Even as the murder of George Floyd unleashed a deluge of declamations about white supremacy, wokeness, critical race theory, and other American racial obsessions, a hard-won feeling of “been there, done that” kept me from jumping in. “It’s difficult to say anything about race that hasn’t been said before; difficult to say anything that isn’t at least half true; and still more difficult to mean whatever one does say amid the fog of half-truths and euphemisms enveloping the subject,” I told an interviewer for the Atlantic in 1997, the year I published Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream. The book’s title was partly an effort to cut through that fog and find a clearer, broader understanding of what I believe is our American destiny to transcend race as we know it. Liberal Racism is only partly an indictment of liberals. It’s also a protest against making racial identity a central organizing principle of our public life. The new U.S. Census strongly suggests that there’s no longer a civic-cultural norm in “whiteness” but also that no official racial color-coding can tell us who “we” are.
I developed that conviction after 1977, when I put a new Harvard doctorate in my back pocket and left Cambridge for five years in central Brooklyn, where I was the only white tenant in an eight-unit walk-up and wrote for inner-city weeklies, the Village Voice, and Dissent. Working and living with African Americans who held some power over my prospects boiled out a Cambridge lefty’s racial romanticism and left deeper interracial affinities and bonds, as I recount in The Closest of Strangers (1999). I explained why some well-intentioned “progressive” notions about race are wrong, if not indeed racist. I learned that my own aspirations to an American, civic-republican identity were shared pretty deeply by Black neighbors and co-workers who feel diminished by over-solicitous liberal (and ideological leftist) stereotyping almost as much as by the conservative racism that is the prime evil. Progressives who resist acknowledging this were surprised this year when many Black New York Democratic voters chose Eric Adams, a former police officer and centrist politician, over a more “woke” Black candidate as their party’s mayoral nominee, as New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall reported.
Liberal Racism’s provocative title came to me when the late Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens—a true apostle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith in “the content of our character” over skin color—told a small group of other leftist journalists and activists that “liberals are sometimes the worst racists.” His remark got me thinking about what I’d been witnessing in my activist-journalist rounds, and Liberal Racism became an indictment of “political correctness,” “cancel culture,” and “virtue signaling,” long before those terms were in vogue. A lot of what passes as racial identity politics, I wrote, “no longer curbs discrimination; it invites it. It does not expose racism. It recapitulates and, sometimes, reinvents it. Its tortured racial etiquette begets racial epithets, as surely as hypocrisy begets hostility.” Many Black reviewers of the book agreed.
Working as a journalist in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, long before cell-phone cameras caught white cops killing unarmed Black youth, I knew that it was happening, and also that Black youth were killing one another. Taking a cue from Owens, I worried that many self-avowedly “anti-racist” liberals and progressives were clinging so tightly to what we now call “multiculturalist” and “woke” protocols that they’d stopped envisioning a post-racial, civic-republican culture that would be thick and rich enough for anyone to thrive in, where “people of color” would be recognized by all as bearers of virtues and rights that aren’t “of color” at all. Diversity would be celebrated as a consequence of American, civic-republican fairness, not as its bureaucratic precondition. The name “Black Lives Matter” gestured in this humanist direction, almost plaintively at first, even when not all BLM supporters lived up to it. In an excerpt from Liberal Racism published by Harper’s, I insisted that Blackness in America has meaning and value mainly as it’s been nourished defensively against the abduction, enslavement, and ongoing murders and dispossession of Blacks by champions of a “whiteness” that seeks its own empty coherence by keeping others down.
As I was making this argument in 1997, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy was warning similarly against racializing public discourse and color-coding our public policies. I endorsed Kennedy’s rigorous opposition to making ethno-racial affinities a central organizing principle of American life, and I sparred in several venues with his sometime adversary and former law-school mentor Derrick Bell, a progenitor of critical race theory and a pessimist about racism whose thinking anticipated that of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Brooklyn taught me that precisely because racism is as subtly pervasive as it is brutal, it leaves both its victims and its perpetrators little margin for error in paroxysms of grievance such as those that erupted in the cases of Howard Beach, Tawana Brawley, and O. J. Simpson. No successful movement for racial and social justice can be built on lies, vilification of innocent parties, and intimidation of critics with legitimate differences of opinion.