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The American Left And The "Black Question"

The Platypus Affiliated Society presents

The American Left and the "Black Question": From politics to protest to the post-political

A moderated panel discussion held at the Seventh Annual Platypus International Convention

- Toby Chow (University of Chicago)
- Brandon Johnson (Chicago Teachers Union)
- August Nimtz (University of Minnesota)
- Adolph Reed, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania)

Moderator: Brendan Finucane

Beneath a consensus of avowed anti-racism, the American Left remains conflicted about whether and how to politicize race. This panel seeks to shed historical light on today's political impasses, asking: How has racism changed throughout U.S. history, and to what degree has racism been overcome in America? Our neoliberal and post-political present has been shaped by key periods of political conflict over race and racism, from the failure of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era through the entrenchment of Jim Crow through the abolition of legal racial segregation with the Civil Rights Movement. If we have overcome the forms of legalized racism that plagued American society before the 1960s, this victory has nevertheless failed to translate into the meaningful improvement of living conditions for the vast majority of black people in America. Instead, the general downturn since the early 1970s has been managed in a way that has worsened conditions for most black people in the context of a broader stratification and brutalization of American society. This situation demands a strident refutation of the pseudo-problem of "class versus race"; we ask today's left to consider the implications of Adolph Reed's formulation that "racism is a class issue." With a view to how a politics of freedom would approach race and racism, what lessons can be drawn from the most significant periods in the history of the American Left, such as the populist movement, the pre-WWI Socialist Party, the 1920s-30s Communist Party, and the 1960s-70s New Left? If the problem of racism has been bypassed but not overcome, leaving in place the structural conditions that have shaped racism historically, how might we recognize these structural conditions and thereby render race and racism politically tractable?