The case against race reductionism

Why is there still such a big gap in income, wealth and status between white and black Americans?T

There are two prevailing schools of thought.  One holds that this is because whites are the way they are.  Another holds that this is because blacks are the way they are.

The first says that nothing will change until whites get rid of their prejudices.  The other holds that nothing will change until blacks get rid of their self-destructive behavior.

Historian Touré F. Reed, in his new book, TOWARD FREEDOM: The Case Against Race Reductionism, said this kind of thinking is guaranteed to keep things the way they are.

He said we Americans as a nation need to look at other reasons black Americans are lagging behind.  They include:

  • De-industrialization, financialization and offshoring of manufacturing jobs.
  • Factory automation.
  • The decline of labor unions.
  • Cutbacks in public service employment.

These things hurt a majority of Americans, but, for historical reasons, they hurt black Americans the most, Reed wrote.

None of this is changed by scolding liberal white people for their alleged racism or unemployed young black men for their alleged laziness, Reed said.

But why would anybody think differently?  That  is the topic of his book.  It is structured around the thinking of notable activists and thinkers, much like my friend Michael Brown’s new book on intellectuals.  It would make a good companion volume to Brown’s Hope & Scorn.  Whatever you think about the status of intellectuals, ideas do have consequences.

A. Phllip Randolph

Reed begins with A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and his protege, Bayard Rustin, a pacifist and civil rights activist affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

These two black men are a bridge between the 1930s and the 1960s.  They advocated civil rights for African-Americans and economic justice for the multi-racial working class for many decades.

They were supporters of the New Deal, even though many members of the Roosevelt administration were racists, and black Americans did not receive the full benefits to which they were entitled, especially in housing.                                             .

So did a substantial majority of African-American voters, because large numbers did benefit from the Wagner Act, the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Social Security Act, the GI Bill and so on.

And the New Deal cleared the way for the civil rights revolution that was yet to come.

Bayard Rustin

The Committee for Industrial Organization – later the Congress of Industrial Organizations – organized low-wage workers, both black and white.  Many of its tactics, such as the sit-down strike and mass demonstrations, were later adopted by the civil rights movement.

Randolph, by the threat of a mass march on Washington, pressured President Roosevelt into adopting a Fair Employment Practices Code for war industry.  Although the federal FEPC was not enforced, many state governments adopted their own versions after the war and carried out its intent.

If there had not been a National Labor Relations Act, which set a precedent for regulating employer-employee relations, an FEPC might have been dismissed as unconstitutional, Reed noted.

Randolph and Rustin lived long enough to become mentors and supporters of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Like them, Rev. King regarded civil rights and labor rights as inseparable.  He spoke in union halls almost as often as he did in churches.   When Dr. King was imprisoned in the Birmingham jail, the United Auto Workers bailed him out.

The 1963 March on Washington was a march for both “jobs and justice.”  When King was murdered, he was in Memphis, Tenn., to support a strike of sanitation workers.  He was working on another protest demonstration, a Poor People’s Campaign—a “poor people’s,” not “black people’s,” campaign.

Reed thinks Randolph and Rustin got things right, and so do I.

The progress of black Americans out of poverty began to slow during the 1950s and 1960s, just as they were winning full political and legal rights.  Two scholars, Oscar Handlin and Daniel P. Moynihan, found reasons for this in the black sub-culture.

Oscar Handlin

Handlin was famous as a historian of American immigration.  The various European immigrant groups pulled themselves up by their own efforts, he wrote, supported by strong family ties and ethnic mutual aid associations.

The black people who migrated from the South, and Puerto Ricans who left their island, for the cities of the North were the latest of the immigrants, he believed.  But, according to Reed, he thought they lacked the spirit of self-help of the earlier immigrant groups.  Handlin blamed this on the welfare state, which seemed to make self-help unnecessary.

Moynihan served as an expert on labor issues in the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations, before going on to be elected U.S. Senator from New York.

In 1964, he wrote “The Negro Family: the Case for National Action,” in which he attributed black poverty to the breakdown of black families and the inability of black men to fulfill the male role of breadwinner and protector.

Daniel P. Moynihan

All these problems were the the lingering result of slavery and Jim Crow, Moynihan wrote.  Strong, assertive black men were whipped or lynched.  Instead their masculine pride was expressed through violence, bravado and risk-taking.

The Johnson administration’s War on Poverty reflected Moynihan’s thinking, Reed wrote.  It was aimed at fixing the deficiencies of poor people through job training and education enrichment programs, not by creating jobs or material benefits.

Bayard Rustin said Handlin and Moynihan got things wrong.  The problems of black families were not mainly due to their personal deficiencies.  The European ethnic groups did not progress by means of group solidarity, he wrote; they progressed by joining labor unions and making political alliances to advance their economic interests.

Also, in the earlier era, new immigrants had no problem getting unskilled jobs in industry.  They acquired new skills on the job and were able to new up.

Economic changes shut off these paths to advancement.  Manufacturers moved from the cities to the suburbs, from the North to the Sunbelt and from the USA to foreign countries, out of reach of poor black and other people in city slums.  The high-tech armaments industries required levels of education and training beyond which could attained on the job.

If black Americans had won full civil rights in 1920s and 1930s, they would have been part of the vast expansion of the American middle class that took place right after World War Two.

Because they did not win full rights until the 1960s, they entered the mainstream economy just as mass economic opportunity started to contract.  The rising tide supposedly lifts all boats, but, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, the tide started to go out.

Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and an economist named Leon Keyserling proposed a “Freedom Budget.”  Its centerpiece was a massive public works program to modernize infrastructure, build hospitals and schools and revitalize inner cities.  It would have been designed to employ available workers at a living wage, provide job training and improve the social safety net.

This would have been a real War on Poverty, Reed wrote.  While it would have helped people of all races, it would have especially benefited black people, because so many were at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Government policy in the next few decades went in the opposite direction—cutbacks in welfare spending and in upper-bracket taxes.

Official policy was based on the idea that poor Americans, especially poor black people, were poor because they were trapped in a “culture of poverty”—meaning the values of people who have adapted to hopelessness over the generations.  That was regarded as unfortunate, and maybe not entirely their fault, but something government policy could not change.

As the 21st century dawned, there was a backlash against this kind of thinking among black people.  They took justified pride in the achievements, contributions and distinctive features of African-American culture.

At the same time, as I see it, some were influenced by the “culture of poverty” meme in a perverse way.  They came to identify lower-class culture with something called Blackness and middle-class culture with something called Whiteness.  Poor black people who try to live by middle-class standards are accused of trying to be white.

Race is thought to be an idea, and yet at the same time intrinsic to your identity.  Racism is thought to be structural, and yet is to be addressed mainly on the individual level.

Barack Obama

President Barack Obama and the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates were two figures who embodied these paradoxes.

Obama had an unusual and privileged background, but, in his autobiography, he tried to identify himself with “the black experience” by pointing out that he had been deserted by his father, raised largely by his grandmother, used marijuana while in high school and had doubts as the value of higher education.

He improved his credentials as an authentic black person by attending the radical Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church, making friends with black celebrities such as Beyonce and Jay Z and marrying a woman who, as Coates put it, “looked like Michelle.”

Once he ran for national office, however, he shifted directions.  He presented himself as a post-racial leader who transcended race.

When elected, he did nothing that I can see that materially benefited black people, either as a separate group or a part of the body politick.  He gave many speeches scolding young black men for their supposed lack of ambition and self-discipline.  He was constantly accused of being a radical black militant when he was exactly the opposite.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates grew up in a roughneck part of Baltimore in which there was gang violence.  For this reason, according to Reed, he regards himself as a more authentic black person than respectable middle-class black civil servants and professionals who predominate in neighboring Prince Georges County.

By that criterion, Touré F. Reed, a third-generation college professor, would not be authentically black either.

Coates admired Obama, but he took the opposite tack.  If Obama was post-racial, Coates was post-post-racial, Reed wrote.  His philosophy, as I would sum it up, is that (1) all injustices and problems of black people can be traced, directly or indirectly, to white racism, (2) nothing will change until white people cease to be racist and (3) white people will never cease to be racist.

His litmus-test issue is reparations to black people for slavery and racial discrimination.  Without that, as he sees it, there can be no reckoning with racism.  But there’s no agreement on what form reparations might take.

Touré F. Reed

I would point out that the U.S. already has a form of reparations.  It is called affirmative action, and it was created with the announced goal of remedying the effects of past racial discrimination.  (Reed, by the way, favors affirmative action.)

I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of affirmative action, except to say that you can’t get very far with eliminating disparities among demographic categories without doing something about extreme and growing inequality overall.

Racial prejudice dies exist.  The culture of poverty does exist.  It is a good thing for people, and not just white people, to be more culturally sensitive and more aware of their own motives.  It is a good thing for people, and not just poor black people, to learn the self-discipline needed to achieve their goals.

I don’t criticize anybody who’s working on either of these things.  They’re probably doing more good in the world than I am.

But, as Reed says, there’s only so much that can be done by changing individual attitudes.  What’s necessary is to change an economic system structured to concentrate wealth in those at the top and squeeze those on the bottom.

Toward Freedom:  the Case Against Race Reductionism is a rich and thoughtful book, well worth reading by anybody concerned with racial justice or economic justice.


Why I’m Still Thinking About the Amy Cooper “Black BIrder” Episode in Central Park by Touré F. Reed for Jacobin.

A Liberal “Moral Reckoning” Can’t Solve the Problems That Plague Black Americans by Touré F. Reed for Jacobin.

Tags: ,

One Response to “The case against race reductionism”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    You know, first, I hate the term “privilege.” A privilege is something to be taken away. It is a loaded word and when snarled at those who are better off it is a word of hate. Reaction against this may have driven many Trump voters.

    Decent treatment under the law isn’t a privilege, it is a human right. A right that is also denied to poor whites as well. The police of cities that do not have large minority populations but do have populations of poor whites are just as likely to shoot first and ask questions later when it comes to ragged looking white boys in rusty jalopies. Obviously meth junkies.

    Most of the unjust police action against blacks will disappear with better training, better policies and more careful selection of police candidates. So will unjust police actions against against everyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: