Response to Backer and Singh

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I’m a little bemused that David Backer and apparently Nikhil Pal Singh think that the passage they quote from the 2002 Political Power & Social Theory symposium on the race/class debate is in any way at odds with, rather than a substantive critical foundation of, the arguments I’ve made about identitarianism that they don’t like. I suspect that fanciful reading may be linked to a desire to vindicate a notion of “racial capitalism,” which is ultimately what some in these debates have described as “bothandism,” but with a raiment of grand theoretical pretension. In any case, their reading indicates a main reason I’m increasingly turned off by the debates around these issues, because they seem steeped in a scholasticism that more than anything else brings to mind the one-upsmanship among relatively precocious pupils at a Great Books-oriented prep school. There’s an utter lack of concreteness and serious engagement with actual political processes and contradictions in the society we occupy.

This from Backer struck me as especially telling:

Take the example of gentrification. Adolph Reed Jr.[1], in a February piece at nonsite.org, “Black Politics after 2016”, examines the problem of “representation”:

The norm of representation as embodiment of appropriate categories of identity gives private and nonprofit contractors an easy standard of legitimacy that collapses possible differences on policy issues and directions into vacant liberal proceduralism (having a “seat at the table”) and Victorian racialist mysticism (“reflecting the perspective of the X”).

He’s calling out the trend of ‘embodying appropriate categories of identity’ and the ways the ruling class can use this against serious challenges to their power in housing. [my emphasis]

For all the performance of erudition concerning relations of production, etc., etc., elsewhere in his essay he misses the fundamental point of my gentrification argument, i.e., that the extent to which people identified as blacks – or Latinos, “the community,” or whatever nominal groups – participate in the publicly abetted market-driven processes that produce displacement as pursuers of intensified rents, appropriators of the profits generated by that rent-intensification, or both underscores that those are thoroughly class processes. Their apparent racial or cultural character is the halo that obscures the material dynamics driving the process – both by providing a form of capital facilitating market entry and penetration for the self-appointed representatives of the “oppressed groups” and by burnishing the imagery of authenticity on which the rent-intensification dynamic largely depends. And I point out that that is why antiracist or culturalist lines have utterly failed to explain the dynamic driving the displacement and, more important, have failed as bases on which to try to mobilize opposition. (I make a similar argument regarding school charterization and other areas of privatization and marketization of public goods.)

Not only does Backer, and from what I’ve seen others in the identitarian camp who attack or dismiss my arguments about the class character of identity politics, never engage with what I argue are the practical consequences and entailments of their identitarian line in concrete historical circumstances. But also, keeping it Victorian, the “ruling class can use this” construct gives away the deeper reality that Backer at least, and I strongly suspect others – e.g., anyone who posits the existence of a transhistorical “black liberation struggle” or “black freedom movement” or who believes metaphorically, to paraphrase my comrade Cedric Johnson, that the Black Panthers can save us – can’t recognize that class processes operate organically within populations identified as black et al., because they’re fundamentally committed to a racialist view that imputes a singular, authentic consciousness and values, aspirations and mores to racially designated populations. They define blacks and other “oppressed groups” as somehow living outside, and only acted upon by capitalism’s class contradictions – which is no more than a zip code or two away from being “peoples without history” – and, as Backer’s revealing formulation illustrates, they are incapable of attributing autonomous political agency to, or recognizing it among, people in those populations or census and social accounting categories reified as groups. And, of course, that’s consistent with the inclination, as I pointed out more than twenty years ago, among what now would be the “woke” non-POC identitarian chatterers to seek the imprimatur of, or anoint, some Racial Voice(s) whom they can retail as scriptural authority. (I became sensitive to that rhythm in American left debate more than 25 years ago and have taken care since then, mainly by avoiding fora of public left debate, not to become a version of that Voice for another leftoid taste community.)

This isn’t a serious politics, or at least, it isn’t a left politics. In its utility for making a career out of academic politics, it’s no doubt serious enough. Since it has come to my attention that, for reasons that seem instructive in this regard, crude mischaracterizations of my work and arguments have somehow become a foil in this pointless sophistry, I thought I’d make one statement to try to correct the record.

Adolph Reed is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania