U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Liberalism, Race, and the Future of Intellectual History

As the celebration of the Civil Rights Movement turns to reflection on the rise of Black Power ideology in the late 1960s, I think it is important for intellectual historians to recognize where the field of American intellectual history is going. First, as we can see from the excellent program for this year’s Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians conference, the field itself is going in many fascinating directions. But, to bring it closer to my own interests for a moment, the intersection of race, liberalism, the creaky foundations of social democracy in American life are becoming more prominent within the field. Several recent releases, along with a few new works coming out this summer, are testament to that idea. It is clear that historians are wrestling with the limits of modern liberalism and race. The question becomes where it remains for historians to within this newly contested historiographic terrain.

My post today is sparked partially by Kurt Newman’s fantastic open thread about the relationship between Political Marxism and the History of Capitalism. The third question that Mr. Newman raised—about the relationship between Political Marxism, the History of Capitalism, and the study of the Reconstruction era—particularly caught my eye. Now I do not want to say much here about Reconstruction historiography and intellectual history. That I would like to save for a different post, but of course if people want to talk about that in the comments, they are all welcome to do so. Nonetheless, since I would argue that the Reconstruction period sets the stage for the later give and take we write about in American history, between the building of economic social democracy and achievement of equality regardless of race, then it is essential that we understand what historians are writing about in the here and now when it comes to liberalism and race.

It is difficult to imagine the historiographies of the New Deal or the Great Society (especially the Great Society) not dealing with race in some way. Before I continue, I do wish to explicitly mention that when discussing race in both eras, going beyond the traditional black-white binary is crucial. The S-USIH award winning book by Ruben Flores, Backroads Pragmatists, discusses the relationship between civil rights activists in the United States and intellectuals and activists in Mexico during and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. Already, it is clear thanks to Dr. Flores’ book that looking at complicated racial dynamics in places such as the American Southwest further enriches our overall understanding of race in an American, and indeed transnational, context. The recent roundtable on A World Not to Come also made a similar argument—that understanding race and intellectual history in North American history means reckoning with the Hispanic World—albeit in an earlier time period.

Already, historians and other scholars have begun to more closely examine liberalism and race during the 1960s and 1970s. In some ways it is a reversal of an earlier historiographic move, seen in books such as Allen Matusow’s The Unraveling of America, which argued for a “declension” narrative brought about by excesses allowed to grow and fester by modern American liberalism. However, current historians are far more interested, demonstrated by books such as The First Jim Crow, in arguing not for declension but, instead, that liberalism was already hemmed in by questions of race and economics. This isn’t new either—Ira Katznelson has argued persuasively in Fear Itself that New Deal liberalism was heavily dependent on the Jim Crow South for support in Congress.

What I think will be of special interest to the readers of this blog is a book coming out this fall titled The Black Silent Majority. Here political scientist Michael Fortner argues that African American leaders played a key role in the creation of War on Drugs programs and policies that led to skyrocketing incarceration rates. Capturing the importance of African American agency in the intellectual history of the War on Drugs is key, because (as I have argued before) seeing African American thought as a monolith is a major mistake. And while no serious historian would make that mistake, it is also incumbent for us to move beyond thinking about just the African American left, or radicalism, or even African American conservatives. The relationship between black policymakers and the American state after the Civil Rights Movement—and this means understanding the hope and the limits of Black Power ideology as a force in the African American community, for one—is a topic that political scientists have long written about. Historians will start to write about this more, but when considering the relationship between liberalism and race, we must understand that everyone, including African American politicians and policymakers, had difficult decisions to make.

The declension narrative is not entirely dead. But it has been replaced by a “flawed liberalism” argument, which speaks to current frustrations with both the Democratic Party at large and a new, critical appraisal of what the modern American state was capable of achieving in the twentieth century. Where that argument remains to go is of interest to many of us here at the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ll be interested in reading The Black Silent Majority. Humorously, just today I was reading the 1970 Introduction to Glazer and Moynihan’s The Melting Pot, most of which is concerned with attacking black militancy, “reminding” everyone (because they believe the mainstream media totally started ignoring them sometime around the early 60s) that there are a lot of middle class black people who don’t like the black militants and don’t want to live next to them. In their hands, of course, this makes for a vicious “good negroes vs. bad negroes,” and is interesting insofar as the strategy is still used to this day in political discourse about black poverty.

    But I’m wondering, then, where else focusing on the anti-drug, perhaps largely middle-class “black silent majority” takes us other than stating what is obviously true, that black Americans are not some monolithic and unified political force. Indeed I imagine there are rich stories to be told about the conflict between a mainstream, “respectable” (Glazer and Moynihan use this descriptor over and over again without any sense of irony) black leadership and the more militant activists; we saw a lot of that conflict flare up against recently in Occupy, for example. There is also probably a very interesting way to analyze this in terms of class and, moreover, how whiteness is not merely about race but is also a performative act that aspires to certain social norms. Anyway, thinking aloud. The point is this is a topic that has long been useful and important to address by someone other than neoconservative reactionaries terrified of Black Panthers.

    • er, “..this makes for a vicious “good negroes vs. bad negroes,” *argument*…” and, “*again* recently” in concern to Occupy. I really need to start proof reading my comments.

  2. You make some great points here. And I would submit that part of what we’ll find is something that has to do with a black liberal tradition–taking elements of Black Power here when necessary, but mostly embracing some form of pro-integrationist ideology there.

    One thing that I have always considered is the fact that by the early 1970s there is considerable agreement among African American leaders–and you can see this in “Black World,” “Ebony,” and in other magazines and books–that the Civil Rights era was over. So in a sense everyone seems both unsure of what comes next, but also excited about the possibilities. Your point about social norms is also important too. But for African American politicians (most of whom are in the Democratic Party by this point) were there alternatives that would have allowed them to remain politically palatable to their constituents, most of whom were more than likely also African American? And there’s that classic question of what African American citizens wanted in the late 1960s and early 1970s–and how much that was both connected with and split from Black Power intellectuals, integrationist forces within the NAACP, and other influential intellectuals. Much to chew on, and we are only starting to get at this question in recent years. The book “Revolutionaries to Race Leaders” by Cedric Johnson is still one of the best monographs on this topic.

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