Black Marxist scholar deplatformed for emphasizing class over race

The New York Times reports the latest instance of unhinged deplatforming (click on screenshot):

Adolph Reed, Jr., a black antiracist and Marxist who has taught at four universities (now emeritus at Penn) was scheduled to give a talk in May to New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).  Unfortunately for him, it was on one of his areas of expertise: the conflict between emphasizing race versus emphasizing class in striving for social justice.  His topic: how the Left has, in his view, unproductively concentrated on the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on blacks, which he sees as unnecessarily dividing those blacks from  those whites who both belong to the real underclass: the poor. He sees this kind of identity politics as needlessly fracturing people who should be working together to assure equity. (To show how Left Reed is, he’s criticized both Obama and Clinton, the former as a man espousing “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics.”)

The mob descended:

To let him talk, the organization’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus stated, was “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.”

“We cannot be afraid to discuss race and racism because it could get mishandled by racists,” the caucus stated. “That’s cowardly and cedes power to the racial capitalists.”

That last phrase baffled me a bit, but it appears to mean that because Reed was emphasizing class over race, he was “afraid to discuss race and racism”, and that racists could say, “See, a black man thinks we’re talking too much about race.”

After further pushback, Reed and the DSA decided to cancel the virtual talk. (Yes, a virtual talk!). Among those who criticized the cancellation was, to my surprise, Cornel West, who describes himself as a “non-Marxist socialist” and is well known for his antiracism. As the NYT says:

“God have mercy, Adolph is the greatest democratic theorist of his generation,” said Cornel West, a Harvard professor of philosophy and a Socialist. “He has taken some very unpopular stands on identity politics, but he has a track record of a half-century. If you give up discussion, your movement moves toward narrowness.”

I haven’t much followed the race vs. class conflict, but of course if you are a Marxist and concentrate more on class, seeing a racial conflict as inimical to your goals, you’re going to be called a racist. That’s especially true because one can argue that poor blacks are more oppressed than poor whites, though I couldn’t argue that all blacks are on average more disadvantaged than poor whites.  But surely there’s a discussion to be had on this issue, and I know my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter comes down on the side of emphasizing class. Others agree:

A contrary view [to emphasizing race] is offered by Professor Reed and some prominent scholars and activists, many of whom are Black. They see the current emphasis in the culture on race-based politics as a dead-end. They include Dr. West; the historians Barbara Fields of Columbia University and Toure Reed — Adolph’s son — of Illinois State; and Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin, a Socialist magazine.

They readily accept the brute reality of America’s racial history and of racism’s toll. They argue, however, that the problems now bedeviling America — such as wealth inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration — affect Black and brown Americans, but also large numbers of working class and poor white Americans.

The most powerful progressive movements, they say, take root in the fight for universal programs. That was true of the laws that empowered labor organizing and established mass jobs programs during the New Deal, and it’s true of the current struggles for free public college tuition, a higher minimum wage, reworked police forces and single-payer health care.

Those programs would disproportionately help Black, Latino and Native American people, who on average have less family wealth and suffer ill health at rates exceeding that of white Americans, Professor Reed and his allies argue. To fixate on race risks dividing a potentially powerful coalition and playing into the hands of conservatives.

Regardless of where you come down on this debate, I vehemently object to the cancellation of a scheduled talk because it was seen as ideologically impure. That is true “cancel culture”, and all it does is stifle discussion. Since “prominent scholars and activists, many of whom are Black,” take Reed’s side, it’s surely worth hearing what they have to say.  For example:

Professor Reed and his compatriots believe the left too often ensnares itself in battles over racial symbols, from statues to language, rather than keeping its eye on fundamental economic change.

“If I said to you, ‘You’re laid off, but we’ve managed to rename Yale to the name of another white person’, you would look at me like I’m crazy,” said Mr. Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin.

Better, they argue, to talk of commonalities. While there is a vast wealth gap between Black and white Americans, poor and working-class white people are remarkably similar to poor and working-class Black people when it comes to income and wealth, which is to say they possess very little of either. Democratic Party politicians, Professor Reed and his allies say, wield race as a dodge to avoid grappling with big economic issues that cut deeper, such as wealth redistribution, as that would upset their base of rich donors.

That second sentence is a zinger, and does make a point. (One could also have said, “we’ve managed to change the name of a bird.”) There was one other money quote, and Brian Leiter also picked it up in his short blog post on this deplatforming:

[Reed]finds a certain humor in being attacked over race.

“I’ve never led with my biography, as that’s become an authenticity-claiming gesture,” he said. “But when my opponents say that I don’t accept that racism is real, I think to myself, ‘OK, we’ve arrived at a strange place.’”

It is a strange place, and I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see us go to a better place.

h/t: cesar

38 Comments

  1. Jim batterson
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    “The cancellation of a speech reflects an intense debate on the left…”. It is hard to have a debate if one side is summarily canceled. I have had similar concerns over msnbc’s constant drumming on coronovirus impact on blacks rather than on the poor. Is it a racial dichotomy or a secondary impact of lack of affluence and associated diet, medical care, and living conditions?

    • Max Blancke
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Leftists don’t really debate any more.

      If you and I debate a subject, it means that we have some measure of respect for each other, and both of us are likely to hold some hope that we can find points of agreement.
      There is even a possibility that one of us might change our stance on the issue under debate. Even if that does not happen, we can find we still disagree on that one thing, but otherwise get along splendidly.

      My experiences recently have been that such discourse is just not possible anymore, in most situations. You either hold the most current and up to date opinions, or you are pure evil and must be destroyed.

  2. Ken Pidcock
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Walter Benn Michaels in The Political Economy of Anti-Racism:

    This is why some of us have been arguing that identity politics is not an alternative to class politics but a form of it: it’s the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex.

  3. jezgrove
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    “We cannot be afraid to discuss race and racism because it could get mishandled by racists”, as the cancel mob themselves said! (Albeit they said it without the sensible interpretation of those words, as PCC(E) pointed out.)

  4. GBJames
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    sub

  5. Posted August 15, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I would be very hard pressed to think of any major contemporary figure who is actually a “class reductionist”. The kind of critical discourse that Adolph Reed and others like him engage in is always couched in the form of some kind of criticizable validity claim while the other variants often are not.

  6. Mike
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Reed’s interpretation, and I’m not a Marxist. I’m just a peasant.

    • jezgrove
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      “Serfs up!”, as they say.

      • Mike
        Posted August 15, 2020 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

        Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here.

        • jezgrove
          Posted August 16, 2020 at 4:51 am | Permalink

          Oh there you go, bringing class into it again…

  7. dd
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Keep in mind that the reason the World Socialist Web Site became THE clearing house for scholarly articles critical of the Times’s “1619 Project” is because the Site knew that race was displacing class as the large tectonic plate bi/multi-furcating society.

    https://www.wsws.org/

  8. BJ
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Study after study, decade after decade, has shown that the number one predictor of positive outcomes — like personal wealth, economic mobility, educational attainment, children’s economic futures, measurements of “happiness,” etc. — is the economic class into which you’re born. And the studies show that no other factor even comes close to correlating so heavily with these outcomes.

    There’s a reason companies from Amazon to Nike to Apple are so happy to embrace something like BLM or “anti-racism.” It’s easy to make some commercials, token donations, tweets, and banners on their websites touting their support for racial justice, and then all the activists say, “gee, these companies are great, supporting our cause so much!” Reams of articles heaping praise upon these corporations are written. It costs them a rounding error on their books. It’s the cheapest good PR they’ve ever had, and it’s probably the most effective PR they’ve ever had the chance to jump on.

    But you know what would actually cost them money? Being forced to treat their workers better, raise their pay, stop outsourcing work to sweatshops in other countries, and — goodness gracious — allowing their workers to unionize.

    • dd
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      The company I work for had diversity training recently. One of the things now considered a microaggression is to compliment someone on how well they speak English.

      I am an immigrant who came to the US not knowing English. Telling me I speak English well is a wonderful thing to say to me. So, go figure.

      I wonder if the person who wrote that for the training speaks solely one language.

      • Posted August 15, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        That’s a great example of how microaggression is a flawed concept. It is not that microaggressions don’t exist but they ought to be accompanied by microresentments that are highly sensitive to context.

      • daniaq
        Posted August 15, 2020 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        Haha! That’s a good one. I feel the same.

      • savage
        Posted August 15, 2020 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

        I got complimented for my English a few times, and it felt encouraging. If this becomes a microaggression, an even bigger compliment — no praise because people assume you are a native — would be meaningless. Don’t crush my dreams, please 🙂

    • Posted August 15, 2020 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Jerry had a post around this subject about a year ago. I think its point was that ones’ position in the socioeconomic ladder was almost always about luck. One’s socioeconomic position tending to repeat thru generations. Rich stay rich. Poor stay poor. So factors that were all about luck included…
      Your race.
      The wealth of your parents.
      Intelligence. (this sometimes helped you to ‘rise up’. But intelligence is a matter of luck).
      Personal ambition (Even that was mainly due to luck, as it manifests as an innate trait.)

    • Mike
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      Yes I totally agree about the facile embrace of antiracism by corporations. This is the preferred way to view the world for wealthy white corporatists because there isn’t much they can do about racism directly: they can’t gift their whiteness to Black people.

      On the other hand, if corporations and wealthy individuals were to embrace class and poverty as the way to view the world, it would be obvious what they can do about it: give away their money to poor people.

      • Posted August 15, 2020 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

        How in the world are corporations supposed to solve poverty and class inequity? If one company paid their employees much more than the others, or paid their CEOs much less, their competitors would eat them alive and their investors and/or shareholders would sue or dump their investments. It is facile to blame corporations or, if not blame them, expect them to solve the problem. Government sets the playing field for corporations and employees via laws, tax structure, etc. and government is the way to change it.

        • Mike
          Posted August 16, 2020 at 12:39 am | Permalink

          I agree. Taxes.

          • Posted August 16, 2020 at 10:55 am | Permalink

            Yes, changing the tax structures should be part of it. I think there’s a lot more that can be done.

    • sugould
      Posted August 16, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      +1

  9. Mark Joseph
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    A few weeks ago my wife and I were jolted awake by an earthquake. So, for my next science fiction novel I picked up Arthur C. Clarke’s Richter 10, actually written by Mike McQuay from Clarke’s outline. It’s not a good book—an easy read, but with silly science and characters that aren’t really believable—but it had the great advantage of not buying into the “islam is the religion of peace” propaganda line. As a result, there were a couple of quotes that really addressed the whole “I’m more victimized than thou” mentality of those vying for cultural power (oops, meant to say, working for social justice). This post immediately brought them to mind:

    Thinkers prepare the revolution; bandits carry it out. (chapter 18)

    You preach tolerance, politeness, but you do the same thing everyone else does—you try and build some cumulative tally of pain and loss, then compete to see who got hurt more. You can’t base your relationship with the world on that. (chapter 21)

    Before it’s done, we all lose everyone and everything that was ever important to us, and then we lose ourselves. We’ve got to get beyond our own victimhood and take the long view, the view to what we leave behind and what follows us. (chapter 21)

  10. revelator60
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Thinkers like Reed are a necessary corrective to the woke and the many media and academic institutions that now cater to them. Many of the latter constitute the cultural and economic elite and are very happy to not discuss class and economics.
    Racism and class are as closely intertwined as the snakes on a caduceus–to deal with one you must deal with the other.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      …the woke and the many media and academic institutions that now cater to them. Many of the latter constitute the cultural and economic elite and are very happy to not discuss class and economics.

      “She says egalitarians adjust to aristocracies just fine, as long as they get to be the aristocrats.” (Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda, chapter 16)

  11. Charles A Sawicki
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that defining some of our problems in terms of Class would create broader support for change. Change is the point!

    • Historian
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      In theory, you are absolutely correct. The problem is that the ruling elites have understood for a long time that to thwart working class solidarity is to divide it along lines of race and ethnicity. It has been a strategy that has been eminently successful. Trump hopes it will work with him. Those who think that focus on race or class alone can bring real change to America are profoundly mistaken.

      • Posted August 16, 2020 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        I would say it did work for Trump in 2016. If you were a white working class man without a job living in a trailer park in a swing state, there’s only so many times you can listen to the Left talking about “white privilege” before you say “fuck it, I’ll vote for the one who says he’ll help me“.

    • Posted August 15, 2020 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      A sad truth is that an effort to build lower income housing into middle class neighborhoods instantly turns white suburban liberals into persons who behave exactly like racists. What they fear is reduced property values and crime. Democratic politicians don’t want to touch it. Republican politicians openly exploit the fears.
      So we work on band-aids.

      • Posted August 15, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        I would label the effort to build lower income housing into middle class neighborhoods as a band-aid, much like affirmative action. In the colorblind world we strive for, all neighborhoods would have a racial mix that reflects that of the general population.

      • Max Blancke
        Posted August 15, 2020 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        Fear of financial ruin and loss of personal safety seem like valid concerns. but here again, I think race and class are being conflated.

        I don’t think that people of any race living a comfortable and safe suburban life will be thrilled to have a bunch of subsidized housing built next door. I guess in theory it could work out that the new high density housing might be inhabited only by law abiding hard working folk of lesser means who take good care of their residences. But the reality is that some percentage of those new residents will have issues with crime and substance abuse.

        Lots of people moved to the suburbs because they wanted a life where bars welded over all the windows are unnecessary, and where you can let your kids play in the yard without first checking it carefully for discarded needles.
        It is not really necessary to “disrupt” the lives of people who choose to live in quiet suburbs.

      • savage
        Posted August 15, 2020 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

        While affirmative action is debatable, it is not at all obvious to me why measures like turning suburbs into gang territories or forced busing should succeed. Unless you assume, that is, that black populations must be surrounded by non-blacks to accomplish anything?

    • Max Blancke
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      “Change is the point!”
      I might be able to muster some enthusiasm for positive change.
      Even so, the more complicated a system is, the more likely that changes made will have unexpected effects.
      If we were living in an oppressive dystopian hellscape, any adverse effects might be insignificant.
      I think a lot of people imagine that we are now living in that dystopia, but that impression come from a lack of historical knowledge and perspective.

  12. Jim batterson
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to all commenters today. This has been very helpful and clarifying for me.

  13. Jon Gallant
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    So, the Democratic Socialists now reject democratic discussion among Socialists of ideas deemed to be deviationist. Shades of the struggle against left-deviationism and right-deviationism which so disturbed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of fond memory in the 1930s. The trend in this direction is of a piece with the ACLU’s new role as a sometimes opponent of free speech.

    The origin of this new popular trend calls for attention. I think Haidt and Lukianoff are on to something: they link it to the earlier growth of the therapeutic mentality on campuses: “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, soon followed by the cult of “microaggressions”. The first step was the idea that the highest goal in life is endless contemplation of one’s victimhood, leading, of course, to the victimhood Olympics of identity politics.

    The serious question is: what is the cure?
    Maybe pandemics and climate change will be the cure, if it is correct that real medical problems can distract a hypochondriac from imaginary ones.

  14. john
    Posted August 15, 2020 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    here is Adolph reed talking about the incident

    its a twitter link, sorry, i couldn’t find it on youtube

    here a long versions form a DSA member talking about it around the time that the event happened.

    the NYT article did a terrible job at describing it. going with the SJWs gone wild framing.

    • Mike
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      In the comments on the NYT article the reporter Michael Powell responded to a similar criticism this way:

      “Adolph Reed in fact thought the article was fair and accurate. He was invited to give an expansive talk. At the last minute came a demand for debate with those who were denouncing him — unheard — as advancing a “reactionary” and “cowardly” line. I interviewed two DSA leaders and neither tarried only the claim about the debate.”

      I think the last sentence by Powell has at least one typo but IDK.

      Powell may be lying but that seems unlikely. It seems more likely that the DSA is embarrassed and trying to get their story straight. But it’s hard to say.

  15. Posted August 15, 2020 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    I remember how, when I was young, we protested the first Gulf War and experienced right-wing protesters in support of the war storming our podiums and taking the mics from our hands in the name of “free speech.” They claimed in the campus newspaper that “making it hard for you to speak” was speech. We didn’t use the words deplatforming or canceling then, but that’s what was going on.
    You can imagine how I feel seeing this tactic being appropriated by the left now.


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  1. […] classical marxists like Adolph Reed, Jr. are fair game for charges of unwokeness. Read this from a blog by Jerry Coyne (see Coyne’s brief bio and additional links […]

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