Discriminating Rage

Discriminating Rage

Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene
by Adolph Reed, Jr.
The New Press, 2000, 211 pp., $25

Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era
by Adolph Reed, Jr.
Minnesota, 1999, 303 pp., $18.95

Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and Our Retreat from Racial Equality
edited by Adolph Reed, Jr.
Westview, 1999, 460 pp., $22


Thirty-seven years ago, in a celebrated exchange with Irving Howe, Ralph Ellison lamented American intellectuals’ persistent refusal to recognize the full, complex humanity of African-Americans. “Why is it so often true that when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive modes of analysis?” he asked. Why did so many otherwise subtle thinkers persist in treating black life “as an opaque steel jug with the Negroes inside waiting for some black messiah to come along and blow the cork?”

Many things have happened since then, not least the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which fundamentally transformed African-Americans’ relationship to the wider American polity. Yet Ellison’s lament remains curiously apt. As Adolph Reed argues, the victories of the civil rights era have generated no commensurate change in the way most Americans think about black life, and about black politics in particular. For all the right-wing raving about “political correctness,” representations of African-Americans in both academic and popular culture remain mired in dismally familiar stereotypes: blacks as shiftless, violent, and vice-prone on one hand, or emotional, spontaneous, and righteously Christian on the other. Commentators across the political spectrum refer unproblematically to “the black community,” as if African-Americans inhabited a single, separate space, “simultaneously opaque to those outside it . . . and smoothly organic” to those within. A century after the rise of Booker T. Washington and thirty-six years after the Voting Rights Act, we still turn to designated racial “spokesmen”—Jesse Jackson for much of the 1980s, and more recently a coterie of university-based black intellectuals—to disclose the “black point of view.” (Imagine producers of Nightline dragging out the same half-dozen people to convey the “white point of view” on issues of the day. Whom would they choose?)


Adolph Reed has spent the better part of twenty years reflecting on this baleful state of affairs. In the process, he has earned a strangely schizophrenic reputation. A professor of political science at the New School, Reed is best known for his columns and essays in such periodicals as the Progressive, the Village Voice, and...