Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Why monoculturalism?

Winter 1998

LIBERAL RACISM
Jim Sleeper
Penguin Books, [1997] 1998, 195 pgs.

This, I am afraid, is an almost perfectly useless book. Its main thesis may be stated quite simply. White liberals have abandoned the true goals of the civil rights movement--joint participation by whites and blacks in a common American culture. Instead, liberals pander to black nationalists and separatists. Our author does not think that blacks (or for that matter white ethnics) should abandon all interest in their separate racial identity. But blackness must be strictly subordinate to a common national culture. "The best way to dissolve these hypocrisies (of white support for black separatism) is to reaffirm the two-tiered American civic faith the early civil rights movement mobilized so well. It synthesized parochial black communalism and strong universalism to strengthen an American civic culture.... At its best, the American civic culture and civic religion have shown the world how to balance parochial loyalties with cosmopolitan opportunities and commitments" (p. 147).

Mr. Sleeper's thesis is, I hope, sufficiently clear. One would expect him, having advanced his contention, to argue for it. Why should blacks subordinate their race to the common civic culture? Why should whites not react to blacks primarily as members of a different race?

In fact, he does not do so. Instead, he endlessly reiterates his thesis: both races should subordinate ethnic differences to common national identity. In questioning our author, I do not mean to deny his claim; I do not contend that either blacks or whites should emphasize race more than Sleeper deems appropriate. Rather, it is Sleeper's responsibility to advance some arguments for his view; otherwise his contention has only biographical interest.

The closest Mr. Sleeper comes to an argument is in his fifth chapter, "Way Out of Africa." Much black separatist rhetoric emphasizes the cultural heritage of American blacks from Africa. But a great deal of this alleged heritage consists of factually untrue claims. American blacks have few or no traceable ties with Africa, and it is a good thing that they do not. The "precolonial forebears" of today's Africans "enslaved and sold millions of people to the whites who transported them here. This is not hyperbolic; it is a reality which it takes hyperbole to deny" (p. 102). The most popular attempt to trace a connection between American blacks and Africa, Alex Haley's Roots, relied crucially on fabrication. Further, the few American blacks who visit Africa usually encounter empty stares or outright hostility.

Mr. Sleeper's chapter is, at least by his own book's standards, well presented and argued; but I cannot think that its contentions are decisive. Mass movements are very often founded on myths; has not our author read Georges Sorel or, for that matter, Franz Fanon? For our author myths are "rickety" and "irrational"; but why must others share this perspective? Once more Mr. Sleeper does not tell us.

The cool reception that American blacks encounter in Africa also has no great significance. Few American Jews settle in Israel, but this has not prevented Zionism from being of importance to the Jewish population of the United States. In fairness to Mr. Sleeper, most American Jews who visit Israel are well received, so the cases are in this respect not parallel. But the fact that many more Jews support Israel than visit it tells strongly against the importance of Mr. Sleeper's tales of woe. Even if American blacks are not welcomed in Africa, why may not an American black nationalist movement flourish? And why does a black nationalist movement have to depend on an African premise at all? Couldn't a black separatist accept all Mr. Sleeper's views on Africa, yet still reject integration? Once more I caution against misunderstanding. I do not advocate black nationalism; I wish merely to question the cogency of Mr. Sleeper's case against it.

It transpires, as the book goes on, that the two-tiered system involves less than meets the eye. Far from maintaining places for both ethnic and national solidarity, our author wishes radically to downplay the importance of race. He states: "[W]e should work harder to shake the false notion, propagated by the foundations and the media, that we would have little to give one another if color had no more cultural value than aesthetic preferences for brown eyes or green eyes" (p. 179). One "tier" in Mr. Sleeper's system seems very much in abeyance.

There is yet another gap in our author's presentation. He celebrates "American civic culture"; but he says little about the nature of this wonderful entity. One gathers it consists largely of coalitions between liberals and labor to block the "excesses" of the free market.

Though I have greeted Mr. Sleeper's contribution to racial harmony with a not altogether warm reception, I do not wish to end on a negative note. I am a generous soul and I have been able to locate something good in the book. Our author criticizes affirmative action with considerable skill. "When even an organization as hell-bent on achieving diversity as the [New York]Times finds itself hitting a wall in minority hiring, it is time to realize that while all employees can and must stop perpetrating racist damage, few can repair the damage already done. Neither a factory nor a college can turn itself into a remediation center; nor can a newspaper become a therapy group" (p. 88). Mr. Sleeper deserves congratulations; his book contains an insightful paragraph.

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