Beyond Racial Liberalism

The values and ideas that must animate our new fight for racial justice.

By Felicia Wong Kyle Strickland

Tagged equalityequitymovementneoliberalismpoliticsPopulismRacismvoterswhite supremacy

Victory Requires The Long View

After living through the terror and suffering caused by a profoundly racist and nativist President, and following the racial uprisings and reckoning of 2020, it is maddening that, when it comes to our political debate around race, it somehow feels like Groundhog Day. It is not just the weaponization of “critical race theory” by the right, as astounding and perplexing as that is. It is also the response of much of the Democratic elite, in the wake of election losses in Virginia and polling that shows President Joe Biden underwater. Yet again, we are hearing that in order for Democrats to win elections and get the squishy “swing vote” middle to turn out and vote for them, they have to avoid discussing race and immigration.

This is a tired debate. The David Shor version—which has been shorthanded to mean that Democrats should avoid discussing race and focus just on what is “popular”—is only the latest. This has been made manifest by stark political realities: razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress as well as a rash of polling data showing that the majority of white Americans are comfortable with racism and nativism, and even that some voters of color might be trending toward Trumpism.

But “popularism” is looking in the wrong place for long-term victory. At a very volatile time, it treats public opinion as static. It risks white appeasement, which has both material and political consequences. The question now is therefore not how to talk about what is popular today. The question is, instead, how to move those among the American public who are still movable—and we know, from recent history, that there are many—toward more justice. Without this long view, we seriously underestimate the threat to democracy that the white supremacist backlash represents. Underestimation will not yield a winning strategy.

Public opinion in this country has never been the place to start on matters of racial justice, because it has never been race-forward. In 1942, 93 percent of Americans agreed that Japanese people living in the United States should be incarcerated. In 1964, 74 percent of Americans believed that civil rights demonstrations would hurt the movement for racial equality. In 1965, almost 70 percent of Americans were hesitant about the newly passed Civil Rights Act and wanted to see it enforced moderately.

And, yet, movements have won, and public opinion has shifted. Consider the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the 1988 reparations for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during WWII. These laws became increasingly part of a new common sense. By 1999, the public saw winning civil rights for Black Americans as one of the five most important achievements of the twentieth century for the United States.

The lesson here is that movements have helped outline and hold up a higher vision for America, and in so doing have been part of creating a common-sense narrative about racial justice. Today, a new normal for racial justice requires a path forward for the broad American public. We certainly live in a time of racial division and virulent racist backlash. But still, approximately 70 percent of Democrats and a near-majority of all Americans now believe that systemic racism causes deep harm. Many people, in the past two years, have moved toward greater justice and might be willing to do more to create an economy and a political system that generates racial equality. But in this time of legislative dysfunction, division, and disinformation filling social media feeds every day, many Americans do not have a clear sense of where to go next.

Responding with defensiveness or the “popularist” avoidance is not a long-term, or frankly even a short-term, strategy. We must lift our sights beyond taking voters’ temperature and simply responding with where they are. To thus lead people where we need to go, we must focus on paradigm shifts, which can change our field of view.

On that, we find reason to hope. As we detail in our recent report, the racial justice movement itself—organizers and scholars alike—is converging on core values that might form the basis of a new common sense on racial justice: equity, repair and redress, and freedom and liberation.

These are movement values, and at the same time they are universal. They require that we acknowledge what the old, ahistoric worldview never did: that racism shapes our economic rules and institutions. But they also suggest that better rules and institutions are possible. 

Filling The Narrative Vacuum: Liberalism’s Twin Failures and the Possibility of a New Paradigm

Shaping our politics by setting our sights higher is especially critical now. That is because ours is a time of racial upheaval and racial reckoning—and also a time in which Americans lack a clear and shared view of what racial justice is, and how we can achieve more equality. The uprisings of 2020 are part of a deeper shifting of tectonic plates. Our era marks the end for a long-held set of common beliefs around racial justice.

For much of the twentieth century, Americans of both major parties held a consensus view around what many call “racial liberalism.” More equality and more justice for Black Americans and other people of color would result from anti-discrimination, access to better education and better jobs, and greater opportunity. But racial liberalism has proven insufficient to overcome centuries of racial oppression. Deeply entrenched discrimination remains central to American life. Across nearly every indicator—income, wealth, education, health, criminal justice—the material effects of inequities are often worse for people of color than for white Americans. This is true even taking educational attainment into account. A college degree has for decades been the central goal for liberals, because higher education was supposed to lead to a better paying job, more economic security, health, and family well-being. But the data today shows that this has not panned out. Today, on average, a Black family with a college-educated head-of-household has less wealth than a white family whose head did not graduate from high school.

The American promise—work hard, and then gain a fair share of economic and social security within a private-sector driven system—has not delivered. These empirical failures have eroded many Americans’ shared belief in racial liberalism, but have left no other widely held beliefs in liberalism’s wake. Because this old paradigm is gone, many Americans have no clear way to make collective sense of what they see on the news or learn from social media on everyday matters. This is compounded by a confused and chaotic social media ecosystem. This both enables and drives confusion and division—most sharply on issues of race and equity.

As Liliana Mason and colleagues show, this dynamic is not merely partisan polarization. Latent racism in America becomes very frontal particularly when activated by the right leader, under the right material and social conditions. Simply ignoring this threat to our democracy is not an option. This requires filling the vacuum left by the collapse of two paradigms that dominated the policymaking and popular imagination of the last generation: neoliberalism and racial liberalism.

How We Got Here: Liberalism’s Twin Failures

Racial liberalism’s “opportunity and responsibility” view of racial justice has deep roots. Racial liberalism and neoliberalism developed symbiotically during the twentieth century. At their core, both always held an ahistorical understanding of American economic and political institutions.

Neoliberalism, as it developed in the 1940s and ’50s, held that markets would bring economic and political freedom, and that our economy and politics should therefore privilege individual choice and profit-driven private sector companies. Racial liberalism developed within this market-based framework, which narrowed our nation’s approach from a more expansive set of ambitions in the 1960s. By the late twentieth century, the mainstream American consensus held that racial equality was primarily about disavowing personal bigotry and overt discrimination. But this approach largely denied the role of racialized and unequal structures that perpetuate group domination and injustice.

Beginning in the late 1940s, neoliberals and racial liberals sought to graft their views of a good society—property ownership, success in private business, the “family wage” within a white, heterosexual traditional family—onto the American-centered liberalism that emerged in the aftermath of World War II. In this era, neoliberal economists believed they were fighting for market freedom that would counter Soviet-style socialism. Notably, though it often goes unremarked on in the literature, the neoliberals built their thinking out of a classical liberalism that naturalized and rendered invisible racial stratification in both the economy and society. The neoliberals were primarily American, British, and European men whose thinking was dominated by a fear of World War II’s totalitarianisms. Their enemy was the state.

And their answer was a free enterprise system. They imagined, and then built, that system through intellectual networks like the Mont Pelerin Society; academic centers, including most prominently the economics departments at the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia; and political strategies perhaps best exemplified by the “Powell Memo,” written by then-soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in 1971. The free enterprise system required an amassing of political power, which the neoliberals achieved through a fusion of libertarian economics, socially conservative evangelical Christian politics, a network of dark money funders, and Republican Party leadership.

Neoliberalism’s anti-government focus put forth several strands of thinking about race. The first was more subtle with respect to white racial dominance. Neoliberal arguments from the 1950s and ’60s, primarily those associated with the Chicago School of economics, emphasized that only unregulated private corporations could create economic growth. They held, in Milton Friedman’s famous turn of phrase, that the “social responsibility of business is profit.” Students of “human capital,” like Gary Becker, argued that the best way to get rid of racial segregation in the labor market was to “compete [it] away.” These arguments gained real audiences and adherents. Friedman’s assertion, in The New York Times Magazine in 1970, was a “free market manifesto that changed the world.” Becker’s was, in the words of economist Kevin Murphy, a “discipline-changing insight.”  These were the expert intellectual justifications for a pro-business, anti-labor policy and jurisprudence. Racial inequality would, in this view, sort itself out. The worst possible evil was the threat the state posed to economic freedom.

The second strand of neoliberalism’s thinking about race was more frontal. By the 1960s and ’70s, other branches of neoliberalism, especially the Virginia school of political economy most closely associated with James Buchanan, developed its anti-government theories of public bureaucratic rent-seeking and pro-privatization just as school systems in Virginia closed for years, handing out private school vouchers rather than integrating Black and white children until the courts forced them to re-open. The scourge of “big government” was ostensibly about operational efficiency but was in reality about so-called “massive resistance” to integration.

This was the mainstream economic context within which the mid-century civil rights movement came forward as it pursued racial justice for Black Americans and other people of color.

Racial Liberalism: Promises Unmet

Racial liberalism is less widely discussed these days than neoliberalism. But it, too, has dominated mainstream thinking about race and racism through much of the twentieth century. We now know that almost half a century of policies focused on market opportunity and asset accumulation did not, in the end, result in widespread equity or political power for Black Americans or other people of color—much less liberatory freedom.

Racial liberalism failed. But because no paradigmatic alternative has taken its place, it still dominates the world we live in today. It developed in the twentieth century as part of an increasingly powerful neoliberalism that prioritized individuals and nuclear families over any other social groupings; that defined success as narrowly economic; and thereby denied collective action and saw a strong federal government—meaning competent governance through competent institutions acting on behalf of the public—as illegitimate.

One way to see the history of American race relations in the twentieth century is as the tension between racial liberalism’s incrementalism and other, more radical, strands of the civil rights movement. After World War II, during which American troops fought in racially segregated divisions, movement leaders were engaged in a heated debate. Racial justice leaders in the 1940s had come of age during a horrific era of terror lynchings and de jure segregation, both levers with which white America maintained racial dominance. To what degree should anti-lynching and a fight against racial violence, which was seeing success, remain core to the fight for justice?

1954 was, of course, a major turning point: the unanimous, landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. BoardBrown shifted American thinking about racial justice and changed America itself, striking down Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) with the words “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal shall not stand.’” In part because of the legal triumph of the educational desegregation approach and in part because of the massive pushback in response across the American South—and indeed the whole nation—against desegregation, the dominant civil rights strategy of the twentieth century focused on access to K–12 schooling, and by extension on attacking the entire system of racial segregation.

However, because the Court led not with a systemic or economic critique, but instead focused on the psychological harm to Black children who lacked access to the schools and other educational opportunities that white children enjoyed, some critics have lamented Brown’s hegemony. As law professor and civil rights theorist Lani Guinier argues, the focus on the individual and psychological harms downplayed both the role of economic redistribution and the role of systemic reproduction of white supremacy. Guinier argued that “Brown’s legacy is clouded at least in part because post-World War II racial liberalism influenced the legal engineers to treat the symptoms of racism, not the disease.” This is in line with the more radical arguments about systems of change that emerged as part of the civil rights and Black power movements throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

The full force and power of the civil rights movement ultimately transformed American society. But the racial justice movement existed within the larger context of white-dominated politics and an increasingly narrow liberalism. In this context, and as neoliberalism’s focus on individual skill-building and government tax-cutting gained power in the 1970s, economic-focused arguments around racial equity lost traction. The federal jobs guarantee and full employment mandates supported by both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and later Coretta Scott King, and the stark call for redistribution of both power and wealth that marked Dr. King’s final years, were smothered by neoliberalism’s economic insistence on the logic of market competition and its moral insistence on the purity of individual workers earning their keep.

The years between 1980 and 2016 marked the ascendance, and dominance, of an individualized, marketized neoliberalism that dictated not only our economics, but also our racial politics. Ronald Reagan’s was a dog-whistle approach to race—from the launching of his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were famously murdered, to a racialized demonization of both taxation and welfare with his still-infamous, if factually dubious, “welfare queens” trope.

The Clinton presidency institutionalized both race neutrality and neoliberal austerity within the Democratic Party. His symbolic politics—his overseeing of the execution of Ricky Ray Rector and his criticism of Black writer and activist Sister Souljah—were designed to triangulate and speak to “Reagan Democrats.” His policy agenda focused on both “opportunity” and “responsibility”: opportunity zones and public school choice, as well as increased community policing. He signed a host of laws that led to increased incarceration nationwide, and remains most criticized for the 1996 welfare reform bill, whose work requirements, state block grants, and immigrant prohibitions radically reduced the number of aid recipients and pushed low-income women of color, in particular, into long-term poverty.

Barack Obama’s rise to political power a decade later was, in historian Nils Gilman’s words, the “apotheosis” of racial liberalism, “exposing the contradictions and limitations of that consensus in ways that became impossible to ignore.” The Obama years were both an end and a beginning. His election as the nation’s first Black President marked a sign of racial progress but also set off tremendous racist backlash that has grown and metastasized.

President Obama took office as Lehman Brothers failed, Wall Street panicked, and millions of Americans lost their homes and livelihoods. The long-term effects of the crisis and recession were highly racialized. Black families lost more than a third of their wealth, and Latinx Americans lost more than 40 percent. Yet the consensus approach remained, nonetheless, focused on the austerity of a “grand bargain” that never materialized. The brutality of policing and the criminal justice system also became more visible to the American mainstream in the 2010s. The 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, as well as the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. The Obama years also saw the continued growth of a vicious anti-immigration system, with some progress for DREAMers (children who were brought to the United States while young) but also the deportation of nearly three million immigrants, many of whom had no criminal records.

By the time of Donald Trump’s election, mainstream racial liberalism had settled into a groove. It primarily focused on nondiscrimination and universalism on the policy side. On the one hand, neither political party permitted overt bigotry within their establishment ranks. But on the other hand, the lack of overt bigotry in the political mainstream and the focus on nondiscrimination did not lead to materially better outcomes for most people of color.

American liberal politics went off the rails by 2016 in part because it failed to actually curb racism. The practice of looking the other way and allowing the dog whistles in fact exacerbated racism and allowed it to gain real power. The details are familiar:the rise of the Tea Party as an anti-governmental force; and the rise and political power of birtherism, which is both anti-Black and anti-Muslim, nativist as well as racist.

Donald Trump was elected President having run a deliberately racialized campaign. Trump’s racism—more than any mainstream national political movement in at least the last 100 years—gained adherents because of its shock value. Trumpism incited some particularly vitriolic strands of America’s racist traditions. In particular, he fused racism and nativism straightforwardly and unapologetically. He tapped into the “law and order” strains of anti-Black sentiment among mostly white voters, attacking Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of police killings as “symbols of hate.” Trump stoked a range of anti-Latinx and anti-Asian fears, from labor competition to the feeling that Asians and Latinx people will be forever “foreign.” Meanwhile, he exacerbated post–9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria under the guise of national security.

Trump’s political weaponization of immigration was straightforwardly racist—for example, through his ongoing, public use of racist slurs and his hiring of Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller—who all encouraged and conferred with white supremacists—as leaders on immigration policy. Donald Trump no longer holds office, but his post-liberal racism and nativism continue to animate the Republican Party.

Three Themes for a New Paradigm

The possibility for a new paradigm comes, in fact, from the breakdown of both neoliberalism and racial liberalism. Overt racism and the silent encouragement of dog-whistle racism have become a norm in one of our mainstream political parties, and so we can no longer return to race-neutrality as a goal. Failing to call out dog-whistles only leads to greater racism. Race-neutrality was never sufficient for so many people. In today’s racialized politics, it is simply untenable.

The crises and upheavals of the last decade have brought to the fore new scholarship, a new understanding of our history and our present, and a newly empowered racial justice community.

The movement today for racial justice and equity is broad. It brings together scholars, public intellectuals, activists, and historians. Several lines of thought have coalesced, from economists focusing on racialized wealth and stratification economics, abolitionist thinkers focused on an end to the prison industrial complex, and legal scholars focused on the ways in which American law has legitimated race-based subordination.A new popular history is part of the scene, bringing race-forward ideas to mainstream American culture. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, The New Jim Crow, “The Case for Reparations,” and the 1619 Project are just some of the many projects that have catalyzed new conversations about the foundations of American history and the ongoing legacy of slavery and oppression.

What all of these movement thinkers and activists share is a structural view of change. Their vision moves beyond racial liberalism, in that they do not simply want greater access to existing programs. The root of their argument is that the economic system is predicated on exclusion, and that post-hoc solutions—based on redistribution after the fact—will not suffice; that today’s immigration system is based on racial terror; and that the current voting system deliberately suppresses Black and brown voices. These movement leaders call for a fundamental altering of relationships of power. This has begun to create a political shift, with many grassroots leaders moving beyond outsider organizing to seek and win elected office.

Together, leaders are building a new vision based on ideas that have been ever-present in American movements for justice: freedom and liberation from systems of oppression, the repair and redress of historical harms, and material equity. These three themes are both specifically anti-racist and also universal in their values. They could form the backbone of a new paradigm for racial justice.

  1. Freedom and liberation: At the core of the movement is the vision for individual and collective self-determination, free from systemic oppression. The movement’s notion of freedom is distinctly non-neoliberal, and is tied to visions of American freedom that predate the country’s neoliberal shift—positive freedom situated outside of market exchanges, freedom from oppressive and exclusive laws and social arrangements. This freedom is about true liberation, and has deep roots in the abolitionist, civil rights, and women’s liberation movements.
  2. Repair and redress: Achieving racial justice requires an honest reckoning with America’s legacy of white supremacy and violence. It requires taking concrete, reparative action to redress the legacy of harm that continues to shape our communities. Drawing on the new popular history, repair and redress makes central the idea that an understanding of the past and affirmative actions to repair past wrongs are necessary for justice.
  3. Material equity: Moving beyond the neoliberal worldview that believed increased access and opportunity to the current system was sufficient to bring about economic equality, today’s movement pursues equitable material outcomes and centers racial equity. Yet today’s activists know that true equity requires more equitable outcomes, rather than accepting the false promise of “opportunity” within a system that continues to systematically exclude. It demands redistribution of resources—especially when wealth for some has been extracted from many—and a redistribution of decision-making power.

These themes distinguish today’s scholarly and movement thinking from the failed paradigms of the past. They also demonstrate that the movement is far deeper than a series of slogans about policing or immigration enforcement (ICE), which political pundits today worry about because they are not yet broadly popular.

  • Neoliberalism and racial liberalism ignored the past in their deliberate focus on individual attainment of skills to compete in an ostensibly fair labor market. The new thinking about racial justice requires a real reckoning with history both for moral reasons and so that we can properly understand the specific harms of past policies and make recompense.
  • Neoliberalism—and, to a lesser degree, racial liberalism—focused on market exchange, material accumulation, and economic incentives. Neoliberal approaches deliberately placed decision-making within markets, and outside of politics. The new thinking about racial justice focuses on social incentives, the power and pull of participation, and movements themselves.
  • Neoliberalism and racial liberalism were about individual accomplishment within a constrained, increasingly financialized capitalism. Politics existed primarily to protect private actors, and as such was thin and transactional. The new racial justice thinking focuses on a more balanced form of action and agency: democratic politics as collective action, collective governance, and collective self-governance.

The new worldview brings the combined themes of freedom, repair, and equity together within a story of what America can become. We can have a more equitable, multiracial economy, society, and democracy. But to get there, we must honestly reckon with the real cultural, policy, and political reasons that people of color—Black, brown, Indigenous, Asian—have been subjugated, excluded, and “othered.” And this also means centering the experiences, the voices, and ultimately the political power of Black Americans and other people of color.

Importantly, to get to this kind of politics, we must embrace themes with deep roots in the racial justice movement. These themes reflect universal values. Repair and redress are central to faith traditions worldwide. Equality is a deeply held, if also contested, American value. Freedom from the market has, contrary to popular belief, a long American history. As such, it might be possible to connect what movement leaders are demanding to a broad, strong, and lasting political movement that has the support of a majority of Americans.

Paradigm shifts are rare, especially in politics. But they do happen when the reality of people’s everyday lives becomes radically out of sync with their understanding of how the world is supposed to work. Today, the shift beyond neoliberalism in the field of economics is embraced by major thinkers and funded by large foundations, and it animates the potential for foundational and historic legislative efforts by the Biden Administration.

Our charge now is to broaden the paradigm shift that is already underway, and to show that solving problems with individualized, marketized, neoliberal solutions does not “compete away” racial discrimination, but instead compounds white supremacy. The racial justice movement’s calls for freedom and liberation, repair and redress, and material equity requires policy solutions that are systemic and address the rules-based, root causes of racial exclusion.

Those in power must take transformative action and usher in structural change. And we must also act quickly. It will be critical over the next several years to use all the tools of government—executive action; agency tools, including existing departments and regulatory mechanisms; legislation; and more structural democratic measures, such as court reform—toward a more racially just economy and democracy.

The only way to achieve the promise of our multiracial democracy is to not shy away from either “multiracial” or “democracy.” We must make a convincing argument for both—plainly and out loud. The alternative is already quite obvious—overt, hate-filled white nationalism covering for the tax cuts coveted by profit-seeking multinational corporations and their lobbying firms, and the few individuals that benefit from them. A new kind of politics will depend on a new narrative that meets people where they are, and at the same time points toward a vision of society that imagines and describes something bigger, more inclusive, and more democratic, going forward.

We are far from understanding all of the political nuances—how to translate movement ideas more broadly; how to engage the voters who remain on the partisan edges and might respond to a positive, race-forward vision; and how to do all of this while growing the power and membership of race-forward, pro-immigrant organizations. But we are clear on the fact that the opportunity is now. The movement will continue to hold the bar high, and to lead the way. It is up to all of us to meet this moment.

Read more about equalityequitymovementneoliberalismpoliticsPopulismRacismvoterswhite supremacy

Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute and Roosevelt Forward.

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Kyle Strickland is deputy director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Race and Democracy program.

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