Discover more from Lean Out with Tara Henley
What is "woke"?
A Q&A with famed socialist scholar Adolph Reed
The conversations I’ve witnessed and taken part in this week have illustrated many things — how polarized the public debate is, how difficult it is to talk about complex and charged issues in a nuanced way, and how social media makes this process infinitely more difficult. It’s also revealed how many questions the public has about these issues, and the politics driving them. To cap off my first week at Lean Out, I checked in with socialist scholar Adolph Reed. We spoke some time ago for The Globe and Mail piece I wrote on cancel culture. Here, in the long-form version of that chat, the professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania offers analysis on what it is we are actually talking about when we talk about woke politics.
Can you define this new “woke” ideology we are seeing — and tell me why you think it misrepresents the crux of the problem in our society right now?
I’m not sure I can do the former because it’s pretty diffuse. But what I can say is that it is rooted in a perception of insurgent politics that is more performative and expressivist than I think is helpful. I’m not sure that it has a particular positive program. And if it does, it’s not clear to me that it’s a program that comports with the historical ambitions of what I grew up understanding to be a left politics. That feeds into the second part of your question. I think the focus on disparities is understandable because we are conditioned to see the most meaningful or most actionable dimensions of inequality as occurring along the lines of race or gender, or other categories of identity. And by that, I mean identities that are based on what one supposedly is, as opposed to what one does.
A colleague and good friend Preston Smith has articulated what I think is a very helpful framework. And that is one that posits a distinction between two norms of social justice. Each one of which is perfectly defensible in the abstract, on its own terms. One is what he calls the ideal of racial democracy, which basically boils down to a genuine and more extensive ideal of opportunity, the measure of which would be that Blacks or people from other targeted groups would be distributed up and down the social and political and economic hierarchy in society in numbers that are roughly proportionate to the numbers in the overall population. Smith juxtaposes this to the ideal of social democracy, which I imagine you and most of your audience would be familiar with, where the focus is more on narrowing inequalities at the top and the bottom of society.
One of the limits of the ideal of racial democracy is that it doesn’t necessarily take account of the state of inequalities in the society as a whole. From that standpoint, you can have a society in which one percent of the population controls 90 percent of the resources but it would be considered a just society provided that 12 percent of the one percent were Black, 14 percent were Hispanic, half were women et cetera. But the reality would be that if the pattern of inequality was a dynamic one, increasing numbers of people in any one of the targeted categories would find themselves on the bottom. That is, I think, what the distinction in the left in the United States comes down to at this point.
You write in a recent piece that the prevailing view is that the problem is racism and the solution is anti-racism — and anti-racism of this particular strain. Why do you think confidence in that diagnosis, and that solution, is so high right now?
That’s also a very good question. One personal view — and I haven’t tested this anywhere except in quotidian life — is that in 2016 and 2020 for the first time in practically my entire adult life, the notion of economic inequality got put on the table for popular discussion around the two [Bernie] Sanders campaigns.
One thing we found in 2020 in particular was that the big winner was Medicare for all. We have also found in our work that once you open discussion to the possibility of applying a model of government for the public good in the healthcare sector, people gravitate toward considering it for other areas of policies as well. In 2016, but especially in 2020, the governing elites in the Democratic party, and in what I’ve sometimes flippantly referred to as the corporate newsfotainment industry, have indicated that they are more frightened of opening the door to that than they are of a Trump second term. In that sense, one cynical way to look at the proliferation of woke leftism — and especially as one attends to all the corporate money that has flowed into woke discourse — is that an alternative ideal of a just society appeals to governing elites and rich people. That’s a little simplistic but I don’t think it’s horribly simplistic.
Why is this “woke” movement not going to solve the growing problem of income inequality?
For this reason: Racism, past and current, is certainly implicated in the distribution of inequalities in the U.S. Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among the poor and the economically precarious, and therefore disproportionately represented among those of greatest risk for COVID-19 problems and death. The fundamental sources of that heightened vulnerability are not because of the racial classification. They are because of the economic structure. The problem isn’t simply that Blacks are disproportionately represented among low wage workers and the economically marginal. The problem is that there are so many low wage workers and economically marginal people. And that those numbers are growing. From that perspective, the anti-discrimination focus wouldn’t solve the problem of large concentrations of Blacks among low-wage workers, so long as the category of extremely low-wage precarious workers exists.
As a writer, I’m concerned about “cancel culture.” Do you believe there’s a chilling effect?
I get random emails from people who have read my stuff or heard my arguments on podcasts, who say some version of, “thank you, I knew there was something I felt uneasy about in regards to the orthodoxy, but I felt there was something wrong with me, or I was guilty for doubting it.” Or, “these were concerns that I had but I was afraid to say anything out loud for fear of being browbeaten.” There is a chilling effect. A friend of mine coined the term McWokyism, a play on McCarthy era…Look, if we’re all considered to be part of a broad movement that’s broadly rowing in the same direction, the pecking and virtue signalling has an unhealthy effect on a culture of open debate. It also has a counterproductive effect on strategic political discussion…That goes back to my original observation — that this is fundamentally a performative and expressive politics. It doesn’t translate into decent politics. There’s no way you can ever talk about building the alliances that you need to build that would actually make people’s lives better.