Race, class, crisis: the discourse of racial disparity and its analytical discontents

Adolph Reed, Merlin Chowkwanyun


The 2008-09 economic crisis hit black Americans and other populations classified as nonwhite in the United States hard in relation to whites. This differential impact was no surprise to anyone who pays attention to patterns of inequality in the United States. It was predictable that those populations in the aggregate would experience the hardships of bad economic times in disproportionate measure. That likelihood underlies the inclination to inquire into the issue of racially differential impacts in the first place. And, unsurprisingly, as the studies and reports discussed here demonstrate, that prediction has generally been affirmed by empirical examination.

Research precisely specifying racial disparities in the distribution of advantages and disadvantages, well-being and suffering has become common enough to have generated a distinctive, pro forma narrative structure. Quantitative data, usually culled from large aggregate data sets, is parsed to generate accounts of the many facets of apparent disparity along racial lines with respect to barometers of inequality such as wealth, income and economic security, incarceration, employment, access to medical care, and health and educational outcomes. However explanations of the sources of disparities tend to dribble into vague and often sanctimonious calls to recognize the role of race, and on the left, the flailing around of phrases like ‘institutional racism’ that on closer examination add up to little more than signifying one’s radical credentials on race issues.

So what, then, do researchers assume they are doing in rehearsing versions of the same narrative with slightly different variations on the punch line? What are its conceptual foundations and premises? How should we assess the strengths, limits and significance of its perspectives on race, class and inequality and their connections, especially to understand American capitalism’s social and ideological reproduction in the current period? This essay is an initial attempt to answer those questions and, through doing so, to assess the deeper significance of the discourse of racial disparity that has taken shape in American social science and policy research during the last decade and a half. We consider what the findings of disparate impact at the level of gross racial groups mean and do not mean and examine ambiguities within this literature concerning race as a significant element in the reproduction of durable inequalities.

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