Preston H. Smith II (2021) Toward freedom: The case against race reductionism, by Touré Reed, Journal of Urban Affairs, 43:6, 914-917, DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2020.1851562
As Black, White, Latinx, and Asian people pour into the streets to protest the police killing of unarmed Black men and women, many wonder whether this will be the time that the United States effectively addresses racial injustice. According to Toward Freedom, the answer is no, so long as the U.S. remains in the throes of current thinking about race and racism. Surely, to reduce persistent racial disparities in the U.S. is a difficult task. Toward Freedom argues that when liberal politicians and progressive activists separate race and class in their respective approaches, they are simply doomed to failure. Author Touré Reed shows the pernicious effects of this narrow thinking by outlining how postwar social science and liberal statecraft, typified by historian Oscar Handlin and bureaucrat and politician Daniel Moynihan, embraced racial culture as the explanation for Blacks’ limited upward mobility. He focuses on Handlin and Moynihan because they best exemplify the postwar tendency, influenced by the Cold War, to elevate cultural over class explanations for inequality. Reed draws a contrast between this perspective and that of Black progressives, who, he argues, believed racial inequality could not be effectively addressed without attention to class. By omitting class in both social inquiry and public policy, Reed contends, liberal politicians and scholars have avoided confronting the impact of economic dislocations such as deindustrialization and automation on the Black working class. This lapse has come to dominate contemporary liberal thought, Reed argues, with its recent representation by such diverse figures as former president Barack Obama and public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates. Both figures are pre-occupied with race when diagnosing the problem of Black inequality. Obama zeroes in on Black underclass culture as a primary obstacle to Black upward mobility, while Coates blames a permanent racist culture among Whites. In their analyses and prescriptions they ignore what poor and working-class Blacks share with other precarious classes: structural unemployment, low and stagnant wages, declining unionization, and a shredded safety net.
After recovering the underappreciated political positions of Black labor activists like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin in Chapter 1, Reed reconstructs and critiques the main assumptions underlying race reductionism in three subsequent chapters that examine the ideas of Handlin, Moynihan, Obama, and Coates. The common thread that runs through the writings of these notable figures is a tendency to explain racial inequality outside of its political economic context. In contrast, material conditions are ever present in Reed’s analysis as he shows both important differences in liberal governance and surprising consistencies in approaches to race and racism amongst diverse thinkers.
Toward Freedom goes beyond prevailing knowledge to examine the ideas that underlie this tendency to reduce the causes of racial inequality to a transhistorical racism, the sole prescription for which lies in race-targeted public policies. Building on his first book, Not Alms but Opportunity (Reed, 2008), and a number of recent essays in academic and popular journals, Reed argues that three ideas provide the intellectual foundation of race reductionism: treating ethnic and racial groups as primary units of the American polity, viewing Black poverty as unique and separate from White poverty, and assuming all liberal Democratic Party administrations from FDR to Obama embraced a “universal” social policy which failed to reduce Black poverty.
First, according to Reed, Black politics in the 1960s borrowed from Handlin’s idea of ethnic group mobility the notion that competitive racial and ethnic groups was the basis of American politics.1 Following Handlin, Black politics, both in theory and practice, treats the racial group as monolithic, an approach that allows racial elites to dominate leadership and obscures the class-skewed distribution of costs and benefits to group members. Throughout the academy and popular culture there has been a recognition of class differences among African Americans, but this acknowledgment has yet to penetrate the idea of unitary group politics to take into account the fact that the interests of poor and working-class Blacks in most instances differ from those of affluent Blacks. The current preoccupation with narrowing the racial wealth gap is a good example of the expectation that racial group benefits will trickle down to the lower reaches of the Black class structure. Following the protests against police violence, Democratic Party presidential aspirants and corporate America proposed targeting aid to Black entrepreneurs, Black private colleges, and first-time Black homeowners. Identifying these groups as the beneficiaries of these policies ensures that the benefits will largely be directed toward upper- and middle-income African Americans, and despite claims to the contrary, will hardly reach poor and working-class Blacks.
Second, after World War II, the idea of racial inferiority based on biology fell out of favor, to be replaced by the assumption of a culture of poverty, which academics and liberal policymakers surmised, was responsible for hampering poor Blacks’ ability to take advantage of reduced racial barriers after the civil rights movement. Just like ethnic group culture was supposedly responsible for the upward group mobility of “ethnic Whites,” racial group culture was considered the reason poor Black folks could not join the mainstream. No matter the case or example, culture was unchanging and impermeable by political and economic influences. Reed shows how this concept of culture allows nominally disparate thinkers such as Moynihan and Coates to agree that Black poverty is distinct from White poverty. To be sure, Moynihan recognizes that racial discrimination played a role in disproportionate Black poverty; however, he emphasizes that it was a “tangle of pathology” derived from so-called Black matriarchy and welfare dependency that distinguished Black poverty from an economics-based White deprivation. While Coates rightly rejects Moynihan’s Black underclass thesis, Reed shows how he uses the same concept of culture to charge a permanent White racist culture for making Black poverty exceptional. As Reed explains, “whether the culprit is African Americans’ cultural pathologies or Whites’ ingrained contempt for Blacks, each of these frameworks divorces what we tend to think of as racial inequality from political economy” (p. 103).
The third leg of the race reductionism claim depends on a generalization about what constitutes “universal” social policies in liberal governance. Through a careful analysis of how African Americans did and did not benefit from the New Deal, Reed counters the current and growing notion that Blacks were excluded from most government benefits at the time. He acknowledges that while Blacks did not get their fair share, “millions of African Americans benefited from New Deal initiatives” (p. 19). In fact, Reed identifies a shift in liberal government in the 1960s which refused to engage in the kind of intervention into housing and employment markets highlighted in the New Deal. For instance, the Johnson administration’s Council of Economic Advisors embraced a “commercial Keynesian” which promoted economic growth coupled with job training, behavior modification, and means-tested benefits that “ensured the War on Poverty would mitigate but not eliminate poverty” (p. 90). This moment, Reed contends, was a missed opportunity to reduce inequality, which would have helped African Americans disproportionately. This anti-poverty policy departure away from the New Deal’s public jobs programs has only been exacerbated by greater reliance on the market in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
While Toward Freedom builds on the work of political scientists and historians like Cedric Johnson, Dean Robinson, and Judith Stein, Reed’s original contribution reveals a long-standing tendency in contemporary liberalism to separate race from class. He argues liberals and progressives have increasingly focused on targeting racial disparities alone at the expense of underlining the class inequality that helped to produce those disparities in the first place. Reed drives this point home by contrasting a race reductionist policy approach with one that promotes universal access to public goods such as health care, education, and income. Not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns figure prominently in Reed’s book as he thinks Sanders’s focus on securing public goods such as Medicare for All, free public college, and living wages coupled with vigorous anti-discrimination enforcement would go a long way to reducing Black precarity.
Reed’s study provides a compelling explanation for why successive governments have failed to address a durable racial inequality in the late 20th and 21st century. His argument that class inequality must not be excluded from the explanation of racial disparities is a much-needed contribution to current policy debates on racial inequality. The problems of poverty, low-wage employment, and unaffordable housing that Reed examines are today concentrated in cities and increasingly, the suburbs, making this work of great and timely relevance to urban scholars and students who are trying to assess the real and potential impact of the national government on persistent urban problems. Reed writes clearly and vibrantly and has an engaging voice. A lay public seeking answers on how to resolve a never-ending racial crisis in the United States would do very well to start their search with Toward Freedom—and learn about the great possibility existing in a multi-racial working-class movement that pressures the national government to adopt universal access to basic social goods that is necessary to attacking broad inequality as a way, finally, to reduce racial inequality.
1. By Black politics, I mean both the actions of the Black political class and its academic study. Most Black politicians have a tendency to focus exclusively on race in their prescriptions and tend to disparage universal programs that would better address the inequality experienced by their constituents. But the term also refers to the academic study of Black politics, which ignores class in its analysis and remedies. This subfield of political science claims systemic racism is the primary cause of racial disparities which can only be adequately remedied by race-targeted programs like supporting Black-owned businesses, without acknowledging the class implications of these programs.