Saturday, June 20, 2015


Adolph Reed, Jr. on the Dolezal Affair

Years ago I was honored to unexpectedly be asked to share a speaker's platform with Adolph Reed, Jr. at a labor conference. I had admired his writing for some time. While I don't fully endorse all of his positions, I still think he has one of the most compelling approaches to class and race in American discourse and sheds more light than heat (and, believe me, he puts out a lot of heat) on the Rachel Dolezal affair. Below are a few excerpts from his "From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much".

By far the most intellectually and politically interesting thing about the recent "exposé" of Spokane, WA, NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal’s racial status is the conundrum it has posed for racial identitarians who are also committed to defense of transgender identity. ... Their contention is that one kind of claim to an identity at odds with culturally constructed understandings of the identity appropriate to one’s biology is okay but that the other is not ...


This brings me to the most important point that this affair throws into relief. It has outed the essentialism on which those identitarian discourses rest ... The essentialism cuts in odd ways in this saga. Sometimes race is real in a way that sex is not – you’re black only if you meet the biological criteria (whatever they’re supposed to be) for blackness. 


There is a guild-protective agenda underlying racial identitarians’ outrage about Dolezal that is also quite revealing ... The charge is what those making it want to be true; they assume it’s true because they understand black racial classification as a form of capital.


... the Dolezal issue has captured such attention only because it rankles the sensibilities of those who essentialize race ...


... race politics is ... the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.


... the more aggressively and openly capitalist class power destroys and marketizes every shred of social protection working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations have fought for and won over the last century, the louder and more insistent are the demands from the identitarian left that we focus our attention on statistical disparities and episodic outrages that "prove" that the crucial injustices in the society should be understood in the language of ascriptive identity.


The fundamental contradiction that has impelled the debate and required the flight into often idiotic sophistry is that racial identitarians assume, even if they give catechistic lip service ... to the catchphrase that "race is a social construction," that race is a thing, an essence that lives within us.


The transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies. There is no coherent, principled defense of the stance that transgender identity is legitimate but transracial is not, at least not one that would satisfy basic rules of argument. The debate also throws into relief the reality that a notion of social justice that hinges on claims to entitlement based on extra-societal, ascriptive identities is neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness. In insisting on the political priority of such fictive, naturalized populations identitarianism meshes well with neoliberal naturalization of the structures that reproduce inequality.

Reed concludes his article by saying: "It may be that one of Rachel Dolezal’s most important contributions to the struggle for social justice may turn out to be having catalyzed, not intentionally to be sure, a discussion that may help us move beyond the identitarian dead end." I really hope that's true but, sadly, I see very little evidence of it.

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