On Race and Liberalism
We wrote this letter in response to the Economist’s cover story on race, linked here: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/07/09/the-new-ideology-of-race.
Your cover story on racism in America (“The new ideology of race”, July 9th) fundamentally mischaracterizes the current racial justice movement and the values of liberalism.
As current and former students of the liberal arts, we are proponents of the spirit of liberalism. Liberalism values free speech in the letter of the law and in the spirit of debate but it does not guarantee freedom from consequences. Your article runs counter to that spirit, instead exhibiting a fear of dissent. The very students and academics with whom you take issue are not “chilling open debate” — they are part of the debate itself. Universities protect free speech in this country, even the free speech you do not like, and pointing fingers at them for the critical views some of their students and faculty express is dangerous and anti-intellectual.
With regards to today’s racial justice movement, it is clear that every action is indeed racist or anti-racist. The social contract on which the U.S. is predicated never earned a consensus from all its residents. It is built on stolen land and slavery. Marginalized groups in this country want to live in an America that is race-neutral, but in our country today, Black and indigenous people face setbacks from the moment they are born. The playing field is inherently unequal because every major institution, from housing to education to the justice system, is borne from racist and discriminatory practices dating back four centuries. Therefore, “policies that are race-neutral” will not suffice if we want to achieve the “vision of equality of opportunity” for which (as you mentioned in the article) Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King advocated. It is not that your critics see race in situations where it is not present, it is that you are willfully overlooking the fact that race is foundational to this country. This assertion is not an imposition of “intimidation and power,” as you state. It is simply the truth.
To advocate for “politically sellable” policies and characterize the alternatives as extreme and harmful is to fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between race and power. While you invoke the left’s usage of ideology to ask why we can’t “freely analyze causes and question orthodoxies,” the far more pressing question is why marginalized groups have been calling for racial justice for decades. Furthermore, the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder itself disproves the assumption that systemic change is not politically sellable. Driven by decades of organizing by Black feminists, ideas such as police and prison abolition have entered the national conversation and risen in popularity. A truly liberal discussion which values free speech and open discourse should welcome the amplification of views which have been dismissed and silenced for decades.
National and global conversations regarding racism have made one thing starkly clear — it is systemic and therefore rooted in current and historical systems of oppression and power. Leaving power out of the discussion in the name of free speech and liberalism is both intellectually dishonest and counterproductive to the pursuit of justice. Discourse on power is not at all contrary to “evidence, argument and the rule of law,” which you describe as the liberal tools for change. Power is a lens through which we can view the state of the world and evidence, argument and rule of law help us realize the vision of progress. Your flippant dismissal of reparations (that they come with practical difficulties and have unintended consequences) precludes meaningful conversations about what they could look like given political will.
Policies that have bent the moral arc toward justice, such as ending slavery or apartheid, were neither popular nor politically sellable at the time for the simple reason that deconstructing those oppressive systems would require people with power to give something up. To dismiss and silence conversations about what such justice looks like in the current context is to deny free speech in the gravest way.
Anita Ramaswamy, Tufts University ‘19
Ria Mazumdar, Tufts University ‘19
Libby Langsner, Tufts University ‘19
Sarah Sakha, Columbia University, Princeton University ‘18
Elie Levine, Tufts University ‘20
Meg Hos, New Mexico Tech ‘19
Nimarta Narang, Tufts University ‘17
Cecilia Rodriguez, Tufts University ‘19
Sam Crozier, Tufts University ‘19
Shehryar Malik, Tufts University ‘19
Greg Kulchyckyj, Tufts University ‘19