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.”