In part two of our conversation with Adolph Reed, we discuss everything from #BlackLivesMatter, policing and labor unions to Black Studies and presidential politics. As expected, Reed delivers more of his devastating criticism, while advocating for a renewed commitment to union organizing as the only way forward.
Fenderson (JF): I want to stick with you on this question about neoliberalism, race and democracy and get your take on #BlackLivesMatter’s relationship to the Democratic candidates and the disruption that happened at the July 2015 Netroots Nation Conference. You said that you felt like the disruption suggested that the movement had some leverage or that it was, like what Bruce Dixon argued, leveraging itself for the authority within the Democratic Party and its neoliberal corporate political agenda. How do you make sense of the presence and value or possible absences within Black Lives Matter, in general, vis-a-vis your idea of the kind of fraternal twins of Black authenticity and neoliberalism.
Adolph Reed (AR): Well, I’m going to say two things just to be clear. One is that when I saw Bruce’s argument, I wrote him immediately and thanked him for making it in public because I think he’s absolutely right. The other thing is I started to get involved around the edges of the Sanders campaign, and eventually became much more involved than around the edges. My main connection is through the Labor for Bernie thing but, to be clear, I’m not going to respond to this as an operative of the Sanders campaign.
AR: I don’t think much of Black Lives Matter, frankly. I’ve thought of it on the more positive end as a sort of Black Occupy Movement. At the other end of the continuum, I don’t like the politics of the people who have put themselves forward to speak in the name of Black Lives Matter. I don’t think there’s a movement there. I think there are episodic protests, and I think there are people who don’t even necessarily consider themselves to be hustlers but who have come to adulthood and to form a sense of themselves in the neoliberal environment, in which Black political discourse suffers from lack of careful and rigorous analysis.
So I’ve been struck, for instance, that Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors—I’m not so sure about Opal Tometi, but I think that she’s done it on other occasions, too—have seemed to, consciously or not, understand advancing a political cause as identical with advancing an individual brand. I saw an interview with Garza where she was insisting that it’s important for people not to change a hashtag. Her explanation to why it was important was incoherent, but you could track it back to the claim that these three women are the three people who started #BlackLivesMatter. That construct just says to me that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of politics. Like, who started the Black Power movement? Who started the Civil Rights Movement? Who started the CIO? Who started the Underground Railroad? Who started the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
I was on a panel in Chicago a few months ago where this came up, and I made the point that it’s in the nature of a 21-year-old to be stupid. I was stupid and took myself too seriously when I was 21, just like 21-year-olds do now. But the difference was that there were older activists around who were rooted in political work, and we understood we needed to learn from them. Actually the people who we’re talking about who are sort of claiming the mantle of Black Lives Matter aren’t 21-year-olds. Some of them are pushing 35. Someone like McKesson is a Teach For America [TFA] pimp; and is a proud TFA pimp. I’m not on Twitter, but people have sent me stuff that he’s tweeted. At one point a couple weeks ago he said some bullshit about how moments of social change can produce great innovations, and the two examples that he offered were the [Black] Panthers’ free breakfast program and charter schools.
One of the things that I’ve noticed for a long time as part of the atrophy of politics, is its become impolite to ask people what they represent and who they are actually speaking for. For me, that’s one of the most important things about the trade union movement. When somebody starts talking, you always know “who” and how many “whos” they actually have as a real constituency.
What I’ve been increasingly struck by with #BlackLivesMatter is that there’s no connection whatsoever. Their constituency is all about getting on TV. I did think, a couple things actually, [initially about] the moves against Sanders. One is it makes sense to go after Sanders because he’s the one whose politics would actually be closest to you and the one most likely to listen. The other thought was that they’re agents of the Clinton campaign, and I think there’s some of both things going on.
JF: I want to pick up on this point you were making about labor unions because obviously we’re in a climate where labor unions are always on the defensive and under attack. But at the same time, we’re in a climate where people are having these deep questions about policing, police violence and state violence. You also have this tension between Black elected officials and police unions. For example, Mayor Rawlings-Blake decides she’s not going to run for reelection, so it seems to me like there’s this tension between the Black political class and police unions. So I’m wondering how do those of us who are invested in labor wrestle with this question about the police unions. Of all the unions, the police unions are the only ones who have not been taking major hits. Their power has continued to amass during this neoliberal era while most unions are fighting for their lives in some way. So I’m wondering how we wrestle with this whole issue of police unions.
AR: Well, yeah, that’s a good question. I’d say first of all, in a lot of places police unions and firefighters have been taking hits. It’s funny; I got arrested in Atlantic City in the summer at a demonstration. Of course, the cops didn’t want to arrest us, but the Atlantic City Police Union is in their own contract negotiations, and the city is trying to take from them. The same with firefighters, who in a lot of states, by and large, have been on the cutting-edge of progressive politics. People who run police unions are fucked up in a lot of places, but I always say that it’s better to have a bad union than to have no union.
I think the challenge is to try to alter the culture of those police unions, and one way to alter the culture of the police unions is to alter the approach to policing that has become dominant in the last 40 years or so. Going to community policing models would be a big move in the right direction. To move as far away from that occupying army high-tech model that the LAPD pioneered, and is now the norm. Also to diversify police forces obviously has something to do with it, but it is not an answer. If you look at these killings it is just about as unlikely that Black and Latino cops will be found guilty as it is for white cops. In that sense, cop is a race basically. Fight the union when the union needs to be fought, but fight the union over the right things. Any union, and especially a union that’s a guild, is going to have as a default position the protection of its members. But the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers would not protect some incompetent electrician who causes a house fire. There needs to be an internal reform in police unions. That’s the only way it’s going to come, frankly, with a commitment to altering how the police function is interpreted and understood. That, obviously, has to mean real civilian control of police.
JF: One of the things that has unfolded here in Ferguson and St. Louis, and a lot of people don’t know this, is the base for a lot of the activity around Ferguson was stemming from the striking fast food workers in the Fight for $15 with SEIU.
AR: Ah, okay.
JF: In St. Louis, they were actually in many ways the people who were out there first and most frequently.
AR: Wow. That’s interesting. You sure as hell wouldn’t know that from the coverage, would you?
JF: Yeah, so my question to you is about the Fight for 15. I know you’ve written about living wages, particularly in Class Notes, and labor organizing has always been a central part of your political agenda, so what’s your take on the Fight for $15 and the fast food workers? Now they’re, I think, expanding it to other low-wage workers.
AR: Right. Yeah. Well, I’m not opposed to any of that. To be honest, my sense is that there’s—like with the Walmart campaign—there’s a fair amount of smoke and mirrors around the fast food campaign. The Fight for 15 is…yeah. I can’t oppose it, right?
AR: And it would be a good thing to win.
JF: Let me add a caveat, too.
JF: I’m asking this to you also based on knowing your experiences at UNC in the food worker strike.
AR: Right. Well, yeah, and I think that’s important. It’s funny, I went back to UNC in the mid ’90s to give a talk, and the same fight was still going on. Look, all workers need representation and need a voice at work. What a lot of people, especially young people, don’t get is that unless you’re covered by a union contract, the only rights that you have on the job are rights against discrimination. But enforcement of anti-discrimination law is so weak at this point that you may as well say that the only rights that you have on the job are connected with a union contract. Students sometimes get freaked out when they hear that the boss can just fire you because he didn’t like the way you look. He doesn’t have to have a reason. That’s what at-will employment means. In that sense, I certainly support those initiatives. I think the little bit of hesitation that you hear in my voice is that I’m not completely comfortable with a political approach that focuses activism on raising the standard of the really, really fucked-over workers up to the floor of the customarily not-quite-so-fucked-over. But I’m not saying that I would oppose it. This might help me make the point. When I did that article in Harper’s year ago, I had a back-and-forth with Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect about it. What struck me about that was he was pressing the Fight for 15 and the fast food stuff as a way of making an argument that the Democratic Party had somehow changed radically behind my back since 2010. It’s just striking to me.
In a way, you can look at this as accepting a large-scale politics that has the impact of driving down the ceiling of working people’s expectations. And what we get in exchange for that is a commitment to patch up and maybe raise the floor a little bit. And for me the point is to figure out how to try to build a broad base. Starting out with and focusing on improving the circumstances of the worst off, while it’s a good and important thing to do, it’s kind of more like social work than it is like politics because you don’t get from there to building the broader base.
Now, I know there’s this ACORN/SEIU understanding of organizing. I think Frances Fox Piven believes this too, that fighting for the little things will somehow magically convert into the fights for the big things. I just don’t think it works that way, and I think the evidence is on my side. Nonetheless, I support those campaigns. I’m not going to criticize them. I do remember, though, about the Walmart campaign, there’s a guy, a long-time trade union activist who was a very sharp guy. I think he’s working for the West Coast Longshoremen, now the ILWU, who wrote a really interesting document about this that made the point. The Walmart campaign has gotten nowhere because it’s all flashy SEIU kind of public relations stuff. He suggested that they would probably have gotten more, not just bang for the buck, but more impact, if they’d targeted trying to organize a medium-sized regional supermarket chain, but that would not have been flashy in the same way as the Walmart campaign.
I guess the punch-line for me would be the efforts that have or pursue an institutional traction are going to be what will help us develop the kind of movement that we need to be able to do this stuff in a more systematic way.
JF: Let me shift to ask you a question as a political scientist, in the middle of election season. How do you understand these polls? Do they have meaning, or are they just simply fodder for 24-hour news stations?
AR: I don’t think they mean very much, except in the self-fulfilling prophecy sense, right. If you have good poll numbers it helps you raise money. It helps you to get volunteers, so it’s better to have the good poll numbers. I don’t think anything polls means anything, frankly. One thing I have been talking about—in fact, I talked to a local about this when I was down in New Orleans—is the logic of an election campaign and the logic of a movement-building organizing campaign are, in important ways, exactly opposite of each other.
At the trivial level, when you are working in an election campaign, door-knocking is a practice where you want to drop the literature and move as quickly as you can to the next building. So if the old lady comes to the door and wants to invite you in and give you tea and cookies and talk about her grand babies, you absolutely don’t want that to happen. But in an organizing drive, that is exactly what you want to happen, because it is all about building deep connections with people.
That also applies to how you think about the message. In an election campaign, once you file, the most important objective is to get as many votes as you can. It doesn’t even matter whether it is a protest campaign. The objective is still to get as many votes as you can. What that means is that the pressure is to appeal as widely as you possibly can, to connect with people on evanescent levels that don’t go into too much detail about the program, which is the kiss of death, especially if you are an insurgent candidacy.
With an organizing campaign you want to do exactly the opposite. You want to build relationships, explain the worldview that your effort is connected with and have a back-and-forth with people. What happens in efforts like the Jesús “Chuy” Garcia mayoral campaign [in Chicago] and to some extent the Bernie Sanders campaign is that those two approaches and sets of objectives co-exist and can bump heads.
What appealed to me about the Sanders campaign in general is that I obviously like the stuff that he is saying and what he stands for, but what got me especially interested in it to the point of thinking that I needed to get involved with it in some way is that it became a vehicle for bringing together the people in the labor movement, people with standing and who represent stuff in the labor movement who are themselves ready to try to, once again, push in a direction of creating some independent working class politics.
There is a Labor Party connection. You probably already may have seen that National Nurses United endorsed Sanders. I mean they were part of the Labor Party. The president of the Amalgamated Transit Union is on board. He was a Labor Party guy before he was president. Mark Dimonstein who is the president of the American Postal Workers Union is also a Labor Party activist. There are enough people around with that sort of commitment to building a working class politics.
The Labor for Bernie thing is bringing it together. There is a list of more than 30,000 trade unionists who have signed up for Labor for Bernie. No matter what happens in the campaign that is a base we can go back to. That’s what got me into it. I have always been an “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of guy. I’ve never been the sort to join an organization at the top. I’ve always thought that standing and voice in an organization or an undertaking ought to be a direct function of the work that you do.
JF: This is interesting because I wanted to ask you about Donald Trump, and how he continues to tap into this interesting base. Some people would argue that he’s tapping into a right-wing populism in some ways. Somebody like a Ronald Walters would say, Trump is tapping into a sentiment of white nationalism. I know you are particularly surgical when it comes to dissecting Black intra-racial politics. I am wondering how you read the same kind of critique when it comes to the white working class and race or how you interpret this energy around the white working class.
AR: In the first place, I don’t actually know how Trump’s popular support breaks down. I know that he is definitely trying to make appeals that sound populist. I suspect that his base of support or his core base of support is the social base of fascism. That is like the downwardly mobile middle classes, basically, and people who are concerned with maintaining a sense of social respectability or whatnot. There is no shortage of people who will be susceptible to scapegoating. That’s true of the working class, that’s true in the white working class, it’s true in the Black working class, it’s true in the working class as much as it is anyplace else, because that is the nature of politics that people have come up in.
This is another reason that I think the labor movement is so vitally important, because the challenge, again, is to get an alternative interpretation and alternative message out there. I think there is a percentage or an element within the American society who are fundamentally committed to racism. There is also probably a bigger population that is open to racist arguments but who don’t necessarily set their clocks by being racist. I think it’s strategically important to recognize the difference.
I think the challenge or the objective for us is to build a base that is as broad and deep as we can get without giving up any principles. Especially in left circles that have their roots ultimately on a college campus someplace, there is an inclination to treat “the movement” like a frat. You have to show that you are worthy to belong, by embracing all of the right positions, or the correct positions, on a number of more or less arcane issues. Like not calling a transgender person, “tranny,” for instance, or not to use “Indian,” when the proper usage is “Native American.” To me that has always seemed like a “palace politics,” at most.
A lot of people expect a movement to look in its embryonic stages how it would look once its fully formed. But part of politics is bringing people along and altering people’s views through the solidarity of participating in a common struggle. In that sense, I see the importance of trying to find ways to appeal to people who have [different] views on any number of issues. There’s a need to find the points of solidarity and use the solidarity as a foundation for expanding a relationship to bring people along on these other backward views. Does that make sense?
JF: That makes perfect sense. That’s the nature of mobilizing people politically; finding the point of solidarity where you can move them to your side.
Let me shift the conversation to academia and Black studies. There is an emergence of cultural studies in the U.S. academy, which has arguably shifted from a discourse around Blacks to more abstract conversations about race and representation. Due to this we have witnessed a proliferation of attempts to engage or theorize race politics in cultures in ways that may delink the issues from the specifics of Black life. You are somebody who has always talked about material politics and race, so I am wondering what you make of this new academic discourse.
AR: That’s a good question, too. You know, going way back, some of us had the suspicion back in the 70’s that the turn to Pan African studies was a way for, I know this is going to sound tribal, a way for Africans and West Indians to get the Black studies jobs without having to know anything about the United States. I think there is an element of that going on in Cultural Studies too. Mainly Brits. So now you don’t need to know anything about the Black American experience. It’s like you’ve got a one size fits all kind of explanation. I have also been struck by the shift in the focal point of who Black Studies scholars think they are in conversation with.
I have been struck for quite some time now as well about the fact that so much of the scholarship in Black Studies hinges on a small handful of moves, that have to do with showing that Black people resisted and had autonomy, family and community. This is the reason that I have been finding it much more helpful to read stuff that was written in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s because it was less likely to be connected to this pro forma, by the numbers interpretation. Because my question about that is “How about if you just assume that slaves resisted and sharecroppers resisted, under the principle that where there is oppression people will find ways to resist somehow. Or rather, how does the scholarly discussion look if you determine that you don’t need to prove the existence of group resistance anymore? That [also] opens up the other problem of what counts as resistance and what does not, and that’s what gets you to the cultural studies issues.
Or [how does the scholarly discussion look if we] don’t need to prove that Black people sought autonomy. Because in the first place, it’s not clear if they did. You are turning the population into a ventriloquist’s dummy, people sought a lot of stuff and autonomy is an abstraction, [as is] family or community. So there is a question as well, “Why does all of the scholarship keep trading on the same theme over and over and over?” One answer is, they do it because they do it. It’s like a bandwagon effect and it’s easier than thinking. It also stems from the sense that we are still somehow fighting against the Stanley Elkins “sambo” thesis, which is reactive among other things, and no reputable historian has retailed the Elkins thesis in nearly half a century. The sexuality stuff gets stirred in and this other stuff gets stirred in so there is this element of giving props to previously unrecognized Black people who did important stuff that we should stop to honor. It’s like an awards convention. Again, the focus isn’t on trying to deepen knowledge and understanding of the complexities of the Black American life as it has evolved, in relation to its evolving context in the last few centuries.
I definitely think that the cultural studies turn is bullshit. I’ll just be blunt with it. I just think it is absolutely bullshit.
JF: It’s interesting too because I think that there’s this way that identity politics are a central part of this kind of cultural studies turn. The logic of let’s find the most marginalized aspect of one’s identity and raise it up is emerging in the scholarship in the same way that you see it emerging in the political discourse.
AR: I think that is absolutely right. I think it is the same because the practices are the same. That’s what drives me absolutely bonkers. Increasingly it seems that the people who are doing this stuff in the academy or in the academy pretending to be elsewhere understand that to be politics. In the same way that Alicia Garza and those others understand political action and self-promotion as being identical. I don’t think they are capable of seeing any difference. In that sense you talk about the cultural triumphs of liberalism. If everything is display of the self, then from one perspective that just seems like the neo-liberal utopia. I think you are right. I don’t think there is any difference.
I think intersectionality is part of it, too. Ken Warren, an English professor at the University of Chicago, told me that he is pointing out at the beginning of his grad courses that he doesn’t want to hear anyone talking about intersectionality because there is no such thing. And he’s right about that. There is no such thing. It’s another one of those alternatives to explanation that sounds like it makes sense at a level of abstraction that is high enough that you don’t have to think about what it would mean in concrete everyday practice. At that level it just sounds like a version of schizophrenia.
I think I made this argument in a couple of places, maybe in the intro to Class Notes, that the notion emerged as a way of trying to finesse the problem of essentialism in standpoint theory as people like Patricia Hill Collins articulated it. But it doesn’t resolve the problem, all it does is multiply the number of essentialized identities. It’s kind of like the mixed race notion or the idea of being biracial. Some people have actually advanced—probably not in a while, but when that stuff had its moment in the sun in the 90’s—that this was a way to get beyond racial thinking. No, all you have done is add more races to the mix.
JF: Let me shift really quickly, barring Black critics on the right like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, you have been one of the most prominent thinkers, maybe even the only one at your level, to explicitly critique what has been called the racial brokerage model, in much of Black cultural, political, and intellectual work and so at the least your criticism generates a necessary self-consciousness and at most an enduring crisis of representation, yet it is not entirely clear that this critique has been taken on and might in fact constitute an epistemological third rail in Black political and intellectual life, where do you see the Black intellectual or political world in terms of its collectivist assumptions or general self-consciousness of its place and role?
AR: It’s a very good and important question. I mean there are other people who are kind of raising that critique. I think I may know most of them. For instance, Ken Warren’s book, What was African American Literature?, was very smart. All of us who are doing this kind of work have the same complaint. It’s also an artifact of what the other side, I’ll just say for now, sees as its audience. I cut my spurs in politics in a different kind of tradition, but it seems to me to be a fundamental mark of a lack of seriousness and lack of principle, when you just pretend that the critiques haven’t been made and just keep rehearsing the same lame crap and over again.
In the 70’s I didn’t go see the Black exploitation movies that had the pretensions to be something. Every few months during that period, it would look like some film had come out that had plumbed a new depth for the genre, so I would just go and see one, sometimes with my friend Alex just to get a sense of how much worse the genre had gotten since the last time I looked. I think it bottomed out with something called, “The Black Gestapo,” but that just might be when I got to the point where I got with the Spike Lee movies and said, “Okay, I’ve done enough of this.”
I guess the sum line that I would draw under it is a lot of the stuff that’s going on in the field now is almost openly unserious intellectually. I guess to connect with your question, the chicken-shit aversion to engagement with actual intellectual debate is just … Even with what’s happening to the universities these days, these are still soft jobs that we have and it seems to me the one justification for having them is to do intellectual work with some seriousness. If they can’t do that…Truck pull up and just take them all to the cotton field.
 Bruce Dixon, “NetRoots Nation Confrontation Wasn’t About #BlackLivesMatter At All.” http://www.Blackagendareport.com/netroots-nation-confrontation
 Adolph Reed, “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.” Harper’s (March 2014); Harold Meyerson, “The Left, Viewed from Space.” The American Prospect (3 March 2014). http://prospect.org/article/left-viewed-space; Adolph Reed, “What Is Left: A Response to Harold Meyerson.” The American Prospect (3 March 2014). http://prospect.org/article/what-left.
 Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. New York: Grosset, 1959.
Adolph Reed Jr. is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Race, Politics and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960s and Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and our Retreat from Racial Equality and is author of The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics; W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism & the Color Line; Stirrings in the Jug: Black American Politics in the Post-Segregation Era, and Class Notes, a collection of his popular political writing and co-author of Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought. He has been a columnist in The Progressive and The Village Voice, has written frequently in The Nation. He served on the board of Public Citizen, Inc. and was a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party, and the executive committee of the American Association of University Professors.