His unfortunate first name notwithstanding, there is probably no one who checks more right boxes for the Democratic Socialists of America than Adolph Reed, and still they took away his rose.
Adolph Reed is a son of the segregated South, a native of New Orleans who organized poor Black people and antiwar soldiers in the late 1960s and became a leading Socialist scholar at a trio of top universities.
Along the way, he acquired the conviction, controversial today, that the left is too focused on race and not enough on class. Lasting victories were achieved, he believed, when working class and poor people of all races fought shoulder to shoulder for their rights.
To be fair, socialism isn’t my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a concept that both exists and deserves discussion, even if only to recognize why it should not replace capitalism, why it doesn’t work. In undergrad, my labor history prof was a wobbly. No one persuaded me more to be a capitalist than Roger Keeran. That’s how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work. Sometimes you make the sale. Sometimes you don’t.
Could there be a better “fit” than Adolph Reed and the Manhattan branch of the Democratic Socialists? One wouldn’t think so.
In late May, Professor Reed, now 73 and a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, was invited to speak to the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter. The match seemed a natural. Possessed of a barbed wit, the man who campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders and skewered President Barack Obama as a man of “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics” would address the D.S.A.’s largest chapter, the crucible that gave rise to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a new generation of leftist activism.
His chosen topic was unsparing: He planned to argue that the left’s intense focus on the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black people undermined multiracial organizing, which he sees as key to health and economic justice.
One would be wrong.
Notices went up. Anger built. How could we invite a man to speak, members asked, who downplays racism in a time of plague and protest? To let him talk, the organization’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus stated, was “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.”
What could this black Marxist possibly say that would so outrage this cohort of Che-shirt wearers?
“We cannot be afraid to discuss race and racism because it could get mishandled by racists,” the caucus stated. “That’s cowardly and cedes power to the racial capitalists.”
Hey, Reed discusses race and racism. He just calls bullshit on it. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist, but that it deflects attention from what he believes to be the more fundamental societal problem, and that the mutual interest of the poor in fighting “economic injustice” together is greater than fostering racial divisions.
Nope. Not even the socialists were willing to listen to this black guy’s racial heresy.
Amid murmurs that opponents might crash his Zoom talk, Professor Reed and D.S.A. leaders agreed to cancel it, a striking moment as perhaps the nation’s most powerful Socialist organization rejected a Black Marxist professor’s talk because of his views on race.
And then some other Harvard black guy decided to add his two cents to the mix.
“God have mercy, Adolph is the greatest democratic theorist of his generation,” said Cornel West, a Harvard professor of philosophy and a Socialist. “He has taken some very unpopular stands on identity politics, but he has a track record of a half-century. If you give up discussion, your movement moves toward narrowness.”
But “mercy” will not be shown this heretic who refuses to adhere to the orthodoxy of the moment.
“Adolph Reed and his ilk believe that if we talk about race too much we will alienate too many, and that will keep us from building a movement,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton professor of African-American studies and a D.S.A. member. “We don’t want that — we want to win white people to an understanding of how their racism has fundamentally distorted the lives of Black people.”
And his “ilk”? Harsh. Worse still, that’s not really what Reed contends, but rather spins Reed’s views through the racial salad mixer.
Those programs would disproportionately help Black, Latino and Native American people, who on average have less family wealth and suffer ill health at rates exceeding that of white Americans, Professor Reed and his allies argue. To fixate on race risks dividing a potentially powerful coalition and playing into the hands of conservatives.
“An obsession with disparities of race has colonized the thinking of left and liberal types,” Professor Reed told me. “There’s this insistence that race and racism are fundamental determinants of all Black people’s existence.”
But the point here isn’t whether Reed is right, but that his refusal to accept the premise that everything is about race, that all problems derive from race and demand racial cures, is all it took for the Democratic Socialists of America, and one of its most virulent chapters, to cancel him. It’s not just that they disagree, but they could not bear to hear him out.
“People have very strong concerns,” Chi Anunwa, co-chair of D.S.A.’s New York chapter, said on a Zoom call. They said “the talk was too dismissive of racial disparities at a very tense point in American life.”
Professor Taylor of Princeton said Professor Reed should have known his planned talk on Covid-19 and the dangers of obsessing about racial disparities would register as “a provocation. It was quite incendiary.”
So much for “let’s have a discussion.” When a black Marxist is intolerable to the unduly passionate, there isn’t a chance in hell for the rest of us. Tolerance ain’t what it used to be when even a black socialist can’t talk about race without being burned at the stake for it.