When Adolph L. Reed, Jr., was 19 years old, he had to change planes in El Dorado, Arkansas. Approaching the terminal, he saw two entrances on opposite sides of the building. This was 1966. Racial segregation in public accommodations had already been illegal for two years, so there were no signs on the entrances—and there were no other passengers waiting on either end of the terminal. Even so, as a Black man who grew up in Louisiana under Jim Crow, Reed was well aware of the risks to his safety should he make the “wrong” choice. After sizing up the situation, he decided to sit on a bench outside the terminal until his connecting flight arrived from Dallas.
This scene comes about a third of the way through Reed’s remarkable book The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives. Blending memoir with political arguments and a dash of academic theory, Reed paints a compelling picture of what life was like under the segregation regime, how that regime all-too-slowly died, and the utterly transformed version of inequality and injustice that emerged in its wake.
Reed has no time for Afropessimism, the view that nothing fundamental has changed in the racial structure of American society from the time that George Washington kept slaves in the White House to the Presidency of Barack Obama or the Vice Presidency of Kamala Harris. Having grown up in New Orleans under Jim Crow, Reed knows how dramatically the world has changed—even if the world we live in is full of reminders of the old one. The Confederate statues that disfigured Reed’s native city of New Orleans until 2014 were one such reminder. Others can play out in interpersonal interactions, as Reed describes:
“In the early 1990s, Bess Watson, a cousin in my father’s generation who lived in the hamlet of Eudora, Arkansas, regularly traveled three hours each way to Memphis for cancer treatment. On one of my visits, Bess had recently returned from a treatment and was still fuming because a white nurse’s aide had asked her, regarding filling out some form, ‘Auntie, can you read?’”
The aide’s behavior, Reed writes, “was at best vestigial and naive, at worst an all too contemporary attempt to assert a superiority rooted in the codes of the dissolved ancien régime.” As a retired public school teacher who spent the bulk of her life living under that regime’s thumb, Bess Watson was infuriated for obvious reasons by both the form and content of the aide’s question. On the other hand, Reed reflects, “Bess probably could have gotten her disciplined by her employer for asking the question.”
A Deeper Kind of Equality
It’s important to clarify why Reed pushes back against “nothing has changed” narratives. It’s not that he thinks most Black people in America in 2022 are doing too well to have any legitimate complaints. He isn’t Steven Pinker, telling Black people to just be grateful that they don’t live under Jim Crow, like Pinker tells everyone to be grateful that they don’t live under feudalism. Reed is a socialist.
As he well knows, the contemporary United States is a deeply unjust society. Tens of millions of people lack health insurance in the wealthiest nation in the world, and many people who are lucky enough to have it are tied to jobs they hate in part by the fear of losing their employer-sponsored insurance plan. The overwhelming majority of Americans lack any real say in what happens to them on the job—rights they would get if they were part of a labor union. And even union membership is hardly a panacea. For example, unionized rail workers may soon have to go on strike just to win the right to take time off of work for routine doctor’s visits without being penalized.
And, of course, tens of millions have it far worse than unionized rail workers who are mistreated in many ways but who at least bring home a decent middle-class income. Around 11 percent of Americans live below even the official “poverty line,” never mind any standard we should accept as a reasonable social minimum. For example, a family of three with a total family income of $22,000 a year is not considered by official statistics to be “living in poverty” even though that’s much less than needed to pay the national average for rent on a single-family home.
And that level of economic cruelty has predictable social consequences. Security from street crime is a real concern for a massive chunk of the population. The bipartisan solution to crime for decades was not to expand the New Deal/Great Society welfare state but to pass grotesquely draconian “tough on crime” policies that failed to address the economic roots of the problem. We now have the worst of both worlds. We lock up a higher percentage of our citizens than almost any other nation on the planet and still have a much higher rate of violent crime than economically comparable countries.
Nor are these injustices evenly distributed between different demographic groups. Just before the pandemic, the white poverty rate was 9 percent, and the Black poverty rate was 21 percent. This alone would guarantee that every social ill that typically comes downstream of poverty is disproportionately present in the Black population.
There are certainly plenty of people who want to minimize the importance of the causal arrows leading from America’s apartheid history to these contemporary realities. Instead of seeing a historically generated disparity in the distribution of wealth as the cause of all the other disparities—in education, in housing, in healthcare, and in crime, incarceration, and exposure to militarized policing—they play up cultural factors. Such people are generally known as “conservatives,” and Reed regards them with an appropriate degree of contempt.
But people who agree on the basic historical facts can nevertheless apply very different analytical lenses to them and reach very different political conclusions. Should the primary lens through which we look at the injustices that immiserate so many Black Americans in 2022 be a racial one? Are “race” and “class” even best understood as distinct categories of oppression, with the former framed in a way that sees contemporary injustices as being fundamentally continuous with the Jim Crow system that shaped Adolph Reed’s early years?
Reed doesn’t think so. Instead, his analysis is that historical racial oppression has the effect of funneling a disproportionately large number of Black Americans into the bottom rung of the economic hierarchy. However, he believes that understanding the structure of that hierarchy in racial terms distorts more than it clarifies in an era when economic and political elites really are becoming much more diverse. Plenty of individual Black people really have climbed up to higher rungs and, while the proportions are very different in each group, most Americans of all races remain in the working class.
While informal discrimination is all too real and we certainly need to rigorously enforce existing civil rights laws and enact new ones, Reed worries that a “racial justice” politics that focuses on statistical disparities all too easily lends itself to the liberal-meritocratic idea that justice means that the “right” percentage of each group would live in poverty, go to substandard schools, and live in fear of the sharp edges of America’s cruel system of criminal justice, while the “right” percentage of each would be able to rise to the top of the capitalist hierarchy.
Advocates of either cash reparations or other forms of specifically racial redress are correct when they point out that the way the current regime’s injustices are distributed in a racially disproportionate way is a long-term consequence of the de jure system of racial hierarchy that has been replaced by the current racially integrated neoliberal regime. But it’s difficult to see how a majority of the population could realistically be organized and mobilized to fight for racially means-tested benefits rather than (or even in addition to) universal ones. And the idea that Black poverty is objectionable specifically because of the Jim Crow origins of the disparities carries with it the uncomfortable suggestion that poverty that doesn’t originate in a history of racial discrimination is morally legitimate.
As a matter of both principle and strategy, Reed advocates mobilizing the multiracial working-class majority of our society to smash the current economic hierarchy entirely. His frequent advocacy of this perspective in turn leads some other progressives to accuse him, sometimes quite vehemently, of being a “class reductionist” who wants to ignore specifically racial forms of oppression.
Reed has long been a central figure in these debates, and anyone who started reading this review because it was a review of his book may already have firm opinions one way or the other about many of the issues in dispute. But readers surveying this conceptual territory for the first time might find some of the formulations above hopelessly abstract.
If so, a simplified analogy I’ve used elsewhere may be helpful:
A serial killer has kidnapped ten people. The killer is an anti-Asian racist, so when possible, he likes to find Asian victims. Six of the ten victims are Asian. The other four are members of other races. Maybe one of the non-Asians was kidnapped because he stumbled on the killer kidnapping one of the others, and the other three were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. These ten people didn’t all end up in the killer’s basement in the same way and it would be callous and stupid to pretend they did. But right now they all need exactly the same thing—to work together to get out of the basement.
Toppling the Statues
Reed set down his recollections of Jim Crow and its aftermath for several reasons. One is that his generation will soon be the last that remembers what that regime was like for those who lived under it—not just the dramatic highlight reel of murdered civil rights workers and grandstanding reactionary governors and protesters facing down firehouses, but the way that ordinary people constructed their lives around the regime’s daily humiliations. Reed writes, for example, about the way his family had to make decisions about whether it was more degrading to shop at the store that let Black customers try on hats but not shoes or the one that let them try on shoes but not hats. And about how he was willing to endure the separate “Jim Crow window” at McCrory’s Five and Dime because he particularly loved their strawberry ice cream soda.
These recollections are gripping precisely because Reed serves his fury cold, laying down the minutely observed details and letting the implications speak for themselves. If you read the book and let yourself sit with the thought, for example, that a 19-year-old Reed lived in a world where quasi-official racial terrorism was so common that he didn’t dare sit on the “wrong” side of an airport terminal two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, nothing more needs to be said.
One of the few subjects on which he does allow himself to gleefully vent his disgust is the Confederacy and the way it was memorialized in the South in the 20th century. In one early passage, for example, he refers to “the Civil War (or more precisely the Treasonous Insurrection of the Slaveholding Elites of Eleven States against the Constitutional Government of the United States).”
He chronicles in detail the controversies in 2017 occasioned by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s removal of “the four most conspicuous monuments to the Confederate insurrection” in New Orleans. Reed had long since lived elsewhere, but his mother’s death led him back to the city just in time to watch it all play out.
I should say for the sake of full disclosure that I do very slightly know Adolph Reed. (His son Touré Reed is a friend and a regular guest on my show Give Them An Argument, but my acquaintance with Adolph is far more limited.) Even on that very slight acquaintance—and this is something that immediately stands out about him—Adolph Reed is so damn funny, often in the context of elegantly slamming whatever person or faction has most recently earned his scorn.
Some of that talent for scorn is on display when he describes the arguments about removing the statues that he got involved with in a “neighborhood chat group” that sounds a bit like a spiritual predecessor of the Nextdoor app. He delights in chronicling the “dizzyingly self-contradictory” sophistries offered by those neighbors who opposed toppling the statues but didn’t want to admit that they were defending the record of either the rebellious slaveholders themselves or the Jim Crow regime that had erected the monuments.
- The monuments are part of our history and therefore shouldn’t be tampered with
- They don’t commemorate slavery or racism, just an abstract southern heritage
- The Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights and an abstract “way of life”
- Removing the monuments only stirs up animosities, and we should let bygones be bygones
- Blacks celebrate their history; whites should be able to celebrate theirs
- No one really cares about the monuments except opportunistic politicians
- Older black New Orleanians don’t care about the monuments; only young militants and agitators do
- Only older blacks scarred by racism in the past care about the monuments; younger blacks want to put the past behind us and live as equals, not to keep fighting long-dead slaveholders
- The monuments have aesthetic significance as distinct representations of the architectural styles of their period
- Removing them is a diversion of public resources that would be better devoted to addressing more pressing municipal problems
Ultimately, neither this dispersed grumbling nor the organized public protests kept the statues in place. And however narrow and symbolic the victory—ultimately a question of cleaning up some unfinished business from the civil rights revolution of a generation before—Reed records his pleasure that “the city finally is rid of those public celebrations of slavery and white supremacy that I’m hardly alone in having detested all my life.”
This willingness to celebrate even incomplete victories gets to the heart of what Reed is doing in this book. Recognizing the enormity of the social change that’s taken place since his youth is important not because he wants anyone to rest on their laurels and stop pushing for further change but for precisely the opposite reason. Looking out at a world where diabetics die because their GoFundMes don’t raise enough money to pay for their insulin, and where a laid-off truck driver can be choked to death by the police for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, it’s important to remember that systems of oppression and degradation that once seemed to be etched into the fabric of reality have been overturned within living memory. If that has happened before, it can happen again.