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Beware the Race Reductionist

If you’re #online, like I am, you’re probably already familiar with the main argument. It goes something like this: If a policy doesn’t resolve racism “first,” it’s at worst racist, and at best, not worth pursuing.

Crowds in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the The March for Jobs and Freedom, also known as the March on Washington for civil rights, on Aug. 28, 1963. (Photo: AP)

A hostage situation has emerged on the left. And progressive policies like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, free public education, a Green New Deal, and even net neutrality, are the captives.

The captors? Bad faith claims of bigotry.

According to an increasingly popular narrative among the center-left, a dispiriting plurality of progressives are “class reductionists” — people who believe that economic equality is a cure-all for societal ills, and who, as a result, would neglect policy prescriptions which seek to remedy identity-based disparities. 

Of course, race and class are so interwoven that any political project that aims to resolve one while ignoring the other does a disservice to both. As Senator Bernie Sanders I-VT, presumptive leader of the progressive movement, put it this spring when I asked him about the never-ending race versus class debates: “It’s not either or. It’s never either or. It’s both.”

From the full piece: "Ending racism is a necessary, critical goal. But that goal should be pursued in tandem with efforts to address the effects of racism. The wage gap, the health care gap, the education gap, the debt gap — all these disparities would be narrowed by progressive, intersectional economic programs. As popular opinion coalesces around these policies, it’s crucial that we not let our best impulses be weaponized against our interests, any more than conservatives weaponize the worst impulses of their constituents against theirs."


The fear that identity-based issues might be “thrown under the bus” in favor of more populist, “universal” policies is legitimate: The Democratic Party has certainly done as much in the recent past for causes less noble than class equality. But the irony is that anxiety over class reductionism has led some to defensively embrace an equally unproductive and regressive ideology: Race reductionism.

If you’re #online, like I am, you’re probably already familiar with the main argument. It goes something like this: If a policy doesn’t resolve racism “first,” it’s at worst racist, and at best, not worth pursuing.


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According to one popular iteration of this theme, Medicare For All is presumptively racist and/or sexist because it won’t eliminate discriminatory point-of-service care, or fully address women’s reproductive needs if it’s not thoughtfully designed. Perhaps you remember Rep. James Clyburn’s claim that a free college and university plan would “destroy” historically black colleges and universities. Maybe you’ve heard that the minimum wage is “racist” because it “Kills Jobs and Doesn’t Help The Poor,” or that it’s an act of privilege to care about Wall Street corruption, because only the wealthy could possibly mind what the banks do with the mortgages and pensions of millions of Americans. Perchance you’ve even been pitched on the incredible notion that rooftop solar panels hurt minority communities.

Libertarian journalist Conor Friedersdorf recently entered the fray with a piece titled, “Democratic Socialism Threatens Minorities.” His argument? That “top down socialism” (which progressives want just about as badly as they want top down capitalism) would create a tyranny of the majority and put minorities at risk. Completely ignoring the market failures of our current system, and eliding the widespread prejudice and violence black Americans face under capitalism, he concern-trolls by imagining a world in which black women struggle to find suitable hair products. Of course, this is a world we already live in. 

Friedersdorf, though, was merely building an addition on a house of cards first constructed by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential primary campaign: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” she famously asked, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

It was a daring and adroit deception: Ignore this structural salve that would upset the status quo, she implied, because it won’t resolve that more personal, more visceral issue which goes straight to the heart of your identity.

Notice that this trick is aimed at policies which would threaten significant corporate or entrenched interests: The insurance industry, the banking industry, the energy sector, lenders. As Berkeley Law professor and leading scholar on race Ian Haney-López observed as we discussed the motives behind this framing, mainstream Democrats, like Republicans, “are funded by large donors. Of course they’re concerned about the interests of the top 1 percent.” It’s almost as if the real agenda here isn’t ending racism, but deterring well-meaning liberals from policies that would upset the Democratic Party’s financial base.

Read the full article at The Intercept.

Briahna Gray

Briahna Gray

Briahna Gray is the Senior Politics Editor at The Intercept. She is also an opinion columnist with a focus on progressive political messaging, as well as issues relating to identity and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Current Affairs, and The Week, among others. Her insights regarding the weaponization of identity in the contemporary political sphere can be found in the Fusion documentary “Trumpland: Kill All Normies,” as well as a variety of podcasts and online programs, including NPR, TYT, and The Real News.

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