Sunday, December 23, 2012

Herman Cain vs Adolph Reed Jr.

Adolph Reed Jr. is one of my favorite thinkers on race and class, maybe because he validated my more ignorant opinions on modern anti-racism and Hurricane Katrina. (And if that's proof I suffer from confirmation bias, well, who doesn't?)

But I was disappointed with The Puzzle of Black Republicans - I'd love to know if the Times encouraged him to downplay the class-based analysis I expect from him, of if he was simply focusing on a very narrow subject, so he wrote something that seems more simplistic than it is.

I wanted more of this:
But this “first black” rhetoric tends to interpret African-American political successes — including that of President Obama — as part of a morality play that dramatizes “how far we have come.”
Instead, he focused on the Republicans, so the rightwing pundocracy is frothing over the charge that black Republicans are tokens.

None of them noticed Reed's "including that of President Obama", who Reed was criticizing long before Obama became Prez. In 1996, Reed wrote this about Obama:
In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances.
Perhaps the most prominent complainer about Reed's Times piece is Herman Cain in The New York Times is a racist newspaper | CainTV.

I find myself in the very odd position of thinking this time, Cain is more accurate than Reed. Cain writes:
Since Professor Reed is also a black man, I wish him well in dealing with his obvious self-loathing. But he might learn a lot if he spent a little time moving in the circles I move in. He would meet lots of highly accomplished black men and women who have pursued their dreams in the capitalist system and have done exceedingly well. They vote Republican because they understand that free-market policies open up this same kind of opportunity for others.
The "self-loathing" is nonsense that may be Cain's dig at identity politics, but he is very right about one thing that Reed would agree with, I suspect: Race has nothing to do with the desire to be a capitalist or a king. For all the shortcomings of the Dems, who are as much a party of the rich as the Republicans, it's very true that the greediest of the rich know where their short-term self-interest lies. Rich black folks have every bit as much right to vote for Republicans as rich white folks do, and calling them race traitors for being true to their class is insulting and simplistic. If venting at rich folks makes you happy, insulting them is fine.

But if you want to understand power, don't be simplistic.

I would love to talk about this with Reed. My guess is that when he called Tim Scott a token, he wasn't doing it in the way identitarian Democrats would, to imply that black folks have an obligation to support Democrats. I think he was being more precise: Tim Scott is being used by cynical Republicans in the same way Obama is used by cynical Democrats. A political message sounds better in the 21st century coming from a dark-skinned speaker.

But when it's the same old message of giving more to the rich and less to the poor, having it promoted by a new spokesmodel shouldn't keep anyone from seeing that it's tokenism.


  1. A prophet like the ones in Tanakh. And just about as much chance of getting "a second invitation to dinner," pace Fredrich Buechner.