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Liberal Racism.

In mid-July, I got a peculiar form letter from Jim Sleeper, whom I do not know. "Dear Marcia Smith," it began. "My new book Liberal Racism is now available, and I'm writing to ask that you read it and give it a fair chance to influence our changing racial debate. It wasn't easy to write, but I think that it does break some ground."

Sorry, Jim. As social analysis, Liberal Racism is sloppy and strange; as a prescription for cross-racial understanding, it is facile and inflammatory. But more than anything, it comes off as a petty, emotional rant by a man with a serious ax to grind.

The title's catchy. White liberals can indeed harbor deeply racist views, expressed in covert and patronizing ways. This is not news. But according to Sleeper, it's worse than we thought. "Liberals...have leapt ahead of conservatives to draw new race lines in the civic sand," he warns, and "Newt Gingrich is less prone to exploiting racial fears and resentments than is Congresswoman Maxine Waters of South-Central Los Angeles. When it comes to race some conservatives are more `progressive' than liberals." Sleeper's purpose is to deliver a wake-up call to misguided white liberals, who he believes have been cowed into silence by nationalistic African-Americans and other dreaded multiculturalists. Liberals, he says early on, "are afraid to take the lead in wresting our racial discourse from ethnocentric activists as well as white supremacists, from the left as well as the right -- and, yes, from blacks as well as whites."

Sleeper's picture of the world looks something like this: The civil rights movement was noble and necessary and everything, but enough already. Race consciousness only re-emphasizes divisions and makes black folks question whether they could make it without lowered standards. Major liberal institutions reinforce "color coding" by adopting diversity programs. But the real trouble, dammit, is that black people are just too insistent on their racial identity; blacks are, if you will, "too black," and their clinging to the falsehood of blackness is the primary impediment to social progress. Some of them, professors even, have the nerve to make money on it. That white liberals allow themselves to be duped by these "race hustlers" is the true tragedy of contemporary American life.

So, in Sleeper's work black racial solidarity is worse then racism itself. Rather than responses to the problem, race-conscious policies, racial identity and even acknowledging race are the problem. If he were the only one promoting this view, it might not be worrisome. But stripped of their vitriolic language, Sleeper's familiar core arguments are growing in popularity among liberals -- and even progressives. An editorial and feature in the recent "race" issue of Mother Jones, for example, described identity-based politics as the greatest hindrance to winning working-class whites to a progressive program.

Sleeper's version of this old saw is so unsophisticated it can be amusing. Sputtering with rage, he employs an mipressive array of sobriquets for the Rev. Al Sharpton, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Johnnie Cochran and assorted academics. In his eyes, they are "racial soothsayers," "race hustlers," "racial message-senders," "racial shadow-boxers," "skilled race pros," "racial poseurs" and -- my favorite -- "impresario[s] of racial street theater." It's as if Sleeper thinks that hurling labels at the too-black blacks is some sort of magic: If he does enough of it, his readers will understand just how wicked they are.

Though Sleeper's list of targets includes The New York Times, W.E.B. Du Bois and Alex Haley, his apparent fury with African-American thinkers with whom he disagrees leads him into strange territory. In perhaps the most surreal passage of the book, he actually prints the voice-mail messages of respected scholars in an attempt to show them as "black racists" who profiteer from white guilt by accepting speaking engagements and (gasp) "constitutional protections." Proof that they deserve such scorn? N.Y.U.'s Robin D.G. Kelley advises callers that he is unlikely to accept speaking engagements, read manuscripts or participate in conferences till the following spring; Harvard's Cornel West says he receives too many calls to respond to each personally. So enraged is Sleeper that the two are in demand, he can't recognize common sense.

In a rambling chapter on the media, Sleeper contends that the Times has a mindset "enforcing an unfeeling obeisance to liberal racial myths that are corrosive of true liberal principles, and, with them, of freedom," and this skews the paper's coverage of all things African-American. But worse, the Times's embrace of diversity in hiring has compromised the paper's quality and objectivity. The real problem in the media may be that African-Americans are incompetent; and on top of that, they have a bad attitude:

What [Times publisher] Sulzberger

fears ... is that if every manager adhered

faithfully to ... standards scrubbed free

of racial bias, fewer blacks would make

the grade.... For every story a black

reporter tells about the "glass ceiling" that

blocks black promotions, a white

colleague can tell a story about "going the

extra mile" for a young black reporter

with substantial skill deficiencies and

even, perhaps, a head full of demons

that scrambled others' signals.

Sleeper goes directly on to ridicule racial solidarity. After casually observing that "the signs of confusion are proliferating," he dismisses the notion of any consistency, let alone integrity, among African-American leaders. They have

careened from precipitating a near

breakdown of the NAACP to cheering

black jury nullifications in cases like

O.J. Simpson's; from flirting with

Ebonics and dreaming of lost African glory

to commercializing the celebration of

Kwanzaa; from admiring Louis

Farrakhan's pseudo-Islamic demagoguery to

supporting the racial districting that has

isolated black political leaders; from

discouraging interracial marriages and

adoptions to displaying a marked coolness

toward the prospect of Colin Powell's

running for president.

Now, calling the whole of African-American leadership a bunch of idiots is not the act of a man in search of healing dialogue. But Sleeper has more mysterious fish to fry: In the apparent belief that the 1977 TV miniseries Roots is key to understanding black racial identity, he spends pages questioning author Alex Haley's intentions and trying to debunk the show's authenticity. Sleeper belabors this strange line of reasoning to make a point: African-Americans are foolhardy to look to Africa as a wellspring of identity, and to do so is only further evidence of their misplaced allegiance to "blackness." In a strikingly ignorant and insulting passage, Sleeper says:

Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda,

Burundi, Zaire -- one could double the

list before finding a sub-Saharan nation

that isn't now run by thugs, wracked by

bloody tribal wars, or watching hundreds

of thousands starve. Black Americans

visiting such places have experienced

"solidarity" with their inhabitants only

by letting skin color eclipse virtue and

blaming everything on the legacies of


Later, Sleeper goes further down these tubes with a lengthy critique of Du Bois, who, he says, "could not bring himself to fashion an identity that wasn't essentially a reaction against white racism itself," and ultimately made the "fatal mistake" of "[talking] himself into a Pan-African fantasy" that was "rickety and irrational." As in his Roots analysis, Sleeper's intent is to urge us to reject Du Bois's "fictions" of Africa -- and with them, the validity of black identity. Taking on Haley is one thing, but Du Bois is out of Sleeper's league; an uninformed amateur breezily dismisses one of the greatest intellectuals in U.S. history.

Toward the end of Liberal Racism, Sleeper introduces Harvard's Randall Kennedy, who rejected racial solidarity in a recent Atlantic Monthly, and Boston University's Glen Loury, a fallen conservative darling. Sleeper's attention to their ideas and backgrounds seems designed to point white liberals to alternative African-American touchstones, with more palatable politics and styles, as replacements for the too-black blacks. He even gives Loury a physical stamp of legitimacy, saying he looks "as many would expect a son of the solid, stolid black working class to look," a "passionate, visibly `authentic' black man."

Although he doesn't explain why, Sleeper doggedly refuses to use the term "African-American." Having handily dismissed the legitimacy of any link to Africa, he is perhaps, again, modeling language and attitude for his readers: Just as calling people "racial poseurs" will make it so, refusing to use uppity nomenclature will simply make it go away. African-Americans' hard-fought right to determine what they will be called is of no consequence.

Sleeper maintains a stubbornly paternalistic tone throughout. He presumes to identify the "blacks who have thought most deeply and productively" about race, and warns that liberals "wrongly indulge" race-identified blacks. He even dares to pinpoint what, precisely, is useful about African-Americans. "America needs blacks not because it needs blackness," he writes, "but because it needs what they've learned on their long way out of blackness -- that which others can't learn on the journeys they need to take out of whiteness." Say what?

Sleeper cannot envision the possibility of shedding racial hierarchies without obliterating racial identities; thus the thought that African-Americans share the power to determine not only racial dialogue but the very existence of those identities does not occur to him.

Finally, there is something indeterminably old about Liberal Racism. It implies that liberals are leading public policy on race-related issues, when in fact conservative viewpoints that parallel Sleeper's are winning the debate. By appropriating civil rights language, choosing black spokes-people and accusing fuzzy-headed multiculturalists of stilting the discourse, the right has managed to obfuscate the conversation on race. In the real world, we hear the vengeful rhetoric of welfare "reform" and talk of black "jellybeans" at Texaco. There is the police torture of Abner Louima in New York and the return of the chain gang in Alabama. And there is Ward Connerly leading Proposition 209 in California and a black Republican giving the party's response to the President's State of the Union Message.

In this context, Jim Sleeper's new book has little new to contribute.

I'd have to call it ... well, you know. A snooze.
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Author:Smith, Marcia
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 3, 1997
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