It is reasonable to believe that the official end of state-sanctioned segregation and black disenfranchisement would mean a corresponding reduction in the brutal social conditions of black and other minority communities. Instead, the most appropriate way to symbolise the current racial malaise is the term “white supremacy”, despite the efforts of America and other multicultural democracies to bury it as a discomfiting relic of the past.
Events surrounding the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis suggest that real political and social liberalisation for the black community is far from achievable. Nothing has changed; modernity reeks of racial domination and discrimination, but how can such conditions exist in a republic founded on Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality?
The answer lies in the flaws of modern liberal democracy, or what I like to call the democratic myth. The basic idea is that our governing system has been moulded to empower “whites” to be positioned structurally in such a way that allows them to constrain, oppress and exploit black individuals and other minorities cogently, regardless of the outcome.
Etymologically, the concept of democracy emphasises the “will of the people” and a governing system upheld by the “power of the people”. Its moral strength and popular appeal are mostly attributed to the elements of individual autonomy and equality that democracy claims to advocate; people should have the same opportunities to influence decisions affecting their society, while simultaneously having control over their own lives.
The end of the Cold War, along with the reiterations of the validity of democratic peace, posed democracy as a crucial social good, a panacea to all global ills symbolising the only legitimate political system in most languages. The realities, however, carry disappointments felt intensely across the globe, the likes of which we can see in the killings of Floyd and other black individuals and what followed. The inconsistencies and paradoxes of democracy’s claims raise important questions about whether we have all been subdued by an empty symbol which preserves dominant power configurations in societies and maintains the status quo. Yet the problem doesn’t lie within democracy and its gallant theoretical underpinning; it lies with the elite’s successful efforts to undermine it, the most serious being the creation of liberalism which was designed in fundamental ways to undermine the threat that democracy poses to these elites.
The dominant political outlook of the modern age, liberal democracy nominally professes itself to be inclusive, taking everyone’s interests into account and advocating for civil liberties and equality for all. Its conceptual makeup and infrastructure, however, set parameters as to who can “contract in” to the liberties and equality it pledges, restricting personhood to whites — more specifically white men — and de-emphasising non-whites to a subjacent grouping. While individuals living under the liberal system may claim that the overt racism we have seen in the past is largely over, liberalism hides a form of covert racism that may not explicitly display black people and other minorities as inferior, but is nonetheless shaped conceptually and oriented normatively by the interests and experience of the dominant group, the white demographic. This means that liberalism, in the words of Charles W Mills, colour codes who obtains justice, racialising the liberal tenets of individualism and equality so that the interests of “whites” are always paramount. Instead of setting all individuals as equal citizens and guaranteeing their rights, this liberal contract is one of domination and exclusion, forming governments, legal systems and economic structures accordingly which privilege white individuals at the expense of black people and other minorities.
A manifestation of this claim is the racial injustice which has been an indispensable element in the creation of the modern world, the United States in particular. Through the operation of the state as a racial state, systemising the inferior legal status of minorities through legislation; enforcing segregation in “federal bureaucracies, prisons and the army”; and taking white supremacy for granted, black people are “in a position of having to fight their own government”. That is what black trade union leader Philip Randolph said in 1943. We can still see it today.
Essentially separate and manifestly unequal in the eyes of the state, one cannot eliminate the racial nature of the liberal democratic polity as far as black people are concerned, regardless of the supposed racial progress over the past half-century. The structural injustices enforced on the black community and other minorities have withstood “liberal reforms” of de jure discrimination, with “whites” utilising new methods to circumvent anti-discrimination laws.
The statistics prove this. While black people make up 13 per cent of the US population, they represent 40 per cent of the prison population. Black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended for the same infractions. Black individuals with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as all other graduates. While white families hold 90 per cent of the national wealth, black individuals hold only 2.6 per cent.
The fiftieth anniversary of the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional came, ironically, in 2004 at a time when schools were much more segregated than they were 50 years earlier.
Being white and having assets goes far beyond money, as Professor Thomas Shapiro demonstrated; it provides a path towards the handing down of racial legacies across generations. His interviews with white American families show that while they may be aware that African Americans have a raw deal, they believe that it is their responsibility to control their own plight. “Many whites continue to reap advantages from the historical, institutional, structural and personal dynamics of racial inequality posed by our liberal democratic system,” wrote Shapiro, “and they are either unaware of these advantages or deny they exist… Their insistence upon how hard they work and how much they deserve their station in life seems to trump any recognition that unearned successes and benefits come at a price for others.”
It is thus not surprising that institutional racism and the disparities in wealth, criminal justice, employment, education, etc., exist within the liberal democracies we glorify; a system cannot fail those it was never designed to protect. Yes, some progress has been made, but will our benchmark be abolition and the “repeal” of Jim Crow?
Seeing that the process of racial injustice hasn’t changed much, white supremacy must be a structural form of persecution; a state of relational prejudice and group domination supported by so-called liberal institutions which have previously regarded minorities as subhuman, thus non-deserving of rights. This is the case for many multicultural liberal democracies across the globe, constituting racial oppression as a fundamental feature of the liberal polity and its civic culture.
If we look at the history of liberalism as a concept, we can see this. It is an embodiment of the racial orientation of the liberal theorists of the past, simultaneously rising during the era of European expansionism. John Locke (1632-1704), for example, justified Native American expropriation and African slavery, while aiding the formulation of the 1669 Carolina constitution giving masters absolute power of their slaves. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a figure recognised for his theories of personhood and respect, has been exposed for his advancement of modern scientific racism and, ironically, sub-personhood.
The racialisation of liberalism is thus not surprising, as non-white individuals were historically not considered as full persons, and thus not endowed with the right to enter the social contract or deserving of equality and freedom. Instead, they are relegated to the status of objects of these contracts.
Racial inequality is clearly not just an unhappy accident of liberal democratic ideals or a result of misapplying a “perfectly conceived” political system. The reason we examine the racial problem in the west so shallowly is because of this superficial thinking that liberal democracy and the social contract it comes with is unflawed and ideal.
Today’s political era is all about undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy under the guise of freedom. Those in power capitalise on populist liberal rhetoric to keep our political imaginations at bay, forcing individuals to quell opportunities for radical change as they are told that only the next voting cycle can change the political realities they disagree with. From now until then, racial discrimination, income inequality, inaccessible healthcare and deadly bombings overseas turn from being the systematic political reality to a temporary fault that can be corrected with the election of a new official.
This is liberal democracy’s major flaw; it symbolises the state as heaven and, like religion, expresses an unreal universality arising as compensation of one’s ideal aims within a profane or material existence. Citizens facing prejudices and oppression cling to this myth and illusion of heaven, freedom and liberty to mollify their despair and the realities of their exploitation. Hence, the status-quo is maintained, as the liberal democratic state reduces inequalities to dumb passivity on the part of its victims. Individuals, especially minorities, are deprived of being active participants in the socio-political sphere and transform into mindless spectators ripe for manipulation, forcing them to detach their political life from their actual individuality.
It is the very purpose of the liberal social contract to hide the true political reality that lays the basis for the continuing racial oppression of black people and other non-whites. The institutions of governance that could allow people to participate in decision making are weakened systematically by voter repression and gerrymandering; the near total domination of a capitalist class of unaccountable private tyrannies which are fundamentally totalitarian in character; and a revolving door between legislators and lobbyists all separating the political class from the rest of the population. Freedom under liberalism is thus subordination to the decisions of concentrated, unaccountable private power.
We can no longer respond to racism just by increasing non-white representation in our political institutions. We need to re-examine our liberal political system from a racial standpoint to see the systematic exclusion of black people and people of colour from the political realm and its contracts. The one barrier to the destruction of the dream of a truly democratic system is an engaged public acting together to confront and respond to the threat of white supremacy, so let us not become weakened systematically and apathetic to the struggles and deaths of black and coloured individuals and communities. There is no place for us in a system that was not made for us; it isn’t broken, it was built that way. That’s why we have to change it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.