"Glorious Liberty": How to Discuss Race without Tears

Jonathan Bean

The following interview is a conversation rarely heard in America today: frank, open discussion of opposing viewpoints on race—a dialogue normally shut down by name calling. For those who care about individual liberty, it is a conversation that more of us need to have with people who disagree with our position or do not understand it. The interview over my book Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (University Press of Kentucky, in association with The Independent Institute, 2009) offers classical liberals historical knowledge and a way of discussing race without apologizing. In fact, we continue a proud tradition of civil rights advocacy, as described in my introduction: 

The following interview is a conversation rarely heard in America today: frank, open discussion of opposing viewpoints on race—a dialogue normally shut down by name calling. For those who care about individual liberty, it is a conversation that more of us need to have with people who disagree with our position or do not understand it. The interview over my book Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (University Press of Kentucky, in association with The Independent Institute, 2009) offers classical liberals historical knowledge and a way of discussing race without apologizing. In fact, we continue a proud tradition of civil rights advocacy, as described in my introduction:

Classical liberals espoused values shared by many other Americans: “unalienable Rights” from God, individual freedom from government control, the Constitution as a guarantor of freedom, color-blind law, and capitalism. These values distinguish classical liberalism from left-wing liberalism, with its emphasis on group rights, government power, and hostility to free market capitalism. Left-wing liberalism trended toward the secular, while classical liberals typically argued for a Creator as the source of our “unalienable Rights.” In short, most classical liberals believed in individual freedom, Christianity, the Constitution, colorblindness, and capitalism.

Friedrich von Hayek recognized that many debates will never be won purely on the basis of theory or practical arguments “on the merits.” Most people derive their present-day policy positions from stories repeated in history textbooks (“the New Deal rescued capitalism,” “capitalists exploited children,” “business used racism to divide workers”). In Capitalism and the Historians (1954), Hayek warned lovers of liberty that they need to engage these fallacies and offer an accurate history of their own. He wrote

Political opinion and views about historical events ever have been and always must be closely connected . . . . [T]here are few historical memories which do not serve as a symbol of some political aim. Yet the historical beliefs which guide us in the present are not always in accord with the facts . . . .The influence which the writers of history thus exercise on public opinion is probably more immediate and extensive than that of the political theorists . . . . The historian is in this respect at least one step nearer to direct power over public opinion than is the theorist.[1]

Following Hayek’s advice, I spent years compiling and annotating historical documents capturing the classical liberal tradition of race and immigration. Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader anthologized well-known figures including Frederick Douglass, Lysander Spooner, Booker T. Washington, H.L. Mencken, Robert Taft, Zora Neale Hurston, Branch Rickey, Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly, along with countless forgotten heroes. I summed up the need for the book in the opening lines:

This is the first collection of writings on race and immigration to document the role of the classical liberal tradition. For many generations, this tradition dominated the civil rights movement, and it continues to exert a profound influence on current events. Classical liberals fought slavery, lynching, segregation, imperialism, and racial distinctions in the law. As immigration advocates, they defended the “natural right” of migration to America. Race and Liberty recaptures this lively tradition through the writings of men and women missing from other civil rights anthologies.

2009 and 2010 were years spent reaching out to a wide audience through radio interviews, syndicated columns, public lectures, and writing op-eds for U.S. News and World Report, National Review, and other media outlets. I gathered my interviews and writings on a single website: http://raceandliberty.blogspot.com

Teachers and journalists continued to stumble across it and engage me in discussions of a tradition they never knew existed. All good things, so they were taught, came from the Left and this book turned that story upside down (liberal icons such as Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and Lyndon B. Johnson were “on the wrong side of civil rights” in the worst way).

In 2011, Race and Liberty in America caught the eye of investigative interviewer LaTasha Jones. A self-described “far-left liberal,” Jones read my book and listened to my radio interviews. Her “investigative interview” (below) asked the kind of provocative questions that the Left typically throws at classic liberals, with original questions of her own as she honestly tried to understand classical liberalism on its own terms.

The following interview took place in February 2011:

JONES: To be clear, I am quite new to the very basic concept of classical liberalism. And even though I double majored in political science, I do not ever recall it ever coming up. Really, I suppose I can see why classical liberalism is ignored. It goes against the core pillars of our society: the dependence on class and power structures and hierarchies, the relationships between business and government. But to start, I wonder why you think it (classical liberalism) is overlooked. If it was as prominent a principle and driving force used in making the case for civil and human rights, why the staunchly polar divide? Why the insistence on Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative as the only sides?

BEAN: Classical liberal values resonate with most Americans, regardless of political affiliation: individual freedom, a market-driven economy, constitutional limits on government's power to discriminate against people based on race, religion, or other factors. Americans may disagree about the details but we are "philosophically classical liberal" to paraphrase an old Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. quote.

Nevertheless, the term "liberal" changed in the first half of the twentieth century. I teach courses on political thought and this change confuses students. How could a liberal in 1900 become an "ultraconservative" in the 1930s and retain the same values? The answer is a shift in "elite wisdom," from negative to positive freedom (the Progressive belief that "government was sometimes the problem but always the solution"—a quote from Race and Liberty). Progressives had a poor record on race precisely because they cast off limits on government power at a time when southern conservatives were at high tide. Meanwhile, those fighting the classical liberal cause in civil rights—including NAACP lawyers—were pushed to the side as race receded as an issue.

Another answer is that America is a bipolar nation: Democrats and Republicans define themselves in opposition to each other, "liberals" and "conservatives" use terminology that they believe will resonate with voters. Progressives realized that "liberal" retained a better ring than "conservative" and so the term inverted. Despite the change in popular usage, classical liberals remained distinct from left-liberals and right-conservatives, especially on the issue of race. The Left and the Right wanted to use the power of the State while classical liberals wished to tear down state-sponsored discrimination.

JONES: And then, as a sort of follow up, why does it get lumped with the GOP mission and conservative ideals?

BEAN: Readers may be surprised at how active the Republican Party was in fighting for civil rights, both from a classical liberal perspective and then from a left-liberal approach (Nixon-present). During the early Republican era (1854-1890), the Republican Party was the party of civil rights. Radical Republicans nullified black codes—a clear, yet limited use of federal power to strike down state government infringements on individual freedom. Later, the book discusses how the congressional opponents of Chinese Exclusion (1882) were Republicans, how the GOP made a last-ditch effort in 1890 to save black suffrage, and later advocated anti-lynching laws (1917-1930s). Although party interest waned with the loss of black votes, there was still a Republican bid for those votes up to the 1960s.

Under Nixon, the GOP was the “first party to lose its classical liberal soul.” Nixon gave us goals, timetables, quotas (over strong Democratic opposition!). Ever since, the GOP has said one thing and done another. To wit: both Ronald Reagan and G.W. Bush stated that they opposed race preferences and then expanded them! Ward Connerly notes how little GOP support he got for his race-neutrality amendments. It is a myth that today’s classical liberals are housed in the GOP: classical liberals favor open immigration while the GOP leans toward nativism; when classical liberals advocate race-neutral law, the GOP has nothing to do with them.

Why are they “lumped” together with “conservatives”? Partly because historians don’t understand classical liberalism, partly because it suits the Left’s political agenda to lump classical liberals with people like Pat Buchanan. This refers back to your original question as to why this country divides everyone into “left-liberal” or “right-conservative.” I wrote this book because I want readers to know that there is another way of looking at race: the classical liberal perspective. This perspective is coherent and embraced all minorities, including immigrants—an issue overlooked in many race anthologies that focus exclusively on black-white issues.

JONES: In your interview with Tony Cox [National Public Radio], you said that immigration and inter-racial marriage are the two things, the two factors that will change the state of race in the U.S.; they are the two factors that will, ultimately, “make the vision become reality”? We know that race, at its core, is a social construct; it is superficial and illusory in many respects. Even still, and considering your prediction for the future state of things and the ultimate creation of “one race”, how can it be truly deconstructed, forgotten, removed as an identity indicator?

BEAN: If you read my closing carefully, I write that immigration and “[r]acial intermarriage will upset all notions as a fixed trait.”[bold added for emphasis]. Race may always be with us in some form, as you suggest, but it is the government that classifies us into “check boxes” and uses race as a “fixed trait.” You may check more than one box on the Census (and other government forms) but some federal bureau will determine what you really are for government purposes. That notion of race as a fixed trait is belied by the ever-changing census categories and increased race-mixing (immigration and racial intermarriage). Moreover, any one reading my book will come away with an understanding that government use of race is pernicious and we ought to tread lightly, if at all. No wonder the NAACP steadfastly opposed all racial classifications up until the late 1960s. My own view: “If race is a [legal] fiction, then it is a fiction worth disposing with because it has done far more harm than good.” Here I am saying that race may be with us but the ultimate classical liberal solution is to separate race and state, just as we have separated church and state.

JONES: And then, would you agree, too, that we cannot and will not ever advance to the point of true, real racial equality until there is a kind of power and paradigm shift, a real relinquishing of power? As in, and very simply, the majority has to give their pie to those in the margins in order for real change to be exacted.

BEAN: Classical liberals believe that the individual is the measure of “true, real” freedom and equality. They reject the concept of “social justice” or “group rights.” See, for example, Friedrich von Hayek’s essay “’Social’ or Distributive Justice” (1976). The government must relinquish its power to discriminate for or against various races and treat individuals equally, notwithstanding differences in income, education, etc. Those are better tackled by the voluntary sector (including business, which may discriminate in favor of blacks or others, according to classical liberal thought).

At any rate, government efforts to “share the pie” failed in part because immigration collided with programs originally intended for blacks. Here, the black-white dichotomy leads us astray: My second book[2] and current research for an African-American venture capitalist highlight how immigration has meant the distribution of the government's "minority pie" (contracts, investment capital) to preferred minorities who never faced discrimination or are sucessful by any standard: Asians and affluent Hispanics.  This is "the problem with no name" in affirmative acttion, and black civil rights lawyers admit as much behind closed doors.  Historian Hugh Davis Graham deals with this issue in Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America (2003).

The classical liberal concern with government discrimination was summed up by a Brown v. Board amicus brief submitted by the American Jewish Congress: “invoking ‘the full coercive power of government’[Shelley] [the Government] acts as no other force can to extend inequality” and discriminatory "laws eliminate the free play of individualism and force all, without exception, to conform their conduct to the caste system. . . .” No wonder there are unintended consequences and “gaming” of the system.

Lastly, while there is a lot of ugly racism discussed in the book, classical liberals also confronted “respectable people” who believed that government-sponsored racism was a good thing. Those who advocated segregation (Woodrow Wilson), quotas capping the number of Jewish students (FDR), opposed anti-lynching bills (LBJ), interned Japanese Americans—they all stated that such measures were for the good of all—including those discriminated against! Japanese-Americans, you see, would be safer in internment camps! Diversity policies on campus may exclude whites or people from certain parts of the world yet “diversity benefits all” who do make it to campus. While classical liberals opposed these policies, we must remember that the other side believed that what we were doing then (and now) was (and is) right.

JONES: Now, I have to ask about the Constitution. Is it really explicit that it is colorblind? If yes, how’d we get away with ignoring that for so long? How has the legal system ignored their bible so effortlessly?

BEAN: Good question. Is the Constitution explicitly “color-blind”? The 14th amendment adds a strong element of colorblindness to the Constitution. Earlier classical liberals (Frederick Douglass, Lysander Spooner) believed that the original Constitution did not sanction slavery and was, in Douglass’s words, a “Glorious Liberty document.” Their reasoning sounds strange to us because we are constantly reminded of the fugitive slave clause and the 3/5th compromise. Yet Spooner draws on history and the natural law to explain why no slave ever consented to involuntary servitude and therefore it was null and void. Since the Constitution did not explicitly write consensual slavery into our law, then the Constitution was race-neutral in that respect. Talk about turning our present understanding of the Constitution on its head! Yet that view swayed Frederick Douglass from the Garrisonian wing of abolitionism (the Constitution as “diabolical compact”) to the belief that the Constitution was a “liberty document.” Passage of the 14th amendment, with the quote by Justice Harlan on its meaning (“our constitution is color blind”) became the rallying cry of civil rights activists in the 19th and 20th centuries. If they were wrong, then those in the wrong included Douglass, Thurgood Marshall (in his lawyering days) and all the other heroes of the civil rights movements—some famous and some forgotten. It’s those that are forgotten that I hoped to recover in Race and Liberty.

On the 14th amendment and colorblind law, note that many of my contributors (e.g., Zora Neale Hurston) thought that civil rights acts were unnecessary because the 14th amendment was capable of striking down all obnoxious state laws discriminating against blacks and other minorities. The NAACP made that argument in Buchanan v. Warley (1917), the first Supreme Court case overturning segregation; Brown v. Board (1954) and so many other cases. All before Congress got around to passing laws to nullify remaining government-sponsored discrimination.

JONES: Then, and somewhat outside of the race talk, would it be safe to say that the Constitution is sexist? Your mention of gender issues is relatively terse, though quite relevant. Where there’s one evil, others are sure to be present, no? And I ask this in the same that way that Malcolm X stated that “you can’t have racism without capitalism” (6).

 

BEAN: Some of my favorite female writers (Zora Neale Hurston, Rose Wilder Lane) contributed to the anthology but I avoided the sexism issue for reasons of space and focus. Race and Liberty already deals with slavery, Chinese Exclusion, immigration, anti-imperialism, anti-lynching, Japanese internment, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, racial intermarriage, racial preferences, sports, and business. Certainly, individuals like Frederick Douglass (the pivotal figure in the book) were concerned with sexism. Nevertheless, my aim was to deal with race and immigration in a single reader that could reach a classroom audience and remain affordable.

 

I would recommend two books dealing with classical liberal feminism: Wendy McElroy’s anthologies, Freedom, Feminism and the State (1999) and Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (2002). Those books are to sexism what Race and Liberty is to race and immigration.

 

On capitalism and race, Malcolm X was wrong when he said “you can’t have racism without capitalism.” Classical liberals argue the opposite: “you can’t have effective racism without Big Government.” Race and Liberty shows the many ways capitalism could undermine racism when allowed to do so. The State often prevented “capitalists” from freely contracting with blacks, regulated how they might sell goods to black consumers, etc. Blacks (and immigrants) “voted with their feet” by heading to states that did not sanction racism (to the same degree). With more economic freedom, they improved their lives. Was life perfect? No. Was it better with capitalism than without? Absolutely.

 

JONES: More than anything else, I am curious about your stance, in particular, on/in diversity in the academe. I’ve read a lot of your commentaries on diversity-centered hiring and acceptance, and am aware of your stance on diversity studies, multiculturalism, and even affirmative action. So I am wondering what you have to say or suggest, for instance, about diversity hires since they are very popular and so rampantly used. How would you address the fact (and it is a fact) that the Ivory Tower is still, well, quite ivory? Even though, in general, the student body isn’t all white and even though the community isn’t all white, how do you address and/or fix this problem? Moreover, do you think it’s a problem that the faculty body tends to not be an accurate reflection of the student body? There are several questions here, so take a shot at some or all. But do address the last one, if nothing else.

 

BEAN: Well, you have asked me a lot of questions! As you know, I have written widely on all of them. I will answer your question whether it is “a problem that the faculty body tends to not be an accurate reflection of the student body”? As a political minority, I understand how it is to be the one person on a campus of 1,000 faculty who is viewed as a “token.” I am also a Catholic in a part of the country where Catholics have had problems (my county was called “Bloody Williamson” because of Protestant-KKK violence against Catholics in the 1920s).

 

I suppose you mean the skin hues of the faculty don’t match those of the students? If so, as we have seen in California, the elite schools became predominantly Asian with the removal of race preferences. Is that a problem? No, if they are admitted on the merits. Was it right for Harvard to cap the number of Jews because they were doing too well in school? The answer in my book is “No!” Furthermore, if you are falling back on the black-white dichotomy that locks us into ignoring issues of white ethnics, Asians, Jews, immigrants, then my answer is that of the contributors in my book (Stephen Carter, Stanley Crouch, Zora Neale Hurston): pursue excellence early and persistently. PhD’s, someone quipped, are made in kindergarten by parents and teachers reading to children. Above all, the parents.

 

Statistical representation is misleading because it ignores what it takes to become a PhD (and not just a cluster of “diversity hires” in education, social work, the humanities). I did a study of the PhD pool in Illinois: immigrants made up half of all forthcoming PhDs. Conclusion: all native-born Americans are “underrepresented,” particularly in the S.T.E.M. fields. That is a problem since we are so reliant on immigration and must compete for the best immigrant students. Little wonder, then, that Asian faculty are triply overrepresented at state universities in Illinois (10% versus 3% of population)! People concerned about diversity normally come from the humanities and they never see this other side of campus life. Will more diversity hires create more black, Hispanic (or white) chemists, computer engineering faculty, etc.? Such instant results fly in the face of reality.

 

JONES: As I was reading and got done with the Introduction of your book, I wrote a note to myself: Race and liberty—really, they have no business being in the same sentence. I am free because I am…not because I am white or black or yellow or brown. I thought this to be a succinct summation of everything I’d just consumed. Would you agree?

 

BEAN: There is an interview with Frederick Douglass after he married a white woman. The Washington Post asked whether this meant he was abandoning his race, blacks were criticizing him, and didn’t this send the wrong message? Douglass responded: “I conceive that there is no division of race. God Almighty made but one race.” In that same interview, he says something very inspiring: “’I do not presume to be a [race] leader,’” answered Mr. Douglass, “’but if I have advocated the cause of the colored people it is not because I am a negro, but because I am a man.’” This theme resounds throughout the writings. So, yes, it is a good summation of attitudes. Likewise, Hurston wrote (I am paraphrasing) “race has caused more harm than religion—and that is saying a lot!” She would totally agree with Douglass.

JONES: I am beginning, admittedly, to restructure my own frame and perspective on getting over “the black-white issues that have dominated racial discourse” (312). I am one of those far-left liberals who is a product, surely, of what you’re calling “diversity liberalism.” Good or bad, it is what it is. Consider for a moment, though, that it should seem an entirely different thing for a seemingly fortunate and relatively well-off white male (this would be you) to tell me, for example, a twenty-something black woman, that race doesn’t and/or shouldn’t matter. Say what you must, but it’s a different thing and it means something entirely different…as in, it’d be different if a non-white male to be taking and pushing this position. Can you comment on this?

BEAN: You presume by my skin color to know far more of me than you do. I was once 20 and eating Ramen noodles! But I will not take offense.

You write “it’d be different if a non-white male” took this position. Surely you know that most of the contributors were not “relatively well off white males.” I let them speak. These writings were not written by affluent white males (as if affluence and white skin color disqualified one from discussing race—or anything else for that matter). To be fair (to me), I am most critical of “rich white males” in power—note the harsh words I had for George W. Bush’s positions on race.

I’ll end by referring back to that same Douglass interview with the Post where he denied being a race leader (God save us from race leaders, white, black, or whatever!). Douglass stated: “Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Sumner were leaders of the colored people, far greater than I, an humble citizen, can ever hope to be. They were both white men. . . .”

After the interview, Jones and Bean corresponded about the experience. Jones wrote “this entire process has done all types wonders for my brain. A friend and student colleague (who I have been conferring with about this interview and your book) has recently told me that I have to grow and expand analytically and conceptually, and this process is helping me do so. It’s all a big ‘ol learning experience and I have to be open to continued learning.” In turn, Bean praised Jones for asking tough questions about classical liberals and their commitment to civil rights. “It is rare and refreshing,” he says, “to discuss a topic so openly despite the differences between us.”

[1]Friedrich von Hayek, “History and Politics,” chap. 8 in The Essence of Hayek (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1984), ed. Chiaki Nishiyama and Kurt Leube [reprinted from Capitalism and the Historians (Chicago, 1954)], 160-161.

[2] Jonathan Bean, Big Government and Affirmative Action: The Scandalous History of the Small Business Administration (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001).

Jonathan Bean is Professor of History at Southern Illinois University and president of the Illinois Association of Scholars

La Tasha R. Jones is a writer whose interests include Black, multicultural and Southern literature.

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