As one of the sharpest minds in American Politics, Adolph Reed has remained a challenging and unique voice since his article, “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” originally published in TELOS in 1979. His subsequent works on Jessie Jackson, the Black Urban Regime, Black Academics, Labor and the Left continue to push the boundaries of Black intellectual thought, while positioning Reed as an insightful critic and bold outlier in the study of Black life. Whether it’s Political Science, African-American Studies, or Intellectual History, Reed rarely leaves the orthodoxy unchallenged. No doctrine remains sacrosanct, no tenet untested. He consistently pushes the limits of racial thinking, while deepening our understanding of class and its intra-racial impacts. For these reasons, among so many more, The Black Scholar is ecstatic to share this two-part, in-depth interview, which was conducted in September of 2015. In it, Reed expounds on everything from #BlackLivesMatter, neoliberalism, and Black elected officials, to Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and presidential politics. As insightful and unflinching as ever, Reed delivers what we believe to be one of the timeliest conversations for our Blog.
Fenderson (JF): The first question is particularly about your work, on the New Black Urban Regime and Jesse Jackson. You draw these historic links between nationalism of the ’70s and ’80s and neoliberalism, and you go as far as to say that the ideology of Black authenticity is the fraternal twin to neoliberalism. I wanted you to expound on that for us a little bit, but also I want to get a sense of how you wrestle with the notion of revolutionary nationalism, and how that would fit into this critique you’re making of Black authenticity.
Adolph Reed (AR): That’s timely, because I’m actually trying to finish an article where I elaborate on that claim a little bit more. So I’ve been wrestling with it. There’s a couple of ways to get into this. One of them is through Cedric Johnson, whose work I suspect you know, too.
JF: Yep, I know it.
AR: I came across a panel that Cedric was on, where he argued for a distinction between what he called “Black American political life”—which is the totality of political stuff that Black Americans have done for as long as they’ve been able to do it in this country—and what he called “Black ethnic politics.” His argument, which is directly connected to the Black urban regime’s notion, is that Black ethnic politics is the political style that emerged most conspicuously and successfully at the local level, but it’s also in national politics in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act with the assistance of the Ford Foundation and the poverty programs and the consolidating or the developing political class among Black Americans that emerged out of the struggles for inclusion and against urban renewal and all that kind of stuff in the ’50s.
I thought that that distinction is useful analytically because when we think about the trajectory of ethnic politics in the context of the American political system, it’s not really a transformative politics, even though people who are engaged in it are likely to think of it as transformative. It’s a class program in the same ways that any nationalism anywhere is a class program. Sociologist Rogers Brubaker, whose work centers on Central Europe and the Transylvania area, argues that people operate with a lot of different kinds of ethnicity with them all the time. And they rise and fall or get expressed or not expressed, inflected or not, depending on context. And that they’re likely to become politicized when some group of political entrepreneurs wants to pursue agendas that require the support of a population much larger than the number of people who are likely to benefit from the agenda.
It is the work that the notion of “the nation” or, in our case, “the Black community” does by making space for ambiguity in the first-person plural that’s posited by the nationalist idea. Going back to the radical edge of Black Power, which is where I got drawn to the movement, the demands for community control or Black control of Black communities or the institutions serving Black communities were ambiguous enough as a practical program that a lot of people could read different pragmatic fulfillments into a slogan like that. In fact, I just wrote that I’m confident enough that the founding generation of Black mayors in the late ’60s to the late ’70s were sincere in their aspirations to advance the interest of the Black community, but the difficulty comes in the determination of what those interests are, right?
That’s what I’m doing in this essay, too, is trying to stress the extent to which the emerging Black political class in the late ’60s was from the very beginning tied up in a tight alliance with what I’ve been calling, for want of anything better, the new, modernizing liberal democratic developmentalist elites in the cities; Philly is one and New Orleans is another. I think in its own way Atlanta may have been, too. It’s an alliance with the emerging Black political class and, thus, the Black vote, that enables the developmentalist elements to come to power. In that sense, the alliance, while there’s a period of transition during which some white elites, maybe most white elites and many non-elite whites were inclined to view any demands for racial redistribution as unjustified encroachment on secure privileges. Over the course of the next three decades, Black and white (and other) elites, as should be expected sociologically, first worked out a modus vivendi, and eventually have come to constitute a singular governing class in many cities. As the 2016 race for the Democratic presidential nomination illustrates, this is true at the national level as well.
Part of what neoliberalism is as we understand it is a set of arrangements that have evolved over the half century since the Voting Rights Act that establish “racial parity” or “gender parity,” for instance, as the effective norm of social justice and equality in American life. There’s an old joke about Hyde Park in Chicago that captures my point. Hyde Park is the place where Black and white join hands against the poor. That’s what I think Black politics is at this point. For instance, in stuff that I’ve written on post-Katrina New Orleans, I’ve stressed what Nagin did when Black people started complaining about Blacks not being permitted to come back to the city. In initial complaints, “Black” and “poor” were pretty much merged indiscriminately. Sometimes people say Black. Sometimes people say poor. Nagin’s reassurance was, first of all, that all neighborhoods would be rebuilt and, secondly, that homeowners in all neighborhoods would have equivalent voice. What that did in one swoop was deal Black people in to the extent that they were homeowners and simultaneously deal non-homeowners, that is, renters and poor people, out of the equation without regard to race. Given economic stratification by race, Black people were disproportionately likely to be dealt out basically.
To the extent that the objectives of the insurgent Black politics in the mid-1960s got systematized in the language of racial disparity, then that actually provides a notion of equality and social justice that’s completely consistent with the market-driven understanding of the way the world works. That’s Gary Becker’s notion of justice. As as my friend Walter Michaels has put it, by that standard, then you can have a society where 1% of the population controls 90% of the stuff, but as long as 12% of that 1% is Black, then we’ve got no room to complain.
JF: And then how would you extend that to the revolutionary nationalist position that remains conscious and critical of capital?
AR: Now, to speak to the nationalism question just briefly because this is also something I’ve been thinking about more and reflecting on, in retrospect, and this certainly wasn’t anybody’s intention, but what revolutionary nationalism did was provide a cover of conceptual ambiguity for the class-based program of the new Black political elite, I think, in two ways. One is in practical terms, the radicals never had more than the most fleeting and symbolic impact on shaping Black American political development after the Voting Rights Act. And it’s not like we did a lot to help ourselves, but the fact of the matter is that we didn’t have that deep impact.
I think this was the problem for the critiques that radical or the revolutionary nationalists tried to make as well as for intellectual analyses of it. I’m thinking of Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America, for instance, that to the extent that the revolutionary or the radical nationalists started out with a presumption of “the people” or the Black community as the normative standard for evaluating actions, we could never really get a handle on how to talk about what the simultaneously emerging Black political class was doing. The most that we could come up with was a standard for political judgement was who really speaks to the interests of the Black community. So the discourse of authenticity kept us from getting anywhere partly because as that new political class began to take shape, they had access to resources that we did not have.
They had social and cultural momentum, and they were able to use the symbols of racial authenticity to disqualify people, even us. In that sense, I would say two things about revolutionary nationalism. One of them, is that it never amounted to anything that had any influence. Don’t get me wrong. Through much of the ’60s, if not most of the ’70s, there was more or less organically rooted dynamic oppositional politics in Black communities around the country, but it’s just that we were never able to break into mainstream Black American discourse. The closest that we came was around the mid ’70s with the pattern of debate in journals like The Black Scholar and Black World. But even if you go back and look at Black World, or Negro Digest, the coverage of the Gary Convention is all inside a paradigm that assumes the old nationalist line about “unity without uniformity.” That sounds nice and poetic, but it’s a meaningless utterance, and that’s the way that I think the nationalist commitment sort of hamstrung the radicals. I mentioned Robert Allen’s book in this regard because I remember when it came out. Black Awakening was a powerful critique. It was right on target, but it falls apart in the conclusion, and it was clear then that it fell apart at the conclusion. It wasn’t immediately clear why, or at least not to me, but years later I came to see the reason that it fell apart. The standpoint of the interest of the Black community wasn’t really one that could help us develop the sharp, critical examination of what the Black political class was actually about and doing. As a result, we did not have what we needed to contest in that realm.
Actually, it made me think of Ralph Bunche’s reflection on what he considered [to be] the failure of the National Negro Congress, which was, as he put it, the premise that you cannot find a program that could unite the interest of every Black butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, Black employers and employees, Black tenants and landlords. You just can’t do it because the class contradictions there are fundamental. I think that what happened was the mainstream Black political class found it easy to deflect and also to appropriate the moral position of the radicals or the revolutionary nationalists who acted as voices of a left populist standpoint in Black politics. And they did not even do it disingenuously.
In one of my earlier lives, I worked in Atlanta City government in three different stints, actually, and I can recall my coworkers. Racial redistribution was not pointless. It made a difference with respect to things like zoning variances or getting in professional level civil service jobs and knowing people in the zoning board or in the planning bureau. As historian Will Jones points out, when people talk about the significance of public sector employment for the Black middle class, you tend to talk about teachers and quasi-professionals, but the most consequential difference comes with respect to postal workers, water bureau, maintenance and sanitation workers and clerks—I guess you’d say line employees who provide the material foundation and the security for a Black middle class—jobs that are unionized with civil service and trade union protection and pensions to make it possible for people to do things like buy houses and send their kid to college and stuff like that.
In that sense, transition cements popular support for the political class because it comes with those benefits. But the fact that we didn’t have any critique to make of how it was done in Atlanta, for instance, or the world’s fair in New Orleans or the giveaways to Prudential in Newark, or even the Coleman Young administration in Detroit. The scholarship tended to take the view that, not only were these new Black officials hands’ tied by not having control of the economic base of the cities, but it also presumed that this political class might have done something different if their hands had not been tied.
Over the years I’ve gotten into a lot of debates with people about this, not the least my longtime friend, comrade and former department chair, Mack Jones. The fallback position is that the white people won’t let them do it basically, but this view rests on an assumption that these elected officials were not always committed to a vision of governance of the city that combines giving priority to using public sector to subsidize private rent-intensifying economic development. What I’ve been arguing now is that the fact is the regime is so completely normalized now that you don’t have to have a Black mayor. You don’t even have to have a stable council majority because the regime is established on the principle of racial redistribution, and it makes sense in sociological terms that as we get farther and farther away from initial passage of the Voting Rights Act, farther and farther away from Jim Crow, the Black ones and the white ones are more and more likely to live in the same neighborhoods, they’ve gone to the same schools, they consume the same lifestyles and commodities, kids go to the same schools, are on the same traveling soccer teams and so on. Unless you want to hold to a notion that race doesn’t change, this is only what should be expected.
When I’m in New Orleans, I talk to people about this and my family, about how the whites are trying to move Blacks out of neighborhood X or the whites built the elevated I-10 expressway over the old North Claiborne Black business district to kill it, and now that it’s dead and been dead, they’re talking about taking it down. I keep saying, no, no, it’s not “whites.” This isn’t 1920. Whites, in the first place, aren’t the totality of the government. Now, even though Mitch Landrieu is mayor, there’s a five to two Black majority city council, and the next mayor is more likely than not to be Black also, right? It’s not like “whites” are trying to move Black people out of the way. It’s that developers are doing what those snakes do.
For people who formed their basic understandings of the world and politics under Jim Crow or in the front transition of the two or three decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the ’60s, I can understand that’s how things look to a sensibility formed under those conditions, when things often enough were just about that simple and straight-forward. But the fact of the matter is, at this point, when you look at a generation of Black governance, we’ve had the litany of neoliberal or openly and explicitly neoliberal Black mayors or other politicos; including Cory Booker of Newark, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, Harold Ford of Tennessee, Nagin in New Orleans, Kasim Reed in Atlanta, Dennis Archer in Detroit, Kurt Summers, who’s probably going to be the mayor of Chicago after Rahm. There’s a tendency to see them as racially inauthentic or sellouts or some shit like that. Matt Bai in ’08 did a really insipid article in the New York Times Magazine titled, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” The one point worth noting in that essay is where he says, the earlier generation was seen as emissaries from the Black community whereas Obama and the current generation is seen as emissaries to the Black community. Now, he doesn’t say where Obama et al are emissaries from, which would be the important point. Nonetheless, I think what that difference captures is the difference between an insurgent political class and a fully-incorporated political class.
When I think about why the hedge fund operators—who are trying to destroy public education, among other things—are so lusty in their efforts to replace the likes of the clubhouse Black politicians with this year’s bright, shiny, young thing from Princeton, there are probably a couple things going on. One of them is they feel more comfortable around this new breed of Black political figures. Not because the latter are inauthentically Black or they’re Black in a different way, but because they have a shared class experience. And also because the clubhouse politicians are still more likely to have come up through a political world in which they’ve been dependent at some point or another on teachers’ unions, public sector unions, and have some kind of alliances like that which, frankly, the Bruce Rauners of the world think is the kind of alliance that gets in the way. Among the other facets of neoliberalism that I think should be increasingly clear is its contempt for public accountability and small-d democracy.
Jonah Edelman, Peter and Marian Wright Edelman’s son, is a true believer. Booker and all these others are true believers. I’ve been teaching mainly in the Ivy League for 35 years, and I’ve been watching this type coming down the conveyor belt on the assembly line. In fact, probably as early as ’83, I had a sister in my Black American thought class at Yale who was a graduating senior, it was a grad/undergrad class. I know her aunt, who is an old friend of mine, and an English professor, and I know her parents a little bit. We were talking one night, and she said something that just led me to remark without even thinking about it, “if I didn’t know better I would think that you’re saying that the whole point of the civil rights movement was [so] that people like you could come to Yale and then go to work at Morgan Stanley,” which is what she was going to do. She said, “yes, absolutely.” Without thinking again, I said to her, “well, I wish somebody had told Viola Liuzzo that’s what the movement was going to be about because she might have stayed home in Detroit and watched her children grow up instead of going to Selma and getting killed.”
The point is, you could see it. It’s not like they’re bought off or not like they’re inauthentic. They’re as Black as any body. You know what I mean? They’re as conscious of being Black and as prideful of being Black and protective of being Black. Frankly, I think it’s their ideology that insists that we focus all of our attention on those areas where it’s at least arguable that class doesn’t make any difference for Black people. James Blake [the professional tennis player] just got jacked up by the cops in Manhattan. I remember a number of years ago Earl Graves’s son who was Yale’s star basketball player and a member of Skull and Bones got forced to spread eagle on the platform of Metro North. So what’s the affront? Is the affront that a Black person who should have been recognized as someone who was not eligible for this stress approach to policing got subjected to it? I’m sure that’s not what anybody would say, but that’s kind of how the story plays out.
 Adolph Reed, Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999; Adolph Reed. The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
 Rogers Brubaker, et al. Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2008.
 Adolph Reed. “Introduction.” In Unnatural Disaster by Betsy Reed. New York: Nation Books 2006, xiii-xxx; Adolph Reed, “The Post-1965 Trajectory of Race, Class, and Urban Politics in the United States Reconsidered,” Labor Studies Journal 41 (September 2016).
 Robert Allen. Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytical History. New York: Doubleday 1970.
 William Strickland. “The Gary Convention and the Crisis of American Politics”. Negro Digest. 21:12 (1972):19-26; Ronald Walters. “The New Black Political Culture”. Negro Digest. 21:12 (1972): 4-17; (1972). “The Gary Conference Report: National Black Political Agenda (Excerpted from the full document)”. Negro Digest. 21:12 (1972): 27-31; Amiri Baraka, (1972). “Toward the Creation of Political Institutions for All African Peoples”. Negro Digest. 21:12 (1972): 54-78.
 Matt Bai, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” New York Times Magazine (8 August 2008): MM34.
Check back later this month for #BlackLivesMatter, Labor Unions & Presidential Politics: A TBS Conversation With Adolph Reed, Part 2.