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When Antiracism Masks Inequality—Adolph Reed on the trouble with disparity



What is the common thread running through wage inequality, COVID-19 deaths, and police killings in American life? An increasingly popular answer this year is systemic racism. The solution on offer is antiracism — a relentless focus on eliminating racial disparities wherever they appear. Proponents are frequently labeled "neomarxists" or "cultural marxists" by their critics. But what do the real Marxists think?


Adolph Reed, Jr. is a good one to ask – “a son of the segregated South, a native of New Orleans who organized poor Black people and antiwar soldiers in the late 1960s and became a leading Socialist scholar at a trio of top universities.” As a Marxist, Reed is committed to looking at society through the lens of class, a frequently ignored factor in American life.


In this article co-authored with Walter Benn Michaels, Reed looks at “the disparitarian trinity” so popular among antiracists — wage inequality, COVID-19 deaths, and police killings — through the lens of class to reveal how “every time racial disparity is invoked as the lens through which to see American inequality, the overwhelming role played by the increased inequality in the American class system is made invisible.”


Marxist analysis is always more realistic and humane than Marxist solutions, but you don’t have to buy the entire redistributive package to appreciate Reed’s analysis. Anyone with a concern for the poor and disenfranchised will benefit from spending time with this relentlessly illuminating piece. To quote just one key paragraph:


Racism helps explain why so many low-wage workers are black and brown. But it doesn’t explain their low wages. And all the antiracism in the world wouldn’t make the slightest contribution to raising those wages. So even if using race as a proxy for class were accurate in the sense that it named the exact same set of people, it would be profoundly misleading. Race can’t be a proxy for class because race tells you the problem is discrimination against the workers while class tells you the problem is getting the maximum value out of their labor. Or, turn it around: the analytic of class tells you the problem is how we treat front-line workers; the analytic of race tells you the problem is that too many black and brown people have to be front-line workers. That’s why the most ruthlessly profit-driven corporations can learn to love the most radical demands for eliminating black/white disparities. To make Jeff Bezos and his stockholders as rich as they are, Amazon needs to underpay its workers. It doesn’t need to care the slightest bit what color they are.


Read “The Trouble with Disparity” over at nonsite.org. For a short invitation to Reed's work, read "The Danger of Race Reductionism" over at Persuasion.

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