What happens when a Black Marxist scholar wants to talk about race?

Reed and WestThe killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have brought to light some serious differences on the American left. Take, for example, the case of Adolph Reed, a Black Marxist scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who was invited to speak to the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter. Michael Powell covers it all in a fascinating story at The New York Times.

Reed wanted to argue that the left’s focus on COVID-19’s impact on Black people “undermined multiracial organizing, which he sees as key to health and economic justice.” When the topic of his talk was released, the organization’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus said that Reed’s topic was “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.” The ZOOM lecture was canceled.

My favorite response to all of this comes from Cornel West: “God have mercy, Adolph is the greatest democratic theorist of his generation…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.”

Here is a taste of Powell’s piece:

The decision to silence Professor Reed came as Americans debate the role of race and racism in policing, health care, media and corporations. Often pushed aside in that discourse are those leftists and liberals who have argued there is too much focus on race and not enough on class in a deeply unequal society. Professor Reed is part of the class of historians, political scientists and intellectuals who argue that race as a construct is overstated.

This debate is particularly potent as activists sense a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make progress on issues ranging from police violence to mass incarceration to health and inequality. And it comes as Socialism in America — long a predominantly white movement — attracts younger and more diverse adherents.

Many leftist and liberal scholars argue that current disparities in health, police brutality and wealth inequality are due primarily to the nation’s history of racism and white supremacy. Race is America’s primal wound, they say, and Black people, after centuries of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, should take the lead in a multiracial fight to dismantle it. To set that battle aside in pursuit of ephemeral class solidarity is preposterous, they argue.

“Adolph Reed and his ilk believe that if we talk about race too much we will alienate too many, and that will keep us from building a movement,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton professor of African-American studies and a D.S.A. member. “We don’t want that — we want to win white people to an understanding of how their racism has fundamentally distorted the lives of Black people.”

A contrary view 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.

Read the entire piece here.