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Review of Jim Sleeper’s “Liberal Racism”

The New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1997

Liberal Racism book cover

In his 1963 essay “My Negro Problem – and Ours,” Norman Podhoretz confronted the readers of Commentary with a startlingly simple solution to America’s racial difficulties. To make color “irrelevant,” he concluded, “the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.” For Podhoretz, race, rather than racism, was the greatest obstacle to social harmony – a line of argument that is elaborated upon by Jim Sleeper in his new book, “Liberal Racism.” While the notion of miscegenation as social policy has faded in popularity, the ideal of the color-blind society has not, although these days it is an ideal more likely to be invoked by conservatives than liberals. But this liberal failure, Sleeper contends, is precisely the problem.

Extending the thesis of his 1990 book (“The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York”) to the nation at large, Sleeper castigates liberals for making race and ethnicity the “central organizing principles of our public life.” According to Sleeper, “liberal racism” endorses a rigid identity politics that assumes that “racial differences are so profound that they are almost primordial.” One’s skin color automatically indicates one’s group identity. “Liberalism no longer curbs discrimination; it invites it,” he writes. “It does not expose racism; it recapitulates and, sometimes, reinvents it.” While liberals led the fight for racial equality in the 1950’s and 1960’s, they have dishonored their heroic past by failing to nurture the principles of a race-transcendent culture. In a country that has become so racially and ethnically complex, Sleeper argues, our simple-minded color-coding procedures have outlived their usefulness. “The time is approaching when Americans of all colors will have to give their racial banners decent burials and kiss even their hyphens goodbye.”

The bulk of “Liberal Racism” chronicles what Sleeper calls the folly of “myopic liberalism” as it struggles to maintain its racialist perspective. His critiques of racial redistricting and “managed diversity” make one cringe at sorry fate of a good idea that has been taken to extremes. In particular, Sleeper does a good job of showing how the drafters of the 1982 amendment to the 1965 Voting Rights Act abandoned their faith in the kinds of transracial political coalitions that were among the civil rights movement’s grandest achievements.

Unfortunately, Sleeper is sometimes so eager to score points against his opponents that his examples sag under the weight of his rhetoric. A passage he cites from a Ford Foundation report endorsing a mild form of multicultural education is insufficient grounds to label the organization’s agenda as radical; and Sleeper’s charge that The New York Times intended to bury the “good news” of racial harmony in the new South by deciding not to run a photograph of an interracial wedding on its front page (accompanying a page 1 news article) is hardly evidence of a liberal conspiracy.

The biggest problem with “Liberal Racism” is with Sleeper’s vision for a race-transcending America. Much like the prescriptions of the popular communitarian movement, his proposals are maddeningly vague. The initiatives of Saul Alinsky’s community-based Industrial Areas Foundation, and the nostalgic glimpses Sleeper offers of New England’s lost civic culture, are suggestive but don’t go nearly far enough. How exactly does one go about the business of strengthening national belonging and “nourishing democratic habits”? What does it really mean to “dissolve” the color line, much less to fulfill “America’s destiny to show the world how to eliminate racial differences – culturally, morally and even physically – as factors in human striving”? It is one thing to try to ameliorate the pernicious effects of America’s obsession with race; it is quite another to call for the eradication of racial thinking itself. Despite the fact that “race”is a concept with dubious biological and philosophical foundations, racial categories are a stubborn fact of American political life. By simply dispensing with them, Sleeper wants to assume away the very problem he seeks to solve. The opposite of identity politics is not “racelessness,” but rather a more nuanced appreciation of racial differences. Surely this is the legacy of the so-called integrationist tradition, championed by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray among others, that Sleeper wants to revive. In more cautious moments, Sleeper suggests a sensible two-tiered notion of national identity: one on which “Americans ground their personal dignity in ethnic and religious subcultures,” and a second, more universal civic culture into which one can “graduate.” But does this scheme really project a radically different path, or is it merely a less sensationalistic description of America’s quotidian present?

Part of Sleeper’s difficulty is that by so completely eschewing the racial and ethnic affiliations that have traditionally helped hold America’s communities together, he deprives his account of the very robustness it needs to lure citizens from their parochial enclaves. The fight against racial essentialism in all its forms is a noble one, but by hanging his hopes so completely on “a country beyond race,” Sleeper fetishizes the notion of “racial transcendence” to the point of equating the essence of American citizenship with the duty one has to rise above one’s race. The strength of this “new American identity,” he says, will reside “in the gossamer threads and raceless glue of an endless American belonging.” Sleeper is right to insist that liberals (not to mention conservatives) need to rethink their often incoherent attitudes about race. But if America is to construct something akin to a unifying civic narrative, it will require a more substantive, and colorful, account than he offers here.