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“Let Me Go Get My Big White Man”: The Clientelist Foundation of Contemporary Antiracist Politics

I’ll begin by putting all the cards on the table because the political stakes of the moment are too great for coyness or politesse.1 No matter what those who propound it may believe about themselves or, more meaningfully, want the rest of us to believe about them, contemporary race-reductionist politics—i.e., what is commonly recognized as antiracist politics—is not in any way left, egalitarian, or democratic. It is not linked to any popular, insurgent, or “bottom-up” black or other political expressions. It is not oriented practically toward a vision of broadly egalitarian social transformation, nor is it at all aligned with or congenial to any project of generating a political movement toward such ends. Even when packaged as opposing an abstraction like “racial capitalism” or as advocating “both anti-racism and socialism,” this politics is incapable of adopting the standpoint of building the broad working-class solidarities that are the sine qua non of any project of egalitarian transformation, on whatever scale. In the words of socialist anti-racist Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, “we want to win white people to an understanding of how their racism has fundamentally distorted the lives of Black people.”2 That approach is the opposite of pursuing solidarity.

As we have seen consistently since at least 2015, this politics in fact is actively antagonistic toward broadly egalitarian (that is, universally egalitarian) objectives,3 and that antagonism stems from neither coincidence nor random quirks of individuals. It’s built into the claim to represent a distinctively racialized constituency and is thus a clientelist politics with roots in the arrangements that took shape at the end of the nineteenth century, characteristically identified with Booker T. Washington and other representatives of an emerging stratum of “race men” and “race women” who saw themselves as brokers of the interests of a then largely disfranchised—and thus civically mute and easily ventriloquized—black American population to the ruling class, whom these racial brokers saw as the source of effective political agency, as, that is, their other substantive constituency. That racial elite-brokerage politics, as historian Michael Rudolph West has argued in The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2006), is the origin of the “race relations” notion, which was from the beginning a stand-in for democratic political participation and which, as a conceptual deep structure, continues to plague how Americans think and talk about black politics. Following West, I discuss this notion’s foundations and particulars elsewhere.4 Here I want to stress two problematic features of the race relations idea that, instructively, are seldom noted.

First, that original race politics was absolutely and thoroughly a class politics. As West notes, in the race relations framework:

interests and aspirations of politicians and ministers (among Washington’s first foils), workers and businessmen, parents and teachers would no longer need to be expressed by way of the normal, if potentially messy, institutional channels through which Americans settled their conflicts and competition. Instead they would be mediated through the good offices of “Negro leaders” ever mindful of where their mandate comes from and the requirement placed on them as a first principle to “cement the friendship of the two races.”5

Race relations politics was articulated by an emerging stratum of professionals, intermediate functionaries, and aspirants in racialized systems of hierarchy that were in transition institutionally in the early years of the twentieth century in the United States as well as in British colonies in the West Indies and West Africa.6 And the sort of class politics that it was underwrote its articulation as a race politics. The material and ideological project around which the emergent stratum of black putative race leaders took shape was, in Kenneth Warren’s characterization, “substitution of black professionals, managers, and intellectuals for their white counterparts within those institutions charged with administering to the needs of black populations” or, more succinctly, establishment of “managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem” within whatever political and economic arrangements prevailed.7

The effective allies for that project were to be sought within the ruling class, which alone had the capacity to validate the race men and women’s claims to speak for “the Negro” and to mobilize the material resources necessary to implement the stratum’s top-down programs of cultural tutelage and uplift.8 And the emerging race leadership stratum converged around conviction that “race relations” or “race adjustment” would be best realized through partnership between the “best” elements of both races. That conviction, which also underlay the common lament that segregation prevented the better classes of blacks and whites from engaging one another, decreed a particular disposition toward the agenda of racial uplift. I offer here a distinctly clear case in point:

Anna Julia Cooper, now heralded as an early black feminist, strikingly illustrates the connection between the black elite’s racial theories, uplift ideology and opposition to working-class political organization for blacks. Cooper interpreted the basis of American race conflict through the lens of prevailing historical, or neo-Lamarckian, race theories that emphasized racial differences in character or “ideals.” She then argued that blacks’ contribution to America derived from such racial traits, including “inborn respect for authority … inaptitude for rioting and anarchy … gentleness and cheerfulness as a laborer … which will prove indispensable and invaluable elements in a nation menaced as America is by anarchy, socialism, communism, and skepticism poured in with all the jailbirds from … Europe and Asia.” Later in the same text she confessed to a lack of sympathy for the workers suppressed in the 1892 Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel struggle, the eight-hour day movement, or labor unions in general; she contended that her feelings arose from labor’s ill-treatment of blacks, marshalling anecdotes and apocrypha to buttress her assertions, but at the same time she expressed strong nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments. Cooper also firmly maintained that philanthropy was to be the uplift enterprise’s main source of material support.9

Whether Cooper, Washington, Du Bois, and other representatives of the nascent race relations brokerage elite10 sought to align programmatically with the ruling class for principled, pragmatic, or cynical reasons varied among individuals and across contexts and, in any case, is beside the point. We do know that Washington’s pursuit of support from philanthropic and other capitalist interests for his Tuskegee initiative encouraged his racial counsel of acquiescence to the white supremacist order and avoidance of labor unions or radical agitation. And the dream of Isaiah T. Montgomery, founder of Mound Bayou, the all-black Mississippi town he intended to be a showplace of racial accomplishment and capacity, led him to participate actively in the mass disfranchisement of black Mississippians in 1890.11 Those cases exemplify the mischief—interpretive as well as political—enabled by the race relations framework’s insidious slippage between first-person singular and plural.

The class program around which the brokerage stratum converged was crafted in racial terms because a) the period in which both the stratum and its program took shape, the last decades of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth, was the moment when the race idea seemed more powerful and commonsensically explanatory than at any other in the history of human society, before or since, and b) correspondingly, the systems of hierarchy within which the stratum was embedded and defined their objectives—British colonialism and imposed white supremacy and racial disfranchisement in the United States—were explicitly racialized. And there is no contradiction or anomaly in this class program’s racial character. The precise point of “race” as an ideology is that it obscures and mystifies class agendas that are crafted within concrete material relations by displacing them onto nature. That is how race attained the verisimilitude of common sense.12 Historian Barbara Jeanne Fields captured the point exquisitely: “Race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right.”13 And race discourse provides “a surface camouflage that makes inequality in its most general form—the form that marks and distorts every aspect of our social and political life—hard to see, harder to discuss, and nearly impossible to tackle.”14

This is not to suggest that would-be race men and women have been insincere in their commitments to pursue the interests of the race. Ideology harmonizes the principles one wants to hold with what advances one’s material interests; it produces sincerity and the appearance of consistency. Racialist ideology was hegemonic at the time of the brokerage elite’s emergence, and racial classification was a central element of its identity as a stratum. Racial brokers’ understandings of what perspectives and priorities condense the race’s interests have been shaped by their class position, their social location both within the Jim Crow order and in the capitalist political economy more broadly. In fact, the inclination to reduce black American life to its racial dimension is itself a class posture. As a discourse of political identification, race—like ethnicity and nationalism, all variants of the same phenomenon15 —provides the “surface camouflage” sustaining a synecdochic mystification, an illustration of what the Fieldses call racecraft, that agendas that would concentrate specific material benefits on smaller, discrete populations simultaneously address the needs of larger, more diffuse ones. And, as Warren argues:

This form of political action, centered on the idea of leadership, unelected but presumably attuned culturally and spiritually to the needs and desires of the race as a whole and, on that basis, able to speak for all Blacks, became the prevailing racial ideology of the last century. The idea of “Race relations” … has been virtually naturalized as the idiom for thinking about equality in the US. (BTB 372)

Black clientelist politics from its beginnings has been predicated on the conviction that a program that amounts to a racial trickle-down serves the best interest of the race. In the early twentieth century, uplift ideology, deeply embedded in hegemonic race theory, was the sleight-of-hand that justified that racial trickle-down. In the early twenty-first century, things are in some respects very different. The deferential and sometimes even obsequious tone of Washington has been swapped out for “demands,” and the demands are now for “allyship” rather than “friendship” and for the allies to give up their fantasies of white saviorship.16 But the structure—and, in effect, the appeal to ruling class and hence mainly white saviors—remains the same, and the sleight-of-hand is not that different: hegemonic underclass ideology presumes that non-elite blacks are damaged and in need of special tutelage conducted via the role-modeling ministrations of upper-status racial brothers and sisters.17 And constant assertion, both directly and indirectly through the incessant drip of disparity discourse, that all black Americans are equally vulnerable to, for example, the horrors of police terror and killing or the banality of microaggressions, feed the sense that race on some level endows black people with a hive-like experience, which implies both the sense that blacks share a racial hive mind and a corollary that a payoff to any one black person is eo ipso a payoff to all.

The class character of antiracist clientelism is even more transparent than its fin-desiècle progenitor’s. Its proponents can defend the assertion that racism is the fundamental determinant of life chances for black Americans only via a sleight-of-hand that divests slavery and Jim Crow of their historical specificity as discrete systems of economic and social relations and construes them as almost incidental extrusions of a transcendent racism or white supremacy or, even more tendentiously, in a devil theory positing that all human history has been driven by an ontological anti-blackness. Having transmogrified material social relations into attitudes, putative evidence that such attitudes persist supports assertions that “nothing” has changed since 1619 or 1919.18 It is telling that commitment to that argument subordinates providing concrete causal accounts of how current inequalities are thereby produced and reproduced to taxonomizing apparent racial disparities as instances of the workings of trans-historical racism or white supremacy. This perspective minimizes the significance of political-economic changes since 1965, including deindustrialization, the panoply of regressive policy developments associated with neoliberalization, and the significance of the marked increases in occupational, income, and wealth stratification among African Americans.19 The point of this politics is not to identify and pursue strategies to attack inequalities or injustices affecting black Americans but to make certain that they are understood as stemming from an evanescent racism. An implication is that only inequalities that can be attributed to specifically racial sources are a proper matter for concern. Combined with the central focus on addressing racial disparities within the existing capitalist class hierarchy, those characteristics of contemporary antiracism underscore the extent to which it is a class program.

As “white” wealth and income are increasingly concentrated at the very top of the distribution, achieving parity along racial lines would do little to address the economic insecurity of the disproportionately working-class black population. For example, despite repeated assertions that the “racial” wealth gap is the most pressing concern for the race, nearly eighty percent of that wealth gap is concentrated among the richest ten percent of blacks and whites, and half of both blacks and whites have no wealth whatsoever. All the tortious prattle in the world about how wealthy whatever numbers of black individuals might have been absent racial discrimination and exclusion does not gainsay the reality that nearly half a century of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession, imposed with bipartisan political support, has more significantly intensified economic inequality and insecurity across the general U.S. population, among blacks and non-blacks alike.20 And it is not an idle quip that one of the clearest indications that a class politics is at work is denial by those advancing it that it is a class politics. As the Fieldses point out, obscuring class contradictions is and always has been the fundamental work that race does.

That applies to the idea of a “racial” wealth gap itself, which rests on a grand ideological mystification. Indeed, the extent of polarization of wealth and income both nationally and within populations classified respectively as white and black should indicate the folly of any such notion. There is no black wealth or white wealth, only wealth held by black or white individuals and households. The differences in wealth between otherwise comparable black and white individuals and households on the average, either median or mean, likely reflect, among a variety of factors, effects of present or past discrimination or exclusion. In principle, “racial wealth gap” could be a shorthand for characterizing those aggregate differences. However, race reductionism, in conflating the distinction between race as a category of social classification and race as an organic group, represents “racial” wealth as if it were owned collectively. This has been a conceptual failing of the wealth gap notion since its emergence in the 1990s. It has gone unchallenged because the hegemony of race relations ideology has implanted as common sense understanding in American society the racist reification of black people as a unitary entity to which distinction between singular and plural does not apply.

And race reductionists have an interest in perpetrating the sleight-of-hand that obscures the wealth gap’s mystified character. Recently, I was on a black nationalist inclined podcast whose host agreed that stratification by occupation, income, and wealth among black Americans is greater than among other populations classified by race/ethnicity and that the bottom half of blacks and whites alike have no wealth. Yet he insisted that the wealth gap framework holds because blacks’ “collective” wealth is much lower than whites’. But, of course, there is no black collective wealth, just as there is no white collective wealth. It may be that habituation to positing blacks as a singular entity undermines the ability to recognize that basic fact. If so, imagine a white nurse down on her luck and in danger of eviction trying to dip into the collective pot of white wealth for a subsidy, or maybe texting Elon Musk to pitch in.

How the gentrification idea operates in current political discourse is another clear case in point of the Fieldses’ racecraft. The current discourse of gentrification is the product of an effort to represent a straightforward neoliberal political-economic dynamic—diversion of public resources to support privately appropriated rent-intensifying redevelopment, i.e., regressive transfer—as a moralistic and culturalist one.

Defining gentrification as a project of displacement of populations depicted as indigenous … obscures [its] source in market-driven policy and government support for upward redistribution, which undercuts serious efforts to challenge the dynamic. That mystification of political-economic forces also sustains another significant and anti-popular evasion. As the primacy of market-forces disappears into moralistic and racialized debate, the inclusion of nominal representatives of the groups held to be adversely affected appears as a satisfactory compromise. Those representatives’ racial or cultural status provides a halo that obscures the material dynamics driving the process and provides them with a form of capital— race as capital rather than “racial capitalism”—facilitating market entry and penetration in the name of the group.21

The demand that we see black Americans as a singular political entity motivated by unproblematically shared racial interests is a class program, just as it was when, in 1904, North Carolina Governor Charles Aycock, reflecting on the objective of the violent 1898 Democratic putsch that led to mass disfranchisement and installed white supremacy, declared, “We need the strength which comes from believing alike.”22 Everything hinges on the specific content of the “we.”

The second, related problem I want to address concerning race relations discourse and its premises, which, as Warren indicates, continue fundamentally to shape scholarly and popular thinking about black politics, is the quintessential fact that at its very foundation the race relations idea is racist. “Races” cannot relate because races are not real entities capable of willful activity. The notion that they are is the very definition of racism. (To recognize this fact clearly one might simply, as both Walter Benn Michaels and I have suggested independently of each other, substitute “unicorn” for “race” in the race relations construct.) And only within that fundamentally racist framework can racial elite-brokerage politics seem unproblematic. Again, the race relations idea depends on race reductionism, on assertion that discrete social characteristics or concerns of individuals or groups of people classified as black are subordinate to their racial classification and to interests, issues, attitudes, or preferences that purportedly can be read out from that classification. This fact about race relations discourse should be obvious. However, tellingly, it is unacknowledged in plain sight.

At its origins the race relations framework seemed plausible for three reasons that no longer pertain. First, because that period was the apogee of the race idea, talk about “races” engaging one another had a commonsense quality it should not have now. Second, in the early twentieth century, the great majority of black people in the United States were disfranchised and severely hampered from expressing civic voice, and that opened space for strategically positioned but ultimately self-selected individuals and groups to step into the breach to advocate for black interests, which laid the basis for clientelist politics in the electoral realm as well.23 Finally, in the early twentieth century explicitly racial issues—lynching and pogroms, disfranchisement, denial of due process and equal standing before the law, overt discrimination and exclusion—loomed so large that it was reasonable to assume that they were pre-eminently shared concerns among black people. None of those conditions sets the contours of quotidian black life or definitively constrains aspirations and action now or has during most of the more than half-century since the civil rights movement’s great legislative victories. But the race relations framework and its clientelist and racial essentialist presumptions persist unmodified in part because the key project of antiracist politics is to propagate the view that “race”—in the form of disembodied abstractions like racism and white supremacy—defines black existence as thoroughly as it did in 1922 or 1822. The primacy of this project, and its commitment to justifying a race-reductionist politics with analogies to slavery and Jim Crow, helps to make sense of how the reparations idea and its political entailments have taken hold and spread in the new millennium.

At the beginning of this century, when talk about reparations for the descendants of slaves in the United States entered mainstream journalistic and academic discourse from its niches among warrens of atavistic black nationalism and Afrocentric bookstores, I was bemused and could not understand why it had suddenly attained currency, except in the way streams of chatter become current because they become current. Then often enough I found myself asked to comment on the issue. What I considered the showstopping response then,24 as I believe it should be now, was to ask: How is it possible to imagine putting together a coalition that could prevail on that issue as a political demand? In my view, that was the showstopper because in a political democracy, even a nominal one, any significant policy intervention of that sort would at least require Congressional action, which in turn would presume a shift in popular political sensibilities such that, if not a majority, at least a substantial plurality of Americans could be assumed to support the agenda. How, my question implied, could we imagine such a shift in which a majority white electorate would support taxing themselves to pay for an agenda that would confer substantial material benefits exclusively, and explicitly, on black Americans and from which—to be clear to the point of redundance—that majority electorate, even voters in similarly precarious economic circumstances as black beneficiaries, would receive absolutely nothing?

Not only did my query not stop the show; it did not even amount to a speed bump for reparations enthusiasts. Not once in the twenty-two years since I first asked it has that question elicited a substantive, pragmatic response. The typical response to the question is fatuities of this sort:

It’s not really good enough to say that we should be opposed to reparations because it’s hard. All issues connected to race in this country have been difficult to assemble coalitions around. In the nineteenth century the idea that you could actually build a movement against slavery seemed like an impossibility. And yet people engaged in that process certainly helped to shape a political atmosphere that created the conditions for slavery’s abolition.25

This comment is a non-response to my standard question about the reparations issue; it is also mistaken on its own terms and, moreover, mistaken in a way that underscores the point of the question it dodges. Clearly, it was possible to build a nineteenth-century movement against slavery, one powerful enough to drive the elites of eleven slaveholding states to perpetrate treason in a desperate attempt to save what they understood to be their “peculiar institution.” But anti-slavery became a powerful movement precisely because it drew support from many different constituencies that opposed slavery for their own discrete reasons. Some opposed slavery out of not entirely irrational or bigoted fear of being displaced by a degraded workforce; slavery was, after all, the quintessentially extreme form of degraded labor. Some opposed it out of principled conviction of the economic and moral superiority of free labor and fear that slavery’s expansion would undermine the nation’s economic health and republican values. Some opposed it as an outrageous injustice against those in bondage, without necessarily embracing racial equality as a principle.26

The other common response to the pragmatic question is a call to acknowledge that black Americans “deserve” some recompense for slavery and other injustices, which also deflects from the pragmatic question and begs many others concerning who else might “deserve” what and why, as well as the many other thorny questions opened by the sort of reparative justice that formulation evokes. The history of capitalism, as all class societies, is an account of the exploitation, degradation, and brutalization of workers.27 If injustices perpetrated on one’s remote ancestors were a basis for claims to compensation today, very many more people would have grounds for such claims, and that is especially likely if we consider treatment that would not have been considered injustices then but would be now. That approach to social justice is impracticable and unwieldy because it would require adjudication not only of which individuals are eligible for compensation but also what kinds of past injustice, or current injustice projected onto the past, should qualify as compensable. (Advocates of reparations for African Americans may argue that slavery is a sui generis injustice; others are likely to see the matter differently.)

The proposition that desert on the basis of special injury should be the standard of eligibility for social benefits is moreover at odds with a left-egalitarian politics because it is anti-solidaristic. It is the opposite of the socialist principle that everyone in the society is entitled to a reasonable and secure standard of living, consistent with prevailing norms for a decent life. In addition to its reformulation of pursuit of social justice as a tort action, reparations politics thus comports with neoliberalism in that it rejects universal benefits for partial, segmented, ultimately invidious social policy.

For several years, especially because its supporters seemed to relish talking about it but were uninterested in assessing strategies for pursuing it politically, I assumed that the sudden fixation on reparations talk may have been the equivalent of a fad, or comforting class-skewed popular hysteria, not unlike the early 1990s fixation on racial “double consciousness” that swept through elements of the black professional-managerial strata28 or, more recently, the notion that black people are beset with inherited racial trauma that can show up in a distinct racial biology (which, incidentally, brings contemporary antiracism into complete lockstep with Victorian racism—and worse than that, it may be useful to recall at this moment of reactionary political mobilization29). It might persist a while longer than other PMC fads, I suspected, because reparations talk makes for the sort of ponderous babble academics and high-minded liberals like to wax on about: it provides occasion for unrestrained display of parlor-game cleverness and pompous moralizing with no fear of an outcome that could either lighten one’s pockets or threaten current class relations, and law professors can be enticed by the whiff of possible tort actions down the road.

Instead, the reparations idea not only has not waned; it has become the normative cornerstone for discussion of black politics. It is now one prong of an unholy trinity of ideological precepts that anchors discussion of black politics. The others are the conviction that racial (or other ascriptive group) disparity is the primary, if not sole, actionable metric of unjust inequality and the insistence that we understand current inequality or injustice affecting blacks via analogy to slavery and Jim Crow. Together, these three foundational premises demand that we separate racial inequality, understood as simple disparity, from dynamics of inequality produced by the capitalist political economy and that we situate the sources of current racial inequalities as lying in trans-historical abstractions such as racism, White Supremacy, and anti-Blackness. This is one reason that formulations like “both antiracism and socialism” or “racial capitalism” are only dodges, not unlike “vaccine hesitancy,” as attempts to assert a dubious position without having to defend or be accountable for doing so. In contemporary politics antiracism and anti-capitalism are not only distinct; they are contradictory and mutually exclusive as both explanations and warrants for practical action. This fundamental antagonism has become ever sharper since 2015.

Ideologies gain traction when they connect with the agendas and perspectives of significant interests in the society. Reparations talk did not wither away like a fad partly because it advances a notion of social justice that harmonizes with hegemonic neoliberal sensibility.30 Michaels and Warren make the point succinctly:

The very idea that justice consists in restoring to people what they would have had if the labor market or the housing market or the loan market hadn’t taken it away from them is just another version of the reforms we’re presented with every day, reforms that identify fairness with the supposedly efficient functioning of the market. From the replacement of public schools with charters to the replacement of cabbies with uber drivers, neoliberalism argues that the only solutions to the inequalities created by markets are more efficiently functioning markets. And that the true victims of capitalism are not all the workers impoverished by exploitation but only those workers even more impoverished by discrimination. (RWF)31

As reparations talk proliferated, it incorporated the premise that “wealth,” not income, is the true measure of economic security and a related mystification, blending the neoliberal imperative to make the capitalist labor relation invisible and the black bourgeois nationalist ideal, that entrepreneurialism, not employment, is the proper racial path to success, dignity, and worth. The unholy trinity of precepts grounding black politics within neoliberalism obscures the reality that those two premises establish a “black” politics on the priorities and worldview of the investor class; they ensconce the discourse and program of social justice within the framework of asset accumulation and wealth management. Insistence that only aggregate black/white differences matter for assessments of actionable inequalities denies the significance of class differentiation among black Americans.32 It is instructive in this regard that commemorations of the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa pogrom centered on destruction of the supposedly vibrant black business district —“Black Wall Street” 33 —as though that was a crucial loss for all black Tulsans or even black Americans writ large. When race-reductionist politics recognizes class difference, racecraft turns it into Gemeinschaft on the presumption that more black inherited wealth would be good for the race as opposed to good for the people who actually inherited. Similarly, because argument by historical allegory reduces the black experience in British North America and then the United States to unremitting and undifferentiated collective racial suppression, broken only by inspirational narratives of individual racial accomplishment against herculean obstacles, its most crucial effect is to deny the possibility of politically meaningful differentiation among black people. That is itself a class gambit, fully—pace the Fieldses and as pithily exemplified by Governor Aycock—in keeping with what “race” exists to do.

Illustratively, I participated on a panel on black politics34 sponsored by the Brand New Congress35 in May 2020 that also featured three congressional candidates endorsed by BNC and the Justice Democrats, including Cori Bush from St. Louis. Another panelist, Isiah James, a candidate for the 9th Congressional District seat in Brooklyn, took sharp exception to the notion that any meaningful class differentiation exists among blacks. To support his objection, he adduced first the potted oppression porn narrative of black history and then asserted its “nothing has changed” punch line for contemporary politics: “when this country was founded on a system of racism that said that you could never reach a certain stratum because of your skin color, you might be the upper echelon of what America considers below or beneath them; so just because you’re a black person making six figures a year you can still be gunned down in the street like a dog because you look a certain way.” James’s objection makes clear the ideological work the ensemble of postulates and premises that ground contemporary race reductionism does in camouflaging a class politics.

As James’s objection indicates, insistence that we understand all of politically meaningful black American existence, past and present, as hemmed in tightly and universally by constraints imposed by racism also conveniently enables representing a class program as a generically racial one. And this gets us closer to the heart of the problem with contemporary race reductionism, and why viewing it as a different sort of egalitarian or “progressive” politics, parallel to what has been understood historically as the agenda of an anti-capitalist left36—merely a different selection from the social justice buffet—is at best mistaken and strategically counterproductive for those committed to ideals of egalitarian transformation.

Being clear on this point requires taking account of the purely performative nature of the radical-seeming expressions emanating from race-reductionist politics, such as the various groupings that operate under the flag of Black Lives Matter, episodic demonstrations protesting police killings or other outrages, protests against Confederate and other monuments purportedly celebrating racists or racism, or calls for prison abolition, defunding police, and other nodes of activity centered on protest-style mobilization. Notwithstanding the possible desirability of some of the proposals activists promote, the activism generally has a Potemkin quality. It evokes a sensation of popular mobilization largely by trading on mass-mediated imagery often staged to recall the high period of mass action in the civil rights movement and Black Power. Self-appointed Voices who purport to ventriloquize a popular black “community” propound militant-sounding rhetoric that similarly conjures images of black insurgent politics from days of yore. However, this activist politics has no institutionalized popular constituency—real people with names and addresses who participate in shaping, ratifying or vetoing the demands, assertions, and strategies of the visible activists who project their views and agendas onto an amorphous mass.37

This ersatz radicalism’s evocation of an earlier era of popular mobilization leaves an impression—by linking it rhetorically to the issues that generate the protest demonstrations (both genuine outrages like police terror and abuse, neighborhood displacement or systematic discrimination or denial of civil rights and radical-sounding, yet impossible or pointless demands, e. g., removal of every public honorific commemorating any supposed racist)—that the upper-status agenda centered on the “wealth gap” and class-skewed anti-disparitarianism (investment in black-owned businesses, more awards for high-end black artists, more black corporate CEOs, etc., and always more racial “representation”) is rooted in an authentic popular politics.38 And this version of racecraft works in two familiar ways. First, as I have stressed, positing a singular racial agenda or a reified black community, “liberation struggle,” or “freedom movement” conceals the class character of what is an increasingly sharply class-skewed “racial” political agenda. Second, this Potemkin populist militancy works through the racist ontology intrinsic to the race relations idea.

In particular, the notion of the race leader as “unelected but presumably attuned culturally and spiritually to the needs and desires of the race as a whole,” as Warren points out, remains, along with the race relations framework that it reproduces, “naturalized as the idiom for thinking about equality in the U.S.” (BTB 372). A simple comparison exposes the racist folly of this category. The officially recognized black American population is appreciably larger than the entire population of Canada. The notion that any random individual, even an elected official, could speak authoritatively for all Canadians is preposterous on its face. Yet the notion of the generic “black leader” is unquestioned, taken-for-granted truth in discussion of black American politics. And what qualifies one to be a black leader and who or what agencies recognize claims to the status are questions that do not arise. They do not arise because the answer is the same now as it has been since September 18, 1895: one becomes a black Leader by being recognized as one by the ruling class and its opinion-shaping institutions.

That is one reason I have argued that there is no question of corporate cooptation of organic movement leaders to pervert the radical egalitarian goals of Black Lives Matter and other racial populist initiatives. Anti-disparitarian politics operates within the neoliberal worldview. As Michaels and I indicate:

What we’re actually saying every time we insist that the basic inequality is between blacks and whites is that the only inequalities we care about are those produced by some form of discrimination—that inequality itself isn’t the problem, it’s only the inequalities produced by racism and sexism, etc. What disparity discourse tells us is that, if you have an economy that’s getting more and more unequal, that’s mainly generating jobs that don’t even pay a living wage, the problem we need to solve is not how to reduce that inequality and not how to make those jobs better but how to make sure that they aren’t disproportionately held by black and brown people.39

This is an ideal of social justice that harmonizes perfectly with the neoliberal ideal, which makes it not at all surprising that nearly $2 billion in corporate donations and pledges flowed into antiracist interest-group coffers in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. That fundamental harmony also means that there was nothing anomalous about Van Jones’s collapsing in tears of joy upon receiving scum of the earth Jeff Bezos’s $100 million or Kimberlé Crenshaw’s dig, yet another salvo in her on-going attacks on the left, that “every corporation worth its salt”40 had done more to support antiracist causes than the Democrats or the left. And, to the extent that antiracist activism is as much as anything else an element of a strategy for pursuit of careers in the Racial Voice industry, it can be, and has been, an actively obstructionist force attempting to undercut and derail organizing for broadly redistributive policies.

Where Darity puts the price tag for closing the racial wealth gap at an unthinkable $11.2 trillion,41 the liberal mainstream’s principal icon of reparations chatter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has indicated that reparations could boil down to something as vaporous as “the full acceptance of our collective biography—the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” implying that material compensation may not be necessary.

“Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate, the kind that [the late Rep. John Conyers’s] HR 40 proposes,” he says, “we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion.” Insinuating that the exercise alone has the potential to check racism’s eternal sway, Coates asserts that “the recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie.”42

Reed continues:

Coates’s penchant for substituting metaphor for analysis is more than mere rhetorical flourish. His reliance on moralistic abstractions not only allows him to skirt the political challenges that would confront a movement centered on material compensation for African Americans alone but also accommodates bipartisan indifference to the damaging effects of neoliberal economic and social welfare policies on disproportionately black and brown working people. Leaving little doubt that his case for reparations owes more to Dr. Phil or even the Rite of Exorcism than the Freedom Budget, Coates concludes his discussion of Conyers’s HR 40 by declaring: “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”43

Coates is hardly alone in acknowledging that reparations may not amount to much other than more systematic scolding of white liberals. And that tendency also underscores that it is at bottom an ideological class program. Joy-Ann Reid, we may recall, in one of her many denunciations of Bernie Sanders, averred that black people don’t care about free public higher education or downwardly redistributive universal policies and programs. Black people, in her view, want “the racial discussion.” She asserted that “what black people generally want is a reckoning; they want to acknowledge the past and to reckon with it.” She complains, however, that “the country … wants a pass” from the reckoning.44

On a similar note, I was struck during the second Sanders campaign that reparations advocates who understood themselves to be more broadly leftist, even some in or near the campaign’s inner circles, repeatedly hectored Sanders and others by trying to identify some version of—some generic position they could describe as—reparations that he would endorse. Some of those efforts trickled down even to me, though I indicated that the entreaties were a waste of time because I had no influence with Sen. Sanders or clout in the campaign. At the time, I couldn’t understand why those hectoring thought it was so important to have Sanders say that he supported something that might be called reparations no matter how insubstantial or watered-down. I assumed it was probably a search for a face-saving gesture for those who supported the campaign and wanted to overcome their race-reductionist friends’ and associates’ hesitancy to get on board or at least to buffer themselves against the latter’s criticism.

What stands out more clearly now, though I still think the motives of the persistent appellants were most likely those I suggest, is that the willingness to keep whittling down the content attached to the word “reparations” was also an indication that the notion has no clear programmatic substance even among militant supporters. Reparations talk—like kayfabe belief in Wakanda—no doubt does psychologically or emotionally gratifying work for some enthusiasts. Its point as a politics, however, is instrumental. As was apparent upon its entry into public discourse at this century’s beginning, not least because of the Rube Goldberg-like arguments advocates put forth to justify the demand as a practical politics, the “deeper appeal of reparations talk for its proponents is to create or stress a sense of racial peoplehood as the primary basis for political identity.”45 And, again, as should have been clear from the outset, that is also a class project. In 2000 Randall Robinson published The Debt, which was central in projecting the reparations idea into the spotlight.46 He could not have been more explicit about where he sought the effective source of political agency: “Until America’s white ruling class accepts the fact that the book never closes on massive unredressed social wrongs, America can have no future as one people.” He was also explicit in his Tory lack of regard for social-democratic concerns. “Lamentably,” he says, “there will always be poverty.” His problem is that black people are statistically overrepresented at the bottom.

When Joy-Ann Reid racialized the idea of the working class as white, the corollary was that blacks could not be part of it; they can be only black. From that perspective, the definitive political concerns and aspirations of all black Americans are racial, and that is how Reid could declare that an empty abstraction like “a reckoning” is more important to black people than health care, housing, decent jobs and income, education, or secure and dignified retirement.  Consistent with West’s, Warren’s, and others’ critiques of the race relations idea at its inception, all black people can be folded into a “racial” agenda that reduces black Americans’ political interests and concerns to their racial classification and to a concrete programmatic agenda defined by the perspective of the investor class.

As Michaels and Warren demonstrate, the sensibility underlying reparations discourse, which posits that the objective of social justice consists in “restoring to people what they would have had if the labor market or the housing market or the loan market hadn’t taken it away from them,” is not only entirely compatible with neoliberalism but actively affirms its foundational ideological commitment to market fundamentalism (RWF). This restorative notion of social justice is consistent with the neoliberal premise that “the only solutions to the inequalities created by markets are more efficiently functioning markets. And that the true victims of capitalism are not all the workers impoverished by exploitation but only those workers even more impoverished by discrimination.”

All this makes crystal clear why proponents of race-reductionist politics are so unmoved by criticism based on effectiveness for generating a popular politics or for winning egalitarian reforms at all. (E.g., I have pointed out repeatedly since 2006, regarding struggles in post-Katrina New Orleans against destruction of public housing, charterization of the public school system, publicly-subsidized residential displacement, and other facets of the intensifying regime of regressive transfer, that race-reductionist agitation has been utterly ineffective in slowing down, much less defeating, any of those reactionary initiatives or generating a durable egalitarian political opposition.47 And that criticism has never called forth a single defensive or challenging response from activists, scholars, or commentators.) Just as with the Bookerite progenitor, developing and advancing a popular politics is not the point at all. It is a politics geared toward bending ears of and currying favor from elements of the ruling class and their gatekeeping minions. The real constituency race-reductionism seeks to address are the “big white men (and women)” who have the power to validate Voices and agendas geared to advance black investor class interests as representing the unproblematic good of the race and thereby use race to do the same thing the ruling class ideologues of militant white supremacy used it to do at the end of the nineteenth century. A distinctive facet of the current expression of Bookerite politics is that, precisely because the fact of increasing intra-racial stratification resultant from the civil rights victories of the 1960s and 1970s undercuts simple presumptions that all black Americans are in the same boat, race-reductionist ideologues are under pressure constantly to assert homogeneity of racial interests. And, as Isiah James’s claim illustrates crudely, that often enough entails appropriating outrageous injustices perpetrated disproportionately against poor and economically marginal black people—George Floyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling—to argue for closing a “racial” wealth gap that, for all intents and purposes, exists between the richest ten percent of black people and the richest ten percent of white people.

Finally, when seen from the perspective I’ve laid out here, it’s worth noting that the flood of ruling class money that poured into race-reductionist causes and groups in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder also coincided with the effort to stamp out the last embers of the nascent popular left tendency mobilized by Bernie Sanders’s campaign. From that vantage point, it seems reasonable to muse that, to paraphrase Voltaire, if race reductionism didn’t exist, Jeff Bezos and his ilk would have had to invent it. Fortunately for them, but not so much for the rest of us, it was already there masquerading as radical opposition to “white supremacy.”


1.  This essay builds on and deepens the critique laid out in my July 23, 2021 editorial, “Why Black Lives Matter Can’t be Co-opted.” Its immediate prompt was the snarky, completely gratuitous, and false dismissal of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as “a white guy employment act” by MSNBC tribune of antiracist neoliberalism, Joy-Ann Reid, in a January 20 interview with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Although Reid’s platform has helped to distinguish her as a militant in the antiracist struggle against the left, practically each day brings new evidence that what is now called antiracism is entirely in league with ruling class political interests and programs. See, for example, a sample of disclosures that have occurred only since I began writing this essay: REI’s wedding of diversity and union-busting (; defenses of the Direct Contracting program against charges that it is a stealth effort to privatize Medicare claim that it will help address racial disparities in healthcare access and provide entrepreneurial opportunities for people of color (; Nikole Hannah-Jones’s February 11 discussion of black history “through the lens of the #1619Project and her new children’s book, The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” with Carlyle Group Principal Naima Garvin, Covington & Burling LLP Partner Amy Wollensack, Carlyle Chief Transformation Officer Reggie Van Lee, and Covington Senior Partner Eric Holder, Jr. The Hannah-Jones event was hosted by Carlyle’s Multicultural Employee Resource Group in partnership with Covington & Burling (see Carlyle Group twitter). Another exposé of Black Lives Matter’s finances and another revealing account of its Potemkin, commercial flimflam origins make its class allegiances plain. See also Rep. James Clyburn’s (D-SC) pressing for President Biden to nominate a black female employer-side labor lawyer, J. Michelle Childs, to the Supreme Court ( Clyburn’s lobbying for Childs ultimately did not succeed, but if it had, the result would have made Joe Biden instrumental in the appointment of two black conservatives to the Court, each justified in part by the equivalent of an up from slavery story of supposedly humble beginnings intended to deflect from the candidates’ political allegiances and commitments.
2.  Quoted in Michael Powell, “A Black Marxist Scholar Wanted to Talk About Race. It Ignited a Fury,” New York Times, August 14, 2020,
3.  See, for example, Adolph Reed, Jr., and Touré F. Reed, “The Evolution of ‘Race’ and Racial Justice Under Neoliberalism,” in Socialist Register 2022: New Polarizations, Old Contradictions, The Crisis of Centrism, ed. Greg Albo, Leo Panitch, and Colin Leys (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2021), 113–34; Adolph Reed, Jr., “Black Politics After 2016,” 23 (February 2018),; Adolph Reed, Jr., “Antiracism: A Neoliberal Alternative to a Left,” Dialectical Anthropology 42 (2018): 105–15; Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Trouble with Uplift,” The Baffler, September 2018,; Adolph Reed, Jr., “Why Black Lives Matter Can’t Be Co-opted,” (July 2021),; Adolph Reed, Jr., “Splendors and Miseries of the Antiracist ‘Left’,” (November 2016),; Walter Benn Michaels, “A Note from ‘His Collaborator,’” (November 2016),; Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Trouble with Disparity,” 32 (September 2020),; Cedric Johnson, “The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption,” (June 2020),; Cedric Johnson, “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class,” Jacobin, June 24, 2020,; Cedric Johnson, “What Black Life Actually Looks Like,” Jacobin, April 29, 2019,; Cedric Johnson, “Reparations Isn’t a Political Demand,” Jacobin, March 7, 2016,; Cedric Johnson, “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” Catalyst 1 (Spring 2017),; Cedric Johnson, “The American Left After Black Lives Matter: A Symposium,” New Politics 17 (Winter 2019),; Cedric Johnson, The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Debating Left Politics and Black Lives Matter (New York: Verso, 2022); Touré F. Reed, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism (New York: Verso, 2020); Kenneth W. Warren, “Back to Black: African American Literary Criticism in the Present Moment,” American Literary History 34 (2022): 369–79; Kenneth W. Warren, “‘Blackness’ and the Sclerosis of African American Cultural Criticism,” 28 (May 2019),; Kenneth W. Warren, “The Poetics and Politics of Black Lives Matter,” 32 (September 2020),; Kenneth W. Warren et al., “On the End(s) of Black Politics,” (September 2016),; Walter Benn Michaels and Kenneth W. Warren, “Reparations and Other Right-Wing Fantasies,” (February 2016),; Willie Legette and Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Role of Race in Contemporary U.S. Politics: V. O. Key’s Enduring Insight,” 23 (February 2018), Michaels and Warren, “Reparations and Other Right-Wing Fantasies” is hereafter cited in the text as “RWF.” Warren, “Back to Black” is hereafter cited in the text as “BTB.”
4.  Reed, “Black Politics After 2016.”
5.  West, Education of Booker T. Washington, 56–57.
6.  The late Judith Stein examined the parallels between this stratum that was coming into existence among black Americans in that period and similar strata within British West African and West Indian colonies. See Judith Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 7–37; and Judith Stein, “Defining the Race 1890-1930,” in The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). The latter was reprinted by, May 10, 2019, The agenda of early twentieth-century Pan-Africanism, which arose from members of this stratum internationally, centered literally on appeals for more substantial roles in colonial administration for “civilized” blacks, including post-World War I calls for the former German colonies to be placed, as W. E. B. Du Bois put it, “under the guidance of organized civilization” with special administrative voice for the “chiefs and intelligent Negroes among the twelve and one-half million natives of German Africa [and the] twelve million civilized Negroes of the United States.” W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Future of Africa—A Platform (1919),” in W. E. B. Du Bois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses, 1890-1920, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 273. Dean E. Robinson in Black Nationalism in American Politics and Thought (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 8–33, makes clear that what often have been understood as black nationalist expressions before Garvey, including the various emigrationist or colonizationist Victorian era schemes associated with individuals like Alexander Crummell and Edward Wilmot Blyden, had little in common with militantly anti-colonialist tendencies of the post-World War II era and were instead anchored to a civilizationist mission that saw western blacks and western-trained African elites as agents of a Christianizing and civilizing imperative perceived as the engine of racial uplift. Also see Wilson J. Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), which was the pioneering study historicizing black nationalism.
7.  Kenneth W. Warren, So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 27. Warren elaborates this critique in What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2012).
8.  For non-hagiographical examinations of the programmatic substance of racial uplift politics, see James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); Touré F. Reed, Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910-1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); and Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). Emergent scholarship on racial uplift in the 1980s and 1990s, which came largely via investigation of the socially engaged work of upper-status black club women, was limited by a naïve premise that the class character of programs advocated by early proponents of the uplift agenda was mitigated by their expressed commitment to the general good of the race. See, for example, Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: W. Morrow, 1984); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1994); Stephanie J. Shaw, What a Woman Ought To Be and Do: Black Professional Women Workers During the Jim Crow Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Glenda Gilmore, Gender & Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). Gaines, Uplifting the Race, began to correct for that naïve premise. Reed, Not Alms But Opportunity, challenged it fundamentally by focusing on the class content and impact of the programs the Urban League debated and adopted.
9.  Adolph Reed, Jr., Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 27–28. On Lamarckian race theory in fin-de-siècle American life, see George W. Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 232–69; Adolph Reed, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 107–25; and Gaines, Uplifting the Race, 1–46. The Gaines text explores specifically links between uplift ideology and Victorian race theory among the nascent black elite.
10.  And in the early twentieth century this elite-led, ‘uplift’-focused political economy of race relations was not exclusively a black thing. For example, Touré F. Reed compares the uplift programs of the (Jewish) Educational Alliance and the Urban League in the first third of the century in “The Educational Alliance and the Urban League in New York: Ethnic Elites and the Politics of Americanization and Racial Uplift, 1903-1932,” in Rethinking Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought, ed. Adolph Reed, Jr., and Kenneth W. Warren (New York: Routledge, 2016).
11.  Montgomery was the only black delegate to the 1890 state constitutional convention that disfranchised the black population and installed white supremacy as the foundation of the state’s government. And “he even served on the key committee on elective franchise, appointment, and elections and actually voted for disfranchisement and endorsed the white supremacist regime from the convention floor, purporting to ‘lay the suffrage of 123,000 of my fellow-men at the feet of this convention’ as ‘an olive branch of peace.’ Though he was not without black supporters, Montgomery’s address and vote in no way reflected a consensus among black Mississippians, even within the elite, and he was widely reviled as a traitor.” See Reed, Stirrings, 20–21. Unsurprisingly, Montgomery’s complicity with the worst of the state’s white supremacist Democrats to disfranchise Mississippi’s black voters as part of the price of his dream does not show up in celebrations of Mound Bayou.
12.  “Race is a taxonomy of ascriptive difference, that is, an ideology that constructs populations as groups and sorts them into hierarchies of capacity, civic worth, and desert based on ‘natural’ or essential characteristics attributed to them. Ideologies of ascriptive difference help to stabilize a social order by legitimizing its hierarchies of wealth, power, and privilege, including its social division of labor, as the natural order of things. Ascriptive ideologies are just-so stories with the potential to become self-fulfilling prophecies. They emerge from self-interested common sense as folk knowledge: they are ‘known’ to be true unreflectively because they seem to comport with the evidence of quotidian experience. They are likely to become generally assumed as self-evident truth, and imposed as such by law and custom, when they converge with and reinforce the interests of powerful strata in the society.” Adolph Reed, Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum 22 (2013): 49.
13.  Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 162.
14.  Karen E. Fields and Barbara Jeanne Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (New York: Verso, 2014), 268.
15.  The three can be seen as constituting a “single integrated family of forms of cultural understanding, social organization, and political contestation”; see Rogers Brubaker, “Ethnicity, Race, and Nationalism,” Annual Review of Sociology 35 (2009): 22.
16.  When this shift in the standard supplicants’ posture in the clientelist relationship first occurred during the Black Power era, some of my comrades and I referred to it as “militant begging.” The commitment to Black Pride that supplanted pursuit of social-democratic reform required shedding the obsequiousness but not, however, the supplication.
17.  On the genesis, persistence, ideological content, and political impact of underclass ideology, see Reed, Stirrings, 179–96; Adolph Reed, Jr., “The ‘Color Line’ Then and Now: The Souls of Black Folk and the Changing Context of Black Politics,” in Rethinking Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought, ed. Adolph Reed, Jr., and Kenneth W. Warren (New York: Routledge, 2016), 132–58.
18.  I examine this interpretive pathology in “Antiracism: A Neoliberal Alternative to a Left.” Of course, one point of asserting that all the things that obviously have changed in fact haven’t is to make sure that one thing—the ability to collect from the big white man—doesn’t. And to be clear, I do not suggest that contemporary race relations politics is identical to the original Bookerite tendency, just as I do insist that the current era is profoundly different from the Jim Crow era in which that politics emerged. Jim Crow was a specific social order. Bookerite race relations politics emerged from a class that partly formed around race relations administration in the context of that order; race relations administration has evolved over the last century—not unlike bourgeois democracy—but is still race relations administration.
19.  Intra-group inequality is substantially greater among blacks than among whites or Hispanics and has increased since 1970; see Rakesh Kochhar and Anthony Cilluffo, “Key Findings on the Rise in Income Inequality within America’s Racial and Ethnic Groups,” Pew Research Center, July 12, 2018, And nearly ninety-six percent of “black” wealth is held by the richest twenty percent of African Americans; see Matt Bruenig, “Wealth Inequality Across Race and Class in 2019,” People’s Policy Project, September 29, 2020, .
20.  Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Surprising Cross-Racial Saga of Modern Wealth Inequality,” The New Republic, June 29, 2020,; and Matt Bruenig, “The Racial Wealth Gap Is About the Upper Classes,” People’s Policy Project, June 29, 2020, Moreover, the tortious argument rests on a simplistic historical claim; it depends on identifying isolated moments when some extraordinary or exogenous—i.e., non-market generated—intervention deprived blacks of assets or opportunities and then asserting, by conjecture, how those assets or opportunities likely would have accreted, ceteris paribus. But ceteris is seldom paribus. This contention fails to take account of the impact of capitalism’s boom and bust cycles on sectors, regions, and industries. For example, there is no reason to assume that, had Radical Reconstruction’s promise of land redistribution been honored, the nascent black yeomanry would have been able to survive the long depression in the cotton economy after 1880, and in another recently topical example, that Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” destroyed by pogrom in 1921, would have survived the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression. Merlin Chowkwanyun and I propose that, by contrast, “class analysis leads to consideration of how the social relations of production alter localities and regions, transformations that greatly affect the life chances—and self-understandings and pragmatic identities—of those within them.” Adolph Reed, Jr., and Merlin Chowkwanyun, “Race, Class, Crisis: The Discourse of Racial Disparity and its Analytical Discontents,” in Socialist Register 2012: The Crisis and the Left, ed. Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber (London: Merlin Press, 2011), 165.
21.  Reed and Reed, “The Evolution of ‘Race,’” 126.
22.  Quoted in J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 78.
23.  There is a substantial literature on the genesis of black clientelist politics in the electoral context; for two classic contextualizing examinations see Martin Kilson, “Political Change in the Negro Ghetto, 1900-1940s,” in Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience, ed. Nathan I. Huggins, Martin Kilson, and Daniel Fox, vol. 2 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); and Harold Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935).
24.  See Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Case Against Reparations,” The Progressive (December 2000). Reprinted by, February 11, 2016,
25.  Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor and Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Reparations Debate,” Dissent, June 24, 2019,
26.  See Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); Frederick Blue, The Free Soilers: Third Party Politics. 1848-1854 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973); Jonathan H. Earle, Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); James Oakes, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015); James Oakes, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2021); and Sean Wilentz, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2019).
27.  There is no clearer exposition of this point than Karl Marx, “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, part 8 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 713–74.
28.  Reed, Du Bois, 163–76.
29.  See, for example, Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History (New York: Scribner’s, 1916); Frederick Hoffman, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (New York: Macmillan, 1896). Also, Jonathan Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2009); Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995); and Walter Benn Michaels, “Race Into Culture: A Critical Genealogy of Cultural Identity,” Critical Inquiry 18 (Summer 1992): 655–85. As Michaels shows, the distance from racism to what we now consider antiracism was not so great as we might think.  
30.  Like other expressions of contemporary antiracism, reparations is not so much a political program as a sensibility. That is one reason questions about strategies for winning it can be routinely deflected onto discussions of moral desert. In their 2020 extended brief for reparations, for example, economist William A. Darity, Jr., and A. Kirsten Mullen include a chapter addressing criticisms of the idea. They discuss a dozen objections, all of which can be classified as either moral or administrative. Missing entirely is any consideration of whether and how a reparations program could be won politically. William A. Darity, Jr., and A. Kirsten Mullen, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 239–55.
31.  I offer here one striking illustration of how embrace of reparations/disparities ideology reveals the extent to which even nominally Marxist (or at least Trotskyist) leftists’ discourse has introjected neoliberal market fetishism: “Since it is precisely capitalist markets that are reproducing these disparities, it follows that the disparities cannot be challenged without challenging the operation of capitalist markets. Far from leading to a quietist embrace of the market, a concern with equalizing rates of poverty between the black and white populations leads to a direct challenge of market prerogatives.” Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman, “The Trouble with Anti-Antiracism,” Jacobin, October 11, 2016, It would be surprising that these authors seem not to recognize that altering “market prerogatives” is in this context the same thing as making them “more efficiently functioning”; however, this is the same duo who somehow read Walter Benn Michaels’s trenchant critique of Gary Becker’s contention that efficiently functioning markets will dissolve inequalities “not based on real differences in ability” as his endorsement of Becker’s position.
32.  This has been an explicit feature of wealth gap discourse since its beginnings in the 1990s. Merlin Chowkwanyun and I note, in discussing the ur-text of wealth gap argument, Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York: Routledge, 1995), that a more complicated picture of the extent and significance of a racial wealth gap appears “when intra-racial class heterogeneity closes the wealth gap for some.” Reed and Chowkwanyun, “Race, Class, Crisis,” 165. We discuss Dalton Conley’s examination in Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) (often cited, rather curiously, as a simple companion to Black Wealth/White Wealth) of “the role of class dynamics in blunting the racial wealth gaps’ deleterious effects.” And we observe that, notwithstanding their being aware of Conley’s work, Oliver and Shapiro do not engage it. “Oliver and Shapiro state that [accounting for the role of class dynamics] is not a primary goal when they write that they ‘do not intend here to engage in a discourse about class in modern American life; the concept is important but not entirely germane to our purposes,’ which is to show the endurance of the racial wealth gap whatever class measure they use.” Reed and Chowkwanyun, “Race, Class, Crisis,” 173n55. The Oliver and Shapiro quote is from Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 70. One can only imagine what Oliver and Shapiro, as sociologists, mean by “class.” It is clear, however, that that meaning does not involve structural location within the evolving political economy.
33.  See Missy Sullivan, “‘Black Wall Street’ Before, During, and After the Tulsa Race Massacre,” HISTORY,
34.  See
35.  See
36.  For illustrations of this contention, see Kim Moody, “Cedric Johnson and the Other Sixties’ Nostalgia” in The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Debating Left Politics and Black Lives Matter (New York: Verso, 2022), 123–38; Miguel Salazar, “Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem?,” The New Republic, December 20, 2018,; David I. Backer, “Race and Class Reductionism Today,” Verso blog, October 8, 2018,; Birch and Heideman, “The Trouble with Anti-Antiracism”; Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, “Race, Crisis, and Resistance,” New Politics, February 12, 2021,; Walter Johnson and Robin D. G. Kelley, ed., Racial Capitalism Justice: Boston Review Forum Book 1 (Boston: Boston Review, 2018); David Roediger, Class, Race, and Marxism (New York: Verso, 2019); David Roediger, “It’s Not Just Class: The Fight for Racial Justice Is Inseparable from Overcoming Capitalism,” In These Times, August 2, 2017,; Nikhil Pal Singh and Joshua Clover, “The Blindspot Revisited,” Verso blog, October 12, 2018,  
37.  The superficial rhetoric of authenticity, familiar from the mass culture industry, conceals the Potemkin character of this activism by positing a distinction between “misleaders” or sellouts and other “grassroots” activists, whose legitimacy is no less self-proclaimed than that of the putative misleaders. Sean Campbell’s recent exposé of Black Lives Matter, “The BLM Mystery: Where Did the Money Go,” New York Magazine, January 31, 2022,, is a textbook example of this tendency.
38.  I have examined one instance of this phenomenon in the case of the Take ‘Em Down NOLA group that, during the effort to remove odious white supremacist monuments in New Orleans, actively pressed a “progressive” agenda focused entirely on symbolic objectives like removal of all honorifics commemorating not only Confederates and slaveholders but any other putative racists, to the exclusion of expression of concern with gross inequalities in the contemporary city, which is one of the most unequal in the country. See Robert McClendon, “New Orleans is 2nd worst for income inequality in the U.S., roughly on par with Zambia, report says,”, August 20, 2014, It may be coincidental that the most performatively militant of the group’s Voices were enmeshed as significant functionaries in the charter school industry. See Adolph Reed, Jr., “Don’t Be Duped: The Clamor to Take Down the Monuments Falls Short of a Truly Radical Movement,” The Lens, June 3, 2017,
39.  Michaels and Reed, “The Trouble with Disparity.”
40.  Sydney Ember, “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One,” New York Times, June 19, 2020,
41.  William Darity, Jr., “The True Cost of Closing the Racial Wealth Gap,” New York Times, April 30, 2021,
42.  Reed, Toward Freedom, 150–51.
43.  Reed, Toward Freedom, 151.
44.  Quoted in Reed, “Black Politics After 2016.”
45.  Reed, “The Case Against Reparations,” 16.
46.  Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Dutton, 2000).
47.  Adolph Reed, Jr., “Undone By Neoliberalism,” The Nation, September 18, 2006,; Adolph Reed, Jr., “When Government Shrugs,” The Progressive, August 22, 2006,; Reed, “The ‘Color Line’ Then and Now,” 262–67; Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Post-1965 Trajectory of Race, Class, Urban Politics in the United States Reconsidered,” Labor Studies Journal 41 (2016): 260–91. For critique of race reductionism’s failings more generally as the basis for an egalitarian practical politics, see Cedric Johnson, “The Wages of Roediger: Why Three Decades of Whiteness Studies Has Not Produced the Left We Need,” 29 (September 2019),
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