Classical Liberalism and the Line Dividing Black America | Opinion

Black History Month, in the words of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, is "a powerful symbolic celebration" of "the important role of Black History in pursuit of racial justice and equality," and it has been treated as such ever since its inception. However, 2021 brings something different to this annual event. After a year of vitriolic racial animus, the color line that W.E.B. Du Bois predicted would be the most salient problem of the 20th century has developed a new strain in the 21st century. Where Du Bois' line marked the divide between Black and white, this new line seems to be separating Black people from one another.

A stark difference of opinion exists among Black Americans regarding the concept of classical liberalism—the underlying ideology of America, if not the Western world. Classical liberalism has been described in several ways, but its fundamental tenets include freedom of speech, individualism, viewpoint diversity, reason, scientific inquiry and equality. Its problem was that, for most of its lifespan, it lacked universalism, i.e., the extension of the aforementioned tenets to ALL citizens, not just white males.

Black America is divided between those who believe this universalism has, indeed, been added to classical liberalism and those who consider the ideology a farce meant to maintain a status quo of white supremacy. This disparity of views on classical liberalism suggests that while Black Americans may share and celebrate a common Black history, they do not share a common Black present.

Classical liberalism's Black discontents harbor a resilient mistrust of this founding ideology undergirded by an equally resilient trust in critical race theory. Scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic describe this movement as "a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power." Nasrullah Mambrol explains that critical race theory places race and race relations in a broader framework than was typical during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This broader framework, in Delgado and Stefancic's words, "includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious" and questions the crux of classical liberalism, "including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law." Why?

As Delgado writes in his essay "Liberal McCarthyism and the Origins of Critical Race Theory," critical race theorists see racism not seen as an American aberration, but as the American norm. Hence, "formal equality and legal rules requiring equal treatment of blacks and whites are capable of redressing only the most dramatic forms of injustice, not the more routine forms that target persons of color on a daily basis." According to critical race theorists, ostensibly neutral legal structures and the liberal principles behind them are inherently inadequate to address racial inequality.

Perhaps the most influential concept in critical race theory is "racial realism." Derrick Bell, the seminal critical race theorist who coined "racial realism," describes it as "a mind-set or philosophy" that "requires us to acknowledge the permanence of our subordinate status. That acknowledgement enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph." According to Bell, by coming to terms with the permanence of racial discrimination and the lie of classical liberalism, we can forgo the Sisyphean task of overcoming racism and take refuge in a Stoic amor fati; the sooner we accept our fate, the sooner we can move on. So, one can discern a demarcation separating Blacks who embrace the hope of true racial equality from Blacks who see such hope as naïve and resolve to move beyond its false promise.

Black lives matter protest
A participant raises his first during the "Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks" protest against racism and police brutality on August 28, 2020, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. - Anti-racism protesters marched on the streets of the US capital on Friday, after a white officer's shooting of African American Jacob Blake. The protester also marked the 57th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial. Eric BARADAT / AFP/Getty

This separation becomes more agonistic when "woke" Blacks (those not enamored with classical liberalism) suggest or insist that Blacks who still believe in classical liberalism aren't really Black at all. This may be most obvious in NYU professor Cristina Beltran's recent coinage "multiracial whiteness," defined as "an ideology invested in the unequal distribution of land, wealth, power and which feelings of freedom and belonging are produced through the persecution and dehumanization of others." Although Beltran coined the term in an attempt to understand people of color who voted for Donald Trump, based on current reactions among academics and activists, "multiracial whiteness" may also define a classical liberal of color. Celebrities like Van Jones and Terry Crews are no longer "invited to the cookout" (a term used to describe "un-woke" Blacks who do not adhere to—or merely question—"wokeness") because they tacitly abide by classical liberal values.

Frankly, it is easy to see both sides of this issue. Is the universalist addendum to classical liberalism credible if polling places in Black communities have disappeared at an alarming rate in the past 10 years? Is it not questionable if Blacks are imprisoned at an alarmingly disproportionate rate to whites? Given these and other inequities, chalking classical liberalism up to a scam is not entirely unreasonable. However, I also understand the faith in classical liberalism and see how Black empowerment is overcoming the vestiges of racism, prominently exemplified by the visibility and successes of Black leaders, not to mention Georgia's miraculous transformation from red to blue in the 2020 election.

Ultimately, this Black History Month I resolve to maintain a faith in classical liberalism for two reasons. First, if one looks back at the Black figures who paved the way for contemporary Black success, one would see an almost ubiquitous embrace of classical liberal values. Black figures as varied as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass and Paul Robeson would have bristled at the pessimism of the contemporary woke. Adherents of critical race theory demand justice but depict our world as one in which justice is a pipe dream, resulting in learned helplessness, self-infantalization and a general cynicism that leads to what Joy DeGruy calls "vacant esteem": the belief (not the fact) that one has little worth or agency, and that the benefits of society may be available to others, but not to Black Americans. Where would Black America be if our historical heroes embraced such an outlook?

Second, the woke mirror the far right in their distrust of classical liberalism. According to writers like Thomas Main and George Hawley, adherents of the "Alt-Right" believe that classical liberalism actually robs them of power by maintaining a status quo in which they are perpetually left behind. According to Main, "disorder" and "violence" constitute the "form of identity politics espoused by the Alt-Right." After the insurrection of January 6, I'd be hard pressed to disagree. If classical liberalism is fighting a war on two fronts—that of a disempowering woke Left and that of an angry, racist far right—all the more reason to embrace it; I do not want to live in the world that would result from its defeat.

Ultimately, this ideological fault line needs to be addressed. Yes, most Black Americans share a history that deserves to be celebrated, but it's the Black present that concerns me, for if we don't start talking about the new color line now, I sincerely fear for our Black future.

Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania and a writing fellow for Heterodox Academy. His latest book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, was recently published by Lexington Press.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.