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As you may or may not have noticed one of my primary intellectual projects since the death of George Floyd has been an attempt to understand the underlying issues (some might say the underlying corruption) which lead to his death, and to further understand the various proposals being put forth for fixing these issues (or uprooting this corruption). I will say that in the beginning, my lack of understanding led me to avoid the subject, or at least approach it very gingerly, which was almost certainly the best course of action, and it might still be the wisest course of action. But given that the debate which ensued shows no signs of fading away and, added to that, recent developments like the Harper’s Letter and letters written in opposition to that letter, and violent clashes between BLM and Blue Lives Matter protesters, ignoring things seems increasingly a form of abdication, particularly when I see very important points apparently getting overlooked by everyone.
This time around my attention was drawn to these “overlooked things” by an article in the Economist: Enlightenment liberalism is losing ground in the debate about race, by Diane Ejaita. This article was sent to me by a friend who has, himself, followed a trajectory of growing disenchantment with “Enlightenment liberalism” and who appreciated this article:
I like the way this article balances the issue. The author clearly leans towards enlightenment liberalism but frankly acknowledges the fact that it has failed to bring about adequate solutions to the problems of race in America.
To begin with, he’s correct. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better attempt than this article at explaining the conflict between these two ideologies, a conflict which has gotten increasingly heated, particularly among those traditionally on the classically liberal left. And yet despite this article being as good as it gets, I believe that it contains a number of egregious assumptions that need to be pointed out. It’s perhaps arrogant of me to think that I’m the man to do it, but it really feels like someone has to.
Before getting to that, it’s possible that you’re not clear on what the two competing ideologies are. From the article:
To understand all this, it is worth going back to the battle of ideas. In one corner is liberalism, with its tarnished record, and in the other the anti-liberal theories emerging from the campus to challenge it.
It is indeed worth discussing this battle of ideas, in fact while other things might be more important in the short term, ten or twenty years from now the results of this ideological debate will be the element that had the greatest impact on the world.
As I said, on the whole, the article was a great discussion of the tensions currently in play and why liberalism is “on the ropes”. It’s not it’s general point, but rather the assumptions and evidence used to buttress that general point that need to be reexamined. Yes there is a conflict between these two ideologies, and there should be, but Ejaita makes several points which serve to understate the strengths of liberalism and overstate the case for anti-liberal alternatives. Accordingly the rest of the post will largely be me quoting a specific passage and then pointing out what’s wrong with it. As I do this it’s possible I’ll read too much into these individual statements, that I’ll miss some of the nuances, or that my objections will veer towards stridency. Feel free to call me out on that, as I said this debate is important, and I genuinely don’t want to strawman the other side.
With all that out of the way, here’s the first statement that jumped out at me:
But [liberalism’s] poor record on race, especially with regard to African-Americans, stands out. Income, wealth, education and incarceration remain correlated with ethnicity to a staggering degree. True, great steps have been taken against overt racial animus. But the lack of progress means liberals must have either tried and failed to create a society in which people of all races can flourish, or failed to try at all.
This paragraph manages to be contradictory, and overly simplistic at the same time. In one breath it mentions the “great steps” which have been taken against “overt” racial animus, and then goes on to speculate that liberalism might have failed to try “at all”. Which is it? Because it clearly can’t be both. Or does all of this hinge on the overt part? Is it that liberalism has failed to make any attempt at eradicating inner racism? First, efforts were being made to police language, jokes and attitudes as far back as the 70s. So, secondly, it seems clear that the answer is that they tried and failed, because third, it’s an exceptionally difficult problem, and it’s not as if “anti-liberal theories emerging from campuses” have stumbled on a fool-proof way of accomplishing it which people have just refused to adopt. If anything they seem equally clueless, a point I’ll be returning to.
Ejaita goes on:
And although slavery is a near-universal feature of pre-Enlightenment societies, the Atlantic slave trade is notable for having been tied to notions of racial superiority.
This is a very strange sentence. Is she actually implying that enlightenment societies, which she admits are the only societies where slavery ended up not being “nearly universal” should nevertheless share equal (or perhaps greater?) guilt with pre-Enlightenment societies because the slavery of those societies wasn’t racist? First I’m not entirely sure it’s as clear cut as she claims, every civilization had an out-group that they considered worthy of enslavement, and while I’m no expert on this, I’d be surprised if there weren’t other examples of enslavement based around race. And there was certainly enslavement based on nationality and religion. Also even if the Atlantic slave trade was uniquely bad because it was based on racial superiority, do the enlightenment societies not get any credit for being the first societies to put and end to it? And in the case of the US, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives?
The article then spends a few paragraphs talking about colonialism, and insofar as The Economist is a UK publication that makes sense, but even in the UK, I don’t think it does much to illuminate the problem, and it’s a particularly weird tangent when you turn to a discussion of the United States. I haven’t heard any reports of Filipino grievances being part of the recent protests, and while the Puerto Rican independence movement was a big thing in the middle of the last century, including an attempted assassination of Truman, the last time a vote was taken on independence 60% wanted to be a state and only 5.5% wanted independence, and that percentage has been stable going all the way back to 1967.
After this detour into colonialism, Ejaita makes her way into the 60s and discusses the civil rights era and affirmative action. Shortly thereafter is also when the main competitor to liberalism enters the story:
As the gains of the civil-rights era failed to translate into sustained progress for African-Americans, dissatisfaction with liberalism set in. One of the first to respond was Derrick Bell, a legal scholar working at Harvard in the 1970s. “Critical race theory”, which fused French post-modernism with the insights of African-Americans like Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist, then emerged.
Over the decades other concepts like intersectionality (“A black woman could lose a case of discrimination against an employer who could show that he did not discriminate against black men or white women”) have been added to this package, until eventually:
[C]ritical race theory has flourished, spreading to education, political science, gender studies, history and beyond. HR departments use its terminology. Allusions to “white privilege” and “unconscious bias” are commonplace. Over 1,000 CEOs, including those of firms such as JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer and Walmart, have joined an anti-racism coalition and promised that their staff will undertake unconscious-bias training (the evidence on its efficacy is limited). Critical race theory informs the claim that the aim of journalism is not “objectivity” but “moral clarity”.
There’s a lot to unpack here… First off, if critical race theory is ubiquitous, why is it also largely ineffective? We come to this conclusion based not only on the fact that injustice is still ubiquitous (should we not be able to point to someplace as a success story? Perhaps academia?) but also the admission of the article itself, which offers one concrete recommendation and then goes on to say, “the evidence on its efficacy is limited”. Are you beginning to see a thread? Critical race theory (CRT) seems big on rhetoric, but short on practical solutions. Secondly she makes this incredibly sweeping claim in the last sentence, that the “aim of journalism is not ‘objectivity’ but ‘moral clarity’”. If clarity is not objective it can only be subjective, and subjective clarity seems at best an oxymoron and at worst the sort of thing that proceeds all of the worst revolutionary excesses throughout history. Beyond this, attempts to achieve “moral certainty” stretch back at least to the Greeks, so I’m inclined to doubt that we’ve suddenly solved it in the last few decades with the invention of CRT.
In fact, that last sentence actually reminds me a lot of the most striking passage from Bari Weiss’ resignation letter:
Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
Weiss offers it up as a criticism but Ejaita seems to be offering up a functionally identical statement, and touting it as a strength. It can’t be both, and it seems far more likely for it to be the former than the latter. Moving on:
The philosophical mechanics that bolt together critical race theory can be obscure. But the approach is elegantly engineered into bestselling books such as “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.
I have not read Kendi’s book, but I did read DiAngelo’s and it was anything but elegant. Not only is her argument undermined by the paradox I mentioned in that previous discussion. (Racism is fantastically evil. All white people are racist. But white people are fragile if they ever react negatively to being accused of racism.) But she frequently admits as part of the book the same thing mentioned in the article, that her trainings don’t appear to have any noticeable effect on people’s attitude, to say nothing of actually solving the problem.
I think you’ve probably long ago been able to see where I was going with all of this, but before we get there, one more quote from the article:
The appeal of critical race theory—or at least its manifestation in popular writing—is partly that it confidently prescribes what should be done to fight injustice….
Liberals have no such simple prescription.
Here we see, spelled out, my central problem with CRT. From everything I can see the situation is exactly the opposite of the section I just quoted. Enlightenment liberalism has a whole host of pragmatic techniques and suggestions which have been tried and tested over hundreds of years. CRT is the side that appears completely lacking in pragmatism.
Let’s compare, liberalism’s first great idea for fighting injustice was very straightforward, let’s end slavery. Which they did. No only is this a “simple prescription” but it’s very important to remember that before liberalism, as the article itself admits, slavery was nearly universal. Liberalism is essentially the first system to come up with this idea and implement it on a large scale. 100 years later when that didn’t work liberalism next recommended passing laws that further outlawed discrimination, while also allowing for positive, “rectificatory justice” (a phrase from the article) like affirmative action. Finally, underlying all of this was the commitment to a free and open exchange of ideas so that if there were any areas where we hadn’t arrived at the truth, we eventually would. I bow to no one in my criticism of the idea that enlightened liberalism is some sort of unstoppable force. I think there’s all sorts of reasons why it’s force might be spent, but it should at least get credit for what it already accomplished!
In the other corner, critical race theory, which as far as I can tell has three major practical, policy recommendations: unconscious-bias training, defunding the police, and reparations. We’ve already discussed how evidence for the effectiveness of the first is limited. Defunding the police is an interesting idea, which I’ve expressed support for trying on a limited basis, but I have yet to see someone offer up a community or nation as an example of where this is already working (most examples I’ve seen of better policing involve giving the police more money) which makes it less a practical suggestion than an untested hypothesis. Finally there’s reparations, which again, is an interesting idea, but from the standpoint of practicality, it’s a nightmare of genealogy, logistics, history and ideology.
Now to be clear, here is what I’m not arguing. I’m not arguing that liberalism is fast. I’m not arguing that there are no blind spots. I’m not arguing that eventually liberalism will fix everything if we just wait long enough. I’m not even arguing that CRT doesn’t have anything useful to add to policies and behavior. Rather what I am arguing is that most of the criticisms of liberalism which have gotten so much attention over the last few weeks share a distressing lack of pragmatism. And that people don’t even seem to be aware of this weakness. Arguing, as for example in this article, that it’s in fact the other way around, that CRT has “confident prescriptions”, that it’s possible that liberalism has “failed to try at all” and that CRT brings a “moral clarity” which has somehow been overlooked for centuries.
Pulling everything together, it’s not entirely clear what the article’s point is. There are lots of parts (like the ones I’ve quoted) where Ejaita frames things as a contest between liberalism and anti-liberal theories, in particular CRT, and indicates that the latter has the edge in this contest. But then in the concluding paragraph there’s no mention of the competition or of anti-liberal alternatives:
Plenty of people are trying to work out what [putting right past failures] entails, but the practicalities are formidable. Having failed adequately to grapple with racial issues, liberals find themselves in a political moment that demands an agenda which is both practically and politically feasible. The risk is that they do not find one.
I couldn’t agree more that the “practicalities are formidable” and that the “political moment…demands an agenda that is both practically and politically feasible.” What I don’t understand is what Ejaita means by that very last sentence. I see three possible interpretations:
- The “risk” being discussed is a risk to the project of liberalism. If it can’t come up with an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible”, it and its supporters will be sidelined, similar to what happened to, say, communists, but the world as a whole will pivot to anti-liberal theories and be fine.
- Despite significant discussion of alternatives to liberalism, Ejaita understands that it is really the only game in town, and the risk to us all is that if it can’t figure out how to fix racial disparities there’s nothing concrete to take its place and we’re all doomed.
- That despite only mentioning liberals in the concluding paragraph, the point of the article is that all ideologies find themselves in this same political moment with the same demands for an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible” and the “risk” is that no ideology will find itself adequate to the task, and we’re all doomed.
You can see how the text seems to point strongly in the direction of the first interpretation, which in my opinion is naive to the point of being dangerous. Because as far as I can tell a practical and politically feasible agenda is precisely what CRT and anti-liberal theories lack. My own opinion would be closer to the second interpretation, and it is possible that’s what she’s saying, certainly if you consider the final paragraph in isolation, that seems like the most straightforward reading.
But if we grant that CRT or something similar is a viable alternative (frankly, I’m not convinced that it is) then it should be held to the same standards of practicality and political feasibility as liberalism, or what I pointed out as the final interpretation. But neither this article nor the many supporters of anti-liberal theories seem to be demanding that standard or putting forth this interpretation of our “political moment”. But the risk that no ideology will find itself equal to the task is very real.
I understand the concerns of my friends and of this article and others like it about the weaknesses of liberalism, but if the choice is between something which has been working (albeit nowhere close to perfectly) for centuries, and something entirely unproven, with recommendations that are either vague, radical or both, I choose to be a defender of liberalism.
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