Interview With Professor Adolph Reed

Funny, outspoken, and original, the political science professor and author talks race, class, liberalism, and Robin DiAngelo on Useful Idiots

Last May, the Democratic Socialists of America invited the longtime Yale, Northwestern, and University of Pennsylvania professor Adolph Reed to speak to the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

As the New York Times later pointed out, it seemed a natural fit. Reed is a Marxist who campaigned for Bernie Sanders and throughout his career advocated for Democrats to move leftward. He once said of Barack Obama that his brand represented “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics.” The DSA should have been his home base.

The New York chapter didn’t see it that way. Reed was planning to argue that it was an error to focus on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black Americans. He believed the focus on race overshadowed class disparities, made multiracial organizing problematic, and undermined the effort to counter problems like wealth inequality.

This, some D.S.A. members said, was a provocation. A coalition within the D.S.A. The group’s “Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus” said allowing Reed to speak was “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.” In conjunction with D.S.A. leaders and Reed himself, the event was canceled, in an absurd episode the quick-witted Reed dismissed as a “tempest in a demitasse.”

In the year since, Reed has become an involuntary casualty to an argument that has bizarrely come to dominate both the Democratic Party and the American left in general, the question of whether “class-not-race” politics is outdated and needs leaving behind. The debate itself is something of a red herring, especially with regard to Reed, who’s always been a “class and race” thinker — the “the greatest democratic theorist of his generation,” as Cornel West called him. However, he’s deeply at odds with “antiracist” thinkers like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi, which has put him on the outs with current intellectual fashion in some segments of the political left.

In an interview with Katie Halper and me on Useful Idiots, Reed gives his take on DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Nice Racism. “I flirted with going to the seminary for about six or eight months when I was like 12, and I didn’t,” he says. “So I don’t need to hear her confession. I’m not interested in her confession.”

Reed, who will be starting a podcast called Class Matters in the fall, went on to riff on a range of subjects, from antiracism to the future of the Democratic Party to academic freedom to Wesley Snipes movies and the agony of watching Billy Graham revivals. A partial transcript, edited for length:

Katie Halper: How do you define racism?

Reed: Well, that’s a question!

One of the interesting things I think that we’ve experienced over the last half century or so, and our reasons for this too and get into maybe, or maybe not maybe later, that racism as a category has expanded. The currency of what counts as racism has inflated like the Deutschmark in the late 1920s. So anything can be racist, and racism becomes the sole explanation, or sole explanatory category, for making sense of any inequality or seemingly inappropriate or unjustifiable inequality that involves black people or other non whites in any way. So, for instance, there was an advisee of mine, who in her first year, in the PhD program, was in my grad seminar on Black American political thought.

She was leading discussions around readings between the mid thirties and end of the forties. And it was all new stuff to her, but her first comment was that she was surprised genuinely to see that nobody that she read talked about struggling against racism. Everybody talked about much more concrete stuff, programs that they were for programs that were against policies, they were for positive they were against. And I said, “Yeah, well that didn’t happen until after the victories of the social movements of the sixties.”

Lord knows, this is what post-war racial liberalism in the U.S. was all about. So you struggle against racism, which is part of the struggle against prejudice, part of the struggle against intolerance, bigotry and so forth and so on. What recedes from view is essential problems of economic inequality like employment inequality, housing inequality, et cetera.

Matt Taibbi: In Robin DiAngelo’s new book, Nice Racism, she specifically talks about that, and seems to suggest that people who are focusing on economic justice are avoiding talking about racism, that the two ideas must be understood separately. Is this a new thing, or something old with a new name?

Reed: No, it’s not new. Combating racism becomes a convenient alternative to attacking inequality and inequality, even those inequalities that appear or the manifest themselves as racial disparities. Because the struggle against racism is exactly parallel to the struggle against terrorism… It can go on forever, because the enemy is an abstraction that you can define however you want to define it, at the moment that you wanted to find it.

DiAngelo’s not the first person to do this. There was a woman named Peggy McIntosh who going back to the eighties had the “knapsack of privilege,” or some shit like that. I know people who have had careers at racial sensitivity trainings, and the people that I know, in my world — the people who came out of the movement actually came out of anti-Klan politics, or rather left politics in the seventies, and they started doing this stuff. It makes sense in the same way that people who were graduate students in the late sixties and early seventies who were left theory-inclined people got into the Frankfurt School. That became the cornerstone of their academic careers.

Well, that’s what’s happened in the anti-racism or the racial sensitivity training world. And one of the things that’s happened over time is that the material incentives — and it’s funny, pardon this aside, but it’s funny how many political-economy-oriented leftists we encounter who apply critical political economic thinking to every domain in the world — outside the movement that they’re operating in. So the material incentives evolved, and changed over time. And some of my friends who have done this work have said to me that they used to do it for community groups, used to do it for unions and so forth and so on. Then, as the material incentives change, they want to build and do more for corporations, or for local governments who were under consent decrees.

So this becomes part of the thing. You’re under a consent decree for actual discrimination. One of the remedies that’s likely to be imposed as part of the decree is that you submit to this training. And we see it all the time now. Even the insurgencies within NGOs, right? Where the staff or whatever is going batshit crazy about how the leadership of the organization is all racist, sexist, whatever. And one of the first calls is to bring in some minor-league version of Robin DiAngelo to do the racial sensitivity training. So in that sense, it’s taken hold as part of what I’ve often described as the broader political economy of race relations.

Matt Taibbi: There’s a line in her book that I missed originally: “I believe that white progressives caused the most daily damage to people of color.” Clearly the book is aimed at that audience. Is that just about trying to play on the emotions of those readers or does she really believe that? What is she trying say with that line?

Reed: My father used to describe ideology as, in one sense, being the mechanism that harmonizes the principles that you want to believe you hold, with what advances your material interests. So in that sense, your question misses the point. When I heard her then, what I imagined was like J.K. Rowling, explaining how she felt after the first Harry Potter book was a success, and it’s like, I’m onto something. I made a lot of money here, and I think I can keep this thing going for about 12 other iterations.

But the other thing I thought was just in listening to her was that an image that came to my mind was Viola Liuzzo, right? The wife of a postal worker, from Detroit, who went down to Selma in 1965 to participate in the voting rights March and to participate in organizing the voting rights March. And she got herself killed by the Klan. In the context of that, with DiAngelo, I thought, “Oh, so that’s what she was doing, she was just trying to out-woke the black people.” I don’t even know what to say to shit like that, I really don’t. It’s pretty repugnant.

Matt Taibbi: Her point seems to be that open racism is one thing, but the submerged version in the liberal suburbs does more to keep the system of oppression in place. Is that valid?

Reed: It reminds me of people — I don’t hear much of this anymore, but it’s still here — who would say, “Well, I prefer the upfront, out in the open racism of the Jim Crow South, to the genteel submerged racism of the Suburban North.”

I have a forthcoming book The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives. It’s a non-memoir or an anti-memoir. It will illuminate… As someone who has experienced ample quantities of both forms, the view that the out-front is better to deal with, or one of the prefer to deal with it, strikes me as a view that can be held only by people who haven’t ever had to deal with the out-front on a regular basis.

I’ll go to Lyndon Johnson on this. As he pointed out, the point of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was not to change people’s attitudes, it was to change their public behavior. And you’ve got a right to have whatever fucked-up attitude you have.

This is one of the perverse ways that the conflation of the notion of racism and discrimination and injustice has hurt us. In the early nineties, there was a brouhaha centered in Georgetown in DC, about boutique operators who had a buzzing system for their small ateliers, right. Who wouldn’t buzz in Black men or young Black men or Black people… Richard Cohen in the Washington Post wrote about this.

Matt Taibbi: One of the great mediocrities of all time.

Reed: I don’t know if that makes him better as a reactionary or, or worse, but he’s definitely mediocre! The middle of the middle of the middle of the middle.

Reed: He did a column that was, that drew a lot of buzz. He was contending that the shop owners were within their rights to do this. And this was in the early moments of the right-wing, Democrat-driven crime hysteria, on the verge of the Clinton Administration. But because statistically speaking, young Black men were more likely to commit crimes than other people. And the thing was outrageous, of course, the argument was outrageous, but I participated in a faculty seminar with a bunch of these kinds of moose heads, some on the Law School Faculty at Yale. And a line that came from several of my colleagues was that, “Well, he’s kind of got a point there.”

And I said, “No, the only person who is violating any law here is the shop owners who were violating the 1964 Civil Rights law. So unless you want to argue that anti-discrimination law is less real than real law, then it’s a problem.” But people could feel comfortable making that argument. Partly because of the extent to which something called racism is disconnected from the substance of actual practices. And, look, I’m prepared to grant that the DiAngelo’s heart is in the right place — at least, on the left side of her chest. She’s probably earnest, but you know what? And I apologize for mentioning my dad again, but I remember once we were watching, when I was around nine or ten, we were watching the Billy Graham crusade on TV, because there was nothing else on TV.

We watched for a few minutes and I learned two things. The first thing I learned was that when they announced that one of the guests and performers was going to be the singer and actress, Ethel Waters. What came out of my dad’s mouth involuntarily was, “God, I didn’t know she was broke.” So I learned that there’s a connection between when popular entertainers find Jesus, and when they run out of money.

But the other thing that I learned was more telling. Listening to Billy’s sermon, he said, “God has really been so good to Billy since the Hearst family picked him up off the street corner after World War Two.” I’ll bet he probably even believes in him. And that’s kind of the way that it works. So I’m convinced that Robin DiAngelo is sincere, but unsurprisingly, as my dad often also said, “Sincerity is very much an overrated virtue.”

Katie Halper: Can you speak to the question of whether or not DiAngelo’s thinking undermines class-based programs that would actually disproportionately benefit people of color, like Medicare-for-all?

Reed: Regarding the whole COVID disparity stuff that I’ve been writing about from the very beginning: if you start out demanding that we all understand that there’s some special disposition that people of color have to getting sick and then dying, that has to do with their being people of color, then that distracts you away from what eventually came out — that it turns out that the racial disparity breaks down to what kind of jobs you work, what are the conditions you work under, what kind of conditions do you live in, how dependent you are on public transportation and so forth and so on. So it’s back to the political economy.

The totality of post World War II racial liberalism has been articulated toward separating race as a discourse of injustice — separating not just from something called class, but from political economy, and shifting it to psychology. That is what it comes down to. Or worse, like what the Afro-pessimists have done now is take 19th-century race theory and the ideas of people like Madison Grant, and repackaged that as progressive black ideology. It’s crazy. I mean, they’re in bed with the worst of 19th-century racists.

Matt Taibbi: Almost like a crypto-eugenics type of concept in some cases.

Reed: Right… And I figured something else out too. This is actually a chapter of a book that I’m working on now, a book that my colleague and friend, Kenneth Warren and I are doing. But I’ve been puzzling with addressing the question of why so much anti-racist discourse now depends on analogy with slavery and Jim Crow. And that’s ultimately because... Well, to be honest, because the political as well as the intellectual concern of the people making these arguments is exactly the same as the political and intellectual concerns of the defeated Confederates who established and propagated lost-cause ideology, the myth of the Solid South, and put all those Confederate monuments up because they were committed to a racialist understanding of the world for the purpose of undermining any possibility of a political-economic challenge coming from the lower class, basically.

That’s the same reason that people making the race-reductionist arguments today can’t really move without drawing links between this moment and slavery and Jim Crow. Just as the 19th century former Confederates were committed to a white supremacist narrative, these people are also committed to a white supremacist/anti-white-supremacist narrative for the same reasons: to keep political economy off the table, and to advance their particular class program, just as the planter class was in the 19th century.

Matt Taibbi: Aren’t there some parallels in the antiracist movement to the reaction to Martin Luther King’s Riverside Church speech, when he came out against war in Vietnam? The pundits all railed against him and essentially said, “You’ve gone outside your lane.” Race is race, everything else is everything else, don’t mix.

Reed: I think there’s a parallel there, and an irony, too. Substantively, the reaction that King got was that, “No, no, no. There’s a civil rights thing over here, and it’s just about that stuff. But shit like war and the economy and poverty, uh-uh, that’s not a civil rights issue.”

What we’re hearing now is similar, but now it’s coming in from black voices, and from people who understand themselves to be followers of Malcolm X, or the Black Panthers, or whatever, like CORE, or operating in that same tradition. They are now doing the silencing. It’s so insidious.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me, at least once a week, want to put on, I mean, Mahalia Jackson singing, “Soon, I will be done with the trouble of the world.” It’s so insidious, that it’s coming out of the labor movement now.

Black workers can’t just be workers. They got to have some special black thing about them. But I’m not denying that black workers are black, as much as workers. To keep with my prior illustration, black is the adjunctive, worker is the noun.

But the thing is always: how do we try to build the solidarities that we need to have, to change the society in the ways that make it better for everybody who lives in it, except Bezos, and those people? The practice of this performative race-first politics is completely disconnected from any sort of pragmatic questions like that.

It’s not only disconnected from such questions, it tends to be so essentially antagonistic to pursuit of such questions. Look, I mean, I remember COINTELPRO. I was a victim of it myself, far enough ago in the past. So I wonder, “God, are these people getting paid?”

Matt Taibbi: I read DiAngelo talking about how we need to eliminate universalism, and people need to get in touch with their white identity, and I think, “Wow, isn’t that dangerous?” Am I crazy? Or is this just a fad that will pass?

Reed: One thing I have found over the last decade or so, and I think this is partly because of the emergence of the sort of race-not-class first crowd, that my tank is just about full of “white familiars” as I call them because of my affinity for the Blade movies.

Matt Taibbi: Those are excellent movies.

Reed: Totally. But my favorite scene, the scene that comes to mind, at least once a week, was where in one of them, I forget which one, Blade asked the police chief, who is the familiar just before he kills him, “Do you really think those bloodsuckers are going to let you live after they win?” Which is what I feel like asking all these white race-first people, laughter aside. But, so my tank is basically full now from white people in particular telling me that I don’t understand the depth and intensity of racism, and its effects and this and the other, not because they’re violating a normative or an epistemic principle of mine, but because they’re violating theirs, by the shit that they argue. They technically don’t have the right to say shit to me. So why is it I’m the only POC that you can tell that he’s got it wrong?

I’ve taken, to calling that out, right, lately. The best way to call it out, is that just the simple, “All right go fuck yourself.” And I just make a stamp on it. But it’s a really interesting question, it’s really, and I think it’s really important to try to sort through how all this has come to happen — because we’re faced with such a perilous moment in the society now.