June 15, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

American democracy is fragile. Will white liberals step up?

Given our history, the odds aren’t good.

Bill Clinton's Sister Souljah moment, 1992.
Bill Clinton's Sister Souljah moment, 1992.

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It is no secret the relationship between Black Americans and white liberals has been akin to a roller coaster: sudden highs, abrupt lows and occasional stops. It’s one of political and social ambiguity.

Historically, many white liberals have committed to issues that have directly affected Black people (and sometimes other nonwhite people) when they are personally, politically and psychologically beneficial.

These are white liberals. They have risked their reputations, livelihoods, social status and personal comfort to improve the often-desolate circumstances plaguing Black and nonwhite people. 

Unfortunately, they are a minority.

In the 1960s, injustices centuries in the making would not be solved by a few marches, hand-holding or uplifting, feel-good songs. Feelings of disillusionment, frustration and other emotions captured the minds of many of these largely idealistic, leftist baby boomers.

The rhetoric of racial justice and equality flowing from the mouths of white liberals has often been just that. Worse, it’s self-congratulation, an indulgent pride in themselves for supposedly not harboring the same racially bigoted values as their rightwing counterparts do.

Throughout American history, Black leaders and Black activists have made known their disappointment, or even outright disdain, for what they perceived as liberal disingenuous and hypocrisy. From the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X, from James Baldwin to Toni Morrison, from Marcus Garvey to W.E.B. DuBois – they made their displeasure and frustrations over white liberals very, very clear. 

Currently, some members of the Black intelligentsia have expressed their feelings about white liberals. They have taken no prisoners.

It is crucial to note that Black criticism of segments of the white left by no means indicated they were avid supporters of conservatives. Their deep animus toward the political right was well understood. 

However, the major historical distinction was the right made their disdain and hostility toward Black people and liberal causes clear.

Thus, most nonwhite people and in particular Black Americans harbored no misguided illusions that the majority of white conservatives or the post-1964 GOP were political allies.

Rather, it was the transactional behavior of white liberals that unnerved their many marginalized and disenfranchised allies. 

By the late 1970s, many of these same liberal activists, a number of whom were staunch protesters against the Vietnam war, segregation and economic inequality became disillusioned, if not outright hostile toward what they viewed as the failure of liberal policies. 

Some began to adopt the blame-the-victim philosophy of their conservative brethren, believing Black people, poor white people and other disadvantaged populations were not impoverished because of gross inequities, but rather due to their own personal inadequacies. 

These were the so-called liberals who got tired of hearing Black people complain about racism, poverty, educational inequality, subtle and overt discrimination and enormous health disparities. 

Injustices centuries in the making would not be solved by a few marches, hand-holding or uplifting, feel-good songs. 

Feelings of disillusionment, frustration and other emotions captured the minds of many of these largely idealistic, leftist baby boomers. 

Many of those members of the boomer generation who did not like President Ronald Reagan and his largely draconian policies on race, gender, poverty, and environmental issues either failed to voice their concerns or turned a blind eye to such mounting injustices.  

In essence, they became “Big Chilled.”

This see-no-evil attitude became the norm. It demonstrated indifference to and practiced distance from nonwhite people. 

Reagan cruised to reelection in 1984. Walter Mondale won only one state, his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. 

After such a monumental defeat, many Democrats, a sizable number of them former ’60s liberal politicians (some still saw themselves as such) decided that they had to move rightward toward an imagined political center to have any chance of capturing the White House in the future.

Thus, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) started by the Arkansas governor and future president, Bill Clinton, was born in 1985. The message was that Democrats must become more conservative to survive. Distancing from Black voters was the way to show it.

In 1992, the penchant of boomer politicians to distance themselves from nonwhite voters continued when Democratic candidate Bill Clinton picked a public fight with controversial rapper, Sista Souljah. He compared her to white supremacist and Klan leader David Duke. 

Such antics were another message delivered to moderate-conservative voters. A new type of Democrat intended to replace old-style, big government, culturally empathetic George McGovern liberalism.

Indeed, throughout much of his term, particularly after the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, Clinton abandoned his message of embracing diversity and adopted more centrist conservative polices, such as the federal crime bill with its notorious “three strikes” provision imposing mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders. 

He signed his signature welfare reform bill into law in 1996. He championed other retrograde legislation that seriously harmed lower income and poor people, disproportionately Black and Latino. 

It was another example of the white liberal retreat from supporting those who were politically, socially and economically marginalized.

Although, to his credit, then-president Bill Clinton did give a national speech in 1995 promising to protect affirmative action by “mending it, not ending it.” Throughout his racially groundbreaking and historic presidency, Barack Obama and, at the current moment, Joe Biden appears to be following the same, long held strategy.  

History demonstrates that when the intolerant rightwing monster flashes its teeth, white liberal allies usually recoil in fear. 

They panic, pack up, retreat, keep a low profile and ride out the storm until things subsided, only managing to reemerge when the next seemingly monumental moment of social activism arises. 

Such Houdini-like antics have been less than inspiring to Black people and people of color. In fact, they have been historically demoralizing.  

No astute observer of historical events can deny the fact that we are currently in a moment of electrifying levels of social unrest. 

Not since the 1960s (some more intense observers would argue not since the Civil War) has our nation been at such a crossroads.

It is imperative that white liberals work with marginalized groups to prevent the sinister forces from aborting our fragile democracy. 

Too much is at stake.

Elwood Watson, PhD, is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. Find him @bleachbred.

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