Why liberals can't think straight about race

Caught in a tortured dance of guilt and voyeurism, the right-thinking gatekeepers in the media and academia have perfected ways to avoid seeing the collapse of their racialist politics.

By Jim Sleeper
Published August 19, 1997 4:23PM (EDT)

conservatives are quick to welcome converts, liberals quicker to expose and expel heretics. That not-so-old saw came back to me recently when I learned that a young liberal historian reading my book "Liberal Racism" had asked a colleague about my political bona fides. "Sleeper is almost persuading me," he said, "but where is he really coming from politically?" He was drawn to my argument that liberals have only deepened racism by color-coding our politics, law and civic culture instead of nurturing a common American vision that might help to sustain broad coalitions. Yet, wary of seduction by a right winger wearing civic clothing, he wanted to know who'd funded me and where my work had appeared.

Should it matter? Good ideas can come from "bad" people, and if a book seems persuasive, it ought to be seriously engaged. My doubter sounded a bit less engaged than cornered, however -- and I think that he is typical of political and literary gatekeepers at liberal publications and university departments who look for excuses to dismiss testimony, from within their own ranks, that liberals have recapitulated racism by kowtowing to "race consciousness" and racial loyalty.

Never mind those few old lefties who still want to make blacks the cats' paws of their revolutionary agendas. Never mind even the larger cohort of liberals of all colors who make their livings in a vast race industry of foundation-funded activists, corporate diversity trainers, professors of blackness and purveyors of other racialist epistemologies. I'm thinking more of elite white liberals like the young historian who questioned my politics -- academics and journalists, many of them Ivy League and more than a bit sheltered from off-campus racial realities. They aren't driven by ideology or material self-interest as much as by a misplaced moralism that makes them address race as penitents and, more often, voyeurs.

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in flight from racial and economic privileges they know they never earned, these pilgrims and adventurers use blacks not as political shields or wedges, and certainly not as scapegoats, but as something almost as exploitative -- as objects of exalted moral fantasy and exotic interest. They still regard blacks as bearers of righteous rebellion and seek redemption in the special reservoir of feelings and perceptions tapped by black music and preaching.

Suggest that there is something empty or even prurient in such solicitude, as I -- along with Todd Gitlin, Michael Tomasky, Michael Lind and many others -- have done, and the white liberal gatekeepers I have in mind respond almost as if we'd threatened to take away their teddy bears and other stuffed toys. W.E.B. Du Bois may have given liberals legitimate moral marching orders when he wrote that the problem of the 20th century "is the problem of the color line," but the next century's problem, as I argue in "Liberal Racism," "is the challenge of racelessness, of the color line's complete dissolution."

The depth and irreversibility of that shift is emerging in many different ways: in interracial marriages and adoptions; in the unexpected resonance of Tiger Woods' "Cablinasian" handle; in the growing controversy over racial designations in the census; and in the votes for black members of Congress cast by hundreds of thousands of Southern whites in white-majority districts last year, to the astonishment and visible consternation of voting-rights activists who've hard-wired their politics around presumptions of racial bloc voting.

With "Liberal Racism" only the first of a new cohort of post-liberal (not conservative) books on race -- including Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom's "America in Black and White," Fred Siegel's "The Future Once Happened Here," Orlando Patterson's "The Ordeal of Integration" and others -- watch for another round of containment and dismissal strategies from racial fantasists. Liberal bona fides will be questioned, as mine were. (For the record, my only funder is my publisher, Viking; most of my work appears in liberal publications; and none of the other authors I've mentioned can credibly be called a conservative.) Strong arguments will be dismissed as "old hat" and "bombastic." Solid research will be impugned on spurious grounds.

None of our books is beyond criticism, of course, and we don't agree with one another in all things. But the familiar dismissal strategies come at us from people who deny something about which we and most of the rest of the country do agree: The liberal racialization of American life has become a racist tragedy. The conservative record on race is indefensible, and I don't see how it can be redeemed. But that only makes liberals' failures all the more tragic.

Liberal gatekeepers need to come clean about this. They should stop pretending, for example, that those countless academics and writers whom many of us took very seriously, from the sociologist Frances Fox Piven to Norman ("Graffiti is the art of the oppressed") Mailer, were brutally wrong about crime-fighting, which isn't all about curbing racist cops, curing "root causes" and going to the mat for defendants' rights.

Today's liberal gatekeepers also need to admit that, in the name of both organizing black militants and compensating the legacies of slavery, liberals were oppressively, subversively wrong about the welfare system's effects on family structure and employment, even when jobs were readily available.

And liberals need to acknowledge that they have been disastrously wrong about the damage that heightened race consciousness and color-coding do to a liberal politics that might tackle economic injustices.

Yet instead of coming clean, too many liberal critics seem only to be trying to ward off the cognitive dissonance caused by events that confound their presumptions about race. The Supreme Court will soon hear the case of a white teacher from Piscataway, N.J., who was fired so that a black teacher of equal seniority and qualifications could survive downsizing in the name of "diversity." The surprise here for liberals is that the black teacher is tormented not by angry whites but by her own discomfort with a school board decision that reduced her career to a token of her color, not her accomplishments. In a school that already had a substantial number of black teachers, the board should simply have flipped a coin.

As if seconding the black teacher's discomfort, 26 percent of California's black voters backed Proposition 209 against affirmative action. You'd think liberals would pay closer attention to this -- instead of pawing over the racial bona fides of 209 champion Ward Connerly, as the New York Times did on July 27 in an astonishingly prurient profile that presented him as only dubiously and uncomfortably black. (The Times has had very little analysis of the initiative's passage and its implications -- and as far as I know, no examination whatsoever of why so many black voters supported it.)

Watch for more such strategies of containment and dismissal. Here are a few of the most common:

  • "You're just beating a dead horse." Writers who survive the liberal bona fides check will be told, "We've heard all of these arguments before. Perhaps some of us liberals erred in deferring to racial demagogues and drowning in identity polities, but That Was Then; now, we've reformed." Richard Bernstein's "Dictatorship of Virtue" got this treatment, as reviewers such as Louis Menand, Sean Wilentz and Nicholas Lemann assured us that the PC scare was exaggerated and that most liberals had its excesses well in hand. Maybe they did, in their own salons; Bernstein, an intrepid, elegant reporter, showed that, in the real world, the inanity rolls on and on.

  • The tonal rebuke. Here, reviewers who over the years have accepted racial mau-mauing, deconstructionist and poststructuralist rantings and other pseudo-liberationist eruptions suddenly transform themselves into apostles and arbiters of civility. They cite a sentence or two in a book under review to characterize all of it as "ad hominem" or "strident." Christopher Edley, the law professor-politician who counsels President Clinton's commission on race, called the Thernstroms' scholarly "America in Black and White" "an impassioned polemic" in a strange, preemptive review that popped up in Harvard Magazine two months before the book's publication.

    In a more amusing tonal rebuke, a couple of gatekeepers have described "Liberal Racism" as a repetitive, less temperate version of my 1990 book, "The Closest of Strangers," which they said was ahead of the curve back then. Back then, however, the New York Times' reviewer called the first book's rhetoric "sometimes screeching and banal." Maybe seven years from now, they'll be saying "Liberal Racism" was prophetic. In the meantime, gatekeepers who try to cast forceful, candid authors as sweaty polemicists should probably just say, "Don't touch my belief structure; it hurts."

  • The academic condescension tactic. This time-honored stratagem, another redoubt of liberals in denial, is a sure sign they have little to defend. Never mind that a book under review may only be a public essay, with few scholarly pretensions. That makes the author a mere "newspaperman" who has stomped in from the street to muddy the multiculturalist carpets in parlors where liberal gatekeepers tell one another fancy racialist tales.

And woe betide the scholarly truth-teller who crosses some pedant of pigmentation or literary politician -- as the Thernstroms crossed Edley, and as the brave black essayist and English professor Shelby Steele did the brazen black essayist and law professor Patricia Williams, who denounced his "The Content of Our Character" as unscholarly even as she herself sought to upend our notions of scholarship. If most of American academia hadn't disgraced itself by hewing to racialist notions that keep it from touching the ground that's shifting under our feet, more scholars might have some reason to condescend to reports from the field.

Instead, they go on telling one another their tales of black rebellion and redemption and subjecting non-whites to a tortuous racial etiquette that turns them into stock figures worthy of WPA-style "proletarian" theater.

Of this, blacks have borne more than enough. Only the few hustlers and poseurs among them want to be moral ministers or nannies to sensitive white writers and scholars. To see blacks take up the more mundane work of running municipalities, money markets and military units while paying mortgages is to watch the angels of blackness withdraw along with the demons. It is to surrender condescension along with contempt.

This, the white liberal gatekeepers cannot do. They can't let go of their dreams of redemption through race. In their parlors of endless rationalization, clean anger at liberalism's rank racial failures is considered a faux pas. The guests are so busy ingratiating themselves to one another that they have become isolated from the rest of the country.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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