The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

On the Relationship Between "Liberalism" and Racism

Liberal ideas can result in racism, but not for the reasons leftist scholars have posited.


Over the last few years, I've noticed that it's increasingly popular among leftist academics to blame the rise of liberalism (individual rights, equality under the law, competitive markets, constitutional limited government, etc.) in the nineteenth century for the rise of racist ideologies in the same time period. In particular, they blame "capitalism," for reasons I find too ahistorical and silly to bother to recount.

Of course, liberals of all parties, from "progressive" liberals to libertarians, are scandalized by such a suggestion. They argue that it was precisely liberal values that fought racism and other forms of inherited privilege, and believe that the leftists' intense hostility to the market economy that arose with liberalism has gotten the better of them.

This may not be an original thought, but I had an epiphany last year while teaching Prigg v. Pennsylvania, a case in which the antebellum Supreme Court upheld the right of private slave catchers to kidnap escaped slaves from free states and take them to the slave South. The epiphany was that the rise of liberalism, especially the natural-rights variety, did help lead to the rise of racism, but not because of "capitalism."

In earlier times, when "might made right," things like slavery needed no justification. "We won the war and captured enemy prisoners and made them slaves" was quite sufficient. But once liberalism took hold, and people broadly accepted the premise that "all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain natural rights," but they still want to maintain, say, African slavery in the American South, they have to create rationales as to why people of African descent aren't really "people" in the same sense that people of European descent are.

The same could be said for Jews in Europe once liberalism got a strong foothold there. Intellectuals could no longer justify hatred of Jews on religious grounds thanks to their belief in freedom of conscience, so they had to either accept Jews as fully equal citizens, or invent racist rationales to explain why Jews were different from those persons entitled to equal rights. In short, if liberalism notions take hold in a society, but large percentages of the population are not willing to abandon prior systems of oppression, the rise of racism will be the natural result as the defenders of oppression seek rationales for refusing to extend rights to minority groups.