Mainstream ideas about anti-racism are troublingly illiberal; but the concept can, and should, be salvaged.
As a former high school teacher and now a professional historian, I have paid close attention to race and racism in U.S. history. As a graduate student, I co-created and taught a course on race and basketball. As a high school teacher, I made slavery, race, and resistance core themes of an AP history course, with writings by Douglass, Washington, Wells, DuBois, Garvey, Malcolm X, Baldwin, King, and others. As a political liberal, I believe that racial injustice remains a major problem in the United States. I fear the resurgent White nationalism of the Trumpist right.
Yet I am increasingly discontented by the anti-racist writings of figures like Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whose ideas have become prominent in left-of-center politics and education and on the bestseller lists. I’ve also attended anti-racist trainings that were simplistic, politicized, and largely irrelevant to actual pedagogy.
In searching for a response to these ideas, I’ve often agreed with liberal, centrist, and libertarian critiques of the extremism, rigidity, and messianism of mainstream anti-racism. However, these critics have not developed a robust counter-vision of liberal anti-racism. For example, John McWhorter, in his recent book Woke Racism, suggests only piecemeal steps—like ending the War on Drugs—for making progress on race.
This article attempts to remedy the gap with an anti-racism that operates from liberal premises and is open, pluralistic, humanist, self-questioning, and passionately devoted to justice. Such liberal anti-racism must provide no excuses to White people like me who would pretend that we live in a racially egalitarian society.
This article presents four principles of liberal anti-racism that can unite liberals, centrists, and anti-Trump conservatives who want to combat racism but find the dominant ideology unpersuasive.
First, liberal anti-racism accepts many roads to opposing racism. “It is the mark of an illiberal regime,” says the philosopher John Gray in Two Faces of Liberalism (2002), to view differing values as “signs of error” rather than “dilemmas to which different solutions can be reasonable.” Mainstream anti-racism does exactly that, treating different value systems as errors stemming from “pathologies of whiteness” or a desire to “preserve white dominance.”
For instance, in Racism without Racists (2021), Bonilla-Silva contends that opposition to anti-racist policies like affirmative action or reparations stems from a desire to uphold White dominance, and makes revolutionary economic action a precondition of being anti-racist. In White Fragility (2018), DiAngelo makes no effort to prove that American society is fundamentally White supremacist; she simply asserts this premise for her readers to accept. Such pathologizing of other viewpoints encourages people to demonize and discredit their interlocutors rather than engaging with them constructively.
Liberal anti-racism, in contrast, takes the view that human beings, because of differences in interests, world-views, and experiences, will always have different definitions of “the good.” Because a complete convergence of world-views can be achieved only through violence and intimidation, liberalism embraces many ways of life and the free expression of ideas. It is a kind of “metamorality,” a structure of norms and institutions that allows people of differing “moral tribes” to coexist and cooperate by restraining conflict, channeling differences, and identifying commonalities.
In the same way, liberal anti-racism encompasses and fuses anti-racist commitments that stem from different world-views. People of faith may build their anti-racism out of a belief that all human beings are equally beloved in the eyes of God. Conservatives may embrace anti-racism out of the tragic awareness that the harmful impacts of history cannot be easily overcome or from the principle of equality under the law. Libertarians may base their anti-racism on reducing the government overreach that has harmed minorities and on elevating individual over group identity. People from all these perspectives, as well as mainstream liberals, can agree on individual rights and inherent human dignity and equality as foundational to anti-racism.
Liberal anti-racism acknowledges that people may reasonably disagree on solutions to racial inequality. Conservatives, for instance, may genuinely abhor racism while opposing solutions that they find ineffectual or immoral. Many conservatives oppose affirmative action not because they desire to maintain racial hierarchy but because they believe it violates equal protection of the laws.
Finally, liberal anti-racism recognizes that many people demonstrate bad faith on racial issues. There are outright racists with a normative commitment to white supremacy. There are culture warriors who cynically use controversies over race to stoke division and promote their careers. I am not arguing for a conversation that includes literally all of these; instead, I argue for a big-tent anti-racism that recognizes the need to fight racism pluralistically and self-critically.
Second, liberal anti-racism neither ignores nor exaggerates racial progress. Liberals have long embraced progress and reform, preferring them to the chaos of revolutions. Yet, mainstream anti-racist scholars are oddly hesitant to recognize progress, because they often treat revolution as the only meaningful type of change. To move forward today, we have to understand the causes of progress on race, which has been real if radically incomplete.
Throughout much of U.S. history, most White Americans have accepted or endorsed White domination, denied equal rights to non-Whites, and devalued non-White cultures. This has been a national reality, not just a sectional one.
But, by most metrics, things have improved. Since the 1960s, formal Jim Crow institutions have been dismantled; laws protecting the rights of marginalized groups have been established; and overtly racist views have declined as approval of intermarriage and other markers of integration have grown. People of color have made gains in income, political representation, education, and access to the professions. In 2008 and 2012, majorities of the U.S. electorate chose an African-American as President, a sign of progress of which civil rights icon John Lewis said, “I never thought, I never dreamed, of the possibility that an African-American would one day be elected President of the United States.”
We can recognize such progress while acknowledging its tenuousness. In 2016 and again in 2020, the majority of White voters chose a racist as President. In other ways, such as mass incarceration, progress in recent decades has stalled. Our elite institutions are still dominated by White people, and people of color still suffer major disparities in wealth, health, education, and equal treatment under the law.
These realities should spur more concerted action, not serve as reason to deny progress altogether. To achieve progress today, we need to understand how movements like civil rights, feminism, and gay rights have succeeded, which requires recognizing that some progress has occurred. Because liberal anti-racism celebrates imperfect progress, it can draw inspiration and ideas from past successes and apply them to ongoing challenges.
Third, liberal anti-racism does not abandon crucial norms in pursuing justice. Liberal anti-racism views liberal norms as essential foundations for progress in all areas, including race. Freedom of expression, for instance, has always been critical to racial progress. Black and White abolitionists fought censorship and violence, as well as the “gag rule“ barring anti-slavery petitions in Congress, to pursue slavery’s destruction. Journalists like Ida B. Wells faced censorship and intimidation from Jim Crow racists; peaceful protestors during the civil rights movement endured systematic violations of their rights to expression and assembly.
Mainstream anti-racists blunder when they treat free speech—or individualism, civility, objectivity, and merit—as serving only the interests of the White and powerful. In doing so, they cut the foundations of progress out from their own feet.
If anti-racists normalize the erosion of free-speech norms by shouting down controversial speakers or declaring unwelcome speech to be “violence,” they will create a toolkit that foes of progress can use to smother discussion, stoke resentment, and further silence the marginalized. The vehement defense of free speech maintains an open space in which the marginalized can relate their experiences of injustice and assert their claims to equality.
In White Fragility, DiAngelo and others argue against individualism because it ostensibly allows White people to excuse themselves from the benefits they accrue from membership in the dominant racial group. Instead, she wants people to center race when they interact, calling on White people, when conversing with people of color, to think of themselves primarily as White, not as individuals.
Liberal anti-racism does not deny the potency of race in society; so, when people of different backgrounds interact, they should consider the ways in which race may have shaped their experiences and perspectives. However, as a tenet of liberal-anti-racism, individualism encourages people to dig through surface-level traits to see the complex persons with whom they are conversing. It recognizes that racism is literally a failure to see individuals as individuals, since it pre-judges people based on superficial traits. Liberalism’s commitment to the inherent rights and uniqueness of each individual means that it treats race largely as a barrier to human connection and individual flourishing, which we want to become less relevant over time.
Fourth, liberal anti-racism strives to “achieve our country” by forging a new national identity. Liberal patriotism focuses on the project of “achieving our country,” bringing its reality into line with its highest proclaimed ideals rather than viewing national greatness as an inherent quality. Liberal anti-racism therefore seeks new forms of national identity that can unify a diverse population under common values while leaving space for differences. In a larger sense, it hopes more people come to identify with traditions that are not strictly “theirs” and to combine lineages in creative ways.
Here are two examples. In the race and basketball course I mentioned earlier, the professor, a White man, stated at the start of the course that no aspect of U.S. history engaged him as much as the Black freedom struggle from 1619 to Black Lives Matter. I was struck by this teacher’s deep identification with and knowledge of Black thought, politics, and culture and the way he saw these elements as fundamental parts of the American experience and his own definition of American identity. Indeed, while I have many problems with the 1619 Project, one of its strongest points is that African Americans have often been the truest Americans, in the sense that they envisioned a multi-racial democracy, a true haven of liberty for all people, before most Whites thought this vision was desirable or even possible.
Barack Obama provides another example of creative reformation of national identity. In his memoir, Obama recalled growing up in a mostly White environment but learning about Black culture in his adolescence. In his composite patriotism, Obama has space for the Founders, Lincoln, Douglass, and modern figures from King to Niebuhr to Ellison to Dewey. Obama did not let racial boundaries prevent him from combining valuable ideas into a powerful and inclusive national identity.
Although he was talking about immigrants rather than race, the philosopher Horace Kallen described something like a liberal post-racial future in saying, “I never did care for the melting pot metaphor, but genuine assimilation to one another—not to Anglo-Saxondom—seems to be essential to America.” This quotation speaks to liberal anti-racism’s goals: not the subsuming of the minority into the majority but a mixing on equal grounds in which all individuals can define the national “us.” As we mix more and continue fighting racism, we should draw on the best people, ideas, and traditions of our pasts and blend them into a future.
Liberal anti-racism envisions a post-racial society in which one’s skin color and other phenotypical traits have as little impact as possible on one’s chances in life, the way one is treated by others, and the rights one enjoys. To put it mildly, this society does not now exist. It would exist if a hypothetical individual would not care what skin color she had because it would have no impact on her quality of life, just as eye color currently has no such impact.
Liberal anti-racism recognizes, however, that absolute post-racialism may be unrealistic. There are many traditions, cultures, and heritages in our society that are linked to race or ethnicity and have provided inspiration to millions. To demand that African Americans, for instance, not identify with Black cultural and intellectual traditions would erase a powerful source of meaning. Identities that are linked to race and ethnicity may fade over time if racial inequities fade; but in the spirit of pluralism, liberal anti-racism prefers to live with these complexities rather than impose homogeneity.
Joseph Stieb is a historian and incoming assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He is author of The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990-2003 (2021).
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