Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Exorcising Racism II: Liberalisms & Racial Exclusion

SK: Since our last discussion, several significant conversations have taken place in the media and other channels on the need to address and correct overt forms of racism and violence seen in our culture and society. Major corporations, news-media networks, local mayors and state representatives are seemingly in agreement that there is systemic racial inequality in the U.S. today that manifests in our institutions and societal processes.

However, few if any of these conversations have addressed the elephant in the room: the nature of our belief system and how it underpins racial, gender and class prejudice and subordination. Here I am specifically thinking about how white supremacy is intertwined with the ideology of religion and modernity through liberalism. This omission of liberalism and its deeper connections to religion as an integral dynamic in racial subjugation isn’t surprising given the entrenchment of Christian ideology, not only within contemporary American worldview, but also in the worldview of bourgeois slave owners. This kind of irony is well illustrated by the fact that the highly popular musical, Hamilton, highly praised for its progressive representation of Black artists and performers, is critiqued as a revisionist depiction of the founding father whose views and positions were far less socially egalitarian than depicted.

Arvind, in your course Race, Religion and Caste in India and the U.S., which I attended in Fall 2019, you presented a compelling and interesting framework for critically analyzing racism and other forms of social subjugation. In this class we identified liberalism and its relation to religion as an essential component in the story of racism and related forms of social subjugation. Can you speak to this a little more? Why is it that even the progressive sectors of our society seem to have great difficulty in critically addressing liberalism, which according to some leading race scholars, has been instrumental in the mechanisms and institutions of exclusion and subordination of groups within society, particularly based on race, sex/gender and other biologically depicted, though socially constructed, binary categories—its claims to liberate and protect the rights of its citizens notwithstanding? Some who consider themselves ‘progressive’ might find this somewhat disconcerting. They might ask: if we consider ourselves as ‘progressive’ (in the socialist sense of the term) why do we need to hold liberalism to account? What separates this particular critique of liberalism from the kinds of critique already coming from white supremacists, conservative Republicans and the Alt-Right?

ASM: Stan, thank you for these questions. There is a lot to address here and I may only be able to do it piece-meal, so bear with me. We might have to pick up some of the unfinished threads in our next post. 

Yes, you’re right, the landscape for thinking about race has been changing daily in a way that is proving difficult to keep up with. And I don’t think this is going to change anytime soon. It also bodes well for the future because the force of the race debate seemed to have petered out during the Obama years with all the hype about being in a “post-racial era”. Doesn’t it seem ironic that George Floyd—who was before May 25th 2020 a complete unknown, almost illiterate black man—might well have done more for the race debate than Obama? 

The reason I suggest this is that George Floyd’s killing tore down the belief held by a lot of political liberals that things were getting better, that racism only existed in the minds of a few misguided “deplorables”, working class whites, and the nut cases on the religious right. It may seem odd to a lot of people but there is something tragically poetic not only about Floyd’s death, but about the almost spontaneous nature of the response to it. Poetic in the sense that the spontaneity of the response has something to do with the loss of breath. As if Floyd’s death—from strangulation—in that same moment put the breath back into a movement that had been stifled by the liberal political machine wallowing in the illusion of a “post-racial era”. I know this sounds a bit weird, especially because Democrats are the ones who have been speaking out on behalf of racial minorities at least since the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, right?

SK: That’s an interesting point you make. For not just George Floyd, but also Amaud Arberry and Breonna Taylor, their loss of life seemed to restore the vitality of this movement and its expansion, more so than Obama’s presidency. We’ve known this for a while, but Black persons in the United States can and are killed doing almost anything. These recent murders and the impact of COVID-19 appear to show the futility in the conception of a post-racial era. 

It is true that liberals are often touted as being more progressive when it comes to race and other forms of social politics rooted in identity since the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, despite this post racial idealism, liberal politicians have come under scrutiny for their contradictory nature. 

Taking into consideration the effects of the 2007-08 recession, not only did President Obama expand socioeconomic inequalities with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and fail to bring up the material conditions of many working class Americans of color, he also expanded military operations and assassinations overseas—increasing the breadth and rate of drone strikes and military occupations in several more countries than were engaged during the Bush administration. He was also aggressive on immigration, deporting more people than any president before him. Despite all of this, President Obama is continually lauded by many hardline liberals, as someone who was charismatic and an icon of progress for the country coming out of the Bush era. 

So is this what you mean when you say that liberalism as ideology can’t be neatly separated from racism? Does it mean that Democrats aren’t necessarily more progressive than Republicans?

ASM:No, that’s not what I’m saying. Or not exactly. Clearly the Democratic machine represents the progressive side of America, and Republicans clearly seem to want to take us back to an era of unchallenged white supremacy. In that sense alone, Republicans have not only been laying the foundations of their own demise but have done everything to damage America’s standing in the rest of the world. I’m saying that liberalism as a doctrine is much more murky and confusing in the sense that Democrats and Republicans use completely opposed senses of the same basic term, with vastly different social, political and economic consequences on the ground. What we need to do, therefore, is to differentiate between the two opposed senses of liberalism. In my courses I have found it helpful to use Tim Fitzgerald’s excellent article “Negative Liberty, Liberal Faith Postulates” as a guide. Fitzgerald distinguishes between “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty”. Negative Liberty is the kind that today’s Republicans, especially the Evangelical Neocons, understand. It stipulates that a government or state cannot interfere in one’s private business. They understand liberty or freedom as “naturally” established (by God, I guess?) giving individuals the freedom to pursue more or less unfettered private interests. According to the doctrine of “negative liberty” we are “naturally free individuals”, “acquisitive and self-interested by nature…. Engaged in the pursuit of private accumulation” (Fitzgerald 253). But this state of liberty can only be realized in a world where markets are able to regulate themselves freely. Basically “negative liberty” underpins neoliberal capitalism. “Positive Liberty”, on the other hand, espouses the kind of social liberalism that most Democrats believe in, where the government or state needs to create policies to provide educational and other opportunities for self-improvement” (252). Positive Liberty implies that the state can intervene in “moral development and social welfare of people” (252). Its the kind of social Liberalism most often associated with FDR’s New Deal which hiked up taxes on the ultra-rich, spreading out wealth to help the poorer and marginalized sectors of society. 

Now, just to take this one step further, Negative and Positive versions of Liberalism translate very, very differently into social and political practice. Let me give you two examples of how Negative Liberalism (with its emphasis on individual acquisition and pure self-interest) translates into potential policy in the hands of today’s conservative Right. Consider, for example, Senator Tom Cotton’s recent op-ed piece in the Arkansas Gazette. Cotton is a Republican Senator who has opposed the Black Lives Matter movement as well as protests against police brutality. More disturbingly in his op-ed piece he refers to slavery as a “necessary evil”. Basically Cotton has sponsored the bill Saving American History Act, which aims to prevent funding for “1619”, an initiative backed by the New York Times which tries to restructure the teaching of US history around slave ships which first arrived in the US in August, 1619. Basically, Cotton rejects the “root and branch” the idea that America is systemically racist. Listen to what he says:

“America is a great and noble country founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal. We have always struggled to live up to that promise, but no country has ever done more to achieve it.”

A second example of negative liberty in practice might be the deployment of counter-insurgency tactics against the civilian uprisings in support of Black Lives Matter movement and against systemic police brutality and racism. The vast majority of these protests have been very peaceful and protesters have included people of all ages, cross-sections of society and walks of life including mothers and children. The term counter-insurgency was commonly used during the US-led war in Iraq to describe how the military adapted to a new kind of warfare taking place within cities, amidst the civilian populations rather than on battlefields. Counterinsurgency involves three key principles: (i) total surveillance of the population, (ii) identification and eradication of any active minority groups who pose a threat, (iii) gaining the trust of ordinary citizens, usually by distracting them with propaganda and instilling fear of the enemy. In his recent book The Counterrevolution, the legal theorist Bernard Harcourt has argued that since 9/11 counterinsurgency tactics have been transferred from the military into civilian law enforcement. As a result civilian police forces have become increasingly militarized to the extent that they resemble ‘Robocops’. Let me quote Harcourt directly. He says that at home:

With the militarized policing of African American protesters, the monitoring of American mosques and targeting of American Muslims, and the demonization of Mexican Americans and Hispanics, the counterinsurgency has been domesticated…….. And increasingly deploy these strategies in routine encounters – not only to fight terrorism, but also as an integral part of their day-to-day policing” (Harcourt 2018, 11).

We saw this kind of policing in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri during the last two years of the Obama Presidency, specifically in response to the civilian protests that took place after the death of Michael Brown in August 2014. As Harcourt reminds us, “the police responded in a heavily militarized way… The images of unarmed, unprotected protesters facing militarized tactical SWAT teams visualized the new dynamics of the militarized police” (p.132). Fast forward six years to the anti-racism protests taking place after the death of George Floyd, in cities like Portland or Seattle, or Chicago. Trump has sent ‘undercover’ armed marshals to disrupt the protests where possible, to satisfy his hardcore right wing base, and to peel off support from ordinary white Americans, corporations etc. In other words the Trump administration is deploying counterinsurgency tactics against its own citizens and their right to peaceful protest, all in the name of protecting “freedom” and other liberal values such as “free speech”.

So, going back to the point I was trying to make above: what I’m saying is that progressive liberals and the left need to be more self-critical when they unproblematically self-identify with liberalism and core liberal beliefs. The fact that the same core ideas of liberalism are being invoked by Democrats and Republicans, by the Left and the Right, is causing a lot of confusion. And the Alt-Right and Republicans have really benefited from sowing this confusion, by claiming to be champions of ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’ etc, and more disturbingly, using the same logic to undermine the way progressives have positioned themselves. We are seeing the result of this in the law courts where the Religious Right is winning battle after battle on the basis of  “negative liberty”.

And all of this impacts the debate on systemic racism. Because below the belief system of liberalism there is a relationship to race and the legacy to racism that remains unchanged. By not looking more closely and deeply at the structuring logic of liberalism, those who think of themselves as progressives will simply continue to blame the “deplorable” conservative Right for all the injustices and wrongs that have been perpetrated on racial minorities, women, LGBTQ people etc. Factually it is certainly the case that many of the current problems can be laid at the door of the conservative Right. Tom Cotton’s nefarious view of slavery as a “necessary evil”, or the deliberate undermining of legitimate democratic protest movements with the use of counterinsurgency tactics, is a good example of this. But the reality is more complicated. What I’m saying is that if we’re to truly exorcise the spirit of racism, we need to look more closely at the historical complicity of liberalism with racism, white supremacy, and I would argue, Christianity. In other words, liberalism as an ideology and the way it has been put into practice, hides an unholy truth about its complicity with racism at home and imperialism abroad.

I kept bringing this up in my AS334 course on Race and Religion, by encouraging students to try and think about race outside the box and not get trapped into the conventional rhetoric of the progressive Left versus the retrograde Right. The reason for this is that the framing for Left versus Right comes from Liberal ideology itself. The Left is by no means immune to the influence of racism or white supremacy. In recent years, those who gave the appearance of being ‘militantly’ progressive, have turned to harbor ethnocentrism that was not immediately obvious to the public. Examples that come to mind are Jeremy Corbin (the ex-UK Labour Party leader) who has been accused of being a closet anti-Semite and lost a general election that Labour should really have won, and the ‘militantly’ leftist philosopher Slavoj Zizek who has been getting away for years pushing the idea that non-Western cultures don’t have proper traditions of thinking or that “non-Europeans can’t think”. A related tendency on the part of left-liberals is to simply blame market capitalism—that racism will sort itself out automatically if we return to some sort of a socialist model of society. 

One scholar who points directly towards the complicity between race and liberalism is the political theorist Charles Mills. If I remember correctly Stan, wasn’t it Charles Mill’s lecture at the University of Michigan back in Feb 2020 this year which brought us back into contact?

SK:  Yes! I attended Charles Mills’ Tanner Lecture on Human Values: “Theorizing Racial Justice” at the Rackham theater in February and the content of his lecture was directly connected to the discussion we are having now—confronting the intrinsic racial inequalities of liberal idealism which he described as illiberal in actuality. This illiberal ideology stunts racial justice through its exclusion of non-whites in its doctrine. Mills has been a strong influence on my academic understanding of racism in society through his book The Racial Contract, which I first read several years ago. This book was crucial in aiding my understanding of the ignored problems in social contract theory and liberalism, which came up in several courses I took before graduating. The opportunity to see him speak in person was a dream fulfilled for me, and his discussion resparked some of the conversations from your class and made me want to discuss these points more.

Some of our readers might have difficulty understanding what Mills’ means when he critiques liberalism and liberal theory, particularly how liberal theorists such as John Rawls, John Locke, Adam Smith etc. are not just problematic with explicit racist statements, but also contain racial exclusions and subordinations through the makeup of their theories. So I’m wondering if you could explain in more detail how Mills frames race and its role in social ontologies through liberalism today. How does racial subordination within liberalism connect to white supremacy?

ASM: I agree. Mills is right on par with his critique of liberalism’s barely concealed legacy of white supremacy. As I understand his argument in Black Rights / White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism, Mills suggests that we need to look at liberalism beyond the frameworks of Left versus Right, both of which subscribe to the basic postulates of liberalism as an “anti-feudal ideology” based on the primacy of individual personhood, equal rights for all, moral egalitarianism and the idea that all institutions are reformable. These core ideas not only made liberalism the dominant political outlook of the modern era but also made it universal, giving us our worldview as moderns. 

However, it’s precisely this pretension to universalism that gives the impression that liberalism transcended the very particular European culture it came from. Mills, however, argues that far from transcending its ethnic roots, liberalism has always been a “racial liberalism” in which all the things we take for granted—personhood, rights, duties and secular governance—were racialized from the outset. What he means by this is that in actual practice all of the lofty ideas of liberalism (individual rights, freedom of speech and thought, fair governance etc) were conceptualized, constructed and implemented “as if white racial domination and the oppression of people of color had not been central” to that process (33). 

It’s as if white philosophers and political theorists such as Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume and many others, simply forgot that slavery, racial genocide and colonialism were rife at the time they were writing. They didn’t forget anything. Mill’s argument—and he’s by no means alone in this—is that liberalism’s lofty ideals were not meant to apply to non-white races in the first place. The humanity they had in mind was primarily a white humanity. 

So when Mills talks about “racialized liberalism” he is not talking about individual “racist liberals” (from the Left or the Right). He notes early on in his book that most white liberals today would not only feel uncomfortable (if not offended) by this term, but would explicitly disavow such sentiments. What he is pointing to is a “color-blind liberalism” which is not located in physical bodies, but resides in the very logic of liberalism, and therefore, is central to its epistemology (the way it constructs knowledge about the world, society and the individual). Which is to say, in its conceptual matrix. 

It is this matrix that the white, male founding ‘fathers’ of liberalism (Kant, Locke and co.) bequeathed to the Western world, and through colonialism, secreted to non-Western cultures.

In short, what Mills calls “racialized liberalism” is complicit with white supremacist structures arising from the dominant group interests of the society that brought liberalism as an ideology into existence. And it is because of these dominant group interests that white European liberals were felt mandated to spread this ideology abroad through colonial rule and to maintain subordination of non-whites at home. So when we talk about the structures of white supremacy that maintain “racialized liberalism”, these structures are on the one hand social(i.e. they are written by white political philosophers) and on the other hand epistemic (built into the knowledge system and the way we interpret the world). 

One thing that Mills does leave out is the role of Christianity in the unholy nexus you mentioned above. But that’s something we need to look at in a separate post.

SK:  Thank you for this explanation! It is fascinating when we center the framework of racism in the U.S. and abroad through Mills’ depiction of racial liberalism, especially because like you said, he isn’t exclusive in this argument, I continue to find this theme in several books I’ve read this summer. This also connects to my experience in the Navy and my research and experience of nationalism and idealizing the institutions of violence and control in this society, especially after 9/11.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 sparked a reemergence of nationalism that drove public support of the war in Afghanistan, Iraq and now operations in more countries than I can list. Under the guise of national security, the exploitation and occupation of Iraq led to what the author Naomi Klein describes as a form of economic “shock doctrine” which was not just instituted in the Middle-East, but is also at work in the privatization and reform of social welfare programs and the growing security apparatus in the U.S. While this was happening, a movement emerged framing Islam as threatening to American security, culture and values, while also portraying the U.S. and other coalition nations as the saviors and liberators of the occupying regions they were exploiting. This propaganda campaign augmented reactionary violence and fear against Arabs, Sikhs and other ethnic groups depicted as threatening while legitimizing military and police violence as socially and morally benevolent. Both sides of the political aisle were shown to be in support of these shifts and the processes that accelerated racism, militarization, and corporate hegemony here and abroad. 

When looking at the reactionary response of many Americans towards the Black Lives Matter movement and increased representation of persons of color in all facets of culture and society, it becomes evident that “racial liberalism” still functions in this post-9/11 era. No matter what form of protest the movement takes, its response attempts to delegitimize it as a threat to America since neoliberalism continuously requires adherence to its norms, beliefs, and behaviors to demonstrate one’s allegiance to nationalism and market economics. Colin Kaeperknick’s peaceful kneeling was rebuked because it was perceived to be too challenging to our national idealism, the police and troops. Today, many of the same hypocritical CEOs and politicians who criticized him are trying to appeal to protesters in attempts to capitalize on the movement’s growing support. While these people who now express that Black Lives Matter can be viewed as a modicum of progress, it is important to hold this liberal system to account since it usually only legitimizes social equity when the pressure is high enough or when it is financially profitable. 

In this post we’ve explored an important step on the way to exorcising racism by addressing the role liberalism plays in white supremacy. But there is another aspect of our culture that we still need to address in this exorcism, something as adored in the U.S. as apple pie. In our next post, we will discuss religion, specifically Christianity as doctrine and evangelicalism, and its connection to white supremacy, liberalism and the white-nationalist movement we see today.

Until then, take care!