Race and Liberalism in North America: A Tale of Two Realities
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Race and Liberalism in North America: A Tale of Two Realities


Racial and ethnic discord has been a systemic problem in the theory and practice of American liberal democracy since the very beginning. While contemporary mainstream liberal discourse in American media and academia often paints this history as a progressive march from “less inclusive” to “more inclusive” now threatened by “Trump-era racism”, they simultaneously contradict this narrative in bemoaning the persistent de facto systemic disparities between old and new ethno-cultural groups in the US today, among whom they assign varying preferences of victimhood. Today, approximately two centuries since the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the US Constitution, the US shows all the signs of having not undergone a successful process of ethnogenesis.

North America is an extremely diverse continent that is by all means naturally conducive to the presence of a myriad of ethnoi, demographic and geographical particularisms, and diverse cultural and state entities. Colin Woodard has famously argued that to this day North America encompasses 11 distinct “nation-cultures” which are likely to become only more polarized due to political, ethnic, cultural, and geographical “self-sorting.” Interestingly enough, both “far-left” and “far-right” socio-political forces in the US usually agree that the US is a multi-ethnic or multi-national construct whose inter-ethnic dynamics are unequal and unjust. This is not only a current issue, however, as the roots of these relations and their treatment in American liberal democratic theory go back several centuries.

Before the arrival of European colonizers, North America was inhabited by millions of Native Americans distributed among so many complex polities that their number and distinctions still have no scholarly consensus. As is well known, the vast majority of these peoples were exterminated over the course of continuous genocidal operations spanning several centuries, and their treatment by European settlers and later American populations was often a point of profound geopolitical contention, with some scholars even suggesting that the ambition to further conquer and cleanse the Native American population was one of the main motives behind the American Revolutionary War against the British Empire.  Yet even these initial civilizational experiences of “us vs. them” would not yield a coherently integrated identity for American statecraft.

Contemporary critiques of liberal democracy have increasingly advanced the thesis that liberal democracy has devolved into a “dictatorship of minorities.” However, this is an oversimplification of a complex conundrum: the US’ liberal democratic framework has never formed a really existing “American” ethno-sociological identity based on a clear arrangement of “majorities” vs. “minorities”, much less has it succeeded in sustainable “balancing acts” between its population’s ethno-sociological components.

The Anglo-Saxon “New World” statehood projected on the North American continent was inseparable from three main vectors: (1) the genocide of indigenous Native Americans, (2) the importing of enslaved Africans who would only be fully formally enfranchised in the 20th century, and (3) a constantly changing rhythm of including and excluding other ethnic incomers from the mainstream “white American” identity, a process which at times excluded other European peoples, among whom Irish and Slavic immigrants are habitually mentioned.

To this day, the legacy of these and related ethnic and racial contradictions form a significant facet of American society and reflect all major trends and crises along their respective lines. As the attempted WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) identity of American statehood has been progressively de-emphasized and even dismantled in attempts to include representatives of other ethnic groups and promote “multiculturalism” as an American value, the sheer lack of ethnogenesis in US society has not been solved, much less alleviated. The rise of new “identity politics” ranging from the so-called “Alt-Right’s” ethno-cultural critiques to radical “leftist” Chicano, African-American, and Asian American movements, to secessionist initiatives in states such as California and Texas are clear indices of this problem. As the Mexican-American political analyst Joaquin Flores argues, any process of ethnogenesis in the contemporary US would require phenomena and time which the US’ crisis-ridden political and technological mechanisms simply no longer have the capacity or life-span to accomplish. Indeed, as Flores mentions, even the very federal structure of the US is in no position to handle such complex processes, as a highly scientific poll has revealed that one in four of Americans support the idea of their state peacefully withdrawing from the United States of America and the federal government.

What is extremely interesting and relevant in this regard is the contradiction between these historical realities and the liberal democratic pretensions of American “democracy.” While it is often argued that the US model was originally founded on not only the de-humanization of Native Americans but also the denial of of human and civil rights to African Americans (for which is often cited the US Constitution’s “Three-Fifth Compromise”), it should be remembered that the latter can also largely be contextualized as figuring among Northern vs. Southern state dynamics. In fact, the conceptualization of American liberal democracy, such as in the work of its purported seminal theorist, Alexis De Tocqueville, emphatically stressed the “tyranny of the majority” as the greatest “danger” to democracy and meticulously advocated the protection of “minorities.” As is well known, the liberal democratic conceptualization of the “tyranny of the majority” significantly shaped the US’ political system’s distribution of power and “checks and balances” mechanisms. How this theory has found expression in North American intra-population relations offers a glimpse into its limitations.

On the one hand, we are faced with the inherent contradictions of liberal democratic theory in which the sovereign enfranchisement of the majority is the raison d’etat of democracy, yet the “tyranny of the majority” is also the greatest danger, hence the need for the systemic measures for defending “minorities.” While this problem is usually analyzed in the context of legislative politics and the Congressional system, it has also clearly manifested itself in the history of racial and ethnic tensions in the US and varied extensively along geographical lines. For example, in the post-Civil War Southern states, African Americans made up the absolute majority in several states and the largest single voting bloc in every Southern state. Despite this, the Jim Crow laws were passed which terrorized and de facto disenfranchised this electoral majority of the local population. In other words, the “tyranny of the majority” was prevented by the “minority” in a racial discrimination project. In the 21st century, affirmative action in American education has been widely criticized for attempting to alleviate racial and ethnic disparities by systematically prioritizing the state-funded education of “non-whites”, which some claim has resulted or could ultimately result in a form of “reversed racism.”  Liberal democracy’s confounding combination of a refusal to recognize ethno-sociological factors as important in comparison to “human rights and equality” with inertial attempts to reconcile surface-level manifestations of ethnic and racial disparities, is a serious paradox with dramatic consequences for statehood and identity on the American continent. 

Competing claims of “who suffers most” in US policy’s uneven balancing between different parts of its population are ultimately tautological, inconclusive, and only serve to reinforce existing antagonisms. What is clear, however, is that the United States remains sociologically divided along ethnic and racial lines despite rhetorical and policy initiatives for “equality.” Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s 2017 “State of the Union” report showed that racial and ethnic disparities not only quantitatively and qualitatively persist, but are increasing to an extent that existing data and methodologies are insufficient for understanding these gaps. In addition, the document’s executive summary suggested that institutional reforms have been more “disruptive.” The report concluded with a sentimental appeal to “remain authentically committed” to “old-fashioned equal opportunity”, which is one of many signs of the US’ ideological and policy simulacrum.

At the end of the day, it is clear that the root problem remains the inability of the American liberal democratic framework to address its own contradictions and accept the reality that North America remains a uniquely diverse environment whose attempted unification has left a legacy of unsolved antagonisms and what are even in liberal democratic theories’ own apperception a series of genocidal and discriminatory injustices. As the United States continues to decline in numerous spheres, it is extremely unlikely that its liberal democratic elites and institutions will be able - or willing - to resolve the tough problems of American identity and racial and ethnic contradictions, especially as the “majority” vs. “minority” categories in democratic theory fail to reflect the actual dynamics of the US’ population, and have only offered “disruptive” adjustments that do not overcome the scope and pace of disparities, much less propose an alternative identity project.

The increasing relevance of racial and ethnic factors in American political discourse is therefore part and parcel of the crisis of American liberal democracy in theory and the crisis of the liberal experiment on the North American continent.

Author: Jafe Arnold