The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives by Adolph L. Reed Jr. (London, UK & Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2022)

“Reinventing the past to suit the purposes of the present.”

Adolph L. Reed Jr

We must find the road to the most deprived, to the darkest strata of the proletariat, beginning with the Negro, whom capitalist society has converted into a pariah, and who must learn to see in us his revolutionary brothers. And this depends wholly upon our energy and devotion to the work.[1]

Leon Trotsky

“Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery, there would be no cotton. Without cotton, there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Slavery is, therefore, an economic category of paramount importance.”[2]

Karl Marx

One of the purposes of this excellent new book by Adolph L Reed is to preserve the voices of the last generation of Americans with a living memory of Jim Crow.[3] In the words of the English historian E. P Thompson, it attempts to rescue them from the “enormous condescension of posterity”.

The South documents Reed’s personal history almost in the manner of a memoir. However, unlike similar books, Reed presents a historical and class-based analysis of the racist Jim Crow laws.

As Barbara J Fields explains, it is important to understand the race from a historical perspective. She writes, “When virtually the whole of society, including supposedly thoughtful, educated, intelligent persons, commits itself to belief in propositions that collapse into absurdity upon the slightest examination, the reason is not hallucination or delusion or even simple hypocrisy; rather, it is ideology. And ideology is impossible for anyone to analyse rationally who remains trapped on its terrain. That is why race still proves so hard for historians to deal with historically, rather than in terms of metaphysics, religion, or socio- (that is, pseudo-) biology”.

Nothing so well illustrates that impossibility as the conviction among otherwise sensible scholars that race “explains” historical phenomena; specifically, it explains why people of African descent have been set apart for treatment different from others. But race is just the name assigned to the phenomenon, which it no more explains than judicial review “explains” why the United States Supreme Court can declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, or than Civil War “explains” why Americans fought each other between 1861 and 1865″.[4]

Reed’s defence of a historical and class-based understanding of race has led him to be heavily criticised and ostracised. Reed has opposed what he calls “race reductionism,”. In 1996, he famously described Barack Obama as a “smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics.” [5].For Reed, class-based inequality is the historical constant, not race. Reed examines how the black middle class were treated differently than the black working class. He recounts how many black middle-class people could avoid some of the worst excesses of the murderess Jim Crow regime.

As Reed contends in his article Separate and Unequal, “Middle-class, “respectable” black people sought as much as possible to insulate themselves and their children from contact with those they considered to be class inferiors. An elaborate structure of social clubs—for example, the Links and the Girl Friends for women, the Boulé for men, Jack and Jill for children, and fraternity and sorority chapters for students and alumni—evolved to create and sustain homogeneous middle-class social networks locally and nationally. Segregation did have a levelling effect on race. Those with higher status were forced to share neighbourhoods, schools, churches, restaurants, and other public entertainments with those they would prefer not to associate with. From the system’s beginnings, a complaint about the injustice of enforced segregation was that it did not account for class distinctions among black people”.[6]


Reed has also criticised “critical race theory”, saying, “It is another expression of reductionism. On the most pedestrian level, it is an observation that what you see is a function of where you stand. At that level, there is nothing in it that was not in Marx’s early writings or Mannheim. But then you get an appropriation of the standpoint theory for identity that says, for example, all blacks think the same way. It is taxonomic, a reification. So the retort to that critique has been “intersectionality.” Yes, there is a black perspective, but what you do is fragment it, so there are multiple black perspectives because each potential—or each sacralised—social position becomes discrete. That is what gives you intersectionality.[7]

Reed’s political and class-based perspective has been too much for the Democratic Socialists of America(DSA), who had a speech of Reed’s cancelled due to objections by the AFROSOCialist and Socialists of Color Caucus over his “reactionary and class reductionist form of politics”.

1619 Project

His critique of the 1619 project has led to personal and political attacks. In a recent interview with Tom Mackaman- Reed states, “I did not know about the 1619 Project until it came out, and frankly when I learned about it, my reaction was a big sigh. But again, the relation to history has passed to the appropriation of the past in support of whatever kind of ‘just-so’ stories about the present is desired. This approach has taken root within the Academy. It is like all bets are off. Merlin Chowkwanyun and I did an article a few years ago in the Socialist Register that is a critique of disparitarianism in the social sciences, by which this or that disparity has replaced the study of inequality and its effects. As Walter Benn Michaels said, and as I have said time and time again if anti-disparitarianism is your ideology, then for you, a society qualifies as being just if 1 per cent of the population controls 90 per cent of the wealth, so long as that within that 1 per cent 12 per cent or so are black, etc., reflecting their share of the national population. This is the ideal of social justice for neoliberalism. There is no question of actual redistribution.[8]

Reed demolishes one of the myths of the 1619 project that enslaved people were introduced to America because of racism. Reed points out that the first slaves were brought over under the auspices of a wage labour system. He writes, ” the 1619 Project assumes, in whatever way, that slavery was the natural condition of Africans. And that is where the Afro-pessimism types wind up sharing a cup of tea with James Henry Hammond.”

As Niemuth points out in his defence of Reed, “The furious reaction within the DSA leadership to the invitation to Reed reveals how deeply the organisation is imbued with the reactionary and right-wing politics of racial division. The extreme hostility to any analysis based on the primacy of class expresses the interests of affluent sections of the petit bourgeoisie, who utilise racial and identity politics in the fight over positions of power and privilege within the apparatus of the state, the trade unions, academia and corporations”.


This concise volume deserves to be read widely and hopefully put onto university reading lists. It is hoped a younger readership picks it up and learns about a class-based and historical perspective on racism than the racialist perspective touted by the 1619 project.

About the Author

Adolph Reed, Jr., is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous books and articles dealing with race and class in American society and writes regularly for the New Republic.

Further Reading

1.   The cancellation of professor Adolph Reed, Jr.’s speech and the DSA’s promotion of race politics-Niles Niemuth- 18 August

2.   The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History: Essays and Interviews Paperback – 26 February 2021

3.   by David North, Thomas Mackaman

[1] On Black Nationalism-Documents on the Negro Struggle-

[2] 1846 in The Poverty of Philosophy,


[4] Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America-



[7] “Reinventing the past to suit the purposes of the present”-An interview with political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. on the New York Times’ 1619 Project-Tom Mackaman-20 December

[8] “Reinventing the past to suit the purposes of the present”-An interview with political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. on the New York Times’ 1619 Project-Tom Mackaman-20 December

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