On Racial and Radical Liberalisms

On Racial and Radical Liberalisms

Debates about race and the legacy of racism have long dominated American politics. This spans the political spectrum, from the recent feverish efforts of conservatives to detect critical race theory everywhere to the left-liberal characterization of Trumpism as a fundamentally racist and xenophobic movement. This would no doubt come as a surprise to those who optimistically—and often self-servingly—hoped that the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s would bury these controversies once and for all without fundamentally challenging meritocratic mythologies to which many seem addicted. 

A lot of the controversy turns on the accusation that liberalism is itself implicated in the history of racist oppression. This is a damning criticism of a political tradition that presents itself as always occupying the right side of history, at least in terms of promoting tolerance and inclusion. Responsible liberals will admit that plenty of their predecessors held racist views, and even that many early liberal societies propagated racist policies and propaganda. But defenders of liberalism will claim that this is largely circumstantial, and doesn’t weigh heavily on the largely progressive accomplishments of the liberal tradition. 

In other words racism is an epiphenomenal bug in the liberal tradition which has largely been eradicated. This leaves the hard core of liberalism and liberal institutions largely untouched and renders further reforms unnecessary, even dangerous. To expunge the last vestiges of racism in contemporary society we need only remove some lingering racist policies and condemn individual instances of racism where they pop up. Commentators in this vein typically argue that the ongoing fixation on race has had a corrosive effect on politics. This can come even from those who acknowledge that the history of racism and other forms of discrimination does have a lingering impact on people’s life prospects, such as the right-wing liberal George Will. He articulates his frustration in a recent book The Conservative Sensibility:

The premise of [progressivism] is that identities, and rights, should derive from group membership, and special rights are owed to grievance groups composed of America’s myriad and ever-multiplying victims. A corollary of this theory is ‘categorical representation,’ the idea that the interests of particular groups can be understood and articulated only by members of those groups … Progressives steeped in identity politics are not convinced that people can be readily reached by reason. Rather, progressives regard people as defined by, and enclosed in, their race, ethnicity, class, or gender. This leads to a contraction of the ambit of the democratic politics of persuasion. The vacated social space is filled by the brokering of identity-group interests in the name of a spurious equality of opportunity. The creation of ‘minority-majority’ congressional districts expresses the ideology of identity politics: You are whatever your racial or ethnic group is.

The raw problem for right-wing liberals like Will is that race still matters an awful lot for life outcomes, whether we are talking about rates of criminalization and incarceration or the staggering disparities in family wealth between groups. Not to mention bigger historical questions about the legitimacy of states and systems of law built by imperialists and colonizers. This has led critics to argue that the history of liberalism can’t be so easily disentangled from issues of race or racism, and that efforts to avoid this problem invariably legitimate injustices and disparities in the present. This reflects what the Marxist critic Domenico Losurdo calls the “hermeneutics of innocence,” interpreting major authors and traditions so as to expunge their ugliest views and insulate their overall perspective from the most fundamental criticisms.  

Charles Mills’s critique of racial liberalism 

One of the most probing critiques in this vein was pioneered by the late Jamaican-American philosopher Charles Mills. First presented in his book The Racial Contract and culminating in Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism, Mills argues that it is historically inaccurate to argue racism was a minor or incidental feature of liberalism. In Mills’s view of liberalism the “key terms have been written by race and the discursive logic shaped accordingly.” For Mills European and American liberal theorists undoubtedly made important arguments for certain kinds of emancipatory politics, but were nevertheless committed to “establishing and maintaining imperial and colonial rule abroad, and nonwhite racial subordination at home.” If true this obviously makes it far more challenging to exorcise the history of racism from liberal societies since it is not extraneous, but built into the very core of liberal philosophy and practices. 

Despite his fierce criticisms, Mills argues that liberalism isn’t beyond redemption, since many of its core moral claims can be extricated from the “contingent” reality of classical liberals’ support for white supremacy. Mills acknowledges some major liberal thinkers deserve more blame for overtly supporting racial oppression than others. But even the better liberals often relegate commentary on race to a few lamentations before moving on to their central raceless ideal theory. Carrying out a liberal redemptive project will require that contemporary liberals adopt a “tough love” approach to the tradition and quit downplaying the centrality of race and racism in theory and practice. 

Racial liberals: John Locke

An example of the centrality of racism to the liberal tradition can be seen in the work of John Locke. Often held up to be the founder of classical liberalism, Locke is perhaps most famous for his arguments about natural rights to life, liberty and property and his claims about a social contract by the people to establish representative government. Locke notably influenced the American founders, and he is often taken to be a revolutionary defender of equality and liberty. Mills points out that this rosy interpretation of Locke ignores that he not only invested in African slavery but justified “aboriginal expropriation.” This wasn’t incidental bigotry, but central to his entire philosophy. In the Second Treatise of Government Locke argues that in the beginning God had 

… given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. The fruit, or venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life.

The reference to the “wild Indian” is important. Locke later argues that while we all originally possessed the world in common it didn’t stay that way. As one of the founders of the political theory of “possessive individualism” Locke argued that individuals gained rights to private property through mixing their labor with the matter of the earth, as through agriculture. An isolated piece of land that once laid fallow becomes someone’s possession, as do its fruits, when he encloses and improves it to produce crops. 

Locke goes on to argue that while the state is obligated to respect natural rights to property flowing from labor, no one possesses such rights in North America. This is because, despite the presence of indigenous peoples, these lands remain uncultivated and so are still the common property of all. He asks “whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life, as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire, where they are well cultivated?” The implication is that privatizing the allegedly common space of North America through transforming it into property along the European model would ultimately make it more productive. It was part of a civilizing project. 

Of course the millions of original inhabitants living in North America may well have thought they had some entitlement to the land of their ancestors, whether they used it in a manner amenable to Locke or not. By denying them this entitlement Locke provided ideological ammunition for later liberals like Jefferson to justify colonial expansion westwards, and when this was resisted by the inhabitants, to call for a war of “extermination.” Or as Ayn Rand would later put it with characteristic brutality the aboriginals had “no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages … Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights—they didn’t have a settled society.”

Racial liberals: Immanuel Kant

Another example that particularly stings for those of us with a deontological bent is Mills’s foregrounding of Immanuel Kant’s racism. Though Kant is often held up to be the exemplary philosopher of universal human dignity and freedom, Mills notes the tremendous theoretical energy Kant applied to his racist science and anthropology. Kant characterized “Negroes” as amongst  the “lowest” form of humanity, described the white race as possessing “all motivating forces and talents in itself,” and infantilized Native Americans, who are incapable of “love, thus they are also not afraid. They hardly speak, do not caress each other, care about nothing and are lazy.” 

This was not merely incidental prejudice from Kant, who by most accounts rarely set foot outside of Konigsberg, easily set aside when dealing with his thought. Mills argues Kant’s racism tarnishes a significant part of his philosophy. While Kant does indeed argue that our status as transcendentally free and rational moral agents entitles us to be treated with dignity, he seems to have denied that non-whites were in fact free and rational moral agents in this transcendental sense. Due to their biological inferiority, they needn’t be considered members of the human community in the same sense as white Europeans. If true it would mean that any use of Kant’s work needs to commit itself to some serious rethinking of its foundations. As Mills puts it:

Instead of presenting that Kant was arguing for equal respect to be extended to everybody, we should be asking how Kant’s theory needs to be rethought in light not merely of his own racism but of a modern world with a normative architecture based on racist Kant-like principles. How is ‘respect’ to be cashed out, for example, for a population that has historically been seen as less than persons? Should it be reconceptualized with a supplementary group dimension, given that white supremacy has stigmatized entire races as less than worthy of respect, as appropriately to be ‘dissed?” What corrective measures would be required of the Rechsstaat to redress racial subordination?

This claim is considerably more controversial and in my view unconvincing. While Kant undoubtedly held these opinions, the drift of his thinking near the end of his life and at his peak of theoretical maturity seemed to be towards greater egalitarianism. His transcendental argument about the a priori and universal structure of human consciousness can be criticized for its inattentiveness to the impact of external inputs, as how language influences how we think. But it doesn’t seem that anything fundamental in The Critique of Pure Reason turns on Kant’s racism. 

Even if it turned out that Kant’s biological racism (and misogyny) did entail denying equal transcendental status to some, we needn’t follow him in that. I am also less convinced that Kant’s politics were as revanchist as Mills makes out. Commentators like Arthur Ripstein have given new life to the interpretation of Kant as a revolutionary critical thinker, and he undoubtedly became more critical of imperialism and colonialism. This would be more consistent with the thrust of Kant’s philosophy, which even Mills sets out to salvage at the end of Black Rights/White Wrongs. Nevertheless Mills’s critique of Kant remains potent, and no one writing in his wake should be uncritical of the German philosopher’s racial arguments or ignore the problems they pose for interpreting his philosophy as a whole.  

Can liberalism still be radical?

The payoff of Mills’s critiques is that by alerting us to liberalism’s foundational failings on race he awakens us to how much more still needs to be done by liberals of good conscience. George Will and others may disparage the metaphor of the “race of life” often appealed to by critical race theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw, suggesting we only look at overall improvements in life outcomes. After all if the absolute positions of individuals within racialized groups are better now than in the 1960s, what else is that but improvement? And just so. But there is nothing irrational about acknowledging that improvements in the lives of racialized people are good, while recognizing they are far short of what is both achievable and fair. 

If I pay John $80 to landscape my yard, and next week pay Jane $10 for the same task there is nothing unusual in Jane recognizing her situation has improved while still thinking the disparity is grossly unfair. Calling for fairness isn’t resentment. It is a demand for a kind of justice. So long as we live in a competitive society where some people gain more than others, the metaphor of a race of life seems appropriate. As does Crenshaw’s argument that some of us are given premium training while others are forced to run from 400 yards back with weights in their shoes, all while still describing our society as an equal meritocracy. 

Nevertheless, liberalism can be saved from this racist legacy, even if doing so will entail more than just dropping some overtly bigoted policies and language. At the end of his life Mills argued for a “black radical liberalism” (BRL) that kept what was most egalitarian and emancipatory in the tradition, but shifted matters of racial injustice and disparities in power from the periphery to center focus. I would argue that we need many radical liberalisms to address these and other problems. As Mills himself shows, the liberal tradition is a broad family which can include a wide variety of different perspectives on issues like equality and racial justice. A radical and anti-racist liberalism would emphasize the core egalitarian values of liberalism, but situate them in a more muscular critique of contemporary (neo)liberal society as it exists now. It would pay special attention to the particular forms that domination and marginalization have taken—avoiding too much abstraction—and develop specifically liberal responses. In other words it would mean stepping away from what Mills calls purely “ideal” theory and engaging in the messy power dynamics that so define our lived reality. 

An anti-racist radical liberalism

Ironically Mills leans heavily on Kant as a potential foundation for BRL, along with Karl Marx and W.E.B. Du Bois. This was despite his critique of Kant’s racism, and because Kant was the “most important theorist of the dominant variety of contemporary liberalism, ‘deontological’ liberalism.” In particular, Kant’s stress on the innate dignity of persons needs to be categorically extended to people of color. But for Mills, taking this seriously means more than formalistic declarations of personhood. There needs to be a concerted effort to “correct for [the] past history” of racial discrimination, which would require very dramatic changes indeed. 

Here Mills turns to Rawls’s contractarianism, but argues that we need to reconceive the project as “tearing up the bad contract that has created the world we live in” by allowing reasoners to take into account the history of racism in the United States and elsewhere rather than abstracting away such details as in Rawls’s original “veil of ignorance.” This would allow them to deliberate on how best to rectify the injustices that have resulted from this history. Sadly Mills passed away before his ideas went much beyond a preliminary sketch, which means it is incumbent on us to try and build upon his still germinating insights. I would argue that the form of liberalism best suited to realizing Mills’s aspirations would be a form of liberal socialism that addressed racial oppression alongside class oppression, rather than as a side issue. In what follows I’ll offer further ways of rethinking the liberal tradition which might be useful to that effect. 

The first would be to follow Mills in reconfiguring Rawls for more radical purposes. This would be consistent with Rawls’s own thinking, which by the time of Justice as Fairness: A Restatement had already moved in a more progressive direction. By the 2000s, Rawls was losing confidence that the United States could still be characterized as a reasonably just society, or that the moderate welfarism people gleaned from Theory of Justice could be sufficient. Instead he agitated directly for a kind of “property owning democracy” or “liberal socialism.” One of the more intriguing arguments he raised for this position was that a failure to establish a high level of economic well being for the least well off didn’t just impact their quality of life materially. It depleted the value of other liberties, particularly political liberties. By allowing wealth and power to concentrate in the hands of a plutocratic elite, the political liberties we’re nominally supposed to enjoy equally became far more valuable to the few than the many. This would have been no surprise to theorists like Marx; empirical researchers like Martin Gilens have highlighted how the rich enjoy vastly more political influence than the average American citizen. 

The importance of equal political liberties for all is especially germane when even today racism is connected with de jure or de facto disenfranchisement. For over a century black Americans were denied even basic rights, and even after the American Civil war a variety of insidious mechanisms were used to disenfranchise newly freed slaves and re-entrench white supremacy. Sadly this is not mere history, as conservative groups employ everything from gerrymandering to felony disenfranchisement to marginalize black voices. These efforts are deeply unjust from a Rawlsian standpoint since they either outright deprive people of even basic political liberties or ensure that they are less valuable than those enjoyed by white elites. 

In her book The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Freedoms in Representative Democracy the late Lani Guinier suggested replacing the racially biased democratic system with one that is “is procedurally fair to the extent that it gives each participant an equal opportunity to influence [democratic] outcomes.” This would include regulating and ideally eliminating gerrymandering by race, eliminating the more anti-majoritarian features of the US electoral system, and of course eliminating restrictions on voting rights which disproportionately impact the racially marginalized. This is absolutely the right idea, and suggests the deep affinity radical liberalism would need to have with the democratization of society. I would add this approach would mean eradicating ongoing measures that discriminate de jure or de facto by race, curbing the influence of money in politics and emphasizing a newly democratic and egalitarian culture. This would help answer a substantial part of Mills’s challenge that liberal institutions are frequently unresponsive to racial issues because there is a lack of accountability built into them. By ensuring all have equal opportunities to influence democratic outcomes, marginalized groups would form a more substantial power block to which representatives would have to be accountable. 

One of the reasons democracy is so important to radical liberalism is because it is one of the ways we can construct a shared world together on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation. This has a deep affinity with economic issues. As Cornel West observed in his classic Race Matters: “we must focus our attention on the public square—the common good that undergirds our national and global destinies. The vitality of any public square depends on how much we care about the quality of our lives together.” But the past decades have seen the stagnation or rollback of redistributive efforts and workers’ movements that contributed to the provision of public goods and ensuring wellbeing for all. This rollback has had a negative impact on many of us, but as Kimberlé Crenshaw points out, it disproportionately affects racialized groups due to the vast disparities of wealth and opportunity caused by structural racism.

One way of responding to this from a radical liberal perspective would entail adopting a more egalitarian distributive principle which requires us to foreground the needs of the least well off. Rawls “difference principle”—which only allows inequalities to the extent they benefit the least well off—would be a good candidate, particularly in its later liberal socialist formulations. But we would need to sharpen its critical edges. Rawls argues that the difference principle would be chosen for two reasons. Firstly, self-interested reasoners behind a veil of ignorance would choose it as the right principle for society since they would not want to risk being severely disadvantaged in a highly unequal economy. Mills proposes to allow those behind the veil to perceive the effects of structural racism, as this is part of the “basic structure” of society. Rawlsian reasoners would thus also justify more tailored applications of the difference principle to address the negative impacts of racial inequality they are aware of.

Rawls’s second justification for the difference principle is that most of the reasons for inequalities in society are “morally arbitrary.” People wind up where they are because of a combination of fortune, social circumstance, and the design of institutions. This obviously cuts deeply against both traditional conservative and meritocratic arguments that defend hierarchy on the basis that the more deserving deserve more. Yet Rawls’s arguments about moral arbitrariness, like Kant’s own deontological ruminations, are highly formalized and technical. They rightly hold that people’s position in society has little to do with individual will, choice, or inherent qualities. But they spare little time considering how social (e.g., racial) structures can also be determinative. This risks renaturalizing the roots of inequality even if it provides refined tools to criticize and repair its consequences. To Rawls’s arguments about moral arbitrariness, we need to recognize that many of the material inequalities that emerge are not just arbitrary but the result of structural disparities a just society would seek to rectify. This means that efforts to care for the less well off can’t involve only redistributing resources downwards, but must also eliminate persistent structural barriers to racial equality. 

Following Du Bois, one obvious example—of special relevance now—would be ending the vast disparities in the quality of early education. This is in no small part due to a bizarre system which allows wealthy families to spend more on educating children in their districts, while allocating little if anything to others. This has enabled the persistence of educational disparities which map onto racial inequality and it incentivizes the wealthy to ignore what goes on in schools where they have no stake. Equal education for all is a sensible measure which would improve outcomes by investing everyone in the quality of each child’s development.   


An anti-racist radical liberalism may seem like an oxymoron to those who associate the tradition with racism, imperialism, and xenophobia. Mills shows us even the greatest liberal thinkers were infatuated with everything from race science to mythologies of imperial grandeur. All those sides to the liberal tradition are still with us, and liberals are often tempted by more overtly right-wing arguments that the best society is one where the recognizably “superior” rule. While overt appeals to racial superiority are less common than a generation ago, they have hardly disappeared and undoubtedly achieved a major comeback circa Trumpist anxieties about immigration and the changing complexion of the American public. Trump himself tied these racial anxieties to a neoliberal ethic of meritocracy, presenting himself and his followers as self-made men victimized by envious “losers.” Underpinning this was a great deal of ressentiment at seeing one’s cherished privileges democratized, undermining the status and auspicion associated with them.

But there is another side to the liberal tradition that can be radicalized for the purposes of achieving justice for the racially oppressed in particular. This would require dropping the more abstract formalism of liberalism for a sensitivity to material and historical circumstance even the most progressive liberal theorists have often lacked. Yet this needn’t be an entirely one-sided exchange. Mills was very critical of liberalism, yet in the end he identified with the tradition. Liberalism’s commitment to freedom and equality for all remains profoundly attractive, however imperfectly that commitment has been realized. One of the great weaknesses in the purely “critical” disciplines which have emerged, and which fixate on “trashing” at all costs, is precisely that they refrain from offering realistic alternatives to the neoliberal and racially stratified status quo. This contributes to what Cornel West rightly describes as the “nihilism” emblematic of the era; the belief that injustice is so entrenched and powerful that it can at best be recognized but never overcome. 

Rather than giving into these impulses we should see the liberal tradition as flawed but not beyond redemption. The liberal socialist and radical liberal tradition of Mill, Rawls, Mouffe and Mills offers a clear vision for how to dramatically reform society while retaining what is best within it. Those of us who want to save the best sides of liberalism need to continue Mills’s decoupling of theory and practice from its racial and discriminatory baggage, while showing how a more refined liberal approach can speak to our yearning for justice in the 21st century. 

Featured Image is Emancipation