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Racism: not historical

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suggests that there is a natural tendency for things to get better, and things which are bad are bad because they are outdated.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.