Reduction to Oppression

Against the Current, No. 216, January-February 2022

David McCarthy

THE EDITORS OF Against the Current are publishing this review essay by David McCarthy toward inaugurating what we hope will become a critical discussion of the complicated relationship of the anti-racist struggle in the 21st century to the ultimate goal of transforming the class structure and state of our society. Marxists have long argued, of course, that racism is rooted in political economy. But that is far from the full story: like sexism, racism cannot be understood simply as a reflex of economic relations.

While unity among all working people around common interests is required for an effective socialist movement, those impacted by racism or other oppression cannot stand by and subordinate their needs to the recalcitrance or ignorance of the majority. Sometimes self-organization and direct action are required, and often such actions by a minority can be a spur to educating and motivating allies.

For another discussion of some of the issues raised in Touré Reed’s important book, especially around the legacy of A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, we recommend an informative essay by Kim Moody in New Politics.

Toward Freedom:
The Case Against Race Reductionism
By Touré F. Reed
Verso (2020), 224 pages, $19.95 paper.

THE MURDER OF George Floyd on May 25, 2020, added renewed vigor to long-standing debates on the left over what is to be done about racial injustice in the United States.

On May 30th, the Democratic Socialists of America in New York City agreed to cancel a planned presentation by political scientist Adolph Reed, after a statement by the DSA AFROSOCialist and Socialists of Color Caucus described his viewpoints as “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.”(1)

But the term “tone deaf” implies that there is a tune to be carried. And a few months earlier, a new book by Reed’s son, the historian Touré Reed, attempted to recount the historical development of just such a tune.

Reed describes this tune or theoretical framework as “race reductionism.” According to him, race reductionists believe that racial inequality can and should be understood principally as a matter of race and racism, to the exclusion of broader socio-economic systems and structures.

Although a less polemical term might have done more to promote understanding and reconciliation within a fractured left, Reed’s arguments about the historical emergence of this theoretical framework should prove of great interest to critics on all sides of current debates.

Drawing upon a rich academic literature, much of it influenced by historian Harvard Sitkoff’s pioneering A New Deal for Blacks (1978), Reed shows that the intellectual and institutional groundwork for what came to be known as the civil rights movement was based in trade-unionism and its focus on economic relations.

The critique of capitalism was central to this movement. In 1948, W.E.B. Du Bois asserted as a matter of plain fact that it was “suicide for us, as Negroes and as Americans, to assent” to the idea “that individual enterprise with the least possible social control, and spurred mainly by the incentive of private profit, is the only method which can bring and preserve prosperity and freedom.”

Many critics today have argued that broad economic approaches to racial inequality simply do not work: white supremacism will not allow them to work. According to public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty.”(2)

Coates’ observation, much trumpeted by such outlets as and the Rockefeller Foundation, rests upon a germ of truth, as Reed himself acknowledges. It is not a new observation.

Even during the New Deal era, when support for economic measures was part and parcel of race politics, critics pointed out that Roosevelt’s programs were structured and administered in ways that disfavored Black workers. Organizations such as the National Negro Congress, Reed shows, objected to the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from New Deal protections, since such exclusions disproportionately affected Black workers.

Yet Reed also points out that, even considering discriminatory aspects of the New Deal, hundreds of thousands of Black manufacturing workers were directly protected by the National Labor Relations Act (1935), the Social Security Act (1935) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938).

According to Reed, “millions of African Americans benefited from New Deal initiatives — sometimes in greater proportion than their share of the general population, even if they were underrepresented in relation to their need.” (19)

Even more profoundly, the NLRA changed the way civil rights organizations did business. “The organizing genius of A. Philip Randolph and associates notwithstanding, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters owed its legal recognition to the protections afforded unions” by progressive federal legislation, Reed explains. (23)

This legal recognition made it viable for race leaders to mobilize what Amiri Baraka referred to in 1963 as “the rest of the Negroes.” The New Deal, in other words, paved the way for what Reed describes as a “transition from clientage politics to protest activism.” (32)

“Public-good-oriented measures,” as Reed describes them, were important for race politics not only because they dramatically improved the material conditions of African Americans — although they did that — but also because African Americans used those improved conditions to build a more democratic, participatory polity.

Structuralists vs. “Institutionalists”

Reed argues that attacks on public- good-oriented government and resistance to economic approaches to racial injustice were tightly intertwined within the context of Cold War anti-communism.

In language that sounds uncannily current, Daniel Patrick Moynihan asserted in his notorious The Negro Family (1965) that widening racial inequities were a product of a nebulous “racist virus in the American blood stream,” rather than a direct consequence of postwar liberalism’s hasty retreat from public-good-oriented politics.

Today’s constricted view of a “systemic racism” without economic foundation, Reed argues, is derived from efforts such as Moynihan’s “to synthesize a cultural and structural analysis of poverty,” producing “a conception of structure rooted not in political economy but in ethnic pluralism.” (80)

Reed draws a parallel between Coates’ claim that “Black poverty is not white poverty” and the Johnson administration’s insistence that Black poverty was exceptional. Both, he points out, avoid situating African-American poverty within a broader political-economic context.

As Reed explains, Moynihan rose to fame by helping to shift hegemony away from “economic structuralists” such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Gunnar Myrdal and Michael Harrington, who saw full employment and public works as crucial, and toward “institutional structuralists,” who emphasized “services they deemed ‘structurally oriented’ — education, training, improvements in mental health services and so on.” (87)

What institutional structuralists had in mind were families and mutual aid societies, not labor unions, government agencies or federally sponsored Community Action Programs. And the services they proposed were meant to correct what they perceived as deficiencies in Black “institutional life.”

In Reed’s view, this way of conceiving of Black poverty had a clear material motive. “The Council of Economic Advisors incorporated institutional structuralism into its analysis of poverty largely to protect the tax cuts — which would benefit middle-class and upper-income Americans — from attacks from the left.” (89)

Reed is appreciative of Coates’ appeal to reform-minded readers confronted with the “reactionary fantasy,” as Reed describes it, of “post-racialism.” (102)

At a moment when prominent writers were suggesting in all seriousness that the Obama presidency indexed a totally new era in American race relations, it was important to hear oppositional voices maintaining that racial inequality remained an abhorrent fact of American life. “Scholars as well as liberal and even conservative pundits have hailed Coates for his courage, his passion and his insights into the history of American ‘race relations.’” (101)

But Reed argues that Coates’ “post- postracialism” was merely the “ying-yang twin” of post-racialism. “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.” (103). Coates’ arguments furnished a leftward path to similar conclusions.

Complexities of Integration

Reed’s broad historical frame of reference does not always allow for an especially nuanced appreciation of the ambiguities of “ethnic pluralism.” He is at his strongest when underscoring the plain absurdity of the idea that “ethnic identity” automatically equates to political interest. But he draws his own questionable equivalence between the innate conservatism of historian Oscar Handlin’s theory of “ethnic pluralism” and Handlin’s opposition to “forced integration.” (49–75)

This equivalence can be misleading. What made Handlin conservative was his suspicion of governmental interference, beyond cultural education and job training for non-existent jobs. But working people often had their own reasons grounded in their own local circumstances for solidarity along “ethnic” or racial lines.

One wonders what Reed might say about the dockworkers in Baltimore’s overwhelmingly Black International Longshoremen’s Union Local 858 who resisted federal efforts in the late 1960s to integrate their Local with the predominately white ILU Local 829. The two locals already collaborated with each other, and Black dockworkers reasoned that a single, totally integrated local would both undermine their leverage within the ILU and disrupt a complex “gang system” crucial to worker safety. “Forced integration” meant something very different for the oppressed than it did for the oppressors.

Whether they knew it or not, the dock­workers were adapting the reasoning not of contemporary Black Power but of Du Bois’ much earlier progressivism. “There is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools,” Du Bois argued in 1935. “Other things being equal, the mixed school is the broader, more natural basis for the education of all youth. … But other things seldom are equal.”(3)

In debates about integration, the important thing was not noble ideals, but facts on the ground, the interests of actual people living in much less than ideal circumstances. Black people needed better schools, jobs, healthcare, homes and neighborhoods. There was room for debate about how to get them.

Yet if Reed tends to downplay the complexity of debates over integration, the book’s strength is that it places contemporary debates within a deeper historical context. Race politics once encompassed a much broader frame of reference than it usually does today, and it could be made to do so again.

Handlin, Moynihan and Myrdal benefited from the ascent of reactionary bourgeois politics, but there were many thinkers, many of them extremely influential at the time, who offered alternatives.

Chapter by chapter, Reed contrasts an emergent race reductionism with writings by “left-liberal economic structuralists,” including activist Michael Harrington, economist and lawyer Leon Keyserling, economist Charles Killingsworth, labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph and March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin.

The influence of these thinkers may be at a low tide today, but the sheer hostility with which thinkers such as Adolph Reed have been greeted by middle-class progressives is indicative of the threat their ideas pose to the current paradigm.

Indeed, as Rustin pointed out 50 years ago, economic structuralism has the power to capture the popular imagination. The idea “that we are a class society and … that we are engaged in a class struggle … may not provide some people with their wished-for quotient of drama,” Rustin acknowledged. But “I would think that the GE strike or the UAW strike against GM were sufficiently dramatic.”

For some, the ongoing union drive among predominately Black Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama has been that and more. As Rustin explained, the outcome of such struggles “will determine whether we will have a greater or lesser degree of economic or social equality in this country.”(4)

As for Adolph Reed himself, not only has he spent his entire career talking about race, he was among the leading critics of precisely the sort of racial “moderation” attributed to him. In the introduction to a volume he edited in 1999 on what he described as the “retreat from racial equality” under Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, he excoriated a “New Liberal orthodoxy” whose cruel “punch line” was that “restoring liberal, or Democratic, credibility requires establishing distance from … supposedly ‘marginal’ constituencies and appealing to a ‘mainstream’ American voter.”(5)

Identity Politics and Neoliberalism

Touré Reed argues that the Johnson administration’s treatment of Black poverty as an exceptional matter was part of a broader effort to treat the poor as a conglomeration of “out groups — the aged, mentally or morally deficient individuals, single mothers and groups who were marginalized by geographic isolation or racial discrimination.” (87)

Handlin’s ethnic pluralism, he argues, “offered a framework that harmonized with postwar liberals’ disregard for political-economic interpretations of inequality.” (54)

The Democratic Leadership Council’s disregard for “marginal constituencies” itself relied upon the idea that people who suffer injustice in contemporary American society are inherently marginal. Conversely, interpolating racial inequality back into a broader social context threatens the hard-won hegemony of bourgeois progressivism as it has been advanced under the guise of “identity politics.”

If the left wing of neoliberalism was advanced as “identity politics,” as Reed seems to suggest, then the current moment of crisis in the neoliberal order provides fertile ground for a much broader application of the critique outlined in Toward Freedom. “Race reductionism” could provocatively be interpreted as one instance of a broader liberal effort to portray the political realm not as a domain of conflict between competing interests but as a morally transcendent realm of anti-racist “enlightenment” or so-called “wokeness” versus benighted “oppression.”

In one case decided 50 years ago this year, Griggs v. Duke Power Co., a unanimous Supreme Court found that job requirements that were “fair in form, but discriminatory in operation” were unlawful.

Duke Power Company, the defendant in the case, could not institute high school completion requirements for jobs requiring only a primary school education, since such requirements served no apparent purpose other than to discriminate against African-American applicants whose opportunities for schooling had been curtailed by pervasive racial discrimination.

Griggs obliged courts to take account of race even in cases where explicit race discrimination was not at issue. Yet in his decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger indicated that taking account of race meant only taking account of “artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers.”

The rational order of the underlying bourgeois body politic may have been infected with racism. But in its own iron necessity, it could not itself be identified as the material foundation of racial inequality.

How and why then did a conservative Supreme Court under Warren Burger unanimously reject judicial colorblindness, a doctrine progressives still shadowbox against today? Reed’s study suggests an answer: liberal color-consciousness is not nearly so new or even controversial as liberal pundits would like to believe. As the literary critic Kenneth Warren explains, contrary to the claims of anti-racism pundits, “there is nothing particularly radical in insisting that race continues to matter in U.S. social life.”(6)

Indeed there is not necessarily anything left-of-center about it. In a recent book on Clarence Thomas, reviewed in this magazine by Angela Dillard (Against the Current 207, July-August 2020), political scientist Corey Robin points out that the jurisprudence of the most right-wing justice on the extremely right-wing Supreme Court today has been consistently rooted in the idea that race has been an immutable fact of American life for the last 400 years, the periodization adopted by the New York Times’ “1619 Project.”(7)

Although Dillard helpfully raises questions about whether this makes Thomas a “black nationalist” in a meaningful sense, Thomas’s outlook overlaps with contemporary progressivism in ways that warrant serious reflection.

As early as 1969, the journalist Gary Wills, then a rising star in the circles of right-wing agitator Bill Buckley, suggested, “[What] if we took seriously black ghettos as special communities, in need of indigenous [!] leaders with appropriate leverage upon society as a whole?”(8)

Wills’ already not-so-very-controversial idea for a new corporatist politics capable of recognizing “‘constituencies’ not defined by locale,” including students and racial minorities, was already informing actual policy in the Nixon White House. In the so-called Philadelphia Plan, developed between 1967 and 1969, Nixon instituted “affirmative action” in its modern sense.

Whereas Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 in 1965 mandated that government contractors evaluate applicants and employees “without regard to their race,” Nixon mandated a system of racial quotas to take account of race.

Nixon’s motives have been much debated.(9) Yet as with so many Republican policies of the last 50 years, Democrats adapted Nixon’s version of affirmative action to their own purposes without needing to revise it.(10)

“In order to get beyond racism we must first take account of race,” liberal Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun remarked in 1978. “There is no other way.” For African Americans to be treated “equally, […] we must treat them differently.”

Certainly Blackmun was right. But both Blackmun and Wills, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, elided the key question: what did it mean to “take account of race”? Was it enough to focus on bad attitudes and artificial, arbitrary or unnecessary discrimination? Or was the rationality of American society itself at issue?

Linguistics of Oppression

The reduction of social injustice to a matter of artificial, arbitrary and unnecessary oppression registers even in the evolving lexicon of American English. Although there are limits and biases built into the extreme abstractions of a Google Ngram search, such a search would seem to confirm what readers of radical literature might already have detected: that “oppression” has become the left’s preferred term for social injustice.

The word “exploitation” appears to have been roughly twice as prevalent as “oppression” at the end of World War II. It remained so for the next three decades, even as both words grew increasingly prevalent during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Yet after a high point in 1972, “exploitation” declined precipitously. It leveled off at about its 1945 level around 1990, rising slightly after the capitalist crises of 2008.

“Oppression” also began declining in the early 1970s. But after bottoming out in 1978, it began to rise sharply, in recent years becoming about as prevalent as “exploitation.”(11) That this shift has been driven by changes in the radical literature is suggested by the fact that the verb “exploit” was vastly more prevalent than “oppress” throughout this entire period.

My point is not to say that one word would inherently be better than another. I could easily imagine an expanded understanding of oppression that would do the critical work that bourgeois progressivism studiously avoids. But the rise of the term “oppression” has been paralleled by a retreat from structural approaches to social injustice. And in my view, this betrays a symbiosis between bourgeois politics and “radical” discourses.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), for example, was intended as a bipartisan response to mounting evidence that persons with disabilities were being arbitrarily excluded from the workforce, thereby placing an artificial and unnecessary burden on the capitalist economy.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) expanded the definition of disability in an effort to combat reactionary attempts to narrow the scope of the original ADA. But neither the ADA nor the ADAAA have done much to correct for low labor-force participation among persons with disabilities, the original impetus for the legislation.

As one legal scholar points out, “merely providing access to legal remedies cannot address the constellation of issues that affect unemployed people with disabilities in the labor market, or achieve the social transformation that will be necessary for people with disabilities to achieve full participation in the workplace.”(12)

Much the same could be said for unemployed, underemployed and underpaid Black workers.

Defining Injustice

The liberal sociologist Daniel Bell noted approvingly in 1973 that recent social criticism questioned American “values,” but “not in the way socialists and radicals questioned them a generation ago — that they were achieved at the cost of exploiting the worker.” Critics had finally matured enough to appreciate the “value” produced by modern corporations.

Bell explained that instead of foolishly indicting capitalism, critics were questioning American values at “the very core, the creation of more private goods at the expense of other social values.” As long as bad values could be corrected, society could flourish on the basis of social relations as they already existed.

Reducing injustice to a matter of oppression ensured that social transformation could be limited to social factors judged artificial, arbitrary and unnecessary. But this excluded from scrutiny much of what is ugliest about modern America.

No matter how racially prejudicial collapsing health care, declining union participation and activism, predatory globalization, or the disintegrating welfare state can be shown to have been, there has been nothing artificial, arbitrary or unnecessary about any of them. Quite the opposite: in the bourgeois mind, their logic and necessity have been nothing short of ironclad.

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people,” Martin Luther King remarked at the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO in 1961. “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs.”(13)

There is plenty to quibble with in that conclusion. Yet despite the growth of the Black professional class over the last six decades, the first part of King’s statement still generally holds true. Most African Americans labor for a living.

King saw an indissoluble alliance between “the labor movement” and “the Negro freedom movement” built on a shared interest in “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

The collapse of the civil rights movement coalition and its cross-racial working-class alliance cannot be blamed in its entirety on the bad faith of professional-class liberals. But the reconstruction of some such alliance will depend in large measure upon our ability to think critically about the interests served by current anti-racist discourses. Reed’s contribution will greatly improve that ability.


  1. Michael Powell, “A Black Marxist Scholar Wanted to Talk About Race. It Ignited a Fury,” New York Times (August 14, 2020).
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  2. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness,” The Atlantic (February 8, 2016).
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  3. W.E.B. Du Bois, “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools,” The Journal of Negro Education 4, no. 3 (July 1935), 335.
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  4. Bayard Rustin, “The Blacks and the Unions,” Harper’s (May 1971).
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  5. Adolph Reed, Jr., ed., Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and Our Retreat from Racial Equality (New York: Routledge, 2001).
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  6. Kenneth W. Warren, What Was African-American Literature? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 90-93.
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  7. Corey Robin, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas (New York: Macmillan, 2019).
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  8. Gary Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970), 598-601.
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  9. Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 515-516.
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  10. Dean J. Kotlowski, “Richard Nixon and the Origins of Affirmative Action,” The Historian 60, no. 3 (Spring 1998), 523-541.
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  11. oppression%2Cexploitation&year_start=1945&year_end=2019&corpus=28& smoothing=3# (accessed March 20, 2021).
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  12. Expanded Access to the Courts in Employment Litigation,” Journal of Law and Policy 26, no. 1 (2018).
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  13. Martin Luther King, Jr., Address to the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Bal Harbour, Florida (December 11, 1961), reproduced in Martin Luther King, Jr., “All Labor Has Dignity,” ed. Michael K. Honey (New York: Beacon Press, 2012), 38.
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January-February 2022, ATC 216


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