Voyou Désœuvré

Towards the end of this interview with Doug Henwood, Adolph Reed criticizes the tendency to describe the effect of race on contemporary politics using analogies drawn from the racism of the past—as a “new slavery” or “new Jim Crow.” I was reminded of Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”:

One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

It’s no accident that the description of contemporary racism in terms of past racism appeals to progressives, because the structure of the argument is itself progressive; that is, it suggests that there is a natural tendency for things to get better, and things which are bad are bad because they are outdated. This view presents racism as an atavism, and, in doing so, actually downplays the importance and persistence of racialized inequality; racism, it suggests, should have ceased to exist some time back in the 50s, but mysteriously has failed to do so.


  1. bobfrombrockley (Bob Gordon), 8:50 pm, September 21, 2011

    Racism: not his­tor­ical › Voyou Desoeuvre: http://t.co/0NiEds9W

  2. Sunday Reading « zunguzungu, 4:23 am, September 25, 2011

    […] Racism: not his­tor­ical […]

  3. shag, 5:45 am, October 21, 2011

    I got a kick out of the string of words to say what the vilified William Julius Wilson once said, “The Declining Significance of Race”. It would be embarrassing to reveal that you’re ultimately siding with Wilson, so basically say what Wilson has been saying for a long time, but pretend like you don’t know it! That way, your analysis looks really fresh and cool AND you don’t have to be associated with the putatively odious Wilson.

  4. voyou, 3:17 pm, October 21, 2011

    I’ve never read Wilson, so I guess I should do that. As I understand it, though, his position depends on sharply separating race and class, and then arguing that class is more significant than race. I guess Henwood’s position is pretty close to that, and sometimes Reed says things that sound similar, too (although sometimes he seems to be saying something else, so I’m not sure). I don’t think that’s my position, though; I think there are institutions which produce effects where race is significant, without there necessarily being explicitly racist intentions anywhere.

    Of course, that’s hardly a fresh and cool position, and that’s actually something that annoyed me about the interview. Henwood and Reed seem to act like everyone who ever mentions race is Tim Wise, whereas I think an analysis of racism which sees it as more structural, and more connected to, rather than a completely separate axis of oppression from, class, is pretty common among people who think of themselves as anti-racists.

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