While the term black liberalism is often seen as a pejorative favored by black conservatives and black nationalists, it is better understood as part of the epistemology of black political thought. In his 2001 work on contemporary black political ideologies, Michael Dawson distinguishes black liberals from black nationalists and black Marxists by the liberals’ belief in race-neutral constitutional order, liberal democracy, and capitalism. Dawson sees the tension black liberals face in trying to avoid the pessimism of black nationalists and black Marxists, who believe that liberal democracies or capitalism cannot be free of the implicit racist constructs of the white hierarchy. He defines black liberals as unique from white liberals in the black liberal belief that the liberal construct of equal rights includes economic, social, and political egalitarianism; and that America will be better if it can fulfill that egalitarian ideal for blacks. Put succinctly, Dawson quotes Malcolm X to say that black liberals have “a version of freedom larger than America’s prepared to accept” (p. 239).
In Dawson’s view, black liberals see racism as a potent force that is contradictory to and independent of liberal democracy and capitalism. Black nationalists believe that liberal democracies, born at a time of European colonialism and American slavery, not only fail to handle the contradiction between liberalism and colonial subjugation and slavery, but also implicitly incorporate the contradiction by enshrining racial hierarchies. Black Marxists see capitalism as inherently racist, based on models of capitalist exploitation.
W. Avon Drake (1991) offers another perspective, contrasting black liberals with social democrats. In Avon’s view, black liberals see racism as the primary impediment to black social progress, while social democrats stress class differences, with neither seeing either liberal democracy or capitalism as inherently racist. Social democrats see impediments to blacks as based on differences in class: Racial disparities are viewed primarily as economic class disparities. Thus programs designed to address poverty and issues of inequality are seen as more useful than programs aimed directly at racial disparities. Proponents of black social democracy include Abram Harris and, later, William J. Wilson.
The major triumphs of black liberalism include the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Research shows that these policies dramatically reduced racial income inequality in the southern United States (McCrone and Hardy 1978; Donohue and Heckman 1991). In 1965 the poverty rate for black children stood at 65.6 percent and fell to 39.6 percent by 1969. Principle architects of black liberalism include W. E. B. Du Bois in his earlier writings, Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and A. Philip Randolph.
Black liberalism has faced several challenges. The rise of the American conservative movement and the dominance of conservative ideology on the national level put black liberals at odds with the American political establishment. Cornel West (1994) has pointed out that the crisis for black liberalism has been its inability to handle the increase in economic inequality resulting from the deindustrialization of the U.S. economy. The poverty rate for black children remained above 40 percent from 1975 to 1992, rising as high as 47.3 percent in 1982. Crisis magazine, the official organ of the NAACP, pointed to an earlier conflict addressed by black liberalism, when between 1933 and 1953—from the time of the New Deal to the Brown decision—the fruits of the white liberal agenda in the New Deal excluded the black community (Anderson 1980).
The conservative challenge to black liberalism rests on one of three arguments: (1) blacks have developed a pathological culture in opposition to mainstream culture that fails to reward the elements needed to succeed in a capitalist system; (2) blacks are inherently inferior, an argument based on a genetic definition of race; (3) blacks for various reasons of history and culture lack the requisite skills to succeed in a capitalist system because market forces make discrimination in the marketplace of minimal importance. On the basis of these arguments, government intervention to combat racism is seen as an unwarranted intrusion of the government into the marketplace. (William Darity and Patrick Mason refute these points in their 1998 work, arguing that the evidence fails to support the belief that blacks have a pathologic culture and that discrimination within the marketplace is substantial.)
Black liberals view blacks as “liberal man”—rational in the liberal sense of acting consistently to advance black well-being and economic success (as opposed to irrational, or pathological, failing to act in their economic interests). Black liberals explain racial disparities in economic and political life as the result of racism and, in a nod to black nationalists and Marxists, posit that there are institutional barriers born of the implicit racist pact that allows for legal segregation and slavery in a liberal democracy. The conservative argument views blacks as not rational, as making choices not in their best interest. The resulting caricature by conservatives is that black liberals portray blacks as victims, and the term black liberal has often come to be defined by this pejorative view. Conservatives also allege that the black liberal agenda creates a dependency on government, which is what makes black culture pathological and is the real source of racial disparities in economic and political life.
SEE ALSO Black Conservatism; Black Power; Capitalism, Black; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Harris, Abram L.; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Liberalism; Pathology, Social; Radicalism; Wilson, William Julius
Anderson, James D. 1980. Black Liberalism at the Crossroads: The Role of the Crisis, 1934–1953. The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races 87 (November): 339–346.
Darity, William A., Jr., and Patrick L. Mason. 1998. Evidence on Discrimination in Employment: Codes of Color, Codes of Gender. Journal of Economic Perspectives 12(2):63–90.
Donohue, John J., III, and James Heckman. 1991. Continuous Versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks. Journal of Economic Literature 29 (December):1603–1643.
Drake, W. Avon. 1991. Black Liberalism, Conservatism, and Social Democracy: The Social Policy Debate. Western Journal of Black Studies 14 (2): 115–122.
McCrone, Donald J., and Richard J. Hardy. 1978. Civil Rights Policies and the Achievement of Racial Economic Equality, 1948–1975. American Journal of Political Science 22 (1):1–17.
West, Cornel. 1994. Demystifying the New Black Conservatism. In Race Matters, 47–61. New York: Vintage.
William E. Spriggs