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Jim Sleeper's Liberal Racism shares the strengths and weaknesses of several similar books by apostates from the Left (Norman Podhoretz's several memoirs, In Defense of Elitism by the late William Henry, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy by Harry Stein and Radical Son by David Horowitz all come to mind): he's very good when analyzing the precise problems with modern Liberalism that drove him to question its orthodoxy, but he falters when it comes time to follow his doubts to their necessary conclusions.  One can sympathize with, or at least understand, all these men's shared reluctance to fully embrace the conservative logic of their own writings, and their residual need to demonstrate to their old comrades on the Left that drifting Right hasn't made them uncaring, but this hesitancy does diminish each of their books.

In Mr. Sleeper's case, he starts from a very basic and astute observation:

    [L]iberal racism patronizes nonwhites by expecting (and getting) less of them than they are fully capable of achieving.  Intending to turn
    the tables on racist double standards that set the bar much higher for nonwhites, liberal racism ends up perpetuating double standards by
    setting the bar so much lower for its intended beneficiaries that it denies them the satisfactions of equal accomplishment and opportunity.

He proceeds to deliver chapter and verse indicating that this is the case : from an excellent demonstration of how the 1964 Voting Rights Act was perverted into a way of guaranteeing a few seats for black Congressmen; to an explanation of how "root causes" excuses for criminal behavior and opposition to vigorous law enforcement had helped to make places like New York City more dangerous for blacks, until Rudy Guliani came along and ignored both; to a devastating indictment of the NY Times and its racial politics, both as it plays out in politically correct company policy and as it functions to distort the paper's news coverage; to a depiction of how Alex Haley's novel Roots helped create a false African consciousness in black America, which has gradually created an unhealthy distance between blacks and the Western values they need to succeed in this culture.

In all of these instances, liberals (black and white) have sought to explain away black underachievment as a phenomenon whose sole cause is white racism and whose only solution lies in government action (i.e., white benevolence).  Even setting aside the question of whether racism is really this powerful and is still pervasive, framing the situation in this way can only harm blacks : by removing incentives for self-improvement, since government aid is promised for every ill; by lowering self-esteem, since all progress will be a result of government (Liberal) intercession; and, by imposing artificial limits, such as the Congressional scheme, which packed gerrymandered districts with black voters, thereby gaining black Representatives while diminishing black power in all the surrounding districts.

So far, Mr. Sleeper is right on the money.  But when he moves beyond the critique he gets himself in trouble, because his stated intent is an impossibility :

    This book's premise is that precisely because the United States is becoming racially, ethnically, and religiously more complex than
    institutional color-coding can comprehend, liberals should be working overtime to nurture some shared American principles and bonds
    that strengthen national belonging and nourish democratic habits.

He seems oblivious to the fact that the project he's set himself is to make Liberalism into Conservatism.  For Liberalism's very raison d'être is to remove societal inequalities via government action, to force egalitarianism down our throats at the cost of our freedom.  You see, the dirty little secret that Mr. Sleeper does not allow himself to face is that you could just replace "black" with "poor" in the entire prior analysis and leave most of the rest of his argument unchanged. It is a mere sad circumstance of American history and our unfortunate legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that so many blacks are part of the underclass.  Liberalism may focus on them in particular, but it patronizes, and thereby debilitates, all of the poor.   Liberalism always resorts to government action, always excuses social pathologies as not the fault of the perpetrators, always blames oppression for inequalities, always asks (and expects) little of those it claims to serve, while promising much.  Small wonder that the epoch of Liberalism (1929-1980, in other words, from the Depression to the election of Ronald Reagan) turned the poor into dependents of the Welfare State.

That said though, Mr. Sleeper is right when he suggests that the appropriate alternative to this kind of ineffectual patronizing and counterproductive governmental meddling is a restoration of civil society, of non-governmental social organizations, of family, church, community, etc., structured around common traditional values and standards of behavior.  Central to all of this is a revival of the ethos of personal responsibility, combined with a sense of communal obligation.  We, all of us, need to stop depending on government and seeking excuses for our own shortcomings.  We need to learn once again how to rely on ourselves and how to provide for those around us.

Meanwhile, Liberalism, as Mr. Sleeper says, deserves great credit for its role in the fight against institutionalized racism in America (forty years ago) , but as he quotes Thurgood Marshall as saying :

    The law can open doors and knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges.

For America to fulfill its own purpose, it was vital to include all our citizens in a society of opportunity, to allow them the freedom to make what they can out of their own lives without any interference due to race, creed, or color.  We can, and must, make the law colorblind, so that each of us is judged only by what Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the content of our character", but as Justice Marshall suggested, government isn't capable of removing the prejudices in each of our hearts.  To achieve that entirely commendable goal we will require a healthy civil society, one that builds character, one in which we are individually free but mutually dependent and where government is only a last resort.  Unfortunately for Mr. Sleeper, that is all antithetical to Liberalism.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Jim Sleeper Links:
-REVIEW: The Fall of the Liberal Establishment: a review of The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment, by Geoffrey Kabaservice (Jim Sleeper, 4/12/04, LA Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ADDRESS :
    -ESSAY : Giuliani's Successes Go Beyond Policing (Jim Sleeper, November 26, 2001, NY Observer)
    -ESSAY : Reacting to Terrorism : An Essay by Jim Sleeper (Sept. 13, 2001, NPR)
    -ESSAY : Politically Incorrect, Heroic All the Same (Jim Sleeper, NY Observer)
    -ESSAY : Manufactured Consent : How to win back civic faith after the non-election (Jim Sleeper, March 2001, Washington Monthly)
    -ESSAY :  COLOR BLIND :  Al Gore, racial moralist (Jim Sleeper,  March 2, 1998, New Republic)
    -ESSAY : Will New York Get Real? (Jim Sleeper, Winter 1998, CultureFront)
    -ESSAY : Why liberals can't think straight about race (Jim Sleeper, 8/18/97, Salon)
    -ESSAY : New Fighter For The Average Citizen (Jim Sleeper, 8/3/95, NY Daily News)
    -ESSAY : Rebuilding The Ghetto Does Work (Jim Sleeper, March/April, 1994 , NY Daily News)
    -ESSAY :  In Defense of Civic Culture (Jim Sleeper, January 1, 1993, Progressive Policy Institute)
    -REVIEW : of The Ungovernable City : John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York by Vincent J. Cannato (Jim Sleeper, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of One Drop of Blood by Scott Malcolmson (Jim Sleeper, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of WE ARE ALL MULTICULTURALISTS NOW  By Nathan Glazer and THE ONE AND THE MANY : America's Struggle for the Common Good.  By Martin E. Marty (Jim Sleeper, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of IN DEFENSE OF GOVERNMENT The Fall and Rise of Public Trust. By Jacob Weisberg (Jim Sleeper, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Letting Go of Race : Jim Sleeper talks about the ubiquitous color-coding of American public life and why it must end (August 21, 1997, Atlantic Monthly)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Jim Sleeper (9 July 1996, Netizen)
    -DISCUSSION : ONE AMERICA (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,  JUNE 16, 1997)
    -ESSAY : Norman Podhoretz and His Critics (Ronald Radosh, | August 10, 2000)
    -RESPONSE : Response to Ronald Radosh (Jim Sleeper)
    -ESSAY : Much Ado About Podhoretz's Book (Richard Poe, | August 28, 2000)
    -LETTER : "I am not a Leftist" Re: Ron Radosh, 'Norman Podhoretz and His Critics' and Richard Poe, 'Much Ado About Podhoretz's Book'  (Jim Sleeper, September 1, 2000, Front Page)
    -ESSAY : Jim Sleeper's Problem and Ours (David Horowitz, | September 4, 2000)
    -ESSAY : DON'T TOUCH THAT FILE (Dwight Garner, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Racism Is (a) Entrenched? Or (b) Fading? : The Answer for Many Is (b) as Optimists Dispute Decades of Pessimism on Race Relations (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, The New York Times, November 8, 1997)
    -ARCHIVES : Jim Sleeper (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : Jim Sleeper (The American Prospect)
    -ARCHIVES : "jim sleeper" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Liberal Racism (Robert S. Boynton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Liberal Racism (Richard Brookhiser, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Liberal Racism (Don Wycliff, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW : of Liberal Racism (Brad Stetson, Ideas on Liberty)
    -REVIEW : of Liberal Racism (D. Eric Maikranz, The Denver Post )
    -REVIEW: of Liberal Racism (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW : of Liberal Racism (Gary McGath)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : The 'Racial Realism' Hoax (PHILIP KLINKNER, The Nation)

    -ESSAY : Broken Cities : Liberalism's urban legacy (Steven Hayward, March 1998, Policy Review)
-ESSAY : Medicine's Race Problem (Sally Satel, December 2001, Policy Review)
-ESSAY : Created Equal : The principles of racial reconciliation (Lamar Alexander, November 1998, Policy Review)
-ESSAY : Liberalism's Mean Streets : How conservatives can reverse urban decline (Senator Dan Coats and Senator Spencer Abraham, July 1998, Policy Review)
-ESSAY : Beyond Quotas : A color-blind vision for affirmative action (Roger Clegg, July 1998, Policy Review)
-ESSAY : The Quota Czars : The ACLU forsakes individual rights for racial preferences (Jessica Gavora, May 1997, Policy Review)
-ESSAY : Free At Last : Black Americans sign up for school choice (Nina Shokraii, November 1996, Policy Review)
-REVIEW : of Someone Else's House by Tamar Jacoby  (Alan Wolfe, NY Times Book Review)