The New Republic's Legacy on Race

tags: The New Republic, Race

Jeet Heer is the author of In love with art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles. 

Related Link Black Intellectual History, the New Republic, and American Liberalism by Robert Greene II

Legacies are never simple; they create victims as well as beneficiaries. The more substantial the legacy, the more heated the disputes are over who has title of ownership, who gets to enjoy an inheritance, and who is left out in the cold.

One of the most dangerous ways to treat a legacy is to bask in past achievements and revel in riches earned by others without awareness that they came with costs. This shallow legacy-enjoyment is evident in the cheaper sort of nationalism, which glories in a country’s conquests without thought as to the suffering entailed.

The phrase “legacy of racism” encapsulates in a few words a large reality: Bigotries can have complex, ongoing ramifications. Few, if any, longstanding institutions have been historically free of racism. Given the pervasiveness of racism in the past, the struggle to understand this legacy and figure out how to overcome it remains a political and institutional imperative.

Over the last few months, following The New Republic’s centenary anniversary and a staff shake-up, a perceived legacy of racism in the magazine has been the topic of intense arguments, mostly carried out online. In the wake of the debate, vexing questions demand answers: How do we reconcile the magazine’s liberalism, the ideology that animated the Civil Rights revolution, with the fact that many black readers have long seen—and still see—the magazine as inimical and at times outright hostile to their concerns? How could a magazine that published so much excellent on-the-ground reporting on the unforgivable sins visited upon black America by white America—lynchings, legal frame-ups, political disenfranchisement, and more—also give credence to toxic and damaging racial theorizing? And why has The New Republic had only a handful of black editorial staff members in its 100 years? ...

The New Republic owes an accounting to itself, its critics, and its readers; an honest reckoning on where it has gone wrong is the necessary first step to figuring out how to do better. This self-appraisal is urgent on a number of grounds: A magazine that is loyal to the traditions of liberalism has to account for its occasional betrayal of liberal ideals; honest and pointed criticism, of the sort the magazine has received, deserves a straightforward answer; and finally, as The New Republic reinvents itself in its second century, the lessons of the first 100 years demand attention. Returning to the beginning, we can answer the question: How can this magazine—or any legacy institution—come to terms with a blighted legacy on race and transcend it?

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