To study the past requires a sense of tragedy and perhaps a belief in original sin, “the imagination of disaster” as Henry James called it. The celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, our annual exercise in national amnesia and self-congratulation, by contrast, promotes the myth that “all’s well that ends well.” Only the most reprobate ever dared to oppose rights for blacks, so the authorized narrative runs, while the vast majority of Americans were steadfast in their commitment to freedom, equality, and racial justice. Skepticism may be forgiven. Our official history constitutes not so much an exploration of the past and present state of race relations as a morality play, which admits little ambiguity and moves inexorably toward a happy ending. Would that it were so.
We have, of course, come a long way as a nation and a people. We now understand, at least I hope we do, that race is not a fact of nature, not a biological reality; it is, rather, the product of history, an ideological construct that has taught men and women what physical attributes to notice and what meaning to attach to them. Even the most apparently immutable racial characteristics can be altered by a single act of miscegenation. If there is no biological support for racial differences, then there is no biological justification for racial inequality. It is no dreamy romanticism to insist that there is but one race. Although race is unreal, the consequences of racism have been real enough. If race is a fiction, it is a fiction worth disposing of once and for all, since it has done far more harm than good and since it more often than not has proven a national disgrace.
Yet, in the name of compassion, benevolence, and justice, modern liberals (or twentieth-century/left-wing liberals, if you prefer) have kept alive the idea of race, determined to wield it as an instrument of their own power. Modern liberalism offers a legacy of unsolved, and perhaps unsolvable, problems. It might not be too much to say that in a clinical sense modern liberalism has often been iatrogenic, its remedies not worsening but causing the diseases it has then set out to cure. Since the 1930s, modern liberals have fashioned an assortment of makeshift strategies to increase spending on social services and to organize the disadvantaged to pressure government to improve their lot. These schemes have not culminated in any meaningful redistribution of wealth and power, but they have realigned the social, political, and economic system to emphasize the importance of the group and to require the continual intervention of the state to establish and maintain social and political equilibrium. The consequence has been that the United States is now governed by a constitution that differs markedly from the original. The power of government is no longer an evil to be restrained, but is essential for the operation of society. Each disadvantaged interest group, modern liberals contend, must have equal access to that power and the opportunities it engenders to overcome discrimination and to realize the American Dream.
The program of liberal reform, including much of the legislation enacted in response to the Civil Rights Movement, did not inaugurate the “color-blind society” that Dr. King hoped to effect. Ironically, race mattered more than ever, and blacks were defined and judged not as individuals but as members of a group with specific grievances and liabilities that needed to be rectified if justice were to prevail. Government regulations, judicial decisions, and court orders, which consistently set lower standards for blacks, make it impossible to dismiss out of hand assertions that modern liberals regard blacks as inferior to whites.
Concerns about race and racial policy distill the intellectual, political, and moral struggle that has long troubled liberalism in the United States. The question that underlies and animates this internecine conflict is do citizens have the right to protect their freedom and their property from government interference or does the state have the obligation to elevate the oppressed even if it means discriminating in their favor? This shift away from individual and toward group rights, in fact, began not with the advent of modern liberalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but before the Civil War with, for example, the proposal to reserve the western territories for whites only.
The war itself accomplished an even greater transformation in the understanding of liberty. Classical liberals (or nineteenth-century/right-wing liberals, if you prefer) embraced what Isaiah Berlin defined as “Negative Liberty,” the two main components of which are freedom from governmental interference and fear of concentrated power. “Positive Liberty,” on the contrary, resolved, or merely extinguished, the tension between liberty and power, applying the latter to advance the former. The Bill of Rights limited the authority of the national government; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, like those that followed, extended it. In so doing, they revolutionized the political, legal, and constitutional history of the United States. It was, after all, proslavery southerners who became the most determined exponents of “Negative Liberty,” enjoining a national government of limited powers not to tamper with or circumscribe the rights of individual citizens.
By the time of the Civil War, northerners had come to regard the South as economically backward, politically corrupt, and morally degenerate, but they shared with their southern antagonists the conviction that private property was sacrosanct. The devotion to property rights, which is fundamental to liberalism, arrested the development of an independent community of free blacks in the postwar South. Neither the Radical Republicans nor northern businessmen could tolerate the confiscation and redistribution of private property, even if it did belong to those whom they considered rebels and traitors. As a consequence, they rejected Thaddeus Stevens’s program of land distribution and debt relief that would have secured the economic welfare and the political rights of both free blacks and landless whites. Poverty and racism soon eroded nearly all the freedmen had gained, and, for the next century, rendered them subject to a racial dictatorship.
“There is no real instinct to protect those who can already protect themselves,” remarked George Santayana.  But what is to become of those who cannot? Are they, like the freedmen, to be abandoned to their fate in a heartless world? For many conservatives and classical liberals, government itself is the problem. In their often compelling denunciations of the welfare state and the inept bureaucracy that mismanages it, they reveal that modern liberalism has destroyed the capacity of government to perform its legitimate and necessary functions. They thus propose freedom from government interference and control as the solution. Competitive individualism and unrestrained enterprise, the freedom of movement, of opportunity, and of choice, are, in their view, natural rights. They are politically neutral and equally accessible to everyone.
Ominously, the liberal vision of America, whether in its classical or modern expression, has always been predicated on continued economic prosperity and upward social mobility, which has made tolerable the unjust distribution of wealth and power. In an age of long-term, if not permanent, stagnation and decline, with the palliatives of welfare no longer available to reinforce the system, the philosophy of individualism now condemns millions of Americans, black and white, to chronic unemployment, inadequate health care, unrelenting poverty, abandonment in old age, and miserable lives.
What then are we to do about all those “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows” whose existence is without purpose, meaning, or hope? No easy or obvious answers emerge. For all their prudent warnings about the dangers of governmental power, conservatives have too often been racist and xenophobic. Notwithstanding the idiocies of affirmative action and the welfare state, modern liberalism has saved countless black, Latino, poor, working- and middle-class Americans from disaster. Modern liberals have nonetheless articulated no coherent philosophy of reform, have occasioned no bold redistribution of wealth and power, have themselves ignored, tolerated, or encouraged racism and xenophobia, and have promoted mass consumption to temper or obscure persistent social and racial injustice. Classical liberals, meanwhile, despite their admirable endorsement of individual freedom, have been too quick to expose helpless men and women to the anarchy of the market, to ignore the social relations of power that disguise exploitation, to assume that success equals merit, and to consign those who fail to the scrap heap.
Among Dr. King’s cardinal virtues was his insistence that all Americans had choices, and the choices they made were of serious consequence. Optimism about the future may seem less warranted today than during King’s lifetime, but optimism is preferable to despair even though both may cloud judgment and distort reality. The American people are not doomed forever to navigate between ideologies that now spawn only political bickering and cant. They can abjure the legacy of racism and xenophobia that tarnishes their history, rather than merely ignoring it or, worse, parading it once a year to demonstrate their own solemn righteousness. They can confront the unjust distribution of wealth and power that burdens all citizens, and that sentences the poorest to the wretched lives that have made necessary an inane and barbarous welfare system. They can demand that the economy operate for the benefit of those who toil in it, and that excellence in work brings a fair reward. Whether the American people and their leaders have the political will and moral intelligence to redirect the government and the nation toward a more ethical and sane way of life remains to be seen. It is more certain that failure to do so will constitute a tragedy of enduring moment.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (New York, 1970), 118-72.
2. George Santayana, Life of Reason, or the Phases of Human Progress (New York, n. d. ) Vol. II, 38.
3. T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in The Wasteland and Other Poems (New York, 1934), 6.