Liberal Racism

During my college years in the late 1960s, the high tide of black militancy, some of my more cynical and deeply embittered black classmates were given to remarking that the only difference between a liberal and a conservative was that “a liberal will hang you from a lower tree.” It was a grotesquely unfair characterization, of course. The fact is that the civil rights movement and the effort to secure equality among all Americans was a (philosophical) liberal project-and a largely and proudly successful one, at that.

Now, thirty years later, comes Jim Sleeper, a white man and a liberal, with a much more serious and creditable complaint against liberalism. Liberals, Sleeper asserts, have sold their birthright of high principle for a mess of pottage. In the interest of defeating white racism, they have bought into a “racialist” ideology that in many respects is as pernicious and destructive as what they fight and, very often, is all but indistinguishable from it.

“Liberal racism...assumes that racial differences are so profound that they are almost primordial,” Sleeper observes, adding that “the fascination with racial differences that prevents many liberals from treating any person with a nonwhite racial physiognomy as someone much like themselves only begets policies and programs that reinforce nineteenth-century assumptions about race that are patently racist.”

That Sleeper isn’t just baying at the moon is clear from almost any day’s headlines. Consider, for one modest example, a story that appeared in early July in the Chicago Sun-Times. It told of a program at the University of Illinois at Chicago that gives virtually all minority students the benefit of early registration for classes while virtually all white students must wait. Initially, apparently, this policy was the result of a not entirely unreasonable assumption that minority racial status was a proxy for disadvantage that warranted special consideration. Over time, however, and in the careless, sloppy way that so many policies evolve, it became sufficient just to be black or Hispanic, disadvantaged or not.

(The wonder is that this racial spoils system survived as long as it has-some say it’s been around as long as ten years. What’s no wonder is that eventually, white students carried their disgruntlement to state legislators and now the university is scrambling to rectify what is not just an obvious injustice, but a terrible political mistake.)

If liberalism is to be a force again for justice and progress in American society, Sleeper says, it must forswear this sort of policy and the racialist rationalizations that undergird it and begin fostering a notion of citizenship and civic culture that transcends race and all such particularisms.

Sleeper has written an important book that deserves to be read and carefully considered, especially if Americans are going to engage fruitfully in that “national conversation” about race that President Bill Clinton has promised.

Actually, Sleeper has written two books in one volume. In the first, he makes the case against liberal racism in three uneven chapters dealing with crime, voting rights, and the news media (Read: the New York Times). In the second, he seeks a way out of the liberal racist trap in a series of provocative essays on black identity and what he contends is our lost civic culture. These latter pieces are particularly strong, especially the chapter focusing on Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy and Boston University economist Glenn Loury, two of the most thoughtful and intriguing black intellectuals in the nation today.

“The story of how liberals blundered on voting rights is a wonderfully instructive parable of their noble beginnings and subsequent bad faith on many fronts touching race,” Sleeper writes in the best chapter of his analysis of liberal racism.

The Voting Rights Act evolved, Sleeper says, from an instrument of empowerment and inclusion for disfranchised black voters in 1965 into an instrument in the 1980s and 1990s for segregating black and Hispanic voters in districts unto themselves-all on the basis of faulty, racist assumptions.

“Despite dramatic black electoral gains under the Voting Rights Act, many activists, advocates, and journalists decided that whites’ perceptions and interests would remain so irreconcilable with nonwhites’ that few whites would ever vote for blacks or Hispanics,” writes Sleeper. “Therefore, they insisted, nonwhites’ right to vote could be exercised meaningfully only if they were ‘empowered’ to vote en bloc, as members of ‘protected’ racial classes, in districts drawn to elect blacks or Hispanics.”

The result of this, Sleeper notes, was the odd coupling in 1982 of black Democrats and white Republicans that rewrote the Voting Rights Act to mandate the drawing of more minority districts-and in the process to secure more reliably Republican districts. (No wonder Newt Gingrich at his installation as Speaker of the House in 1995 could be so gracious in praising the “liberal wing” of the Democratic party-they made him Speaker.)

As it turns out, Sleeper can summon the most powerful sort of proof for the wisdom of his argument here. The Supreme Court eventually outlawed many of the black majority districts created in the South pursuant to the 1990 census, holding that such overwhelming race-consciousness as went into their drawing was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, all but one of the black incumbents from those outlawed districts ran in new, reconfigured majority white districts-and won. So much for the liberal racist view that whites would be intractably hostile to black candidates.

So much also for the view that blacks (or Hispanics or any other minority) necessarily share sufficient common interests as to require the sort of exertions required to gerrymander them into districts with one another.

Sleeper’s three chapters on various aspects of black identity actually are an extended meditation on the question of what African-Americans have in common. Is it Africa? Is it America? Is it anything?

The chapter on Alex Haley’s Roots is a demolition derby. With an alacrity that at times is disturbing, Sleeper smashes the Africa myth that Haley attempted to create. And he ends with the quite correct observation that “Black Americans’ only coherent memories and myths begin in the holds of the slave ships to which other Africans consigned them.”

Then there is the powerful and challenging examination of Randall Kennedy’s and Glenn Loury’s approaches to the problem of black identity. In truth, it is not really a problem for Kennedy, for he takes his philosophy straight, with no chaser: There is (or ought to be) no racial kinship, no sense of racial or ethnic affinity. Indeed, the only relationships that really matter are those consciously and intentionally undertaken. In other words, it is the human mind and will that create kinships.

Sleeper recognizes that that’s a pretty heady brew, too strong for most humans. Thus, he introduces Loury, who unapologetically recognizes an affinity with and obligation to other blacks and even broke with his former neoconservative comrades because of their indifference to the situation of poor blacks.

Jim Sleeper’s is far from a perfect book. Quite frankly, some of his answers are simply too facile. True enough, those black incumbents did win re-election in their redrawn, majority white districts. But one wonders whether they ever would have won election in such districts in the first place.

The inescapable fact is that what Sleeper asks, at least of blacks, is an act of faith. He asks that we believe white America is prepared to play by the colorblind rules that the conservatives all like to talk about. God knows, there are those of us who want to believe that.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 
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