Jim Livingston and I agree that we need a class politics of redistribution that has room for the politics of racial justice (and, we would also agree, gender equality). Unlike me, Jim thinks identity-based antiracist politics can achieve that synthesis and that Adolph Reed’s politics are “class reductionist” (Reed’s denial to the contrary notwithstanding), whereas I think Reed’s politics encompass racial justice by definition. Antiracism, by contrast, is not intrinsically redistributionist, which is precisely what it is daily proving itself so attractive to corporate interests.
Reed no more believes that class is a blunt sociological category than does Livingston believe that race is a blunt sociological category—even though it sounds as though he does all through his essay. Of course class is a relation grounded in struggle. I learned that decades ago, not from Adam Przeworski but from E. P. Thompson and all those brilliant British Marxists. But that doesn’t mean we can’t speak of a “working class” with interests that are distinct from, say, the Professional Managerial Class. And this is one of the basic reasons that Livingston’s critique doesn’t persuade.
Reed is discussing the empirical realities of black political life and history. Livingston responds by invoking an intellectual tradition. Reed is saying that for most blacks, most of politics is and has always been about basic needs—decent jobs, good schools for the kids, paying the mortgage, adequate health insurance, safe neighborhoods. Livingston’s response is: DuBois and Cruse et al believed in both class and nationalism. So what? (Talk about metaphysical dancing on the head of a pin!) Reed is saying that there is a Professional Managerial Class that prefers to organize its politics around antiracism rather than redistribution because it already has good jobs, good schools, health insurance, etc. The PMC’s material interests do not correspond to the interests of most black voters. For Reed to say that does not mean he does not see class as a relationship built in struggle. It does not strike me as adequate to respond with a litany of illustrious black intellectuals.
And it’s not just Ralph Bunche who represents Reed’s alternative to Livingston’ heroes. It’s A. Phillip Randolph. It’s Bayard Rustin. And what Reed is saying about them is not: I prefer their intellectual/political orientation, as though this were debate in a seminar room. He’s saying that Bunche, et al, more accurately reflected the (empirically verifiable) interests of the majority of blacks.
Nor am I persuaded by the claim that nationalist/identity politics can, in theory, encompass redistributionist politics. OK. In theory. But, again, the point that Reed and his allies are making is that, in practice, black identity politics DOES NOT encompass redistribution. By contrast, it is manifestly clear that Reed’s brand of redistributionist politics DOES encompass racial justice. Again: there’s a reason corporations are tripping over themselves to endorse, and lavishly fund, BLM: Anti-racism poses not threat to corporate interests the way redistribution does. That antiracism could threaten corporate interests, theoretically, does not alter the fact that it does not.
In a way, I can pinpoint the exact sentence where I think Livingston reads Reed in a way that I don’t: “For Bunche and Reed, the consequent class divisions within the black population are the ‘concrete historical facts’ that make ANY appeal to racial solidarity unrealistic if not mystical.” I would rewrite that last phrase thusly: “class divisions within the black population make a politics organized solely around anti-racism unrealistic.” I don’t know about “mystical.”
The difference between those two phrasings is huge. Reed’s politics are so obviously anti-racist that it’s just idiotic to pretend otherwise. But the very real class differences among blacks are so politically significant that “black politics” cannot possibly be contained within “anti-racism.” You can agree with him (as I do) or disagree with him, but the way you frame his position is, I think, very different from the position he actually holds.
Take police brutality: You say that “what goes missing in Reed’s analysis” is “any possibility of invoking race as an organizing principle or rallying cry, even in these times, when the most salient “concrete historical fact” is the murderous violence visited purposefully and relentlessly on black men and women by armed police forces.”
Let’s start, once again, with the empirical question, the “concrete historical facts”: Police kill unarmed people and always have. The people they kill are disproportionately black and brown but the majority of those killed by police are white. Previously it took a filmmaker like Spike Lee to dramatize a policeman strangling a black man, whereas we now have an explosion of videos exposing the horror of cops killing unarmed people. But in revealing police murders those videos obscure the evidence that police killings have been declining for decades. These are the “concrete historical facts” from which MY understanding of police brutality begins. And for me they mean “invoking race as an organizing principle or rallying cry” is not obviously the best way to approach the problem of police brutality, if only because it leaves out the majority of those killed by police.
The current wave of protests against police violence ironically support Reed’s preference for universal rather than racially specific programs. Most of the changes protesters are calling for are not racially specific. Instead they tend to do exactly what Reed and others say should be done: They abstract away from race. No more hammerlocks or knee presses. Not, no more hammerlocks or knee presses used on black people. There is some truth to the claim that “Black Lives Matter” ends up meaning “Black Lives Matter too,” thereby drawing a universal principle from a racially specific one.
But universalist changes are exactly what Coates says are inadequate: He wants policies specifically targeted to reach black people. Tell me what those policies are and chances are I support them. But they are also likely to be miserably inadequate. By contrast, Reed is saying: Universal policies are more politically viable and reach the urgent needs of black people more effectively—while also encompassing the needs of white people who are also being incarcerated or murdered by police. You can support affirmative action in college admissions and still recognize that far more black people would be helped by free college tuition, raising the minimum wage, and Medicare for all. So Reed is not denying that blacks are not disproportionately abused by police. He’d be a moron to do so. He is saying that the police brutality is not strictly a racial issue.
As for the unions. Unlike you, I would rather not take police unions as “a case in point” about the larger US labor movement. In some ways police are sui generis, both historically and sociologically. Still, police unions don’t only protect their members who are charged with violent abuse: They also protect their member’s pensions, working conditions, health care, wages, etc., the things unions are supposed to do. It’s also the case that police get fired all the time, and the unions can’t stop that. But if a city council or a mayor or comptroller or whoever signs off on a contract that protects abusive police, that’s because those officials are willing to offer that protection. So who’s to blame? The police, who of course want to be shielded, or the politicians shielding them?
There’s nothing new in the observation that unions protect working class interests andthe interests of their employers. Auto workers don’t want General Motors to go bankrupt. Unions want to keep factories here and will support policies that help, or prevent, companies from shipping jobs overseas. The fact that police unions protect the interests of their employers is not news, but it concerns me that Livingston’s conclusion is a generic attack on unions per se. Especially now, given the “concrete historical fact” of decades of brutally successful assaults on unions.
In any case, why not take the nurses union as “a case in point?”
I’m also wondering if there’s a slippage in Livingston’s argument, from the loss of manufacturing jobs to the loss of jobs. Jobs, as such, show no signs of disappearing. But the kind of jobs that are newly available leave workers vulnerable. Wouldn’t unionization help Amazon warehouse workers, home healthcare workers, Uber drivers, Instacart delivery people? Precarious work is still work, and those workers need the kind of protections that, historically, unions have secured for them.
Which gets us back to Reed’s argument, and mine. To the extent that service workers and precarious workers of various types are disproportionately black, they will be disproportionately helped by unionization. Even if those disproportions were caused by racism, antiracism is not necessarily the solution. Quitting smoking won’t cure lung cancer. You can disagree with Reed (and me) that redistribution will go a long way toward alleviating racial inequity, but you can’t say that relieving racial inequity is not and has not always been a central theme in Reed’s politics. This is why the charge of “class reductionism” is not only misleading but downright perverse.
Livingston wants a politics that combines race and class. I believe Reed’s politics does just that (as does, I hope, the kind of history I write). I do not believe “anti-racism,” in practice, gets at the urgent needs of most black people today. As I noted, Livingston complains that Reed’s framework precludes “any possibility of invoking race as an organizing principle or rallying cry.” It looks to me as though that shoe belongs on Livingston’s foot. Class politics clearly incorporates the issues of most concern to most African Americans, whereas making race “the organizing principle” rules off the table most of those issues. Livingston says that Reed is a class reductionist despite Reed’s denial, but Livingston’s hostility to unions more clearly belies his own professions of hostility to capitalism.
A truly democratic class politics presupposes recognition of the particular needs of blacks and other historically oppressed groups. Livingston thinks we need identity politics to achieve that recognition. I think “all men are created equal” does the job better, so long as class interests don’t pervert the ideal. Will democratic socialism finally bring about the eternal reign of goodness and light? No. Will it destroy the last vestiges of racism? No. But redistribution will get us much closer to a racially just society than liberal antiracism. I hate those confederate statues as much as anyone, but I’d leave them all standing if we got universal health care instead. But we’re not going to get it, and the proof is all around us. With each new ostentatious advertisement signaling this or that corporation’s virtuous commitment to racial equity, and with every added billion of corporate support for BLM, two things have become clear. First, liberal antiracism has won, at least to the extent that corporations are bowing to the wishes of their consumers. Second, there will be no redistribution accompanying the victory of antiracism.