Liberal Racism

Today, I was asked for my opinion about an argument posed by the black conservative Ben Carson. It’s not actually an argument, but a complaint about white liberals who speak for the black community. The gist of his grievance is that white liberals are racist because they expect all blacks to support the liberal policies that, ostensibly designed to help blacks, are, in fact, destructive to the black community. Carson and his ilk contend that problems of the black community are better addressed through conservative (or, from Carson’s point of view, centrist) policies. Liberals should back off and allow a diversity of policy viewpoints.

I responded that, on the contrary, white liberals are too tolerant of conservative voices in the black community. Moreover, this tolerance comes at the price of marginalizing radical black voices, voices that carry the real answer to the problems of black America. Carson is confused, I emphasized, because he sees the world as a liberal-conservative dichotomy. Since liberalism doesn’t work, conservatism must. But the liberal-conservative binary takes us rightward. This is the danger of tolerating conservatism. But, this does not mean that blacks should tolerate liberalism as the alternative. Like most Americans, Carson does not see the other side of the political spectrum. The path to democracy and equality lies neither through nor between liberalism and conservatism.

But liberals are responsible for racism. To be sure, they are not solely responsible; but they are responsible for much of the situation blacks face today. Part of this is because of the liberal fetish for status quo, their love of law and order, not for the sake of justice, but for maintaining existing social relations (which, at the material level, is protecting the relations of production). Martin Luther King Jr. identfied this problem in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

We must also say that liberalism is racist because racism is a feature of capitalism, the economic system to which both liberalism and conservatism attend, but which liberalism is the major ideological and philosophical underpinning (it is more accurate to say that modern conservatism is a variety of liberalism than a negation of it). Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, this problem, as well, when he argued that racism cannot be eliminated without also eliminating capitalist relations, redistributing economic and cultural power, and instituting a regime of reparations. Such solutions preclude liberalism as a path to racial and, more broadly, social justice. So liberalism is detrimental to the black community, just not for the reason Carson thinks.

I was then asked by another person to clarify why I said that liberals are responsible for racism. Furthermore, this person wanted to know, why would I say that capitalism is racist. She proudly identified herself as a liberal, a person who believes in separation of church and state, in equal rights for all, and in the priority of the constitution over biblical law. Liberals also believe those things (within a definite system of assumptions). At the same time, believing these things does not require a person to be a liberal.

These two questions are really the same question. Thomas Jefferson, arguably the quintessential liberal, believed in the separation of church and state, argued that all men are equal, and was a strong advocate of constitutional over biblical law. He was also an ardent defender of private property, owned slaves, and believed that blacks were inferior to whites (which did not prevent him or his liberal colleagues from raping them). Blacks weren’t quite men in the eyes of the white liberals who ran the world then. Of course, blacks are said to be men today, but crucially only where equal treatment before law allows group differences to persist – that is, equal treatment as a strategy for maintaining racial (and class and gender) inequality.

The only real concern the founding liberals seemed to have had about race-based slavery – beyond the pangs of conscience that suggested to them blacks might be men after all – was the possible corrupting impact it would have on white people. Most liberals argued – the great white liberal Abe Lincoln among them – that, if ever freed, blacks should be crowded onto boats and shipped back to Africa, as they were, what with their small heads and primitive instincts and lust for white women, constitutionally ill-equipped to live among the whites (a belief that persists in occupational and residential segregation). It was the Great Emancipator himself who said that, short of eliminationist schemes, apartheid would have to be the order of the day, with whites on top and blacks on bottom naturally, because innate racial differences fated the races to eternal antagonisms. And this is what was done, first through Jim and Jane Crow (de jure apartheid), now through ghettoization, and mass incarceration (de facto apartheid).

I hastened to add that the father of liberalism, as much as there can be one, John Locke, was a major investor in the Royal African Company, the major corporate player in the British slave trade, and, sitting on both the Council of Trade and Plantations and the Board of Trade, was personally involved in drafting the Fundamental Constitution of Carolinas, which gave the slave holders total sway over their slaves. This was no slight involvement on the great liberal’s part. Only around a half a dozen men, with Locke playing the significant role, created and supervised both the colonies and the slave system from which they acquired huge sums of money. This was in the mid-1600s, I reminded my audience, so Locke and his fellow white liberals were busy at the early morning hour of the “peculiar institution.” Moreover, Locke views on unenclosed property justified the dispossession and depopulation of Indian lands; because the savages had not developed the land, they were not entitled to it or its bounty.

From the beginning, capitalism was created by white Europeans who colonized and racialized the world, sickening, massacring, and enslaving humans the whole way. Racialization was the strategy of control, an expression of the belief in white supremacy, and a justification for exploitation of labor and elimination of those who were in the way. Capitalism everywhere is both a class and a caste system, its division of labor what Edna Bonacich calls the “split labor” market. As a consequence, blacks substantially trail whites in every significant aspect of the social profile of capitalism nationally and globally. It is no accident that such a proud white liberal of today as Chicago’s Rahm Emmanuel, the faithful servant of the first black president, wakes up every day seeking to polish his schemes to impoverish the black community in order to enrich his white liberal friends and the handful of liberal blacks who have sucked up to white power to improve their own conditions over against those of their brothers and sisters (fortunately, for the bourgeoisie, capitalism has never suffered a shortage of colonial collaborators, externally or internally).

This is, after all, the liberal trick: liberalism institutionalizes racism by denying its abolition via the sanctity of the property right: let’s call it the individual right to group inequality. Liberalism is the desired system of domination because it appears just democratic enough to placate those who desire to breathe free, but not democratic enough to actually be free. Democracy means the end of capitalism. In contrast, liberalism, which includes some individual rights that could ostensibly extend to everyone in principle, covers for the tyranny of the propertied class by allowing certain subordinate segments of society limited participation in the political order of things at levels that do not interfere with the ceaseless accumulation of wealth by the handful of families who own the productive means. And where rights do interfere, they are quickly rolled back. The principle of equality carries no real substance because the system of private property is the raison d’etre of modernity. Liberalism is the illusion of universal freedom where in truth a few are free to exploit the many. Of course, the many are free to go hungry and homeless or work to survive (wage slavery).

At its core, then, liberalism supports exploitative and oppressive arrangements by functioning as an ideology that roots hierarchy and group inequality in individual differences, thereby claiming that inequality is natural and inevitable, and by serving as a legal philosophy justifying inequality by demanding equal treatment before the law. Since those who are poor come by it honestly, in light of the empirical fact that blacks seem to have a knack for being poor, racial inequality is normalized. No extraordinary efforts to end the suffering of millions need follow (albeit some band aids here and there paint a compassionate face), for this is the natural working out of things. Private property under capitalist arrangements has always had this open-now-dissimulated racial character.

This is why I renounced liberalism years ago. It is the ideology of the capitalist oppressor, of white supremacy. Liberalism is the perpetrator’s ideology. The moral imperative commands us to take the perspective of the victim. This is even a self-interested position for majority of humanity. The thinking and practice that aligns with this attitude is socialism.

Three additional points: First, there is a distinction to be made between “negative” and “positive” freedom, the best treatment of this given to us by the brilliant Erich Fromm, but perhaps more famously in the form given by Isaiah Berlin. This distinction is helpful in seeing how liberal freedom can ever only be a partial freedom. This is why liberty, however desirable, is an incomplete form of freedom. Fromm points out that, although liberalism frees the individual from the tyranny of tradition and, in theory, state oppression (negative freedom), because its economic practice is capitalism, it provides no universal means for self-realization (positive freedom). Self-realization (or self-actualization) is only obtainable when everybody has equal access to the means of production and can thus make their own way in life. Capitalism cannot allow this since it rests upon conditions of majority dispossession of the productive means, thus making the majority wage slaves. Capitalism cannot be reformed. It is intrinsically immoral and rapacious. It must be overthrown.

Second, following from this, wage slavery is a brute fact of capitalism and in its fundamental essence wage slavery is little different from chattel slavery. If a person truly opposes slavery, then they do so not only because it allows one person to own another, as despicable as this is, but for the fact that it makes some persons labor for the profit of other persons – that is, it is exploitative. What most people do not recognize – because liberalism, of which modern conservatism is a variety, is an ideology fashioned to confuse them – is that chattel slavery is but one form capitalism takes. It may indeed be (formally) illegal for one person to own another, but if some are made to labor for others, then exploitation has not ended. And what do we make of debt to banks, etc.? Capitalism takes many forms. And, while liberalism isn’t the only ideology justifying capitalist relations (fascism is another), it is the most insidious expression in the long run because of its pretensions to freedom and democracy.

Third, as the ideology of capitalism, liberalism is designed (or at least functions) to make capitalist relations appear as a natural fact, a reflection of human nature and natural law, and therefore normal and beyond the political interests and control of the majority. Adam Smith expressed this idea in his concept of “the invisible hand,” which is the source of Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” notion, which in turn inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which, while applicable in the natural world, is false and ideological when applied to cultural and social matters. It is easy to see racism’s connection to liberalism when this link is exposed. Smith roots inequality in innate individual differences. Yet we see that there are group differences in rates of everything associated with inequality. It follows that, if biological differences explain inequality, then racial disparities in inequality measures reflect biological differences, and thus races are biological realities and, moreover, some races are superior to others. Blacks as a group are poor because they are inferior and nothing can be done about this since property is a natural right. Liberalism is therefore as much a form of racism as it is classism. This is why social Darwinism – and sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which, when stripped of their scientific pretentious, are merely modern expressions of the then-equally scientistic claims of the social Darwinist – is such a despicable idea. It’s liberalism expressed in its ultimate form.

To understand what liberalism ultimately means in a political economic sense, one needs to remember that the core principle is exclusive ownership of and control over the means of production. The imperative inherent in these relations is commodity production for the purposes of profit making, i.e. capitalism. All rights associated with liberalism – albeit none are unique to it – are subordinated to the core principle of wealth accumulation via the exploitation of human labor. Capitalism requires violence and coercion to enforce this oppressive state of affairs, not just domestically, though the police and disciplining of the workforce, but externally, militarily, in the colonies it establishes around the world. The language of liberalism is chock full of peaceful order and due process, but these desirables mask the necessary violence that embeds in the social relations liberals rationalize. This is how you can have simultaneous liberty and imperialism, peace and war. These contradictions mean that freedom will always be elusive under liberalism, enjoyed by the privileged few, purchased at the expense of the many.

The rhetoric of “liberty” in liberal doctrine is a grand deception. By giving the masses limited degrees of personal freedom and seeming participation in the political system, degrees insufficient to threaten the conditions of ceaseless accumulation, the ruling class establishes legitimacy via an engineered consent that appeals to the natural inclination of the human being to aspire to both autonomy and inclusion in things greater than herself. But it can never deliver on the promise of its slogan. This is why the framers of the US republic – an assortment of capitalist elites, including men who kept people as property – were so eager to clarify that, while granting rights and liberties, the United States is not a democracy. Democracy entails control over the machinery of historical production by the whole population. This, all capitalists recognize, requires a different type of economic system, namely socialism. Socialism means no more capitalists.

In the final analysis, although more palatable than authoritarian forms of capitalism, liberalism does not liberate the individual from exploitation and the rule of the few. If you believe that human beings should not have to rent themselves to others to survive, if you believe in democracy, then you are not a liberal. If you are not a liberal, stop calling yourself one.


Austrian economist F A Hayek, author of The Constitution of Liberty and other influential books, argues that one’s social position, as measured by wealth and success, is primarily the result of individual intelligence and talents. The more intelligent and talented a person is, the higher will be his social position, unless stymied by the state.

It is argued, therefore, that the state should permit individuals to rise and fall on their own talents by making no effort to assist those who have neither the intelligence nor the talents to naturally become wealthy and successful. Government intervention in economic matters represents interference with the natural order of things. Assumed in all this, of course, is the theory that capitalism represents the natural ordering of human action.

The only role the government has in such a natural order is to enforce property laws without regard to any group identity, principally race and gender. Equality before the law is the only type equality allowable in a free society, according to Hayek, because, by not taking account of material advantage, it upholds the natural hierarchy. This limited role for government is necessary because individuals may band together, become a mob, and dispossess individuals of what the latter has naturally obtained through their intelligence and talents. Crucially, the government must never act as a mob.

In its inception, liberalism was a left-wing political ideology; it stood to the left of politics supporting the aristocracy, the church, and the monarchy (the real Holy Trinity of the Ancien Régime). In its early form, liberals made the radical assumption that all individuals are born equal and therefore no one stood outside the law. But the great disparaties of wealth caused by the capitalist economy posed problems for liberalism.

Inequality must come from one of two places. The first possible cause of inequality is unjust economic order in which the wealth produced by the majority is appropriated by a minority that does not produce that wealth. I could wait until the end of this essay to tell you that this is in reality the source of inequality, but those who read Freedom and Reason know the score. Inequality has always been caused by the social class dynamics. Inequality has nothing to do with individual differences. The person who digs the trench produces no less wealth than the person who designs the trench – and in a just world, the designer, if able-bodied, should be right alongside everybody else digging the trench.

The second possible cause is that individuals are not born equal. This view must ignore the reality of the social order order described above. Ideoloques have little problem ignoring reality, as we can well see with all manner of things, most obviously religion.

Here’s the point. If one accepts the reality of the unjust economic order, then one is pushed further to the left in order to resolve the contradiction. Liberalism’s contradictions resolve in socialism. Think about it. John Locke says that the wealth produced by labor belongs to the person doing the laboring. Under capitalist arrangments, the person producing the wealth is estranged from the wealth she produces, hence the obvious contradiction between liberalism ideas and capitalist realities. Communism resolves this contradiction. If one rejects the reality that all individuals are born equal, then one is pushed to the right. However, this does not resolve the contradiction. Indeed, as should be obvious to all, it makes the contradiction even more blatant.

Hayek’s version of liberalism is of the latter sort. He jettisons the inherent equality premise, radically changing the character of liberalism. Natural hierarchy and order emerge as Hayek’s foci, which he legitimates by appeal to biology. These are traditionally right-wing political committments (before often legitimated by appeal to religion). This leads to notions of hereditary ownership of wealth and power. Hayek sees the successful as a new aristocracy and celebrates them. They are, with their pretty faces and lovely voices, the beautiful (I’m serious, read his book). Hayek’s liberalism is Social Darwinism.

The argument assumes a causal explanation: material inequality is caused by variation in intelligence and talents. Let us assume this, as well, and examine the matter more closely.

If one looks at material inequality globally or in the United States, one will inevitably discover the following pattern: individuals with lighter skin color are in disproportionate numbers wealthy and successful, whereas individuals with darker skin color are in disproportionate numbers poor and failures. To be sure, there are exceptions, but examined using the methods of science and mathematics there is a strong and significant correlation between skin color and social position: the lighter one’s skin color, the greater likelihood they will enjoy superior wealth and success compared to those with darker skin color. Since material inequality is caused by variation in intelligence and talents, this correlation is restated thusly: the lighter one’s skin color, the greater likelihood of superior intelligence and talents.

As one can plainly see, the standard liberal argument in its pure form, when examined in light of material reality, becomes a form of racist ideology. Racist ideology of this type holds that some individuals are superior to other individuals and that this superiority is determined by skin color. The liberal often argues that racism is a unnatural system that interferes with the workings of truly liberal society. But raising this objection negates the premise of his argument, since, given the strength and significance of the correlation, it is obviously untrue that individuals rise and fall on their own intelligence and talents; rather, the evidence shows, individuals rise and fall based on group differences. This goes for gender, as well. If one looks at patterns of wealth and success, one discovers there is a correlation between gender and social station: the male enjoys a much greater likelihood of superior wealth and success compared to the female. Put another way, men are more intelligent and talented that are women.

The liberal might object in this fashion: “Well, this is the natural order of things; whites do enjoy an advantage in intelligence and talents. And, yes, men do enjoy this advantage over women, too. However you feel about it, that’s the natural facts.” Fine, but now the liberal must, if he is to be anti-racist and anti-sexist, to one of two things: (1) give up on the argument that the state mustn’t interfere with the order of things, since to continue advancing the liberal argument as Hayek has formulated it is to participate in the perpetuation of a racist and sexist society. And, given the strength and significance of the correlation, the government intervention required to create a just society, one where individuals are treated without regard of their group identities, must be considerable. In fact, it must be gargantuan. Or (2) denounce liberalism and become an open racist. This is because liberalism, if it means to value the individual in real terms, cannot also support a material system in which persons rise and fall on the basis of their group identities. For no system in which persons rise and fall on the basis of their group identities can be said to a system celebrating the individual.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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