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"Meet Ur Neighbour." (lllustration by Andrei Prakharevich)
"Meet Ur Neighbour." (lllustration by Andrei Prakharevich)
For more than a century, the fate of African-Americans has been the pawn in a dysfunctional national family drama played out by whites on the liberal left and whites on the right. Yes, whites on the liberal left helped elect Barack Obama. And black and brown folk have now endured six years of a straight-up, all out, go-for-broke temper tantrum on the right. Seeing themselves as the paragons of reason, liberal white folks have largely stood idly by reasoning with their brethren and sistren on the right to play nice, even though it is so clear that the right is not interested in a clean game.

By Brittney Cooper
In her recent post at the Nation, Michelle Goldberg attempts to place the dust-up over #CancelColbert into a broader frame of what she calls “radical anti-liberalism.” She writes:

“One of the most striking characteristics of ‘60s radicalism was its aversion to liberalism,” wrote Alice Echols in Daring to Be Bad, her history of radical feminism. “Radicals’ repudiation of liberalism was not immediate; rather, it developed in response to liberalism’s defaults—specifically, its timidity regarding black civil rights and its escalation of the Vietnam War.” Something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale, happened after Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it, and it’s happening now, as economic misery persists under Barack Obama. There’s disenchantment not just with electoral politics, but with liberal values as a whole. “White liberal” has, once again, emerged as a favorite left-wing epithet.

She concludes that this most recent rise of anti-liberal sentiment on the left will lead to a situation in which “politics contract.”

I want to respond to Goldberg’s arguments as part of the broader set of debates that have been taking place between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait in the pages of the Atlantic and New York magazine, respectively. Those debates — while mainly about the role, if any, that black culture plays in explaining widespread and continued poverty within black communities — have as an additional and important thread the role of liberal values in contemporary anti-racism politics on the left.

There are more than a few problems with Goldberg’s analysis, not the least of which is that nothing about her view seems even remotely expansive or visionary enough to halt the contracting or retrenchment of leftist politics. As noted in the excerpt above, Goldberg tellingly reduces legitimate objections to endless war (which we find ourselves in yet again) and to conservative welfare reform like that of the Clinton era, to indictments not of liberalism but rather of white liberals themselves. She makes it personal, when the arguments are clearly about policy.

While she sparingly acknowledges that the rise of 1960s radicalism was rooted in legitimate critiques of liberalism’s record on race and war, Goldberg is unwilling to acknowledge that many of the same conditions that necessitated the rise of radical discourse persist today. The 21st century has been one of endless American wars, first needlessly in Iraq, now in Afghanistan. Second, the election of Barack Obama has been met on the right with a stunning legal rollback of everything from affirmative action to voting rights, and there has been a full-force attempt to gut the social safety net. Meanwhile, since 2008, the liberal left has fumbled plays in political games where we began with possession of the ball, first down, on the 50-yard line.

In fact, there is something about this moment that feels incredibly similar to the post-Reconstruction moment of the U.S., that period between 1877 and about 1890, when after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise, the left (Republicans at the time) sold their souls to the right in order to resituate the balance of white national unity. From 1865 to 1877, we saw an unprecedented inclusion of African-Americans into the body politic on the heels of Northern victory in the Civil War. Black people voted, held local and national political offices, and rode on unsegregated public accommodations.

But the fact that the North wanted to end slavery and win the war did not at any level mean they believed in full African-American equality and inclusion. So on our backs, the North and South struck a deal for their own unity.

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