This past month the Washington Post ran an article about a literal sign of the times.
The story turned on Cox Farms, a family operation and local institution located just south of Dulles Airport, which has long had the very American habit of posting political nostrums on their roadside sign. In the case of the Coxes—self-described hippies who have been there since 1972, when Northern Virginia was a different place, politically speaking, than it is today—the postings have always had a slightly pixie-ish quality, recently promoting socially liberal causes such as gay rights and pro-immigration messages.
But the motive for the Post story was the furor that erupted over the Coxes’ posting earlier that month. Reflecting on the American Nazis who marched in Charlottesville six months before, the Coxes offered a simple message: “Resist White Supremacy.” As one of the Coxes explained, one would think that only a white supremacist could object to such a message.
Perhaps, but the Coxes nevertheless found themselves the subject of an angry campaign by locals, who deemed the sign “divisive” and “non-inclusive.” After all, the logic of those angry locals seemed to go, if this nation is to embrace its multitudes, then how can it justify excluding white supremacists? Don’t exclude those who are defined by their passion for excluding others? Well, that’s where we’re at, evidently.
To read this story is to hold, as Blake said, infinity in the palm of your hand. The story contains today’s racial politics in a grain of sand, for it captures the signal political event of our time, and perhaps the most ironic consequence of the Obama presidency: the collapse of the racial liberal consensus—what Walter Russell Mead in these pages five years ago referred to as the Compromise of 1977.1
By racial liberalism, I mean the basic consensus that existed across the mainstream of both political parties since the 1970s, to the effect that, first, bigotry of any overt sort would not be tolerated, but second, that what was intolerable was only overt bigotry—in other words, white people’s definition of racism. Institutional or “structural” racism—that is, race-based exclusions that result from deep social habits such as where people live, who they know socially, what private organizations they belong to, and so on—were not to be addressed.2 The core ethic of the racial liberal consensus was colorblind individualism.
The racial liberal consensus emerged from the post-1960s struggle over racial integration, in particular through the debates over school busing and affirmative action. One of the Civil Rights movement’s most undisputed successes was in establishing the norm that overt expressions of racial animus were no longer politically or even socially acceptable in the United States. Despite grumbles about political correctness, new forms of racial etiquette and sensitivity training proliferated across the American educational and corporate landscape. At the same time, however, resistance to school busing and the eventual roll-back of affirmative action programs resulted in clear limits on redressing system-level structural exclusions based on what was typically referred to as “the legacy” of racism and slavery.
Emblematic of this post-Civil Rights Movement racial liberal consensus was the late Reverend Billy Graham, as David Hollinger recently explained in the New York Times. To his credit, Graham made a show of integrating his religious revivals and rallies at a time when such a move was considered “provocative” in much of the South. On the other hand, he offered only weak challenges to ongoing prejudices and injustices, choosing “to represent anti-black racism as a sin of the individual human heart rather than a civic evil to be corrected by collective political authority.” In this estimation, intentions rather than outcomes were the proper basis for measuring racial progress.
While there were always dissenters from the racial liberal consensus in the post-Civil Rights era, mainstream politicians from both sides of the political divide respected its norms, if only in the breach.3 While racial animus persisted beneath the surface of U.S. civil society, the consensus was not only that overt expressions of bigotry against people of color and celebrations of white supremacy were no longer acceptable, but also that attempts to name and dismantle the institutional bases of white privilege were a political bridge too far. Mainstream politicians were expected to police defectors from their respective “extreme” flanks.
A notorious moment of such policing took place during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the presidency: his “Sister Souljah moment,” when the Democratic candidate publicly condemned the remarks of Sister Souljah, an African-American activist and rapper with the group Public Enemy, who had declared in the wake of the Rodney King riots that spring that, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton, appearing before Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, declared, “If you took the words, ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” Characteristic of the clever triangulator, Clinton was clearly marking out the limits of acceptable centrist racial discourse, equating over-the-top rhetoric by a black entertainer with a former Republican State Representative from Louisiana infamous for refusing to accept the civic and political equality of African-Americans.
On the other side of the aisle, the policing of the racial liberal consensus took aim at expressions of white supremacy coming from the Right. Not only were overt racists like Duke personae non gratae within the Republican Party establishment, but even coded expressions of doubt about the results of the Civil Rights era were beyond the pale.
Consider what happened in 2002 when Mississippi Senator and Majority Leader Trent Lott declared at fellow GOP Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party that, concerning Thurmond’s 1948 run for the presidency: “We voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”
Of course, Thurmond hadn’t run as a Republican, but rather as the head of the “Dixiecrat” ticket whose central plank was an overt rejection of African-American civil rights and the defense of de jure segregation in the South. While the GOP tried to ignore the story, bloggers kept it alive, and within a week Lott found himself compelled to appear on Black Entertainment Television (BET) to repudiate Thurmond’s former views. But in 2002, the strength of the racial liberal consensus meant that even overt self-abasement was not enough to make nostalgia for white supremacy forgivable: A week later Lott was forced to step down from his leadership position (though he remained in the Senate for five more years).
Guardians of the racial liberal consensus took events like this as a sign of progress: proof that the arc of the moral universe, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, bent toward justice. The original racial sin of the nation was slowly but surely being overcome. Heck, some dared to whisper: Maybe one could even imagine a black President!
In virtually every way, it is now clear that Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency in 2008 was the apotheosis of this model of racial liberalism. A central part of Obama’s political appeal was that his biography was an ideal expression of what racial liberals wanted to believe about the progress of American race relations. A biracial son of a black man and a white woman, Obama appeared to be the perfect product of the educational meritocracy, from his polishing at Punahou School in Honolulu to his further education at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. There were of course some complications to this uplifting tale, for example that Obama’s father was not African-American but Kenyan, and that Obama had grown up not in the black community but mainly in various Pacific islands; but overall his personal story was deeply appealing to proponents of the racial liberal consensus.4
Obama announced himself on the national political stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He began his speech by reflecting on his own biography, talking about the “hard work and perseverance” that got his Kenyan father “a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that’s shown as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before him,” and about how his mother and father, despite coming from very different backgrounds, shared “a common dream.” When he got around to discussing policy, Obama emphasized that Americans didn’t expect the government to overcome social challenges for them: “Go into any inner-city neighborhood,” Obama explained, and “people don’t expect government to solve all their problems.” In all this, Obama perfectly articulated the credo of the racial liberal consensus: that everyone in the United States shared the same colorblind ideals, and that “with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.”
Even the biggest crisis in Obama’s 2008 campaign turned into a victory for racial liberalism. Almost exactly ten years ago, on March 13, 2008, a video came to light featuring Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama’s church in the Washington Heights neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, condemning America’s history of racial injustice and declaring that blacks should not sing “God Bless America” but instead “God damn America.” Before the video, Obama was on the verge of wrapping up the Democratic nomination, but Wright’s speech threatened to derail Obama’s campaign by tagging him as the follower of a “black militant.” Could a man who followed a preacher who declared 9/11 the result of America’s “chickens coming home to roost” really serve as a suitable representative of the racial liberal consensus?
Facing potential political oblivion, Obama responded five days later in Philadelphia with his celebrated “A More Perfect Union” speech on race. This speech will doubtless be read for decades as the high point of the racial liberalism I have been describing here—a bookend to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision 54 years earlier.
Obama began his speech by noting the “nation’s original sin of slavery,” but declared that the aim of his campaign was to continue “the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.” Although “we may have different stories, we hold common hopes,” Obama averred. “We may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place,” he continued, “but we all want to move in the same direction.” That there might exist people in this country who desire very different things from a racial perspective was out of the question; instead, Obama observed everywhere “how hungry the American people were for this message of unity.”
The speech was widely declared a rhetorical and political triumph, and from there Obama cruised to the Democratic nomination and eventual victory over John McCain in the November 2008 election. When Obama was sworn into office in January 2009, many across the country and indeed the world took his assumption of the highest office in the land as the ultimate sign of America’s astonishing capacity not only for self-reinvention but also for overcoming the sins of its past. The mainstream media heralded Obama’s election as a glorious triumph, with pundits as different as Daniel Schorr and Lou Dobbs declaring that Obama’s election signified the arrival of a “post-racial” America.
In retrospect, however, the problem with this narrative of racial liberalism triumphant was already clear even during the 2008 campaign, which witnessed the emergence of the “birther” controversy. A conspiracy theory led by none other than Donald J. Trump, so-called birtherism questioned the citizenship of the Hawaii-born Obama, demanding to see his birth certificate and then doubting the authenticity of the documents that were produced. Likewise, rumors proliferated across right-wing media to the effect that Obama, in addition to being the follower of a radical Christian minister, was also a secret Muslim. For people in the racial center, these campaigns were not only barely veiled racial bigotry, but also a disturbing sign of things to come, as significant fractions (and in some polls large majorities) of the Republican Party seemed to lend credence to these falsehoods.
In other words, like many an apotheosis before, Obama’s election marked at once the high point and the end of a particular historical cycle: a moment when the realization of a particular ideal reveals the limits of that ideal.5 Indeed, as a testament to racial liberalism, Obama’s presidency could hardly have been more self-refuting. It brought the tacit compact of the racial liberal consensus to an end by exposing the contradictions and limitations of that consensus in ways that became impossible to ignore. Positions previously dismissed as “fringe” now entered the mainstream of the Left and Right respectively.
Even as Obama attempted to reign as the perfect embodiment of racial liberalism, some of the worst racial tensions in decades roiled the country. First and foremost, police shootings of unarmed black men, often captured on video and distributed virally via social media, created an ongoing loop of Rodney King-like incidents, only worse. Black Lives Matters protests against these shootings, and the often para-militarized response of various urban constabularies to these protests, presented a dire political iconography. Social media, in particular internet websites such as 4chan/pol and 8chan, also created a space for white nationalists to find each other. These spaces, as well as Twitter, also witnessed the rise of anonymous actors who were perhaps less ideologically serious than amused by the prospect of baiting and provoking outrage by poking at social sore points. Racial incitement inevitably became an favorite subject for such so-called trolls.
These tensions gave the lie to the narrative that Obama’s election was the culmination of the long march toward, if not equality, then at least racial reconciliation. On the one hand, his very presence in office, his blackness in the whitest of houses, was a daily affront to those who still prefer to see the United States as a white man’s country. On the other hand, Obama’s presence in the Oval Office in itself did little to nothing to end the stark disparities in life outcomes facing African-Americans.
For people on the racial Right, the Obama presidency was essentially intolerable from day one, and “massive resistance” was the again order of the day. While a full recitation of the return of overt racism to political acceptability would require a book-length disquisition, suffice to say that the nomination and subsequent election of Trump is its most obvious manifestation. Indeed, one reason the mainstream media did not treat Trump as a credible candidate for the presidency, right up to the moment of his election in November 2016, was that he so obviously flouted the conventions of the racial liberal consensus that for the previous four decades had seemed to define the window of acceptable political opinion.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Obama in office, even as the incarceration crisis and shootings of black men continued, made the limits of meritocracy as a solution to racial inequality stark for the racial Left, and they were no longer going to be silenced. Obama infuriated the racial Left by echoing the line of people like Bill Cosby and Denzel Washington by telling African-Americans that they should stop “blaming the system” and instead take “personal responsibility” for confronting the problems in their own communities—a line that prompted Cornel West to declare Obama “a sellout.” Even for those less aggrieved by Obama, the reaction of the right-wing racial revanchists to Obama, who was graciousness and meritocracy personified, revealed the limits of respectability politics, and made clear the necessity of direct confrontation.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a central manifestation of this leftist rejection of racial liberalism. How did the presence of a black man in the presidency make any difference when unarmed black men were being shot across the country at a higher rate than anyone else? How was the meritocratic march through educational institutions supposed to change the fact that blacks are incarcerated at higher rates and for longer terms than whites for the same crimes? Half a century after the Civil Rights Act, the country remains far from equal, and the system continues to treat blacks and whites differently, with black lives consistently less valued than white ones. Whether a cop or white vigilante who shoots an unarmed black man is personally a bigot is irrelevant, BLM activists insisted: What was important was to make clear that it was unacceptable for him to do so. Obama could emote that “Trayvon Martin could be my son,” but this did nothing to prevent Martin from being shot, or his shooter from being acquitted.
The most important intellectual voice of post-racial liberalism is without question Ta-Nehisi Coates, who over the past decade has emerged (to his own surprise and perhaps discomfort) as America’s most vital public intellectual. The central thrust of Coates’s writings is that the reconciliation promised by the racial liberal consensus has turned out to be a sham. His rise to national prominence took place in direct parallel with Obama’s installation in Washington, when he was given a regular perch at The Atlantic after his May 2008 publication dissecting the “audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism.”
Coates has gone on to write a series of essential articles declaring the unmeltability of structural violence against black people, breaking a huge taboo of racial liberalism by making “the case for reparations” for black people on the basis not so much of slavery itself as for the ongoing legacies of racism in housing and educational opportunities. Most recently, he declared that Trump’s whiteness “is the very core of his power. . . . Whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.” Whatever else one may make of such pessimistic assessments, this is certainly the language of racial liberalism scorned.
The central tenet of racial liberalism, which Obama articulated and embodied better than anyone ever has—namely that everyone wants the same thing when it comes to racial justice—has been exposed as false. To a very large extent, both Right and Left have now dropped the pretense to racial liberalism, and the nation now faces a stark choice.
For its part, the racial Right, where it does not actively embrace white supremacy, now makes no apology for white privilege and demands, as in Northern Virginia with the Cox Farms protestors, that white supremacist views be treated with respect. Conversely, the racial Left is no longer willing to tolerate the structural exclusions and violence that are the ongoing de facto legacies of centuries of de jure white supremacy, first in slavery and then in southern Jim Crow. Bringing down Confederate statues across the South reflects a firm rejection of the idea that racial reconciliation must mean tolerating public symbols of injustice. It is hard to see how two such radically different views of the nation’s racial future can be reconciled.
Nor is it at all clear that we should wish for a return to the racial liberal consensus. While a politics of ethno-racial identity have roared into the mainstream of both the Democratic and Republican parties, this parallelism by no means entails moral equivalence. For one side the goal is to complete the march through the institutions in order to end the four-centuries-long legacy of white supremacy. For the other it is about a last-ditch defense of the longstanding privileges associated with that history. What the collapse of racial liberalism means is that Americans of every race no longer can defer the choice between those two visions of the country’s racial future.
1Historians often trace the origins of racial liberalism to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), which was a key scholarly source behind Brown v. Board of Education (1954). See Lani Guinier, “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the interest-divergence dilemma,” Journal of American History 91:1 (2004), pp. 92-118.
2While this essay focuses on black/white racial issues, the hegemony of racial liberalism was closely connected to a broad elite consensus about the value of multiculturalism that emerged in the wake of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The Act ended the explicitly racist and eugenicist National Origins Formula that had been in place in the United States since the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. On the broader connection between the coeval rise of multiculturalism and so-called neoliberal political economy, see Will Kymlicka, “Neoliberal Multiculturalism?” in Peter A. Hall and Michele Lamont, eds., Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
3For a review of critiques of racial liberalism from the Left, see Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking Back to Move Forward,” Connecticut Law Review 43 (2010). The most widely read conservative intellectual dissent from racial liberalism during its heyday was Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles J. Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1994). The relative mildness of Murray and Herrnstein’s dissent, and the vitriol of the reactions against it, provide a good indication of just how hegemonic the racial liberal consensus was during its heyday.
4Enid Lynette Logan, “At This Defining Moment”: Barack Obama’s Presidential Candidacy and the New Politics of Race (NYU Press, 2011).
5Michael C. Dawson and Lawrence D. Bobo, “One Year Later and the Myth of a Post-Racial Society,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 6:2 (2009): 247–249.