The Danger of Race Reductionism

Two prominent Black leftists warn that simplistic views about “white supremacy” will undermine the fight for social justice.

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At the end of May, prominent leftist political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. was slated to give an online talk cosponsored by the Philadelphia and New York City chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America. But even though Reed was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter, and happens to be Black, some DSA members launched a concerted attack on the event. Because Reed planned to warn about the dangers of focusing too narrowly on racial disparities in understanding the impact of Covid-19, critics charged that his appearance would be “tone deaf” and even “reactionary.” Concerned that the talk would be disrupted, Reed and his co-presenter agreed to cancel the event just hours before it was to begin.

This is not only another sign of rising intolerance towards dissent on parts of the left. It is also a missed opportunity, for the work of Adolph Reed and his son, historian Touré F. Reed, is vital to understanding the present moment. And while the Reeds’ work is well known in leftist circles, it deserves a broader public audience.

Just months before the latest national racial reckoning began, the Reeds each published critical analyses of what they call “race reductionism.” They characterize this as the tendency to see racism as a transhistorical, quasi-primordial, ubiquitous, and undiminished force that holds the key to understanding America’s present as much as its past. By increasingly placing race reductionism at the center of the public conversation, the Reeds warn, liberal institutions aren’t just on intellectually shaky ground—they are actually hindering the fight against injustice.

Over the past decade, Americans have undergone what Matt Yglesias calls a “Great Awokening.” Talk of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy”—rare outside activist and academic circles a decade ago—has become commonplace in liberal media outlets and among the leaders of the Democratic Party. Attitudes have also shifted—dramatically so among white liberals, whose views on racial issues are now more “progressive” than those of Blacks and Latinos.

The Reeds are sharply critical of this new orthodoxy. Racial inequalities, they claim, are most effectively understood, and combated, in the context of political economy. But prevailing liberal discourse, Adolph Reed argues, posits decontextualized, abstract racism and white supremacy as “the definitive source of any contemporary inequalities affecting African-Americans.”

To the Reeds, such thinking is abstract, ahistorical and essentializing.

It is abstract since it depicts racism as a pervasive force without specifying the particular mechanisms through which racial inequalities are perpetuated. For example, Touré Reed argues that Southern Democrats’ indisputable racism does not adequately explain why Blacks were excluded from Social Security under the New Deal. It is true that Social Security did not cover agricultural and domestic workers, occupations that accounted for nearly two thirds of the Black labor force. But while 23 percent of agricultural and domestic workers were Black (more than double their share of the population), three-quarters were white. In addition, disproportionately white categories like the self-employed, professionals and government employees were also excluded. These limitations in coverage, Reed suggests, are better explained by factors like the administrative difficulties of collecting taxes and landlords’ interest in keeping labor costs down than by racism or white supremacy. (Reed acknowledges that racism played a much more central role in federal mortgage policies—but he insists that housing discrimination was grounded not in “primordial prejudice” but in specific political and economic configurations.)

Reed argues that Blacks did substantially benefit from many New Deal programs, especially from union-friendly labor legislation and court decisions. And as Adolph Reed has noted, Blacks also benefited from participation in Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration programs in numbers greater than their share of the population (though smaller than their share of those in need of work). The Reeds therefore reject both the argument that the New Deal was intrinsically racist and the corollary—increasingly common on the identitarian left—that universalist, class-based programs cannot reduce racial inequalities.

Race reductionist thinking is ahistorical because it treats racism as a timeless, ubiquitous force that remains undiminished across social, cultural and political contexts as different as the Jim Crow South—where racial subordination was codified and enforced by both law and custom—and present day America. H. Richard Milner IV, for example, claims that racism is “persistent, permanent and omnipresent” in American society. This ahistoricism is carried to an extreme in the Afro-pessimist philosophy of Frank B. Wilderson III, for whom “Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness,” a “condition of suffering for which there is no imaginable strategy for redress.” (As Adolph Reed dryly notes, “only the comfortable strata, and those aspiring to join them, can luxuriate in defeatism of that sort.”)

Ahistorical race reductionism, according to Adolph Reed, blinds us to the historically specific mechanisms that have produced different forms of racial injustice—as well as to the differences between the struggles that have sought to overcome them: 

[This] sleight of hand … turns earlier struggles against concrete injustices like slavery, convict labor, sharecropping, disfranchisement, state-imposed segregation, [and] housing and employment discrimination into generic struggles against racism and white supremacy. These generalized struggles can never be won because, like terrorism, the target is an abstraction that can never be definitely identified and vanquished.

Race reductionist thinking is essentializing because it assumes that Black people share a single culture, and that their interests cannot be at odds. This is an example of what I have called “groupism”: the tendency to treat ethnic groups, races and nations as substantial, homogeneous entities to which interests and agency can be attributed. Such invocations of a putatively unitary community, Adolph Reed argues, often serve the elites who claim to speak in its name, while those spoken for disappear “as all but a communitarian abstraction to be ventriloquized” by the spokespersons. In reality, there is no “universal or near-universal set of singularly racial concerns that override their interests as workers, parents, teachers, students, realtors, real estate investors, tenants [or] homeowners.”

Race reductionism not only distorts the way we understand the world: it influences the way we seek to change it—in a surprisingly conservative direction. By “racializ[ing] the working class as white,” Adolph Reed argues, it steers working class Black (and brown) Americans away from class solidarities, folding them instead “into the concerns articulated by the professional and middle-class agenda-setting strata.” And by portraying broadly redistributive, universalist programs as “inimical to black people’s particular interests and concerns,” it undermines support for policies that would disproportionately benefit Black and brown people.

Inequality is about the question of who gets what. But this question can be asked in two very different ways.

One way is to ask what rewards accrue to people in different positions. How much, for example, are CEOs paid in relation to the average employee? What share of total wealth is held by the top 1%? What fraction of workers make less than $15 per hour?

The other way is to ask what categories of people occupy which positions. What fraction, for example, of CEOs, the wealthiest 1% or low-wage workers are Black or Latino? 

These questions—about unequal rewards between positions and disparate representation within positions—are not mutually exclusive. Both are important. Increasing concern over growing income and wealth inequality, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, has focused attention on the first question. Increasing concern over disparate representation in positions at both ends of the social and economic scale has focused attention on the second.

The Reeds’ critique of race reductionism is that it concentrates overwhelmingly on the second question at the expense of the first. So long as each group is proportionately represented at the top, it sees no need to challenge the upward redistribution of income and wealth. This truncated notion of social justice, they argue, makes race-reductionist politics—and identity politics more broadly—compatible with neoliberalism.  It accepts “that the problem of inequality is not its magnitude or intensity … but whether or not it is distributed in a racially equitable way.” 

Here critique shades over into caricature: many who are committed to overcoming racial disparities also support redistributive economic policies. But the Reeds are nevertheless right that race reductionism narrows our social and political imagination. An intensifying focus on disparities runs the danger of displacing the question of how inequalities are generated, reproduced and augmented under the conditions of late capitalism. And as a result, race reductionism does make it harder to build support for the broadly redistributive policies that a robust notion of social justice would require.

Rogers Brubaker is a Professor of Sociology at UCLA.