All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1998

Liberal Racism

Are Coercive Government Policies the Path to Racial Equality?

Brad Stetson is director of The David Institute, a social group in Tustin, California. He is coauthor of Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment (Praeger, 1993) and co-editor of Black and Right: The Bold New Voice of Black Conservatives in America (Praeger, 1997).

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of high maturity to rise to a level of self-criticism.” By such a standard, author and veteran essayist Jim Sleeper is a strong and intellectually mature “liberal.” (As Sleeper uses the term, “liberal” means welfare statist.) Yet, judging by his own vigorous critique of the mess modern welfare statism has made of contemporary race relations, he is a rarity among his ideological ilk. Indeed, it is the consistent refrain of this provocative if occasionally frustrating exposition of liberal racism that the contemporary liberal mind “no longer curbs discrimination but invites it . . . does not expose racism but recapitulates and reinvents it; and [in] its tortured racial etiquette begets more racial epithets, just as hypocrisy fuels hostility.”

Sleeper’s smooth narration of this descent into radical race-consciousness and color-coded thinking duly notes the array of individuals, institutions, and policies we have come to recognize as some of the most socially corrosive and restrictive forces of our public life: Louis Farrakhan and Andrew Hacker, the New York Times and the NAACP, the racial gerrymandering of congressional districts and the new cult of “diversity,” which Sleeper understands as little more than camouflage for reverse racism. Today’s liberalism has forsaken the American vision of a nation based on values rather than ethnicity. With every exaggerated racial grievance and publicity-grabbing protest trumpeted by the race lobby, we drift further away from the transracial ideal Sleeper clearly recognizes as central to the true American creed.

Yet, though he is a trenchant critic of this racial obsession, Sleeper remains a “liberal,” and is averse to what he sees as conservatism’s (and libertarianism’s) continued “racism.”

It is here that Sleeper stumbles. Like so many of his persuasion, Sleeper is unable to resist the temptation to impugn the motives of those who dissent from the idea that coercive government policies are necessary or desirable ways to bring about greater equality and integration. His argument is peppered with tellingly vague references to “conservative racism.” Sleeper recognizes that the “right” is not as racist as the official story of politically correct “liberalism” asserts, but he is unable to bring himself to forsake the comforting assumption that conservatives’ appeals to religious faith and cultural renewal—and libertarians’ appeals to private property and the free market—cloak an unspoken loathing of black people that still constrains their progress.

Sleeper falls far short of demonstrating the reality of such nefarious machinations, and his retention of this belief ultimately dilutes the power of his argument. To Sleeper and others in the same orbit, no real evidence is needed. Lack of interest among conservatives and libertarians in race as a public category is essentially de facto proof of malevolence and bad faith. That non sequitur tells us much about the minds of “mainstream” welfare statists.

But there is a more significant shortcoming in Sleeper’s analysis. While his obviously sincere desire for black progress draws him to advocate voluntary associations (civic groups, churches, recreational leagues) for community advancement, he evinces a persistent but unexplicated hostility toward capitalism. Such animosity prevents him from envisioning the myriad possibilities it offers for both the economic empowerment of impoverished communities and the production of the shared interests he so desperately seeks among Americans of different cultures and classes.

While Sleeper bemoans the putative incivilities of “classism,” the dynamism of capitalism as a builder of both wealth and community escapes him. He uncritically echoes the leftist denunciation of capitalism as averse to civil society without stopping to consider the substantial civic dividends a robust and unfettered market offers.

When he sticks to writing about the title of the book—racism—there is much that is valuable and right with Sleeper’s critique. When he strays off into an analysis of conservative and libertarian views (or what he imagines those views to be), he misses the mark. Sleeper has seen the harm of “liberal racism,” but unfortunately fails to make a complete break with group-centered thinking and embrace individualism and the peaceful order of the market.