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Mark Lilla’s Comfort Zone

How liberal discourse flattens out the work of critical race analysis

As the liberal mind struggles to regain its bearings in the wake of the catastrophic election of Donald Trump, the racial apologia that has long rested at the heart of elite liberalism has re-emerged as a cautionary tale about the wages of too much racial justice. Far from calling for the mobilization of every resource to resist the breathtaking resurgence of white nationalism, some self-declared liberals have called for the retirement of racial equity discourse in favor of a universalism that denies the continuing salience of racial power in America.  

The Rorschach diagnosis of liberalism’s psychosis comes through most strongly in liberals’ reflexive response to the monstrous resurrection of lynch-mob mentality and its enablement in the White House. While scenes of white supremacy’s galloping return strike terror in the very soul of America’s dispossessed, the analysis that’s gained greatest currency among conflicted white liberals calls to mind D.W. Griffith’s infamous portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan leaders as the heroic vindicators of a humiliated white identity.

Surprisingly, this terrifying resurgence of white anger is not the chief object of liberal outrage; rather, we are told that what’s really precipitated today’s white-supremacist putsch are the excesses of identity politics. By the lights of today’s soothsayers, the beast has been agitated by the telling of tales about its own bloody reign.

In other words, taming the beast must come at a price—cutting out the tongue of the racial justice body politic. Running for cover to reflexive liberals means shutting up and dressing down within the familiar and reassuringly non-racialized rhetorics of universalism.

The first such clarion call for covering up has resounded the longest. During the initial stunned reaction to Trump’s election last year, the New York Times enlisted the conservative political scientist Mark Lilla to diagnose the deeper distempers of the American political scene. By Lilla’s account, the signal failure of the Democrats during this landmark election was to rally to the standard of “identity politics.” This profound miscalculation predictably touched off bitter and destructive infighting within the house of liberalism over what and who was to blame for Trump’s victory. Such are the consequences, Lilla sternly warned, of “identity liberalism”: time and again, he declared, liberals have frittered away political opportunity by elevating identitarian differences among various racial and ethnic groups, rather than buttressing the common interests across them. 

Lilla’s provocative essay fails miserably as a blueprint for regaining the liberal consensus that he and others crave.

Lilla and other critics of the Democrats’ alleged identitarian delusions bemoan the absence of a unifying master narrative in the left-of-center Democratic playbook. Lilla has since argued in his recently published book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics that the Democratic coalition needs to recover the sense of a universal “we” at the center of its organizing activity and political thought. But, of course the question of what constitutes a “we,” and who gets to speak on its behalf, is inherently a question of political power. The Lilla critique, and many others like it, consistently frames the Democratic coalition—with the glaring exception of white male workers—as a collection of interest groups who’ve been indulged and coddled by liberals in a manner that has undermined our common identity as Americans. 

This critique of identity politics is not new. Indeed, it can be traced to the repudiation of Reconstruction itself. The lethal critiques trained against the shortlived Freedmen’s Bureau and congressional efforts to create a national commitment to eliminate widespread discrimination against former slaves sought to discredit and dismantle equality projects by framing them as dangerous pandering and insidious favoritism. It was, in effect, a critique of identity politics, with the Supreme Court intoning that black men should relinquish the status of special victims and stop making a federal case out of every slight they might encounter. Being told to live lives like everyone else while barely emerging from a status that was not like everyone else was a tough-love repudiation of a reform-oriented identity politics. Of course, the politics that underwrote white supremacy were as untamable as ever, but these were not the conceits of identity that troubled the ruling elite nor its white clients.

Then as now, the fallback position of our political elites was to restore order at the cost of racial justice; then as now, those same elites well understood that white racial resentment afforded the key fulcrum for retaining power over the nation at large. And once postbellum Republicans were relieved of the party’s unpopular and politically costly support for freedmen, they could get on with the real business of elite national politics—presiding over American expansionism and the consolidation of a new national market order.

Then as now, the fallback position of our political elites was to restore order at the cost of racial justice.

It’s true that the contemporary rendition of the devil’s bargain known as white redemption was a stunning development for many of our elite opinion makers. It came as an aftershock to an election that was terrifying for many, and affirmed the worst fears of those who believed themselves to be the most vulnerable to Trump’s nationalist agenda. Yet for liberals in the centrist Clintonite mainstream, Lilla’s prophetic warning—that the Democratic Party was being driven off the rails and into a possible permanent minority status by virtue of its efforts to accommodate diversity—was a refreshing bit of truth-telling that stands to put the party back on course to meet the urgent challenges of 2018 and beyond. 

Lilla’s provocative essay fails miserably as a blueprint for regaining the liberal consensus that he and others crave. To the contrary, it succeeded in demonstrating something far more disabling: the profound divide among and between liberals and radicals on matters such as race and immigration. At a time when these disagreements on the left had largely been suppressed for the sake of highlighting the enormous gap between the Trumpist right and the Democratic mainstream, Lilla’s essay inadvertently exposed the deeper faultlines that hamper the pursuit of a truly unified agenda on race, immigration, and social justice. 

Lilla’s terms of debate reveal divisions that are deep and stakes that are high. The illustrative value of Lilla’s argument isn’t found in what he writes—his prescriptions in the wake of the Trump victory are reactionary and unconvincing, harkening back to battles over multicultural organizing and “identity politics” that convulsed American universities in the early 1990s. Instead, Lilla’s repudiation of identity liberalism is a glaring illustration of how the liberal discourse on identity and social inequality has not only divided the left, but has also produced a narrative that misrepresents and flattens the multiple discourses that have come to be branded with the misnomer of identity politics. Lilla is neither a curiosity nor a heretic within this terrain. Indeed, his cry against difference and plea for a universal register of political engagement that elevates sameness over the claims of marginalized populations has emerged time and time again from the liberal repertoire of responses to agitation by outsider groups about the terms of social life across American institutions. 

These ideas have been particularly resonant within elite legal institutions  where administrators, judges, and other legal actors have attempted to manage grievances issuing from difference through appeals to reason, tradition, and the rule of law.  The terms through which these contestations are framed are important not only because they reflect competing interpretations of how law and neutral principles operate in conditions of actual social conflict, but also because they reveal the particular ways that widespread social inequality is rationalized even by the stewards of American liberalism.

Now that Trump and Attorney General Sessions have set in motion the repeal of DACA, the neutral appeal to institutional reason is clearly exposed as a racialized power play, with the administration adopting the view that Obama’s executive order securing the path to citizenship for law-abiding children of illegal immigrants is an unconstitutional exercise of executive power. Needless to say, Trump’s flagrantly unconstitutional pardon of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has not come in for any such legal scrutiny. Why not? For the simple reason that the Trump administration routinely suborns the rule of law to the politics of racial privilege.

The larger project of the universalist critique in the postwar era has always served a conservative agenda.

In the face of such presidential abuses of the rule of law, the arguments advanced by Lilla and his universalist allies are especially misguided. To better grasp why they are not an appropriate response to the current political emergency, it’s crucial to comprehend that the larger project of the universalist critique in the postwar era has always served a conservative agenda. In fact, the righteously intoned present need to strategically suppress the meaning of difference and to elevate universalism stems directly from the battery of maneuvers liberals adopted during the destabilization of American institutions in the wake of the social disruptions that shook the country in the 1960s and ’70s. The sturdy structure of American society survived the convulsions of sixties-era protest not so much through the coercive power of the state, but rather via a widely asserted consensus holding that the discrimination and illegitimate social power that animated social justice agitation could be disciplined and managed.

The means of this management were always dressed up in the seemingly unassailable and impartial rhetoric of universality and neutrality. Successive waves of critical projects maintained that such investments were in fact particular and historically contingent rather than universal and fixed. Versions of this liberal/left fault line became foundational disputes that spawned a variety of innovative projects, as left-leaning liberals and radicals countered efforts to resist and depoliticize reformist efforts. One such group of mostly white male scholars organized under the banner of critical legal studies launched a critique of liberal legalism’s limits. Foregrounding critiques of the so-called divide between (legitimate) law and (illegitimate) politics, critical legal thinkers insisted that law was not apolitical, and that the claims of law and political agitation can never be quarantined from one another.

For academics and student activists who sought to advance a vision of racial justice that contested the acceptance of traditional institutional norms, critiques of racial liberalism—a byproduct of race-conscious legal liberalism—focused on its faith in the idea of a colorblind meritocracy and its allegiance to remedying racial exclusion simply by eliminating procedural forms of bias. Over and against this perspective, the emergent Critical Race Movement set out to reframe the 1982 controversy at the Harvard Law School over minority hiring and curricular offerings. In so doing, they articulated a redistributional conception of law teaching jobs. They viewed these positions as resources that should be shared with communities of color. In a parallel move, critical feminists resisted conceptions of gender discrimination that narrowly confined the capacity of law to address institutionalized forms of patriarchy. They revealed that conventional sex discrimination law was predicated on questions of sameness/difference in relationship to men. Maleness was the baseline that women’s relative sameness or difference was to be falsely gauged against.

A common thread among each of these projects was a radical critique of the baselines most often foregrounded by liberal thinkers.

And in still another allied movement, intersectional feminism replicated the critique of sameness and difference within race and gender categories. Rather than taking for granted the terms of group understanding laid out by liberal legal theory, the intersectional turn in legal scholarship asked why a Black woman has to be like a white woman or a Black man in order to secure equal access to the remedies furnished under anti-discrimination law.  

A common thread among each of these projects was a radical critique of the baselines most often foregrounded by liberal thinkers. Radicals pushed the debate about social power and law beyond notions of bias or instrumentalism. They focused instead on how conventional frameworks naturalized existing hierarchies and produced broad ideological justifications of status-quo power relations that kept the remedies offered within anti-discrimination law narrow and limited.

It is, of course, a signal irony that in response to the explicitly racist and identitarian triumph of Trumpism on the right, the collective reflex among many mainstream liberal thinkers has been to act as though none of this post-civil rights history and intellectual work has in any way seriously addressed the forces that have undermined America’s flailing liberal consensus. Instead, for the Mark Lillas of the world, the corrosive forces of racial reaction stem from misguided and hysterical appeals to a leftist racial politics. If the guardians of elite liberal discourse continue to shun, and strategically flatten out, the substantive work of critical race analysis and intersectionally minded reform, their comfort zone will serve only to blunt rather than promote the quest for social justice in America.