It did not take more than a day or two for there to emerge a white backlash against the spate of protests by African-American students on predominantly “white” college campuses like the University of Missouri and Yale University; including a rant by an apparent liberal on National Public Radio against what he saw as their “illiberal” behavior.
My google search found the adjective illiberal defined as “opposed to liberal principles, restricting freedom of thought or behavior” and “uncultured or unrefined.” White” conservatives and their allies condemn such protests as being indicative of a victim’s mentality. “White” moderates and those who think like them dismiss them as coming from people who are overly sensitive. And now the latest buzzword that initially appears to come from “white” liberals and those who accept their ways of thinking about racial conflict as a means toward progressive social change is that such actions are “illiberal.” What they all have in common is that they are all essentially “white” racial backlash frame responses to the expression of the pain born of the oppression of African-Americans.
Such white backlash is consistent with the “All Lives Matter” slogan dismissal of the “Black Lives Matter” movement; a movement which is now a driving force behind the campus protests.
In my Conceptualizing Racism book I discuss such racially-charged language battles between what I call linguistic racial accommodation and linguistic racial confrontation as well as what I refer to as the IPA Syndrome of groups that benefit from oppression. The letters IPA refer to the ignorance of not knowing; the privilege of not needing to know, and the arrogance of not wanting to know.
We see all of that in the attempt of some “white”–assumed to be–liberals to now use the word “illiberal” to silence African-American outrage at oppression just as their more conservative cousins have used the term “political correctness;” which more and more “white” moderates and liberals have come to accept. This emotionally-charged and paternalistic finger wagging behind the charge of illiberalism evokes the racist image of “black” savages who have invaded the hallowed “white,” and above all “civilized,” halls of academia; devoid of any real appreciation of and respect for its core values like freedom of speech and academic freedom.
But alas appearances are often deceiving. As it turns out the main driving force behind the concept of liberalism is not liberals, but their occasional racial allies; the extreme right wing. The “illiberal” concept is being pushed by political extremists who abhor the very words liberals and liberalism but now seem to want to seduce those who see themselves as liberals into a liberal/right-wing coalition against militant African-American social protest. At this coalition’s center is the extreme right-wing intellectual Dinesh D’Sousa who in 1998 published a book titled Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. You may recall D’Sousa for his The End of Racism book which in the mid-1990s provided a racist cultural argument to justify white supremacy which complemented the biological argument made a year earlier by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve that was published by the same publisher.
This means that self-identified liberals who might find themselves attracted to the concept of illiberalism should be aware of this part of the concept’s history and how it is being used by the right-wing who ordinarily detest the very word liberal to form an unholy racial alliance against the legitimate aspirations of African Americans and other racially oppressed peoples. But there is still more ignorance, privilege, and arrogance to the use of the word “illiberal” as an ideology to beat back African-American protest than even that.
The term illiberal arrogantly assumes that all progressive African Americans are–indeed all left-leaning African Americans can aspire to be politically–is liberals. It assumes that like “white” liberals we are conflict-aversive and ultimately committed to sustaining the status quo by simply making minor tweaks to the system for it to function more smoothly.
It also arrogantly disallows the possibility that there is an African-American Left politics that dares to venture beyond whiteness and an intellectually, ethically, and politically shallow, multi-cultural/diversity framed liberalism. Now here is the racial bottom line, if you will. For progressive African Americans the best response to being labelled “illiberal” is to reject the label and framing of liberalism altogether by beginning a new conversation with the simple question that shatters the presumptuousness of white racial arrogance by simply asking. “And what makes you believe I am a liberal?”
Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Conceptualizing Racism: Breaking the Chains of Racially Accommodative Language, is to be released this month. His current book project is tentatively titled, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism and he plans to teach a course on the same topic at UConn next fall.