“Good White” Liberals and “Bad” Black Radicals: Conflicting Views

Working within a white liberal frame is not only frustrating for progressive African Americans who speak out honestly and forcefully about racism and other forms of social oppression: it often entails vilification that, in addition to being toxic to our mental and physical well-being, is actually hostile to our very existence.

I have dealt with this type of racial madness for the more than four decades I have worked within predominantly “white” academia where I am “tolerated” only when my politics do not venture beyond conflict-aversive, white liberalism. It seems like mission impossible for most of my colleagues to understand that although our politics and methods overlap at times in ways that allow us to work together on social justice issues we care about; the life experiences and standpoints of “white” liberals and radical African Americans are in important ways diametrically opposed. Indeed, “white” liberals often chose to not see politics at all, but instead to imagine themselves as being somehow apolitical, kind, and caring people, in contrast to the unruly African Americans they discount as unkind, reckless, and dangerous. In brief, the black demonic opposite of their white sainthood. I recall getting angry at a department meeting when a colleague pompously bragged about being an especially “tolerant” person and I wondered, who is it that he thinks is so despicable that, at best, all they might expect from him is to be tolerated.

Epistemologically, my experiences with racially paternalistic “white” colleagues are emblematic of what I have dubbed the IPA Syndrome, that so often plagues members of socially dominant groups; the Ignorance of not knowing, the Privilege of not needing to know, and the Arrogance of not wanting to know.

Now assuming that some of you who are reading this essay really want to know what divides “white” liberals and radical African Americans in terms of our politics, moral philosophy, and overall worldview, here is an expansion of something I wrote some time ago to outline my views on the conflicting orientations to social justice of members of the liberal/dominant group and those who experience a radical/oppressed viewpoint.


While socially-dominant liberals want to open the system up a bit, which they assume otherwise works just fine, so that it is inclusive of those currently excluded–the creation of a kind of Noah’s Ark, two of everything, diversity zoo–those who experience things from a radically-oppressed standpoint work assiduously to dismantle oppressive systems. For example, a liberal-social-science response to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II would have been to send in a team of researchers to make sure that the internees received proper food, clothing, health care, heat, light, and ventilation; while those taking a radical perspective might have conspired to destroy the camps and free their prisoners.                                                  


The liberal/dominant group member solution to social oppression is to make “reasonable,” facts-based arguments, to convince other members of the socially dominant group that certain ameliorative reforms are the right, the reasonable, and the rational thing to do to alleviate some of the suffering of the oppressed and to ultimately fix whatever is broken in a system which, again, is assumed to, otherwise, work just fine. In contrast, the radical oppressed change strategy begins with the recognition that both the cause and the solution to oppression is power. Therefore, meaningful change entails going way beyond being “nice,” “civil,” and accommodating. It, instead, requires, as the African American social protest slogan so aptly puts it, “No justice, no peace!” confrontations that forcefully remove the foot of oppression off our necks.                                                                   

View of Self

Liberal members of socially dominant groups tend to see themselves as caring people who strive to be inclusive and tolerant of others; while those who take a radically oppressed perspective view themselves a committed, lifelong, warriors against social oppression.                                                          

View of Oppressors

Liberals who are not socially oppressed tend to see social oppressors as merely ignorant people who simply do not know any better and who need to be educated and reasoned with; while a radically oppressed viewpoint views them as people who must be challenged politically and forced to change.

View of the Oppressed

Socially privileged liberals view the oppressed as social “others” to be tolerated and helped. [Note: Such “tolerance” is not extended, however, to those who operate outside of the liberal worldview. At best such a person is deemed as not being very “nice” as the social-tolerance rubber band of liberalism either breaks or violently snaps back.] All too often those who do not go along with their program are perceived as being an “immoral” and “unethical” demagogues. In contrast, oppressed radicals view themselves and others as allies in a never-ending struggle against social oppression.                                          

Position Within the Social Structure

While the position of liberals from socially dominant groups is relatively secure and privileged,oppressed radicals live lives that are insecure and subject to constant threats and traumas, as we struggle not only to be free, but to simply stay alive.  

Ideological Worldview

Finally, while members of socially dominant groups embrace a political and social liberalism  and diversity-framed, multi-culturalism that accepts the social system as good and worthy of protecting through making need tweaks here and there, as needed, those who hold a radical oppressed view will be satisfied with nothing less than fundamental systemic change.

As you can see these are real and serious differences; ones that must be understood and overcome when working as allies, and that must be accepted for what they are when working together is not possible, that is as genuine political disagreements that must be respected, without denigration or name calling.

Noel A. Cazenave (https://sociology.uconn.edu/person/noel-cazenave/)is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. He is currently writing a book titled, Kindness Wars: The History and Political Economy of Human Caring.