Erasing the Color Line
Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts
on the American Scene.
By Adolph Reed Jr.
211 pp. New York: The New Press. $25.
WHEN he was living on the South Side of Chicago during the 1990’s, Adolph Reed Jr. discovered that he could not get home delivery of the newspaper you now hold in your hands. There was some question about the desirability of the neighborhood; some slight reticence, also, about specifying this. Since the same district was adorned by the presence of Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and the columnist Clarence Page, there could have been a row about ”ethnicity” or — to employ an even more raw term — race.” Reed preferred to concentrate his ire on the likelihood that distribution had been ”outsourced.” He’s a union man, a believer in solidarity and the brotherhood of the workers and a leading figure in the attempt to create (”build” would be his preferred verb) a Labor Party in the United States. What, in the era of identity politics and image-mongering, could be more quixotic?
Well, in his view, many phenomena that receive much greater attention are considerably more ephemeral. ”Class Notes” (I need hardly emphasize the intention of the title) collects some of Reed’s sturdier polemics against the ”race men” of black America and the enabling liberals who gratify them by attending overrespectfully to their interpretations. It becomes clear at an early stage that if Reed could not have The New York Times delivered to his door, he at least contrived to keep up with its editorials. In a fine essay, ”What Color Is Anti-Semitism?,” he states plainly that Louis Farrakhan and Khallid Muhammad are anti-Semites, but dissents forcefully from the use that is sometimes subliminally made of so obvious a judgment: He cites a Times editorial calling on a black leader to ”renounce, root and branch, Mr. Farrakhan’s . . . message” and adding that ”in return, black organizations and leaders have a right to ask for heightened white sensitivity to the commonplace discrimination of everyday life.” Reed continues: ”So black people must prove, by passing a litmus test for moral and ideological responsibility, that they deserve basic protections accorded automatically to all other citizens.”
This may be a touch severe or even judgmental — the editorial spoke more of etiquette than of rights — but there’s something about that ”in return,” even so, that a less acute critic might have missed. In a related essay on the difference between race and ethnicity, Reed drives home the reason not everybody is expected to denounce ugly remarks made by, say, Latvian-Americans or Irish-Americans. Less than a century ago in the United States, as he correctly points out, there were only races, and there were a lot of them — Gallic, Nordic, Mediterranean, Slavic, just to name a few from the list of those now homogenized as white. And each of those categories yielded other, more discrete ”races,” such as Greeks, Armenians, Poles, English, Welsh, Irish and the like. (A ”Racial Adaptability” chart prepared by industrial relations experts for employers in the 1920’s listed 36 distinct races.)
In some earlier work on Jesse Jackson — whose theatricality he frankly despises — Reed denounced Jackson’s opportunist adoption of the definition ”African-American,” both for its embrace of hyphenation at a time when the wider society was outgrowing it and for its failure to notice that, for the first time, large numbers of Africans were immigrating — and this time voluntarily, at that — to the United States. Reed’s is a colorblind antiracism and antitribalism. In a particularly mordant attack on the pseudoscience of ”The Bell Curve,” he repudiates not just the relegation of blacks to a cognitive lumpenproletariat but the corollary assumption that anyone not dark in hue is therefore white and measurable as such. This, he asserts, does not rise even to the superficiality of the skin-deep.
”Unsparing” might be the term for Reed’s approach to racial populism. Of the O. J. Simpson trial he writes, ”I hoped for a guilty judgment, both because I am convinced that Simpson is the murderer and because I wanted to avoid precisely the kind of vapid yet hideous discourse now shaping public consciousness.” No waste of words there. On the available evidence, he concludes that Mumia Abu-Jamal may well be guilty as charged — he allows for the possible verdict ”guilty but framed” — and in any case, ”Being victimized by the state should not in itself confer political stature.”
It is commonplace for neoconservative writers to look to the 1960’s as the source for all varieties of narcissism and promiscuity. They would have a hard time demonstrating this in the case of Reed, who was a tough-minded antiwar and civil-rights militant in those days and who distrusts the faddish substitutes for politics that have filled the subsequent void. Everything he writes is informed by a strong historical memory of a time when there was a ”Movement” and when the distance between rhetoric and conviction was much less than it is now. Two especially strong themes recur in almost all of these essays: a belief that the poor are not the authors of their own poverty, and a dislike for the anthropological treatment of the so-called underclass. In effect, these two themes become one, because Reed believes that the near criminalization of our welfare recipients is the result of surveying them through the wrong end of a subjective and disdainful academic telescope.
Given this optic, however, there is a corresponding need for guides and interpreters in the morass of social and racial relations. Having described Reed as an equal-opportunity polemicist, I hope I do not contradict myself too directly when I say that he reserves a particular scorn for that intermediate stratum of explainers — Cornel West, William Julius Wilson and Michael Eric Dyson come in for repeated ridicule here — who purport to unravel the ”pathology” of the wretched for the enlightenment of the indifferent or the well-off. It was Reed who first noticed that the famous Moynihan report recommended putting black males into the Army and sending them off to build character in Vietnam; ever since then he has harbored the liveliest suspicions of official neglect, benign or otherwise. The Clinton-Gingrich accommodation on the welfare bill is for him proof positive that the downtrodden need more organization and less mourning. ”Underclass” he finds a term of victim-blaming condescension. On only one point is he at one with the consensus: the poor need to develop the habits of self-reliance, so that they can end poverty the old-fashioned way — by fighting it.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation and a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School. His most
recent book is ”No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton.”