On the “New Jim Crow”: An Interview With Adolph Reed

by Doug Henwood on March 22, 2013

The following is an excerpt from the March 7 episode of Doug Henwood’s Behind the News radio show, embedded below. Henwood interviewed Adolph Reed, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, about his critique of recent films about race, including The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Django Unchained. During the interview, Henwood and Reed had the following exchange, on the concept of “the New Jim Crow” popularized by Michelle Alexander’s award-winning book of the same name. Transcribed and lightly edited by The North Star, with kind permission from Henwood and Reed.


Doug Henwood: The phrase “the new Jim Crow” is making the rounds a lot. What’s wrong with drawing that parallel?

Adolph Reed: A number of things. First, not to be pedantically historicist about this, but it’s not. Jim Crow was a regime that was brought into existence after the defeat of the populist insurgency at the end of the 19th century as a set of mechanisms for consolidating class power in the South, in particular that of the planter-merchant class. And it was a set of institutions, both those of petty apartheid and the grand apartheid of denying citizenship rights to black Americans, that were rooted to that political-economic moment and the regime of class power that was anchored in plantation elites. One of the reasons the Jim Crow system was vulnerable to attack after World War II in a way it hadn’t been previously—because black people never liked it and tried to stop it as much as possible—was that it had lost a good bit if its economic foundations. So the structure of petty apartheid wasn’t as essential anymore to maintain class and racial hierarchies.

So, that’s a problem. I would argue that this is not just a problem of historicist pedantry, because the tendency to disconnect the social practices analytically from the institutional arrangements in which those practices were embedded really kind of cuts the historicity of the past and the present out of the picture. And besides, it can’t be just like Jim Crow. I remember I was at a conference a number of years ago at Harvard Law School when Derrick Bell was still on the faculty there. Bell was on a panel at this conference, and he insisted that nothing really had changed for black Americans since 1865. And I’m looking at this—here he was, a full professor at Harvard Law School, making the assertion that nothing had changed. Well, obviously something had changed, because he was in Harvard Law School without a broom in his hand.

The argument by analogy simply doesn’t work. And of course the poster version of this argument now, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, kind of makes this point for me, because she dangles the analogy throughout the first two thirds of the book, and finally she says, Well, it doesn’t really work, because this isn’t really Jim Crow, and there are a lot of ways that it’s different. At best, it’s a nice-sounding slogan, but it’s not one that helps us understand anything. And the stronger version of my argument would be that it does just the opposite.

D.H.: Of course, there are vast differences in experiences of the criminal justice system, from stop-and-frisk in the streets of New York to residents of death row in Texas. That, people say, is Jim Crow-ish. What do you say?

A.R.: Well, I don’t know what it gains for us to call it Jim Crow-ish. It might be better to make sense of it on its own terms, that is, in relation to the drug war, to policing, urban decline, and the changing logic of metropolitan redevelopment in cities over the last two or three decades, which have produced this vast new lumpenproletariat or marginal working class—I’m going to try to avoid the neologisms like precariat—that’s available for casual labor and fodder for the criminal-justice industry and for the therapy industry. I think it would make sense to discuss those phenomena, or in fact the general phenomenon that would encompass all those taxa, on their own terms, without the analogy to Jim Crow. Among other reasons, what’s the agency? The New Jim Crow argument, it seems to me, posits racism as an ontological force that imposes itself trans-contextually on historical circumstances. Therefore, ironically, the argument separates racism from its embeddedness in the structures and dynamics that reproduce American capitalism on a regular basis—like, for instance, presumptions of racial hierarchy that are built into assessments of skill in the labor market and into residential real estate value quite explicitly.

That would be a conversation to have that would point in some policy directions, but I don’t see what good ontologizing racism, as the analogy does, does for us, except for those people who are committed to a view that racism is America’s original sin or the national disease or a pathology that will undercut any progressive movement, and so on. To my taste, that’s just way too close to the Nation of Islam’s Yakub theory.

D.H.: Funny to find myself quoting Milton Friedman at a moment like this, but he did say once in a debate with George Shultz over fiscal policy that when you start resorting to metaphors, you’re admitting that your argument is weak.

A.R.: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, God forbid I should also find myself endorsing anything Milton Friedman said, even at the level of the sun shining outside. But that sounds pretty good to me.

D.H.: You said The Help located Jim Crow in attitudes and personal relations rather than in law, very explicit, racialized law. So this New Jim Crow is what, attitudes?

A.R.: I guess so. This is where the metaphor climbs the scale of mysticism, because what you get are attempts to square the circle between references to structural forces and disembodied ideology. So this is where the “takes on a life of its own” thing becomes not a metaphor but in effect a substantive claim, or a metaphor that’s treated like a substantive claim. You get convoluted discussions of structural racism, systemic racism, institutional racism, all of which feel instructively like Thomas S. Kuhn’s description in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions about what happens when interpretive paradigms are in crisis, and it springs leaks all over the place. and the adherents have to keep patching. You spend more time patching up ad hoc explanations of anomalies that should be explained by the paradigm but aren’t, which are the ultimate indication that the paradigm is experiencing a crisis of its own interpretative authority. And I think that’s where we are with anti-racism at this point. Look, there are only two possibilities. Either there’s an idea that drives the movement of the structural forces and gives them teleological direction—let’s just call it God—or there’s not. And I think a lot of the argument that underlies the appeal either to Jim Crow, or to slavery for that matter, rests on an attempt to have that question both ways or to split the difference. And you can’t. It’s a difference that can’t be split.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve March 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm

The argument is not that racism is America’s original, and transhistorical sin. The argument is that racism is revitalized in efforts to renew conservatism–over 100 years ago, against populism, and again at the end of the sixties.

To call something the new Jim Crow (or the new anything) is not to say it is the same as–merely that there are parallels (incidentally, it is difficult if not impossible to do intellectual work without metaphors). This piece fails to take up, let alone dismantle, any of the parallels.

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PatrickSMcNally March 22, 2013 at 2:29 pm

I wasn’t surprised to learn that George Soros was and his foundations were behind the funding of Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. That book is taylored to the goal of obfuscating class lines behind race in a way that establishment liberals would love. Contrary to what is sometimes implied, there actually are more white people in prison today than blacks. When people imply that more blacks are in prison what mean is that the percentage of black prisoners in ratio to the percentage of the black population is notably higher than the percentage of white prisoners in ratio to the percentage of the white population. That much is indeed true. But Alexander (as well as some other commentators that I’ve run across) try to make it sound as if the sharp rise in imprisonment of whites is nothing more than a trick to hide a campaign that is really directed against blacks. That is a very misreading of the real direection which things have followed.

Since the stagflation crisis of 1971 there has been an ever rising class war against workers which has entailed a significant rise in imprisonment rates and much else. Not surprisingly, in light of the fact most black people had been held down in the lowest strata while the real Jim Crow was in force, it is easy to come up with tables of statistics showing the worst effects of this class war have been most notable within colored communities. But that should not mislead anyone into concluding that this in any real sense a race war. On the contrary, the last decades have shown a steady deliberate tendency by the highest levels of capitalism to cultivate a genuine black bourgeoisie so that privilege loses its association with skin-color. That is just as fully a part of upper class policy as is the welcoming of gays into the military.

Playing down the importance of the steep rise in imprisonment rates among whites and insinuating that the whole thing is just a trick to cover a race war is a perfect trick by people like Soros & Alexander. It only further postpones the recognition of a common class interest by white workers who have not been as hard as blacks in impoverished neighborhoods. In this area, Alex Jones is visibly more progressieve than Michelle Alexander. Jones actually will make some effort to communicate, even if in a crude way, the idea to working whites that a growing prison-industrial complex threatens them too.

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Bruce A. Dixon March 22, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Although there are certainly problems with “new jim crow” as analysis, it is absolutely, wildly untrue that whites are a majority of US prisoners. See “Prisoners in 2011” the authoritative report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p11.pdf
White prisoners are not only outnumbered by black ones, they are quite separately outnumbered by Latino prisoners as well. Whites have not been a majority in US prisons at any time since the 1960s.

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Ismael Diablada April 1, 2013 at 9:37 pm
Richard Estes March 22, 2013 at 5:24 pm

One of the sharpest differences between now and the Jim Crow era is that there are black cops, black judges and black politicians participating in the effort to put black men in prison large numbers. Of course, they also put poor whites and Latinos there, too. For those who want to apply a Jim Crow template to the current situation, this requires an explanation.

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Gregory A. Butler April 2, 2013 at 11:00 am

Ever heard of the concept of “institutional racism”?

Also, did you know that, during the years of King Leopold’s atrocities in the Belgian Congo, the vast majority of the Force Publique military policemen carrying out the atrocities were Congolese Black Africans?

Also, during Apartheid in South Africa, the majority of the officers of the South African Police on the front lines of enforcing Apartheid were Black Africans?

Police racism isn’t about individual White cops abusing Black people because of personal bigotry – it’s about policing as an institution being used to target African Americans.

The race of the cops enforcing the racist policies does not matter.

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Pham Binh April 2, 2013 at 11:50 am

The “color” of the institutions does matter. It’s a big reason why there’s no resurgence of Black nationalism despite the appalling similarity in conditions in the ghettos up north now compared to the 60s. Racism has changed and anti-racism must change with it.

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Aaron Aarons April 4, 2013 at 11:21 am

In South Africa today, not only low-level Black flunkies are defending a system that privileges whites over Blacks, but a Black elite is running that system, at least on the public (government and state) side. The ideology of white supremacy has more-or-less disappeared in that country, at least in public, but both white and capitalist economic supremacy, defended with neoliberal ideology, are stronger than ever.

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Pham Binh March 22, 2013 at 11:39 pm

What was distinctive about Jim Crow was that it was a system of de jure racism. What “the New Jim Crow” refers to is de facto racism, something rather different. That’s why Malcolm X didn’t speak about a “northern Jim Crow” when he railed against northern racism — the comparison wouldn’t make much sense. From what I’ve seen, the “new Jim Crow” does not resonate except among the choir of the already converted, i.e. the political/activist/intellectual milieu. Richard Estes is right. It’s a bit ridiculous to talk about a “new Jim Crow” when we have Black cops, mayors, CEOs, and now, a Black president, all of which are signs of the dramatic expansion of the Black bourgeoisie and petty-petty-bourgeoisie from the 1970s onward. Using this terminology indicates a real failure to 1) understand race and racism in the 21st century and 2) connect with the experience of victims of racism today whose political frame of reference when they speak out is rarely Jim Crow.

Contrast this with the way the language of apartheid has caught hold among Palestinian solidarity activists and received the endorsement of Desmond Tutu. This is because there really are undeniable parallels between South Africa and Israel; it’s not just the invention of intellectuals.

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David Berger April 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm

PHAM BINH: What was distinctive about Jim Crow was that it was a system of de jure racism.

DAVID BERGER: This goes only half way. What was crucial about Jim Crow is that it was backed up by the power of the state and by armed individuals (the KKK) who were not formal parts of the state.

PHAM BINH: What “the New Jim Crow” refers to is de facto racism, something rather different. That’s why Malcolm X didn’t speak about a “northern Jim Crow” when he railed against northern racism — the comparison wouldn’t make much sense.
DAVID BERGER: De jure racism in the North ended only in the early 60s. I don’t know when job discrimination became illegal, but housing discrimination was still legal in the early 1960s. Malcolm may not have used the term “northern Jim Crow,” but it was certainly used in the Civil Rights movement.

http://books.google.com/books?id=oLjYbzkGWk8C&pg=PA492&lpg=PA492&dq=malcolm+x+northern+jim+crow&source=bl&ots=_7Au-kKBdo&sig=nMjPinHOYnBlo1rLAWHNfwYzslQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Vg5bUfOXB8-04APc-IH4Bg&ved=0CFkQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=malcolm%20x%20northern%20jim%20crow&f=false

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Steve K March 23, 2013 at 12:51 pm

I don’t think the existence of a small black bourgeoisie undercuts the suggestion that the right today rules in part by relying on white supremacist ideology. What needs to be accounted for, though, is how today’s white supremacist ideology is different from that of the 19th century’s. (The mere fact that it is different is not grounds for claiming that this is not racism at work, as racism itself changed significantly between the 1500s to the 1900s.) I think we have a belief among a large section of the white working class that white people are inclined (for whatever reason) to embody proper values (those suited to neoliberal capitalism) whereas people who are not white are not inclined to have those values and thus need to be dealt with violently. Maybe this is now an ideology of cultural supremacism (as opposed to the 19th century’s beliefs about blood), but I don’t see any reason to say that it has no connection to racial categories (and, in fact, older forms of white supremacism were more flexible on the connection between things like race, culture, and climate). This point still holds: the right today, like the right in the 19th Century, mobilizes a large section of the white working class to oppress other sections of the working class by appealing to racial stereotypes about people of color. If we don’t take this idea seriously, then we miss the fact that a large section of the working class are not going to support socialism; this section of the population is simply going to have to be defeated. This was OWS’ major underlying failure: the refusal to admit that a large section of “the 99%” likes inequality (even if it is not in their self-interest). If the above understanding of the function of race contradicts Michelle Stephens’ argument, then Reed and Henwood should have explained how. (Maybe Reed would consider this to be more “disembodied ideology,” but if so he should take care to explain his points better. There is nothing remotely “mystical” about the claim either that a) ideas may cause people to act in certain ways or b) that ideologies may exist in some separation from the material bases of which they were originally interpretations. If we’re talking about ideologies that have absolutely no relation to broader class struggles then maybe we have a problem from a Marxist perspective, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.)

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Pham Binh March 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm

– How does one combat “white supremacist ideology”?

– Aren’t the changes in class/racial structures of this country more important than how ideological functions have changed?

– Racism these days is more complicated than it was in Malcolm and Martin’s time. Talk of “the white man” doesn’t have the same resonance it once did. The man who killed Trayvon Martin was not Anglo white but Hispanic white. After 9/11, large numbers of Blacks and Hispanics supported the racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims. Is any of that directly or indirectly related to “white supremacist ideology?”

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C. Derick Varn April 3, 2013 at 12:49 am

“Aren’t the changes in class/racial structures of this country more important than how ideological functions have changed?”

That seems to be a minimum, and yet it’s hard to say that “White supremacist ideology” has gone away. The question is what do you think the class structures are that support and it, and why?

Why is that two specific racial minorities are targeted, even by cops and business people of the same race, as the primary group proportionally to be effected by taking them out of the labor supply through prison or by taking them out of the electorate by convict laws and strategic disenfranchisement. How does the “Black” bourgeoisie benefit? I suspect they obvious do, and in that would lay a key to this particular set of contradictions.

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Pham Binh April 3, 2013 at 2:43 pm

I never claimed it has “gone away,” I simply noted its declining importance for understanding modern racism. White supremacist ideology has little to do with the fact that a Black president is presiding over the deepening crisis of Black America and a law enforcement apparatus that racially profiles Hispanics as “aliens” to be deported and Arab/Muslims as “terrorists” to be killed/captured/tortured.

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Steve K March 24, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Pham, I think one combats an ideology by explaining the world in a way that is more persuasive than the way that ideology explains it and by building a movement capable of shifting the “terrain” which that ideology was initially attempting to explain (in the case of white supremacism, this is the economic oppression and poverty of people of color). In this case, that would mean in part pointing to the successes of the welfare state and union movement in reducing inequality among white people, but it would also mean stressing the overlap between racism and neoliberal capitalism. I don’t think it’s an accident that (at least in the U.S. context) the neoliberal era begins in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. While OWS was only capable of describing neoliberalism as the actions of the 1%, it really is better characterized as a democratic, white, middle-class response to the idea of extending the benefits of the welfare state to people of color. If we’re interested in building an anti-capitalist movement (primarily among young anti-racist people), one of the most effective ways of doing so is representing neoliberalism as part of that antiquated racist project. By contrast, Reed (in this intereview and in other ones on Henwood’s program) seems intent on ignoring academic work that is focused on thinking about the intersection of racism and class and insisting that we need to focus on class alone.

The rhetoric of the “white man” (and perhaps identity politics, in general) may be antiquated, but we can’t afford to miss that the attack on the welfare state has been carried out with the assistance of middle-aged, middle-class, white people. That means that we can’t be afraid, as Occupy was, of building a movement that is going to annoy a lot of people in that section of the population.

I agree that race is more complex today than simply white supremacism, but at this point we’re already admitting that class politics needs to be complicated by taking ideologies of race, culture, ethnicity, and nationality seriously.

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Pham Binh March 24, 2013 at 3:31 pm

– So we need to patiently explain to whites why white supremacy is bad/wrong.

– Are you saying neoliberalism was “democratic, white,
middle-class response to the idea of extending the
benefits of the welfare state to people of color”?

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David Berger April 3, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I think that the problem with this notion of the ” declining importance [of white supremacy] for understanding modern racism” is an undervaluing of white supremacy nowadays. The radical right, including the Tea Party, is actually rampant with white supremacy as it is with hatred of women.

I would be very careful about downplaying such beliefs just because its adherents are cooler about it than in former decades. Yes white supremacist ideology has declined compared with, say, 50 years ago, but it is still alive and well. Witness the following:

“An assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting a gang of white supremacists for racketeering and murder in Texas has withdrawn from the case citing “security purposes,” just days after the second of two state prosecutors was killed in his home.”

http://abcnews.go.com/US/texas-prosecutor-withdraws-white-supremacists-case-killings/story?id=18871841

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Pham Binh April 3, 2013 at 3:08 pm

I anticipate more racist violence from white supremacists as whites get ever-closer to becoming a racial minority group in the U.S, not less.

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David Berger April 3, 2013 at 9:33 pm

PHAM BINH: I anticipate more racist violence from white supremacists as whites get ever-closer to becoming a racial minority group in the U.S, not less.

DAVID BERGER: That’s cool, but you failed to address my point that you have undervalued white supremacy in the understanding of modern racism.

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Aaron Aarons April 4, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Whites have been a racial minority in South Africa forever and a racial minority of the electorate since 1994. But the material privileges of almost all strata of whites have increased, not decreased, since 1994 and, AFAIK, specifically racist violence by whites against Blacks is relatively minor, while state violence against the Black working class in the interests of capital is still a major phenomenon.

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Pham Binh April 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Great argument except the fact that America in 2050 is not going to be anything remotely similar to South Africa before, during, or after apartheid.

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