It's not about you, white liberals: Why attacks on radical people of color are so misguided

With anti-racism politics flaring up on the left, too many are making it personal -- when it's really about policy

Published April 8, 2014 3:45PM (EDT)

Stephen Colbert, Michelle Goldberg           ( Owen)
Stephen Colbert, Michelle Goldberg ( Owen)

In her recent post at the Nation, Michelle Goldberg attempts to place the dust-up over #CancelColbert into a broader frame of what she calls “radical anti-liberalism.” She writes:

"One of the most striking characteristics of ‘60s radicalism was its aversion to liberalism,” wrote Alice Echols in Daring to Be Bad, her history of radical feminism. “Radicals’ repudiation of liberalism was not immediate; rather, it developed in response to liberalism’s defaults—specifically, its timidity regarding black civil rights and its escalation of the Vietnam War.” Something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale, happened after Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it, and it’s happening now, as economic misery persists under Barack Obama. There’s disenchantment not just with electoral politics, but with liberal values as a whole. “White liberal” has, once again, emerged as a favorite left-wing epithet.

She concludes that this most recent rise of anti-liberal sentiment on the left will lead to a situation in which “politics contract.”

I want to respond to Goldberg’s arguments as part of the broader set of debates that have been taking place between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait in the pages of the Atlantic and New York magazine, respectively. Those debates -- while mainly about the role, if any, that black culture plays in explaining widespread and continued poverty within black communities -- have as an additional and important thread the role of liberal values in contemporary anti-racism politics on the left.

There are more than a few problems with Goldberg’s analysis, not the least of which is that nothing about her view seems even remotely expansive or visionary enough to halt the contracting or retrenchment of leftist politics. As noted in the excerpt above, Goldberg tellingly reduces legitimate objections to endless war (which we find ourselves in yet again) and to conservative welfare reform like that of the Clinton era, to indictments not of liberalism but rather of white liberals themselves. She makes it personal, when the arguments are clearly about policy.

While she sparingly acknowledges that the rise of 1960s radicalism was rooted in legitimate critiques of liberalism’s record on race and war, Goldberg is unwilling to acknowledge that many of the same conditions that necessitated the rise of radical discourse persist today. The 21st century has been one of endless American wars, first needlessly in Iraq, now in Afghanistan. Second, the election of Barack Obama has been met on the right with a stunning legal rollback of everything from affirmative action to voting rights, and there has been a full-force attempt to gut the social safety net. Meanwhile, since 2008, the liberal left has fumbled plays in political games where we began with possession of the ball, first down, on the 50-yard line.

In fact, there is something about this moment that feels incredibly similar to the post-Reconstruction moment of the U.S., that period between 1877 and about 1890, when after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise, the left (Republicans at the time) sold their souls to the right in order to resituate the balance of white national unity. From 1865 to 1877, we saw an unprecedented inclusion of African-Americans into the body politic on the heels of Northern victory in the Civil War. Black people voted, held local and national political offices, and rode on unsegregated public accommodations.

But the fact that the North wanted to end slavery and win the war did not at any level mean they believed in full African-American equality and inclusion. So on our backs, the North and South struck a deal for their own unity.

In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper described the relationship of the North to the South during the Civil War and its aftermath as that of a big brother to a petulant and sullen little sister. She wrote:

Until 1860 she (the South) had as her pet an institution which it was death by law to say anything about, except that it was divinely instituted, inaugurated by Noah, sanctioned by Abraham, approved by Paul, and just ideally perfect in every way. And when, to preserve the autonomy of the family arrangements, in ’61, ’62, and ’63, it became necessary for the big brother to administer a little wholesome correction and set the obstreperous Miss vigorously down in her seat again, she assumed such an air of injured innocence, and melted away so lugubriously, the big brother has done nothing since but try to sweeten and pacify and laugh her back into a companionable frame of mind.

For more than a century, the fate of African-Americans has been the pawn in a dysfunctional national family drama played out by whites on the liberal left and whites on the right.

Yes, whites on the liberal left helped elect Barack Obama. And black and brown folk have now endured six years of a straight-up, all out, go-for-broke temper tantrum on the right. Seeing themselves as the paragons of reason, liberal white folks have largely stood idly by reasoning with their brethren and sistren on the right to play nice, even though it is so clear that the right is not interested in a clean game.

It is this larger political context of white liberal dubiousness that Michelle Goldberg omits when she claims that “white liberal” has become a favorite left-wing epithet.

The reason, too, that I place this narrative in the broader context of both post-slavery politics and the election of Barack Obama 150 years later, is because Goldberg also won’t admit that the folks she finds herself most incensed with are radical people of color on the left.

Certainly, there are white radical leftists, as there have always been. But Goldberg is mostly upset with what she understands to be the policing that goes on in spaces like black Twitter and feminist Twitter, which incidentally is populated heavily by women of color.

Thus she makes a dubious and unsupported assertion that radical people of color, like those she took aim at in her Nation article on "Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars," back in January, are engaged in divisive politics again. And she cautions us (warns us really) that if we don’t learn how to play nice with good ol’ liberals, then the right will take power.

For the record, I’m quoted in her Nation piece on Twitter feminism. I maintain the position that I took in the article, which is that some of the more negative forms of discourse that feminists engage in on Twitter, particularly black feminists, is unproductive for the larger political and social justice goals to which we claim our movement is committed. I think this is true. I think it is true that Twitter places movements in the position of being reactionary, and I am concerned with the possibility that black feminism, a movement and set of politics that I hold dear, am a student of, and aim to live and work by, might be rendered reactionary, emotional, angry and short-sighted because of the ways we engage on social media.

But I never fell for Goldberg’s larger okey-doke, namely her view that the outrage, call-outs and critiques expressed in social media space are fundamentally wrong. I think they are fundamentally right in many, many instances.

Anger is a legitimate political emotion. And if your life is marked by injustices big and small each and every day, then rage, too, is a legitimate political emotion. I made the choice, though, to let my rage be generative, productive rage, the kind of rage that emboldens me to build the world I want to see rather than take a sledgehammer to all the things I hate. I stay mad. But there is a method to my madness.

Goldberg dishonestly characterizes this demand to be heard as both censorial and anti-democratic, even though if truth be told, it is the very expansion of the number of voices that has white liberals so shook. Like those on the right, she decries the rise of this new brand of political correctness, which demands that we speak of issues like transgender identity, sexual orientation, and ability with sensitivity and care.

She equates these calls from young activists on the radical left with more ludicrous calls for professors to put trigger warnings on their syllabi, when discussing difficult and uncomfortable material. To be clear, I’m an academic. So I have absolutely heard of these kinds of ridiculous demands from students. I’m a big black woman who teaches about all kinds of uncomfortable things like race, gender and sexuality, so for sheltered students who have never even had to think about how race or class or gender plays a role in their lives, I’m a walking trigger warning.  Academic freedom is integral to my ability to do my job.

If white liberals were playing offense rather than defense here, they might do the serious work of translating some of these concerns into policy solutions that actually improve the lives of people of color, queer people, people with disabilities, cis and trans women and all the intersections among these groups.

Instead Goldberg lobs thinly veiled threats.

We better accept the inchoate and limited politics of those on the liberal left. Or else. Conservatives will take over the government. (Aren’t they already running shit, though?) She continues:

Anti-liberalism is, after all, supremely useful to the right. Some day president Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is going to be sworn in, and an ascendant, empowered conservatism will once again try to curtail dissent in pop culture and academia, just as it always does. Public art won’t be taken down because it’s considered triggering—it will be taken down (or covered up) because it’s considered indecent. There might be another #CancelColbert campaign, but it won’t come from the left. Maybe people will be ashamed, then, that this one did.

The problem, as Goldberg sees it, is radical disenchantment, rather than the puny, spineless, directionless mass that passes for a liberal agenda these days. And it is this lack of intestinal fortitude and courage, not radical anti-liberalism, that will make left politics vulnerable to co-optation on the right..

Blame it on the alcohol maybe; but don’t blame it on colored folks.

By falsely equating calls for trans-inclusive language, for instance, with absurd demands for syllabus trigger warnings, or rather by using wrongheaded and extreme versions of leftist arguments, Goldberg sets out to create the intellectual ground to dismiss legitimate claims on the left.

She fails.

The various social media and activist campaigns taken up by radical people of color on the left are not about censoring white folks’ speech. They are not about calling white liberals racist. They are about forcing an acknowledgment that racism is painful, harmful and unacceptable. These campaigns force white folks to actually listen to people of color. Yes, sometimes those people of color sound like petulant toddlers demanding to be heard. But to put it like Whitney Houston might, “we believe the children are the future.” Or to get biblical with it, “out of the mouths of babes.”

More to the point, the demand to be reasonable is a disingenuous demand. Black folks have been reasoning with white people forever. Racism is unreasonable, and that means reason has limited currency in the fight against it. Black folks understand, just like white folks do, that reason should be wielded as a tactic, not adhered to as a rule.

Ultimately, by casting us all as irrational leftist contrarians, Goldberg begins to sound a similar note to Jonathan Chait, who in the face of Coates’ staggering evidence of America’s historical and contemporary failure to address the race problem, concludes that Coates is simply, and troublingly, angry and pessimistic.

Cue Pharrell’s “Happy,” and let’s all cut a jig.

Rather than threatening people of color into capitulation, why don’t those on the liberal left see these incursions and schisms as a call to put their big-girl panties on and get their shit together? Accusing us of being divisive in left politics is a classic silencing tactic. Unchecked racism and the white liberal sanctimony that makes it possible are divisive. The left got 99 problems, but radicalism ain’t one.

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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