On the advice of a respected colleague, I listened to Doug Henwood’s interview with Adolph Reed, in which he critiques Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations.” I was not impressed.
I would advise my students to review the argument with a critical eye or ear. I found Adolph Reed’s polemical remarks lacking in substance and coherent argumentation. Reed went low, early and often, engaging in logical flaws: straw man argumentation, ad hominem (character) attacks (sadly, he remarked that Coates must be an agent of the state) and sentimentalism to distraction (he admitted being flustered by the young writer). Reed appeared animated for petty reasons: over the notoriety heaped on the young journalist. This was just as troubling as West’s “critique.” The most problematic part of the interview was his failure to address the substance of Coates’ argument in the “Case for Reparations.” Coates, to his credit, leveled a clearly outlined and well articulated story of the plunder of Black wealth, life and limb,
From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. —Coates
What is dangerous here is the suggestion that racial narratives do not matter no matter how well-argued. What one hears from Reed is that race-based social justice remedies are always like rocks thrown by nationalist detractors from the sidelines just when multiracial coalitions for the redress of social inequalities are queuing up. The problem with this argument is that racially-based social justice arguments do not in and of themselves inhibit such class-based platforms like Sanders‘. They become objectionable to the left because, ostensibly, they will fracture the incipient multiracial coalition, which is just now ready to deliver serious class-based reforms. Reed needs to get real! If whites are ready to support redistributive programs, they are not hindered by research and discussions of the need for reparations. Ultimately, Reed’s comments can be and will be used to assuage American consciences of their complicity in the crime against humanity that was Chattel slavery. If anything, people of conscience should redress Coates for not assessing the crime of rendering Blacks not just chattel, but real estate.
The most problematic part of Reed’s argument is its hyper-pragmatism: he appears willing to elide the collective harm delivered by 339 years of enslavement, three generations of neo-slavery and another 100+ years of segregation if raising such histories complicate class-only analyses. Coates is not the problem, but Reed and his role as amanuensis for the white left. Coates is not making a race-only argument. He addresses race and class issues in the article, which admittedly omits whole tracts of racial history: the Homestead Land Act fiasco, the history of anti-African pogroms pre- and post-enslavement, and the history of African cultural loss effected by enslavement. These histories appear invisible in Reed’s perspective. Sadly, he is not interested in those arguments because they would seem to further divorce him from his left allies. I think we need these allies, but not at the cost of omitting major parts of the historical narrative just because it’s inconvenient. Reed, any scholar, could do better than this.