Misreading antiracism in the Left Business Observer

Dear Al,

At first glance I have to say that Adolph Reed Jr. seems to have a very different experience with antiracism than me, based on his recent article, “The limits of anti-racism” in the Left Business Observer:

In the logic of antiracism, exposure of the racial element of an instance of wrongdoing will lead to recognition of injustice, which in turn will lead to remedial action—though not much attention seems ever given to how this part is supposed to work. I suspect this is because the exposure part, which feels so righteously yet undemandingly good, is the real focus. But this exposure convinces only those who are already disposed to recognize.

What this sounds to me like is the squishy-diversity workshop approach to racism, in which white folks feel really bad about racism and the possibility that they might do something racist, and spend a lot of time focusing on how to become better people, usually looking to a person of color to educate them on just how to do that.

Similarly, Reed’s impression of the target of this “antiracism” also seems familiar to me:

As the basis for a politics, antiracism seems to reflect, several generations downstream, the victory of the postwar psychologists in depoliticizing the critique of racial injustice by shifting its focus from the social structures that generate and reproduce racial inequality to an ultimately individual, and ahistorical, domain of “prejudice” or “intolerance.”

Certainly that individualist, unaccountable, white-focused and, in my view, racist type of study/thinking does exist, and perhaps in some places it goes by the name of antiracism. But the overall movement of antiracist theory and action has been away from just that type of approach, which I think of as more common in the 1970s and ’80s.

Reed also seems to think that a commitment to antiracism means being uncommitted to working to dismantle any other forms of oppression, notably classism and capitalism. After accusing Tim Wise — whom he says is a “professional antiracist,” which sounds to me like calling a labor organizer a “professional anticapitalist” — of downplaying Van Jones’ history with a Marxist organization, Reed writes:

This … deepens my suspicions about antiracism’s status within the comfort zone of neoliberalism’s discourses of “reform.” More to the point, I suspect as well that this vitriol toward radicalism is rooted partly in the conviction that a left politics based on class analysis and one focused on racial injustice are Manichean alternatives.

My experience has been just the opposite. I see most writing, training and organizing around antiracism as happening within the context of an anticapitalist, feminist, queer-friendly framework that sees an overall system of oppression privileging the few at the expense of the many.

It’s just really hard for me to believe that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz or Paul Kivel or Helen Luu or Daniel Hunter or anyone else who “does” antiracism would argue that it’s all about awareness, or that we should focus on individuals, or that classism and racism aren’t intertwined.

In 1997, Reed wrote that then-President Clinton’s desire for a “national conversation on race” was not connected to any real substance:

It’s just part of the fundamentally empty rhetoric of multiculturalism: diversity, mutual awareness, respect for difference, hearing different voices and the like. None of these notions is objectionable on its face, but that’s partly because none of them means anything in particular … The problem isn’t racial division or a need for healing. It is racial inequality and injustice.

I think he was right to identify the mainstream liberal approach to race as sidestepping rather than confronting the systemic injustice of racism. But in pointing the finger at antiracist activists, I think he misidentifies the very community that’s been working to more effectively dismantle systems of oppression.

What are your thoughts?


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