic Socialists of America demonstrates a pattern of socialist censoriousness. The latest victim of cancellation is Adolph Reed, a Black intellectual who, according to the Times, thinks “that the left is too focused on race and not enough on class.” Reed’s talk was supposed to have addressed the problem of framing coronavirus in terms of racial disparity, building on a couple of his recent articles on this topic. In one of them he made the following — incontestably correct — point:
It cannot be stressed enough that race is not a natural category; it is a fiction, an entirely made-up idea with no grounding outside of abstract and arbitrary taxonomies — elaborate just-so stories — of human difference. Black people, therefore, cannot be disproportionately vulnerable as a generic category of racial taxonomy. As an aggregate statistical category, black people may appear especially vulnerable on average to Covid-19, for example, in relation to some other aggregate statistical categories to the extent that individuals classified or recognized as black are disproportionately poor and beset with risk factors associated with poverty. The heightened vulnerability would not be a function of being classified as black, per se. It is easy in the dubious shorthand of our prevailing race discourse to lose sight of the reality that racism is simply and quintessentially the belief that race is not merely a statistical reification but instead refers to populations defined by actual biological difference. And that belief is quintessentially racist whether or not it is linked to claims regarding inferiority or superiority. That is, racism is the belief that race is a category that defines and encapsulates natural populations. It does not.
In a recent article in Salon, I tried to think through similar points underlying Reed’s analysis of police violence and offer a critical assessment of his conclusions. This is because I think that Reed actually is quite influential on the left, rather than being systematically censored as the Times seems to imply, and that his scholarship should be engaged with and his ideas should be debated. I do not agree with the notion that he should simply be rejected as a bad person and that it is sufficient to caricature and dismiss his arguments, even if there are other arguments we for whatever reason prefer.
Generally, Reed argues that “racism” doesn’t explain racial disparities — whether they are in healthcare, police violence, housing, income, or any other area — since it refers to nothing more than “a blur of attitudes, utterances, individual actions, and patterned disparities, an autonomous force that acts outside of historically specific social relations.” It is therefore a substitute for explanation, rather than an explanation itself, and those who invoke it are moralists who are incapable of or uninterested in effective political analysis or action.
Furthermore, he says that “antiracism” isn’t “a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations.” That is, a social stratum of professionals and managers, who have distinct interests in protecting their relatively privileged positions, embody an elite, top-down model of politics which is antagonistic to the working class. When these professionals and managers belong to socially marginalized groups, they justify their upwards social mobility with an appeal to neoliberal social justice, leaving behind the majority of people they supposedly represent and engaging in what Reed characterizes as a “brokerage” model of politics.
So when Black Lives Matter activists call attention to racial disparities — even though they do really exist — this will lead inexorably, as Reed puts it, to “a demand that we not pay attention to the deeper roots of the pattern of police violence in enforcement of the neoliberal regime of sharply regressive upward redistribution and its social entailments.” Focusing on racial disparity, he argues, is in the interests of “the black professional-managerial strata,” because it “accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice that the problem of inequality is not its magnitude or intensity in general but whether or not it is distributed in a racially equitable way.”
Class and Contradiction
Much of the debate in response to Reed’s arguments has still revolved around the question on which Reed places the most emphasis: that the focus on racial disparity distracts from or actually suppresses an understanding of class. However, I ended my Salon article with another point, which I believe is deeply important and requires much more serious discussion. Reed’s juxtaposition of antiracist politics with class politics poses considerable problems for our understanding of class itself. Race is established as problematic and class is established as the stable vantage point from which race is examined. We can bracket the question of the theory of race this advances and instead look at the theory of class itself: the way that its contradictions are obscured by making it a stable vantage point, and the way that the logic of the critique of antiracism, if consistently extended, undermines the stability of the class vantage point.
It’s also worth noting that the theory of class implied in Reed’s critique of race thinking induces a departure from important insights of Marxist economic analysis. Of course, just because these insights are associated with Marxism doesn’t mean they’re intrinsically correct or better than others. However, in these cases I think the Marxist positions are more convincing than Reed’s positions. While it is possible to engage in a back and forth about the adequacy of his theory of race, we should not permit a less adequate economic theory to be substituted for a Marxist one.
As I pointed out in Salon, the affirmation of a working-class “identity,” which is frequently encountered in the history of social-democratic politics, was ruthlessly criticized by Marx and his most sophisticated followers, because it was actually a reinforcement of an element of capitalist class relations. The long-term goal of abolishing classes also implies abolishing the proletariat itself. Of course, this is a long-term goal, and an active transitional process, so we can’t claim in the meantime that the proletariat should just abolish itself spontaneously, and that any reforms that improve the lives of the working class simply represent their co-optation into the system. That would be a glib and reductive approach. But let’s consider how this is parallel to the argument about race. The fact that there is an elite antiracism which limits the political agenda to the diversification of the ruling class does not mean that any and every opposition to racism will be reducible to this elite politics, any more than the incorporation of labor organizations and social-democratic parties into the capitalist system throughout the history of the 20th century means that working-class struggles are reducible to the recuperation of the working class into the capitalist system. I mentioned in Salon that unions are compelled to operate within the logic of market relations, and that this is something that has to be actively countered by socialists. It’s harder to see the importance of this now, because neoliberalism has decimated labor organizations, so defending them at all seems like a major achievement. But this problem has been quite clear at other points in history, especially during the postwar “compromise” between capital and labor, and it will become vitally important again if the labor movement is rebuilt.
In fact, as Marx demonstrated in the first volume of Capital, class struggles which improve workers' conditions can actually strengthen capitalism, because they can upgrade the effectiveness of labor power, and because workers are the largest class of consumers. Struggles over the length of the working day, Marx showed, compel capital to engage in the production of relative surplus value, and an increase in proletarian living standards facilitates the realization of surplus value. The vitality of capitalism actually depends on a certain level of class struggle that ensures that workers contribute to and benefit from the growth of productivity, making advanced capitalism a very different kind of class society than ancient slavery or feudalism. From this perspective, the idea that antiracism strengthens capital is somewhat beside the point, to the extent that forcing capitalism to make these self-strengthening progressive changes is an inevitable part of the struggle to ultimately transcend capitalism.
Certain Marxists have radicalized this argument about the incorporation of the working class into the capitalist system, to the extent that it becomes difficult to see how the system could ever be transcended at all. Their argument includes certain interesting points but ultimately falls short, and we have to understand why. The problem with this kind of argument is that it takes a functionalist view in which everything that happens necessarily leads to the stability of the society as it exists. The more convincing Marxist argument, in my view, is that the historical process proceeds in a contradictory fashion, and that social antagonisms result in a dynamic of change. The fact that the ultimate horizon is revolutionary transformation does not mean that there cannot be changes in the meantime which are both meaningful in people’s lives and could be the basis of a development towards that revolutionary transformation. Racial oppression has taken very clear and concrete forms in recent memory — indeed, it took an explicitly legal form within Reed’s lifetime, as he points out in the Times article — and struggles against it have achieved profound social change. This change continues today: the fact that corporations put “Black Lives Matter” on their websites and establishment Democrats make a show of taking a knee are indications that significant social changes have taken place, that on average our society has come to view racism as something to be criticized and rejected rather than proudly proclaimed and embraced, and so the rulers of our society are adapting to this change.
But actually, there is no special quality of antiracism which makes it susceptible to this usage. Capital has long celebrated the "dignity of labor" and working-class identity, because it requires the working class for its processes of production and accumulation. It has thus adapted to a wide range of struggles and contestations, in fact incorporating them into the system as a driver of its development. Nevertheless, few critics of antiracism argue that because politicians and corporations make tokenizing celebrations of essential workers, the demands and struggles of essential workers are inherently compatible with capitalism.
This is the difference between class as the structural antagonism of capitalist society and class as an identitarian category, which would lead to a program of fairness and representation for the working class. Part of the reason that it has become difficult to distinguish between these two perspectives is that class struggle has been beaten back by neoliberalism, so it is tempting to see it as a category that leads intrinsically in a universal and oppositional direction. It is also tempting to see the decline of class struggle and the ascendancy of antiracism as a unitary phenomenon, to argue that because antiracism is supposedly uniquely compatible with professional-managerial interests and neoliberal social justice, it actually plays a causal role in undermining class struggle. But this is an illogical and idealist mode of proceeding. Insofar as we consider materialist analysis to be desirable — that is, that we don’t attribute historical phenomena to people’s ideas but rather to the social relations within which they are constrained to act — we can’t accept this superficial interpretation.
Rather, these are structural problems for all social movements. Movements originate within the social relations of the existing society, so their scope of action is constrained by those social relations. They engage in a contradictory process of contesting the existing system and provoking modifications in the system which are both the result of the challenge they have presented and the homeostasis of the system. That is, in the efforts to contain and neutralize the challenges posed by social movements, what we really see is, to use some old terminology, “the unity of opposites”: both resistance and its neutralization. This is the most effective explanation for the corporate and elite adoption of antiracist rhetoric. Emancipatory movements have over the past few centuries challenged racial oppression in such a way as to modify the social structure and actually shift popular opinion. Corporations understand that by taking antiracist positions they will be able to move with the current, commodifying yet another aspect of human life. This does not mean that antiracism is an inherently neoliberal mentality, but rather that there is a process of contestation and social change that is affecting the way the ruling class behaves. If you take a functionalist and static view of society, it will be impossible to understand this dynamic, or to formulate strategies for ongoing change. Above all, if we don’t guard against the danger of working-class struggles being incorporated into capitalist property relations, we will be unable to maintain any victories or progress to a more radical level of social transformation — this is the actual lesson of neoliberalism, to which I will return.
Of course, we are faced now with the inescapable question which always arises in discussion about the relation between race and class, or racism and capitalism: does capitalism need racism, and other forms of hierarchy based on identity or status, or does it actually move towards erasing such distinctions, in favor of the formal and abstract equality which is consistent with market society? There are comprehensive arguments for both perspectives. The first interpretation, often associated with the term “racial capitalism” (a term I do not use), points to the fact that throughout the history of capitalism existing forms of hierarchy and inequality have been incorporated into the system as a means of disciplining and dividing labor. The second interpretation points to the fact that capitalism has adapted to struggles against these existing hierarchies by diversifying the ruling class and incorporating legal and ideological frameworks of equality. Both of these interpretations draw on empirical reality to make their cases, but to suggest that one of them captures the essence of capitalism is in my view essentially a teleological fallacy. The question is incorrectly posed. Capitalism does not “need” either racial hierarchies or racial equality, but has rather unfolded as a concrete system in the context of real social struggles which have altered race relations. It is sufficiently dynamic as a social system to adapt to various different arrangements of social status and hierarchy. Some forms of status and hierarchy that persist today do not clearly correspond to racial categories: consider, for example, the white opioid addicts who are viewed by the dominant ideology as culturally and behaviorally responsible for the conditions of their deprivation and exploitation. By forcing the discussion of capitalism to revolve around its “necessary” relation to racial categories we end up reifying a dynamic and constantly evolving system and thus fail to understand it.
There are many counterproductive consequences of the mechanistic and functionalist interpretation of capitalism, but I’ll focus on two categories that Reed emphasizes in his critique of antiracism. In another essay I’ve criticized the discourse of the “professional-managerial class,” which is incoherent in broad theoretical terms. Reed’s analysis of antiracism as representing the “worldview and interests” of the professional-managerial strata causes confusion about how the elite, top-down model of politics actually takes hold. Of course, a jarring aspect of this discussion is that many of the people engaged in criticizing the professional-managerial class seem to belong to it themselves, from Ivy League professors to podcasters to union bureaucrats. The bizarre spectacle which ensues is different members of this supposed class accusing each other of having bad ideas because of their class position, despite all sharing that same position. The assumption that the worldview and interests of the professional-managerial class are simply expressions of their class position doesn’t account for how such things are actually constituted politically — which is what makes it possible, after all, for Ivy League professors to take positions against their own “class interests.” We are faced less with the classical bourgeois radical striking a blow against his own class position than an implicit hypostatization of oppositional class politics.
However, elite politics isn’t caused by the “worldview and interests” of the professional-managerial strata, but the fact that they’re structurally generated by capitalist institutions. This means that their emergence, and the top-down model of politics they represent, is also a constant risk within labor organizations which operate under capitalist constraints. Assuming that the professional-managerial strata will all be "woke" neoliberals is misleading and dangerous in many different ways. For one thing, this excessively homogenizing theory can’t explain the way that sociological categories actually map onto public opinion: that is, why did certain kinds of professionals and managers constitute the Tea Party, and now form an important part of the base of Trumpism? It’s on the basis of apparent “anomalies” like this (which are not anomalies but significant patterns and trends) that conservative figures like Michael Lind have recently argued for developing new categories to map out elite groups in American society. This framework, which differentiates between top-level managers of business and finance, more modestly paid but fairly autonomous professionals like doctors and professors, and small business owners, effectively debunks the idea of a professional-managerial class with a unified opinion. Most of these elites are not “woke” — the ones that are happen to be concentrated in education and media, thus cultivating that impression.
But it is just as important for anyone interested in class struggle that we recognize that the professional-managerial strata also emerge from labor organizations and speak the language of class politics, while still representing the interests of a bureaucratic layer separate from the rank and file. Their focus on economic issues doesn’t stop them from being fundamentally oriented towards making deals with management and directing the resources of the organization towards the Democratic Party establishment. This is one of the lessons of the history following the New Deal, today often invoked as a political model. The militant strike actions of industrial unionism that yielded the CIO in the mid-1930s — facilitated in part by the crucial organizing efforts of the Communist Party — had pushed the capitalist state towards reforms increasingly beneficial to workers. But over time, the labor officialdom came to align itself with the Democrats rather than facilitating further militancy from the rank and file. In fact, it often deliberately attempted to contain this militancy to avoid confrontation with employers. At the same time, there was an influx of professionals into the Communist Party, which displaced its previous base in industrial and service workers. As the Second World War began, it was the Democrats, rather than the working class, who set the agenda, and the Communist Party turned itself into a junior partner. After the war, a renewed employer’s offensive against labor, along with the anticommunist purges of radicals from the labor movement, decimated the left. The approach of the professional-managerial labor leadership turned out to be profoundly self-defeating: after demobilizing its base through top-down alliances, it lost the leverage to deliver on its own agenda.
While some people now squabble about whether the professional-managerial strata will be helpful or harmful if they join working-class organizations, this doesn’t actually help us to counteract the elite politics which arises from the institutional structures of organizations forced to exist in capitalist constraints. We need concrete organizational initiatives that can forestall the growth of bureaucracies, and confusing the worldview of the bureaucrats with the structures that generate them doesn’t help. Impressionistic speculations on the supposedly antiracist worldview of the professional-managerial strata obscure the underlying dynamics that ultimately lead to their top-down, elitist politics. The way to prevent the professional-managerial strata from dominating and disorganizing social movements is by building structures of organizational democracy, exerting pressure on the existing bureaucratic layers, and maintaining the independence of working-class institutions from the capitalist state. Intellectuals bickering with each other about what constitutes “woke neoliberalism” and what really represents the “authentic” working class has nothing to do with this.
We also have to get a little more serious about the use of the term “neoliberalism.” This isn’t a purely academic dispute, because there’s no point in using the word if it doesn’t add something to our discussion and aid in our analysis of the political situation. Unfortunately, the way it’s currently used is obfuscatory and represents a real obstacle to understanding. It’s become little more than a way to argue that any ideological tendency one disagrees with is somehow complicit with capitalism, because it reflects market logics. In Reed’s case, this means arguing that “antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines.”
But neoliberalism, as all serious scholars of the topic now emphasize, is really two quite specific things: first, a state-driven process of social, political, and economic restructuring that emerged in response to the crisis of postwar capitalism, and second, an ideology of generating market relations through social engineering. In the first case, this represents a specific phase of capitalism which followed the unique phase of the postwar compromise — a phase which was in fact exceptional and unrepeatable — and we have to understand the transition between these phases. While neoliberalism is certainly a distinct period in the history of capitalism, it isn’t a total break from what came before. In the second case, we have to recognize how neoliberal ideology isn’t simply, as Reed implies, a “naturalization” of markets (which is the ideology of classical liberalism, not neoliberalism) but rather a theory of the processes by which market relations would be actively constructed.
Without understanding its historical and ideological specificity, the term “neoliberalism” actually does some very counterproductive ideological work: it displaces the critique of capitalist property relations themselves, and reduces working-class politics to welfare-state nostalgia. The reality is that after the postwar demobilization of the working class and the destruction of the anticapitalist left, the “compromise” between capitalists and workers was based on labor accepting the underlying basis of capitalist property relations. The postwar “welfare state” was certainly a lot better than what we have now. Nevertheless, its benefits were granted in exchange for consolidating management’s control over production. Social provisions like healthcare weren’t provided through universal public programs, but were instead negotiated with employers in a privatized model of collective bargaining. In this sense, the postwar compromise actually established the contradictions which led to neoliberal restructuring, when capitalist crisis management drove a new strategy of class domination.
The entrenched inequalities of contemporary society aren’t the result of the left buying into a neoliberal logic of social justice. That logic is a symptom of the contradictions of capitalism which were continuous through the postwar compromise. Attributing these problems to antiracism is a debilitating and irrational obfuscation. We can’t accept the simplistic notion that there is a causal relation between, on the one hand, the growing acceptance of race-based demands for redress in the academy, media, and popular culture, and on the other hand, the remorseless deterioration of class-based forms of organization and the concomitant increase in economic inequality. Of course, at the same time, the simultaneity is striking, which is why there is an urgent need for a far more robust theory of race under neoliberalism, which actually engages with the latter’s historical and ideological specificity. This would mean studying the disorganization of the working class, the decline of the workers’ movement and the absence of historically appropriate and adequate political forms for contemporary class struggle, alongside the projects of social engineering which use identity categories as a means of generating market relations. This is not the same as the spontaneous consciousness of inequality, which simply describes market society as such and not the specificity of neoliberalism.
The salient political point here is that while it’s understandable that people who defend class politics today would criticize neoliberalism and invoke the New Deal and the Great Society as examples of times when things were better, these impulses too often displace a more sober historical assessment of how we got to where we are, and what it will take to move forward. The postwar welfare state appeared in distinct and unrepeatable historical conditions, so it’s not enough to call for a return to more equitable economic redistribution against the degeneration of neoliberalism. Instead, we need to directly analyze how the underlying property relations of capitalism structurally generate an unequal distribution of wealth. Any attempt at redistribution that doesn’t challenge these underlying property relations will be undermined by the ownership class, which is precisely why the postwar compromise fell prey to neoliberalism. The gains won by labor during the postwar “compromise” were made possible by widespread strike activity and the residual influence of the anticapitalist left, which had to engage in a constant struggle — one which continues today — against the tendencies of the union bureaucracy to collaborate with management and direct their resources towards supporting the Democratic Party establishment. Calling for a return to a bygone era of social democracy doesn’t actually tell us what forms of political action would be required to compel changes from the capitalist state in our current conditions. To get out of this deadlock, we need to engage in a discussion of what forms of working-class action can actually compel changes in the capitalist state in our current conditions.
Unfortunately, Reed’s critique of antiracism muddles all of these important points. By assuming that different rules apply to movements against racism — that they’re uniquely compatible with capitalism while labor movements aren’t — it reproduces the logic of race as a “special case,” which sees it as something free-floating, immaterial, and separate from class. By positing class politics as a self-sufficient alternative to antiracism, it flattens the real contradictions and challenges of class organization. And by employing imprecise and deceptively totalizing sketches of the professional-managerial class and neoliberalism, it displaces a structural analysis of capitalism.
The debate over “class reductionism” is so caught up in fiery and emotionally charged discussions about race that these issues of economic analysis and class politics end up forgotten. I have started with these economic questions in hopes of emphasizing them, but it’s perhaps unavoidable to elaborate on how they relate to race. Discussions of this question are usually entirely instrumental to a particular political position: if you think antiracist movements are a distraction from class, or if you think that antiracist movements are inherently anticapitalist, you formulate an analysis which rationalizes your position. I don’t think this is a good way of proceeding.
My view is that we should not engage in this kind of instrumental theorizing, but also that we should avoid grand, totalizing theories of race. It is very risky to come up with general theories of race, a concept of race that would apply across time and space. The reason for this quite simply is that if we turn race into a transhistorical category we are constantly veering on the edge of collapsing into racial ideology itself, into the idea that there are different groups in the human species whose physical characteristics correspond to different cultures, propensities, and so on. This conception of race is pseudoscience and it is false. It is nevertheless clear that people have been divided into different groups, socially rather than naturally, according to physical characteristics which are arbitrary (that is, they do not intrinsically correspond to social and cultural difference), but nevertheless become quite meaningful.
The discussion thus becomes a little confusing, because on the one hand race is “false” — it is a pseudoscientific way of understanding human variation — while at the same time race is “real” in the sense that people really have been socially categorized according to their arbitrary physical characteristics in ways that have determined, for example, whether they were considered citizens or property. In this sense race is very “real,” and, if you want, could even be characterized as “material,” in the same way that class relations are material: they are not the result of people’s ideas, but of impersonal social processes. Class relations are not “material” because they have something to do with shovels or machine tools, but because they are generated precisely by social practices which are independent of our consciousness. Whether plantation owners consciously subscribed to a particular theory of racialist pseudoscience is not the primary causal factor determining whether they reproduced racial categories, which is rather the economic, legal, and political frameworks of plantation slavery.
It’s not surprising, as I said, that discussions of race are so confusing, with rampant mutual incomprehension: race is not real at all in a certain sense, yet it is painfully real in another. I think that the best way to avoid lapsing into serious errors in our thinking on race and racism is to be quite specific: to speak about historically specific forms of “racialization,” and specific “racisms.” I say “racialization” with some reluctance, since it has the feel of a buzzword; but what I mean to suggest is that there are processes by which “races” are generated and people are assigned to them, rather than already existing “races.” I say “racisms” not to follow some academic imperative to pluralize everything, but rather to indicate that what we call racism in one geographical and historical context may not illuminate what is also called racism in a completely different context. In my view, we need to study all of these specific instances rather than being satisfied with vague generalizations — perhaps ultimately producing general categories to grasp what these instances have in common, but only after studying them in their concrete specificity.
I also think we have to have a better understanding of “ideology” if we are to say — as I would — that race is an ideology. To say that race is an ideology is not the same as saying that it is not real. In his classic book Oliver Cox contrasted race as a “material social fact” to racism as an “ideology,” which amounted to a “system of rationalization.” In her equally classic article, Barbara Fields argued that race itself was an ideology, but also that “ideologies are not delusions but real, as real as the social relations for which they stand.”
Despite their divergences I think both Cox and Fields make useful suggestions for thinking about race, which is “material” insofar as it is generated by material practices embedded in economic, legal, and political structures, but also an “ideology” in the sense that it is an imaginary relation to those conditions. In my view ideology is a useful category of social analysis, including for the analysis of race, precisely because it doesn’t simply describe people’s consciously held views, which in the case of race we might associate with things like “prejudice” or “ethnocentrism.” Cox showed that these categories are incapable of explaining race relations. Ideology is rather the relation of people’s consciousness and experience to the social structure which operates largely “behind their backs.” So ideology is not simply a mistake or delusion. Race as pseudoscience is false, but this is not because it is an “ideology.” Rather, ideology is the way people make sense of the social world they live in, in which they follow certain patterns of behavior every day without necessarily being consciously aware of them or even deciding to do so. We do not really “decide” to sell our labor-power for a wage, but are compelled to do it by the impersonal social relations of the market. We may then “make sense” of this social reality by conceiving it as the effect of the natural condition that people are inherently selfish and compete with each other for survival. Of course, entire institutions — the education system and the media, to name the most obvious — are devoted to inculcating us with this idea. But it is “effective” as an ideology because it corresponds to our real conditions of existence (we really are compelled to compete with each other), and is embedded in these very real institutions. In this sense ideology is both “real” and “material” while also being “imaginary.”
The importance of these distinctions becomes clear when we look at the existence of racial discrimination today, whether it is by police officers or mortgage loan officers. Why does discrimination happen? Discrimination isn’t the result of some universal instinct people have to dislike anyone who looks different, and it isn’t based on cultural differences which supposedly align with different “communities” or “identities.” These are the mistakes that Cox dispelled long ago. If we view discrimination as the result of those conscious ideas we are presuming what we actually need to explain — that is, we are presuming that people are already divided into “races” and that members of one “race” discriminate against members of another “race.” In order to explain why discrimination happens, and why it follows certain patterns — that is, why Black people are discriminated against by employers and banks, why police are more likely to use force on Black people — we have to identify some kind of continuity between the historical constitution of racial categories and their social power today. And of course, these underlying “unconscious” ideological phenomena can and often do appear at the level of consciousness in the form of blunt and brutal racial prejudice. However, this conscious prejudice isn’t the cause, but the effect of the material relations which secrete ideology.
If we decline to engage in explaining these causal relations, we are left with two alternatives. The first would be to conclude that racial disparities are essentially random and that the only explicable social patterns are those related to class. This is simply a failure of social analysis; to understand the fundamental role played by class in capitalist societies does not mean we are incapable of understanding other causal factors. In fact, an analysis that can be characterized as “materialist,” insofar as we find that desirable, should be able to explain these phenomena without viewing them as random accidents or as the result of subjective opinions and decisions. That would be the consequence of the second alternative, which would be to say that the legal and ideological forms of race and racism that emerged in the 17th century have been superseded by changes in American society, and now some kind of self-constituting form of discrimination has emerged. As I have already pointed out, this would mean that discrimination is a set of individual thoughts or behaviors which act on already existing racial categories.
I think that we are on firmer ground if we understand race and racism to be impersonal social relations which are grounded in historically contingent but nevertheless persistent and effective ideological categories. Discrimination is not merely random, and it is not the result of subjective thoughts and behaviors which act on already-existing foundational differences. The sorting of people into “racial” categories is historically specific and was the result of very “material” processes (the differentiation of forced laborers, legal codes, state and popular violence, etc). Racism is an “ideological” phenomenon, but this doesn’t mean that it’s just something that people come up with at the level of their personal consciousness. They may quite unconsciously act out of habits acquired from daily repetition: growing up in segregated neighborhoods, seeing people of particular “races” concentrated in a particular sector of the labor market, and so on. Race is an “ideology” insofar as people “make sense” of these hierarchies, inequalities, and divisions by turning them into attributes of personal identity.
This is why I do not subscribe to the view that race is meaningfully understood as an identity, or that the historical movements against racism should be characterized as “identity politics.” I view identity politics as a very historically specific term. In my book I reviewed its historical emergence and transformations, and those who coined the term have eloquently argued for their interpretations — Barbara Smith of the Combahee River Collective, for example, explained how her politics led her to support and actively participate in the Bernie Sanders campaign. In my historical study of the term “identity politics” in Mistaken Identity I began with the Combahee River Collective not because they provide a blueprint for contemporary politics, a claim I would not even make of the Russian Revolution, but because they introduced this term, and I think the history of terms matters. However, I went on to address the usage of the term in a different context and historical period, and since I believe that race is not best understood as an identity, I personally do not claim this language. This is why I do not subscribe to the views, constantly attributed to me, that we should return to a “radical identity politics,” or that we have to “do both” class politics and identity politics, or that we should be “intersectional” socialists, or that we should generate a “synthesis” of Marxism and identity politics. What I showed in my book is that historical movements against racism embraced anti-capitalist positions, and I argued that those who are mobilized to act politically against racism today should also join the project of working to overturn capitalism. I see no reason whatsoever to modify these views.
In his insistence on rejecting racism as an explanatory category and antiracism as an oppositional politics, I fear Reed runs the risk of a sectarian approach that will prevent us from winning more people to the socialist project. You can see this ambivalence in Reed’s writing. He argues, for example, that police violence results from “an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.” Pointing to the fact that a very large number of poor whites are killed by police, Reed says that if we don’t acknowledge that police violence targets populations beyond Black people, “we cut ourselves off from the only basis for forging a political alliance that could effectively challenge it.”
This is clearly true. Yet on the other hand it’s hard to see how you can build effective political alliances by saying that everyone who calls attention to racial disparity is somehow deluded. Even Reed acknowledges that these disparities are empirically verifiable — to the extent that he says they’re apparent to everyone who isn’t “in willful denial” — and so it’s quite reasonable that people will notice them and condemn them. When people use the term “racism” they may be using it in a mystifying way, but they may also be trying to grasp real, material relations of causality that aren’t explained by other terms. Reed does nothing more than assert that it is always the former instead of the latter. I can’t see how you could prove this, or for that matter disprove it. Both scenarios are possible, and I have personally witnessed both of them taking place. Contemporary patterns of racial discrimination in labor and housing are based in historically constituted categories, not some kind of free-floating, immaterial force. When people refer to “racism," it doesn’t mean they're isolating race from the history of class in American capitalism. It’s possible that some people with an ax to grind against socialism might attempt to do that, in order to separate race and class in an artificial way. But just referring to “racism” doesn’t preclude us from understanding race as a phenomenon that’s tied up inextricably with class in American history, and for many people a mobilization against racism will lead them to also challenge class inequality and arrive at a socialist position. The assumption that everyone else’s understanding of racism, inequality, disparity, etc., is fundamentally wrong, while Reed’s is the only one that’s correct, isn’t much more than a classically sectarian way of thinking that unhelpfully polarizes the political discussion. Stridently arguing that talking about racism is incompatible with talking about class becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After all, broader movements originate from very specific instances and demands. Labor struggles might originate over an insult by a manager, or a refusal to grant a bathroom break, or someone getting sick on the job. What happens to these movements next is not preordained. One of those labor struggles could be "resolved" by management by granting a bonus to an individual or making a symbolic gesture of respect, as bosses are now doing with essential workers. Or they could develop into broader struggles against exploitation. Elite liberals who are looking to enhance their social justice credentials may point to racial disparities in police violence in order to justify programs of the diversification of the ruling class while leaving economic inequality in place. But activists who are outraged at the structural inequalities of capitalism may point to these racial disparities as one instance of the broader set of injustices they want to challenge.
Those of us who advocate a politics of transcending capitalism should think pragmatically about how to intervene in emerging movements to recruit people to this cause and build the alliances and organizations that this project will require. This will mean both criticizing racial ideology and developing the universal and oppositional potential of antiracism. It will also mean advancing a rigorous critique of capitalism and formulating historically appropriate organizations and strategies of class struggle.
What we must not do is engage in moralistic repudiation of arguments which threaten our presuppositions and orthodoxies, nor simply try to shout down and sideline political perspectives which appear to be inconvenient. What we need is the brutal and blazing light of the concept, which respects no shadows of opinion and prejudice, and ultimately illuminates the path to liberation.