Matters of Race and Class

Since the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, we have seen nationwide protests, riots, and calls for change centered on racial issues. There are rallies and discussions in my town of Cambridge, Vermont.

In that context, consider this quote:

An obsession with disparities of race has colonized the thinking of left and liberal types. There’s this insistence that race and racism are fundamental determinants of all Black people’s existence.

That’s not a quote from a white supremacist or even someone from the right. It’s a quote from Adolph Reed in the New York Times on August 14, 2020: A Black Marxist Scholar Wanted to Talk About Race. It Ignited a Fury. Dr. Reed, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is the “Black Marxist Scholar.” The talk that he was scheduled to give was canceled. By leftists.

What is going on?

My take is that there are two camps on the left. The race camp blames most problems in contemporary society on racism. The class camp blames class oppression. The word “fury” in the NYT headline suggests the depth of disagreement between these two camps.

Because of the George Floyd protests, we have recently been hearing mostly from the race camp. But Adolph Reed is in the class camp, and he is not alone. The NYT article lists several other leftist intellectuals in the class camp: Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary (formerly of Harvard and Princeton), Barbara Fields of Columbia University, Toure Reed (Adolph’s son) of Illinois State University, and Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of the socialist magazine Jacobin.

That’s all interesting, but I think the NYT article missed something. Something close to home: the 1619 Project.

In August 2019, long before the George Floyd protests, the New York Times launched a major initiative in the race camp: the 1619 Project which seeks to “reframe American history around slavery and the contributions of African Americans.” Project director Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for this initiative.

The 1619 Project was criticized by many. See the NYT‘s response to criticism by historians here and here. But perhaps the strongest criticism came not from historians or anyone on the right, but from socialists. The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has published more than three dozen articles critical of the 1619 Project, saying that it is “a racialist falsification of American and world history” (source). See the list of articles here:

These articles are by a variety of authors, and include interviews with a number of historians and intellectuals. The socialists’ view is that “the basic division of society is class, not race” (source).

The Wall Street Journal reported the following reaction to the WSWS criticism:

To the Trotskyists, Ms. Hannah-Jones writes: “You all have truly revealed yourselves for the anti-black folks you really are.” She calls them “white men claiming to be socialists.”

(Source: The ‘1619 Project’ Gets Schooled WSJ 12/16/19)

But it is not just white men making the argument for class instead of race, as noted in the NYT article discussed above. Adolph Reed, Toure Reed, and Cornel West are African American men. Barbara Fields is an African American woman. Bhaskar Sunkara is Indian American.

Given the NYT article discussed above, the following WSWS article may be of particular interest to anyone wishing to dive deeper into these matters: An interview with political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. on the New York Times’ 1619 Project. That article was published on December 20, 2019, five months before the George Floyd protests.

It is not my purpose here to pick sides in this debate. The point here is simply to observe the surprising diversity of thought by the left on matters of race and class.

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