U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Racial Liberal (part deux)

I accidentally deleted part 1 of A Racial Liberal. For those who read my public conversation with myself and commenters about whether or not I misused “liberal” in the article I’m working on, I offer this quote from Gery Gestle’s American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century.

In this book, I argue that the pursuit of these two powerful and contradictory ideals–the civic and the racial–has decisively shaped the history of the American nation in the twentieth century. I show how both ideals influenced critical immigration and war from progressivism and the New Deal to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and civil rights, and animated the nation’s communal imagination. I give special attention to American liberals:

[ah ha! this sounds like how I was defining liberals, at least on some level.]

These liberals and others, I contend, were the most influential architects of the twentieth cnetury nation. They were committed to the civic nationalist tradition in general and to equal rights for ethnic and racial minorities in particular. But many of them periodically reinscribed racialist notions into their rhetoric and policies. I examine the antinomies of the civic and racialist traditions in the writings and speeches of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and explore the ways in which these same oppositions figured in many of the moments that defined the nation they built, from Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill in 1898 to Lyndon Johnson’s confrontation with the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. I am particularly interested in how liberals and their supporters wrestled with the contradictions between the two nationalist traditions, how they managed to adhere to both simultaneously, and why the tensions between them did so little for so long to weaken the authority or cohesion of the nation.

I will give you my definition of “white racial liberal,” which sounds rather too blunt to me. I seem to swing between the extremes of nuanced-to-the-point-of-no-argument to blunt-to-the-point-of-losing-all-nuance.

Dah! I promised myself I would stop criticizing myself publicly. 🙂 Well, I’m learning.

Here’s my definition:

“When I use the term “liberal,” I mean it in both the positive and sarcastic sense evoked by John P. Davis when he criticized Clark Foreman as being the “type of emancipated Southerner who likes to boast how liberal he is on the Negro problem,” all the while remaining bound to a white Southern attitude about race. By a white racial liberal, I mean someone who thought of themselves as not-racist and non-discriminatory, but who perhaps did not know or care that much about African Americans. There was a wide spectrum from someone ignorant of all racial matters to a committed interracialist like Foreman. The reader is advised not to equate a racial liberal with someone who desired civil rights or the end to segregation. The New Deal era was too soon for that.”

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