A photo illustration shows a Black man, scholar Adolph Reed, in profile and smiling. In the background is another Black man with his face not visible, and over both, there are stripes of black and white, with scattered dark green stars, as from the US flag in different colors.
Joan Wong for Vox

Adolph Reed on why talk about reparations is counterproductive.

The past decade has seen a resurgence of discussion about reparations for slavery. But Marxist scholar Adolph Reed believes the reparations conversation is a “waste of time.”

On the third episode of 40 Acres, a special miniseries of Vox Conversations, Reed, who has long pushed back against what he calls race reductionism — the tendency to use only race to explain Black people’s life outcomes — told me that reparations wouldn’t address the societal inequalities it seeks to tackle.

Reed, a political scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, comes to this conversation as a member of the last age cohort for which Jim Crow was a lived experience. He recounts his upbringing in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and New Orleans in his new book The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives. In the episode, Reed explains how the regime enforced racism and upheld white supremacy, defining the boundaries of his daily life, from what stores he could shop in to what rides he could get on at the amusement park.

The fundamental purpose of Jim Crow, he said, was to secure and stabilize ruling class power. All Black people were unequal, but some were “more unequal and unprotected than others,” he wrote in the book. These differences in social position would shape Black politics after Jim Crow, Reed argues. He believes that Jim Crow, and not slavery, is the formative Black experience that has had the most impact on modern life.

Yet despite the atrocities he experienced under what he calls the “petty apartheid” of Jim Crow, and the fact that most of his grandparents were born not much more than a generation away from slavery in the United States, Reed is not interested in reparations. Reparations would not address wealth disparities since the racial wealth gap only concerns people rich enough to accumulate wealth in the first place, Reed told me. Instead, policies that aren’t race-based, like increasing the minimum wage, would better serve Black Americans and include other Americans, too.

And despite new Pew research showing that 77 percent of Black American adults support reparations, Reed insists that Black people are not interested in “elaborate programs of separate development,” as he wrote in the book.

I talk to Reed about what it was like to grow up under a segregationist regime and watch it crumble. We talk about the politics that have replaced Jim Crow, solutions to current-day inequality, and why he believes reparations won’t ever be a reality for Black Americans who are descendants of people enslaved in America.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Fabiola Cineas

In your book, The South: Jim Crow And Its Afterlives, you say that Jim Crow is the formative Black American experience for contemporary life. And you say that Jim Crow is that formative experience over slavery, actually. So why do you feel that that’s the case with Jim Crow?

Adolph Reed

I think there are a couple of reasons, at least. One’s pretty prosaic, and that’s that the Jim Crow order was between slavery and now, right. I’d say the 60 years after emancipation that were moments within the production of American society, that most of us know it and have grown up in it and have family members before us who grew up in it. And that means industrialization, the Great Migration, the transcendence or displacement of an agrarian-based economy, urbanization of the society and of Black Americans in particular.

The experiences of segregation, the descent of the wall of segregation and the struggle against it and its overcoming, are more immediately formative of Black Americans’ lives, practices, and self-understandings than slavery was, or is.

Fabiola Cineas

And why do you think popular history is trying to bring slavery out to the forefront and get Black Americans, I think, to think more deeply about slavery and look at slavery as the foundation of what our experiences are today?

Adolph Reed

Yeah, that’s a very good question. For at least the first two-thirds of the 20th century, it had been possible for us to assume that most Black Americans came together around at least one common objective, and that’s overcoming racial inequality and discrimination. But as my good friend and comrade professor Willie Legette has said often, “The only thing that hasn’t changed about Black politics since 1965 is how we think about it.”

And what’s happened is, with passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act — and not just passage of those laws, but the development of an anti-discrimination apparatus that followed from their passage — for racial inequality that it might have seemed to be prior to that. What that means also is that interest differentiation among Black Americans, as well as class and income differentiation among Black Americans, has extended, some would say radically, since 1965.

I believe that people who have political interests in sustaining a view that a one-size-fits-all way of talking about Black politics also have an interest in wanting to make slavery the uniformly shared Black condition.

Racial inequality gets reduced to racial disparities. And so much of arguments that focus on racial disparities as the principal, if not the sole actionable forms of inequality. For instance, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow hinges on an analogy that even she has to acknowledge doesn’t work. And that is that the carceral state is like the Jim Crow order.

Well, it’s not, it wasn’t, couldn’t be.

And the same thing with arguments that the 13th Amendment didn’t do what the 13th Amendment did, and arguments that the essential condition of Black Americans hasn’t changed since 1865, or since 1619.

The assertions that nothing has changed for Black people since Jim Crow or since slavery shouldn’t be read literally. They should be read as rhetoric.

That rhetorical move is in fact an acknowledgment that things have changed, and a call on the listeners to demonstrate that this bad thing that happened, this outrage that happened, was an atavism, right? And a call on all of us to do better.

Fabiola Cineas

You belong to the last cohort for which the Jim Crow regime is a living memory. Why do you think that’s so important to recognize that and acknowledge that right now?

Adolph Reed

Well, yeah, to be honest, to be completely honest in a way that I wasn’t totally forthcoming about in a book, when the two friends and I whom I mentioned talked about this for a number of years, what animated our ongoing discussion was the really shoddy character of both a lot of the scholarship and the personal memoirs and the popular constructions of what the era was like and what it was about.

And I had no illusions about changing that, but I thought the least we could do is get another perspective out there. One that’s a little more grounded.

Fabiola Cineas

Yeah. Because you mentioned that these photos and images that we have — because my generation certainly learned about it this way, too — through the photos of the water fountains, the segregated restrooms. What do you feel is missing from those images of the Jim Crow era?

Adolph Reed

Yeah. Look, I mean, those things were real. When I describe it as petty apartheid, it produced indignation, and people sometimes forget that the point was never “separate but equal.” The point was separate and unequal. But what’s missing is that these were more than inconveniences, certainly, but they weren’t a deep structure of the segregation order. And that’s why taking into account where it came from is helpful.

The dominant planter-merchant-capitalist class had lived in what even I thought for a long time was irrational anxiety about the prospects of poor working-class whites and Black free people forming electoral alliances that would challenge [the] absolute prerogative, like a ruling class.

But it wasn’t irrational anxiety, because there were enough instances of that kind of political alliance having won victories here or there, to keep it real. And it just sent the message to the ruling class that it was time to take radical action to stop this stuff. And then Jim Crow was the institutionalization of that new regime.

And among other things that people don’t ever think about is … the ways that whites were affected by Jim Crow.

Because it was not a social order that whites imposed upon Blacks. It was a social order that some white people imposed on everybody else, Black and white. But by disenfranchising Blacks — and, depending on the state you were in, maybe up to a quarter of the white voting population — you took away the potential for political alliances based in the working class and among poor people and farmers. So even those whites who were still able to vote had to make their choices within a context that was heavily skewed to favor the agendas of the ruling class.

Fabiola Cineas

So what came to replace the Jim Crow order? And I’m curious what parallels you see between today’s order and what existed during Jim Crow.

Adolph Reed

We’re still evolving away from it, right? After 60 years now, practically, of the upwardly mobile Black and white people going to the same schools, living in the same neighborhoods, belonging to the same club, going to the same coffee shops, what one would expect sociologically is that while race discourse remains as an organizing principle for factions and alliances, you would expect we would have evolved much more toward a governing regime that’s more seamlessly interracial. And I think we by and large have. I think that, depending on circumstances and context, everybody in the elite level has an interest in emphasizing race to one degree or another and in some context.

An old joke about the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, near the University of Chicago, was [it was] a place where Black and white lock arms against the poor.

And I think that’s more what the governing order in most cities and in the country is at the moment.

Fabiola Cineas

What is the problem with asking the federal government for reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing discrimination?

Adolph Reed

Black people are concerned about the same stuff that other working people are concerned about: economic security, health care, housing jobs, education. And there’s no way we’re gonna get those just for Black people. And I think the effort to do so may as well be a recruitment campaign for the KKK.

I’ve been asking the same question for more than 20 years now: How do we propose to develop a political coalition that can prevail on a reparations campaign? And nobody’s given me an answer yet, because in a democracy — even a nominal democracy like this one — prevailing would depend on generating, if not an absolute majority coalition, at least a big enough plurality to encourage public officials to follow through on the demands. And there’s no way we can do it. The nature of the demands undercuts the capacity to build a coalition that could pursue them.

Fabiola Cineas

But aren’t we the closest we’ve ever been? Especially if you look at HR 40, the amount of lawmakers who have signed on is unprecedented. And we do have a diverse coalition of people calling for Biden to just go ahead and for example, create a reparations task force by executive order. Has Biden responded? No, but some people argue that this is a sign of hope, the fact that reparations advocates have gotten this far.

Adolph Reed

Well, I don’t think they’ve gotten that far. HR 40 has been there for a while. It’s also the case that people sign on to bills that they know have no chance of passing all the time. And sometimes they sign on to them because they know they have no chance of passing, but even if HR 40 were somehow magically to pass, what it would do is authorize a study commission or a task force or something. And, I mean, that’s no closer to the reparations than we are right now. It’s a symbolic move.

And it’s not a moral question. It’s not a question of who deserves what, right? I mean, that’s a question that you talk about at church on Sunday. That’s not a question for politics.

Fabiola Cineas

But what about examples, like the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act? That was something that took many, many tries to get passed; finally got passed this year. I think other symbolic things — like maybe Juneteenth legislation that Biden recently passed to make that a federal holiday — a lot of these things have been in the works for a long time, and people thought that these things could not get anywhere.

Adolph Reed

Right. But none of them takes a dollar out of the federal budget or any taxpayer’s pocket. And that’s the crucial difference. I know how these things go. I’ve seen ’em over and over. And, in fact, I saw this in the 2020 campaign. What it got to was, “Well, how about if we just call this reparations?” Right? And that to me seemed like an expression of what’s really counterproductive about symbolic politics. Because a commitment is more toward winning support for something that you can somehow twist around and call reparations than it is to winning anything concrete.

The 40 Acres Vox Conversations series explores where the reparations debate stands now and where it is headed. This series is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Canopy Collective, an independent initiative under fiscal sponsorship of Multiplier. All Vox reporting is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Views expressed are not necessarily those of Canopy Collective or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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