Despite the fact that social science, literature, and popular culture increasingly recognize class distinctions among African Americans, the triumph of race reductionism suggests that this recognition has not extended to political analyses, action, and policy.1 Analyses of the problems facing African Americans continue to assume that racial inequality burdens all blacks more or less equally, and that proposals to reduce that inequality should therefore apply to the racial group as a whole. This shortsightedness has a real and pernicious impact on the material needs of poor and working-class blacks. That is, the hegemonic unitary black politics rarely allows space for direct debate on the most effective approach to material improvement for the black working class. In fact, the topic has only recently surfaced during the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016 and 2020 — and it did so in a form that pits a race-first policy approach against a public goods framework for reducing racial inequality. Both plans, at least on the surface, appeared to be equally helpful to black voters. Those in support of race-targeted public policy argued that their plan, by definition, would reduce racial disparities for all African Americans. Proponents supporting a broad redistributive approach countered that since working-class blacks have disproportionate material needs, they will be helped disproportionately by an approach that bolsters economic security for all. To emphasize their point, corporate Democrats and left identitarians flung the charge of “class reductionism” at Sanders, arguing that a public goods approach that helps a broad working class cannot adequately reduce racial disparities because it fails to disrupt “structural racism” or “systemic racism,” and that only a race-targeted approach can do this.
It is not surprising that Touré F. Reed’s compelling new book, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, uses the Sanders campaign to ground his critique of race-first programs, such as reparations and other sundry means-tested programs to reduce the “racial wealth gap.”2 Toward Freedom is a forceful response to the spurious charge of class reductionism against the Sanders campaign and a persuasive case for the return to a redistributive, public goods approach to governance. As Reed argues, poor blacks’ lives will only matter when they have a living-wage job and affordable access to health care, housing, and higher education — goals which are more likely to be achieved by a public goods approach than by an approach that relies on benefits trickling down from aiding black entrepreneurs, banks, or private black colleges and universities.3
Reed has produced a rigorous intellectual and political history that reveals the inaccurate historical and political claims that underlie race reductionism, beginning with its distortions of the history of the New Deal. The defensible claim that blacks did not receive their fair share from the New Deal often morphs into the charge that they did not receive any benefits at all. In other words, the race reductionist criticism of the New Deal goes from racial discrimination to racial exclusion. The slope is admittedly slippery, and race partisans end up discrediting the public goods approach that the New Deal featured during the 1930s and 1940s rather than zeroing in on the limitations imposed by a resurgent capital. Toward Freedom includes a full assessment of how African Americans did and did not benefit from the New Deal, thus providing a necessary corrective to a crucial underpinning of the race reductionist case. Reed makes it clear that blacks did not receive their fair share from the New Deal; however, to simply stop there is intellectually dishonest and politically reactionary.4 In his first chapter, “When Black Progressives Didn’t Separate Race from Class,” Reed shows that African Americans benefited, sometimes disproportionately, from the New Deal in receiving relief, public employment, and housing. Just as important, he points out, was the New Deal labor legislation, which turned out to be a foundation for civil rights policy from the 1930s to the 1960s. After all, there was a reason why African Americans changed their political loyalty from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party after 1932 despite the segregationist bulwark represented in its southern wing.