The Liberal Dilemma

The American obsession with race continues unabated. South Carolina's angst over the Confederate flag as a racial symbol has been headline news for weeks and figured in that state's Republican presidential primary. The New York Times recently produced a widely hailed and much-analyzed series of articles about the evolving impact of race relations in the United States. ABC News, not to be outdone, aired a feature story reporting that blacks have fewer stock investments than whites and suggesting that this shocking example of racial disparity needs to be addressed.

We are flooded by a seemingly endless stream of televised discussions, film documentaries, magazine and newspaper articles, and scholarly books detailing what sociologist Gunnar Myrdal famously called the "American dilemma" of race. It's the problem that never goes away, and it constantly occupies -- some would say diverts -- the nation's best political minds and most of its reformist energies. Bill Bradley, this year's reform candidate in the Democratic party, wrote in his 1996 autobiography that "the issues of race and ethnicity had always been two of my central preoccupations," and he ran his campaign for president accordingly -- to the relative neglect of competing concerns.

There is another issue, however, that is seldom discussed and rarely finds its way onto the American agenda. That is the question of class and its stepchild, economic inequality. To give credit where credit is due, one presidential aspirant, the Green party's Ralph Nader, has alluded to the problem indirectly through his attack on corporate domination of American life. Yet, Nader has been criticized for his emphasis on economic justice, often most vociferously by his supposed friends and allies. The reason: By stressing "boring" economic themes, he has purportedly not given sufficient attention to racial and gender issues that motivate large segments of the American left.

Why the obsession with race, in particular? Partly, it has to do with the make-up of the country. The United States is an increasingly multiethnic, multicultural, polyglot nation, whose diverse citizenry demands group recognition and responds to the emotional appeal of race and ethnicity. Partly, it has to do with the simplicity of racial politics, which requires less sophisticated understanding than a class politics based on at least a rudimentary knowledge of complex economic issues and one's place in the socioeconomic structure.

Then, there is the fact that Americans, who tend to think they live in a classless society (except for the middle class, to which we all feel we belong), have been taught from birth to believe in pure, unadulterated individualism and to reject the more communal concept of class. This mindset has been reinforced by America's mythologized history as a land of freedom, opportunity, and social mobility. History may now be unfolding in another direction, with large institutions overwhelming individual autonomy and closing down options for all but a fortunate few, but the myth still outpaces the reality.

There are other reasons for the race obsession. For one thing, race is a handy diversion from fundamental economic issues potentially threatening to the status quo. The American right, though steadfastly maintaining the fiction of a classless society, lives in fear of a class war fomented from below. As the defender of the nation's wealthy elite and corporate establishment, it sees Marxist revolutionaries lurking behind every tree and bush. If the national conversation continues to be focused on racial issues, however, that fear is abated. A country consumed by the politics of affirmative action, for instance, won't be thinking about tax fairness, income gaps, corporate malfeasance, and the like. And if the races can be divided against one another, so much the better.

Actually, there is surreptitious class war already underway in America, but it's being waged from the top down. Much of the last twenty years has seen an application of Robin Hood policies in reverse: taking from the relatively poor to give to the relatively rich. Conservatives can naturally be expected to support such quiet class warfare; it's the noisy, turbulent class conflict boiling up from below they find disturbing, distasteful, and un-American. The surprise is that many liberals go along. They, too, ignore questions of class and embrace the politics of race, but for entirely different reasons.

Contemporary liberals are not using racial politics as a distraction; they sincerely believe in it. First, it assuages the well-known phenomenon of liberal guilt -- the deep-seated need to do something for the less fortunate -- without (in the case of well-to-do liberals) requiring much introspection about the sources of one's own wealth and good fortune, or threatening one's own personal luxury. It also provides a safe outlet for the liberal reform impulse that doesn't necessitate a down-and-dirty confrontation with the powers that be. Who, after all, can be against racial fairness and equal opportunity? Even Charlton Heston joined the 1963 march on Washington for civil rights.

The liberal tendency to ignore class has produced odd developments in American politics over our recent history. One has been to change the very definition of "liberal." During the New Deal/Fair Deal era of FDR and Truman, liberalism was populist; it was assumed that to be liberal meant you favored interventionist economic measures aimed at advancing the cause of working Americans at the expense (if necessary) of big business and the wealthy. Sometime between the 1960s and 1980s, that concept was lost, replaced by the notion that a liberal was simply someone who supported civil rights and interest-group social preferences.

This change has produced the spectacle of generally conservative presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton being labeled liberals largely on the very limited grounds of their opposition to discrimination against blacks and other officially established minorities. Often, the mere ability to appear comfortable in an African-American church has been enough to establish progressive credentials. Meanwhile, the politics of economic class, the who-has-what and who-gets-what conflict that really makes the world go around, has been dying from neglect.

The disconnect between liberalism's class-based past of economic populism and its race-based present of moderate social activism goes a long way toward explaining the current malaise of American politics in general and of the Democratic party, liberalism's historical engine of expression, in particular. From Jefferson through Jackson, Wilson, and FDR, progressive politics at its most relevant has always had a core economic component arising from the class conflict between capital and labor inherent in a capitalist system. Corporations, after all, may provide the basis for economic growth, but they won't provide economic justice unless compelled to do so by political pressure.

In the end, simply ensuring racial and other social minorities equal access to the so-called free market is not enough. Without abandoning the cause of racial tolerance, it's time once more for American liberalism to re-focus its attention and energies on economic issues. If that means raising the specter of class in national politics, so be it.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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