The Strange Career of Racial Liberalism
Joseph Darda



The Bend of the Arc

C. VANN WOODWARD HEARD HIS NAME. The historian had traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to witness the culmination of the march from Selma to the marble stairs of the state capitol, from which Martin Luther King asked twenty-five thousand demonstrators, including Woodward, “How long?”1 Woodward, a Sterling Professor at Yale, stood with a small band of distinguished academics that included John Hope Franklin, John Higham, Richard Hofstadter, and William Leuchtenburg. Higham carried a closed umbrella to which he had attached a makeshift cardboard sign. It read, in big block letters, “U.S. HISTORIANS.”

King gave Higham reason to hold the umbrella a little higher. “Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War,” the minister, standing behind a wall of microphones, stated. “And as noted historian C. Vann Woodward, in his book The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.”2 King devoted almost five minutes to glossing The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the slender 1955 volume in which Woodward identified segregation as not an age-old regional tradition but a result of white elite machinations after the Civil War to undermine Reconstruction. The Bourbon Democrats—the conservative, laissez-faire southerners who wielded states’ rights to undercut the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—had assembled the Jim Crow regime, Woodward observed, inviting King and his other readers to infer that it could be disassembled. That strange career couldn’t last forever. In his memoir, Woodward recalled hearing King describe his book as “the historical bible of the civil rights movement”—an endorsement that other scholars, including his former students, would recite and that would grace the cover of future editions of The Strange Career of Jim Crow.3 The civil rights leader might have said it, but the historian had no one to cite but himself.4

The book that King commended in Alabama originated in the wake of the Warren court’s unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Woodward had, at the invitation of Thurgood Marshall, contributed to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s November 1953 brief in the case. Although the court, as Woodward himself later admitted, seemed “more impressed by sociological evidence than by historical arguments,” Marshall and the LDF cited him and his research in the brief and before the court.5 When Woodward delivered the Richard Lectures at the University of Virginia that fall, he built on the work he had done for the NAACP, choosing as his title “The Strange Career of Jim Crow.” The historian, a native of Arkansas and a descendant of slaveholders, addressed a multiracial but segregated audience and dedicated the resulting book to “Charlottesville and the hills that look down upon her, Monticello.” Using the forceful, straightforward language that had made him an asset in the courtroom, Woodward argued that Jim Crow had shallow roots. “The policies of proscription, segregation, and disenfranchisement that are often described as the immutable ‘folkways’ of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a more recent origin,” he told the Virginia audience. “And the belief that they are immutable and unchangeable is not supported by history.”6 Marshall and the LDF had declared segregation unconstitutional and un-American. The white historian, then teaching at Johns Hopkins, declared it un-southern.

The older Woodward wanted his book remembered as the historical bible of the civil rights movement, but the “suggested reading” list at the back of the first edition suggested something else. It included Harry Ashmore’s The Negro and the Schools, Kenneth Clark’s “Desegregation: An Appraisal of the Evidence” (an “able” assessment of “recent developments in desegregation”), E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro in the United States, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (a “most helpful synthesis of modern scholarship in the field”), and Lee Nichols’s The Breakthrough on the Color Front—classics of racial liberal thought during and after World War II. Woodward didn’t write the historical bible of the civil rights movement. He wrote the historical bible of racial liberalism.

Racial liberalism, which dominated racial thought from the onset of the Second World War to the Brown decision, arose as an answer to the crisis of late colonialism that the war had accelerated. Anticolonial and antiracist movements surged. Colonial governments fell. Segregation in the United States came under fire as Black soldiers and marines fought for freedom in the Ardennes and on Luzon and returned to conditions of unfreedom in Georgia and Texas. The Soviet Union, armed with stories of the horrors of the American South, cultivated allies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, limiting the West’s access to the natural resources and markets of the decolonizing world. Racial liberals knew that something had to give and, fending off hardline segregationists on the right and materialist antiracists on the left, refashioned the United States as a liberal antiracist nation with a “theory, if not a consistent practice, of freedom and equality for all.”7 The nation faced, they believed, a difficult but achievable task: to align behavior with belief, conduct with creed, to reform the minds of good but sometimes misinformed white people, to eradicate “race prejudice,” not to redistribute resources or reckon with white racial dominance, including the theft of Indigenous lands and Black lives.

More than a few scholars have said this before, revealing how a moderate, reformist antiracism ensured not the downfall but the endurance of white racial rule.8 “Race,” the historian Nikhil Singh writes, “is a modality of group domination and oppression” that “requires a story (whether biological, sociological, anthropological, or historical) explaining how and why such practices persist and can be justified.”9 This book is about the stable structure of the stories we tell about race in the United States. Racial liberalism furnished new stories about why Black and Indigenous people and people of color continued to have less, to live shorter lives, and to face greater violence after World War II but also something more enduring: the narrative structure, the time measure, of a whole assemblage of stories. The first state antiracism in the United States, racial liberalism urged trust in time, setting the nation’s racial gaze forever on the near future. The racial liberal’s faith in the clock—in progress, in the moral arc of the universe—thwarted materialist antiracisms and undercut future movements with the insistence that racism constituted a time-limited crisis to be addressed with time-limited remedies.

That narrative structure surfaces in the language of racial liberalism, which taught the nation to see racism (and often race itself) as time-bound and external to the United States. The idea of racism as something to defeat (antiracism as war), to right (antiracism as reform), to enlighten (antiracism as education), or to cure (antiracism as integration) and race as a fiction to dismantle (antiracism as color blindness) suggested that it had, as a deviation from an otherwise democratic national tradition, an imminent end date, militating against lasting change. Woodward and his cohort offered the nation a scaffolding for stories of the fulfillment of the American creed on an indefinite tomorrow, of scientific solutionism and humanist enlightenment, of color-blind children. Or perhaps their children’s children.

Most historians attribute the shortcomings of the civil rights era to a conservative backlash or to a “long segregationist movement” or to the fracturing of the liberal establishment in the late 1960s, but the civil rights movements also met resistance from a liberal “frontlash,” from antiredistributive allies who all along constrained what the movement could demand and how it could demand it.10 This frontlash did not arrive out of nowhere in 1945, but, amid the dramatic worldwide fallout from the world war, liberalism had to do heavier lifting than ever before. From Locke to Mill, liberalism had masked the continuous, violent division of the human—into colonies, through enslavement and genocide—with the idea of linear time. Other civilizations, Western thinkers believed, had not advanced as far as theirs and deserved less until they did, under the West’s tutelage, somewhere off in an ever-deferred future. Liberalism, as David Theo Goldberg, Saidiya Hartman, Lisa Lowe, Charles Mills, and other scholars argue, has never not been a racial liberalism.11 But the liberalism of the 1940s and 1950s, with colonialism in crisis and the Cold War escalating, accelerated that assurance, vowing to end racism in a single generation with some of the same liberal instruments of science and government that had long sustained it. Liberal scientists, officials, novelists, and jurists thought they could see a just national future on the horizon, and when that future didn’t arrive—when enlightenment didn’t come and the cure didn’t take—they rushed ahead to color blindness, imagining that they had reached the end of racial time, the last bend in the arc.

The end of World War II, sometimes described as a “racial break,” triggered a shift in Western racial regimes from hierarchical theories of difference to normative theories, from avowed state racism to avowed state antiracism.12 While that transformation brought about affirming material change for some, hierarchies and norms share a stratified structure that liberalism, then and now, disguises with a linear arc. The arc got shorter in the United States of the 1940s and 1950s, and that, far from freeing, made it all the longer.

Woodward, the consummate racial liberal, trusted in time. The 1955 Oxford University Press edition of The Strange Career of Jim Crow did not reach a wide audience at first. Sales remained modest until 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to integrate Little Rock Central High School and OUP issued a revised trade edition with a new chapter, “‘Deliberate Speed’ vs. ‘Majestic Instancy,’” in which Woodward addressed the events since the 1954 Brown decision. Most of his readers, including King, would have bought and read that revised and enlarged edition. Eight months after Woodward delivered his Richard Lectures at Virginia, Chief Justice Earl Warren had handed down the court’s infamous second ruling in Brown that the defendant school districts desegregate “with all deliberate speed”—an ornate formulation credited to Justice Felix Frankfurter, who credited it to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who credited it to the English Chancery, which never used it. Most legal scholars at the time instead traced it to Francis Thompson’s 1893 poem “The Hound of Heaven,” in which a lost soul, chasing hedonic gratification and human love, flees God, and God follows “With unperturbèd pace, / Deliberate speed, majestic instancy.”13 Woodward, alluding to Thompson’s poem and advancing a Reconstruction-as-overreach argument, defended the court’s gradualist decision. “Those who prefer the more heroic and poetic construction of the court’s ruling would do well to ponder the unhappy history of ‘majestic instancy’ in the First Reconstruction,” he wrote. “However deliberate and halting its speed, the Second Reconstruction would seem to promise more enduring results.”14 Woodward later balked at the suggestion that he had cast segregation as an institution that would bend to a few “right-thinking reformers,” but he did think that time—social advancement, the evolution of the nation—would bring an end to white racial rule, as radicals had not, he thought, allowed it to after the Civil War.15 The historian believed in the near but not too near future.

Woodward’s own career after Selma tells the tale of racial liberalism’s decline and bearing on future racial ideologies. In the 1966 second revised edition, he hailed 1965 as a moment of “historical importance in the record of American race relations,” after which formal segregation could “at last be pronounced virtually a thing of the past.”16 The historian then entered what one former student later described as his “Tory period.”17 He refused to endorse the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Faculty Fund after Stokely Carmichael took over as committee chairman. At the 1969 meeting of the American Historical Association, Woodward, then heading the AHA, fought off a challenge from the Radical Historians’ Caucus, later bragging in a letter to his daughter-in-law that “all’s well with establishment pigs.”18 When Yale students sought to bring Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker to New Haven for a semester, he worked behind the scenes to block the invitation.19 In the 1974 third revised edition of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Woodward rewrote 1965 as the moment at which “a historic movement reached a peak of achievement and optimism and immediately confronted the beginning of challenge and reaction that called in question some of its greatest hopes and most important assumptions.”20 Most assumed that the man had changed. Others argued that the times had changed around him.21 But so had Woodward and other racial liberals’ sense of time. The near future that they had imagined came and went, and it left them scrambling to invent an end to racial time either in color blindness (Woodward’s choice) or a nonredistributive multiculturalism. Racial liberalism faded after 1965, but racial liberal time lived on in and structured the two dominant racial ideologies that succeeded it.

The time of racial liberalism can be distilled into one sentence, which Woodward heard that day in Montgomery standing beside his fellow historians: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”22 Woodward might have found a different meaning in that sentence, which King borrowed from the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, than the civil rights leader. King first used it in a 1956 mass meeting at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, then in a 1957 address to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, then at the 1959 NAACP convention in New York. Although he sometimes couched it in the liberal language of the nation’s “evolutionary growth” and “full realization” in the “not too distant future,” King imbued the statement with a double meaning: gradualist and messianic, looking to the future and to a different, cosmic order of time.23 When he declared that the arc of the moral universe bent toward a transcendent freedom for all at the end of the march from Selma, King launched into a recitation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” inviting listeners to hear either a nationalist anthem (justice on Earth) or a divine subversion of that red, white, and blue assurance of overcoming (justice in death, in the afterlife). The Black churchgoer, Hortense Spillers, the cultural theorist, writes, “hears double” and “in excess” of a sermon’s words, linking the “contrastive narrative energies” of accommodation and insurgence.24 The young minister, with the nation watching, invited that doubling.

On March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral in Washington, King envisioned the bend of the arc for the last time, but not before debunking the nation’s faith in inevitable forward movement. “Time is neutral,” he said. “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.” We cannot, he added, “wait on time.”25 This book is about how Americans learned to wait on time for racial change, the enduring harm of that trust in the clock, and alternative theories of time and transformation, including King’s, that don’t count on the bend of the arc. Racial liberalism did not end Jim Crow. It reformed it. Then things got strange.

A Stranger Career

World War II set the terms for the new racial liberalism. On November 12, 1941, Pearl S. Buck, winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature, read an editorial in the New York Times that attributed a Harlem “crime wave” to state and local government’s lack of investment in the neighborhood. (The murder of a white teenager in Central Park had set off what the Amsterdam News described as a media “blitzkrieg on Harlem.”)26 The editorial called for “increased employment opportunities; higher wages; vocational training; more and better facilities for child care; [and] more, cheaper and better housing.”27 Buck disagreed enough to write a letter to the editor four times the length of the original Times editorial. Harlem’s struggles did not stem from economic disinvestment, she argued, but from white New Yorkers’ ill will toward the neighborhood’s Black residents. “The reason why colored Americans are compelled to live in ghettos, where they are helpless against high rents and miserable housing, is the segregation to which race prejudice compels them,” she wrote. “Race prejudice and race prejudice alone is the root of the plight of people in greater and lesser Harlems all over our country.”28

Buck, the child of missionaries and the author of the best-selling novel The Good Earth, identified racism as a divergence from a democratic inheritance that could doom the United States and the free world for which it, in her mind, stood. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, she observed, “the colored peoples are asking each other if they must forever endure the arrogant ruling white race,” and they looked to the multiracial United States to gauge the future.29 Another world war and stirring anticolonial and antiracist movements led her and others to articulate the tenets of an emerging racial liberalism: racist attitudes led to racist social structures, and changing the former would change the latter; racism contradicted a founding egalitarian creed that the United States now struggled to fulfill; and the rest of the world looked to it as a model for reform and multiracial governance. Buck’s 1942 book American Unity and Asia led with her letter to the Times.

The horrors of the Holocaust, the decline of colonial regimes, and the rise of a communist Eastern Bloc forced an about-face in liberal thought. Liberalism had all along been a racial liberalism that rendered some societies legitimate and modern and others illegitimate and backward, some bodies valuable and endowed with inalienable rights and others valueless and rightless. Western liberal thinkers had naturalized and obscured the racial divisions that colonialism, enslavement, and genocide created but maintained that race had little bearing on liberalism. That changed after World War II. American liberals now addressed race as the central concern of liberal thought. Scientists, officials, novelists, and jurists declared liberalism a racial liberalism.

Historians of race, including Mark Anderson, Daniel HoSang, Jodi Melamed, Naomi Murakawa, and Chandan Reddy, have identified how liberal antiracism allowed the United States to contain radical antiracisms and maintain control of what counted as rational racial knowledge, whether through the unacknowledged Americanism of anthropology (Anderson), a constraining white “gaze on politics” (HoSang), the dissemination of “official antiracisms” through literatures of difference (Melamed), a distinction between racist violence as erratic and biased and carceral violence as methodical and deserved (Murakawa), or the rerouting of demands for freedom and liberation through instruments of state violence (Reddy).30 “No longer was it the mesmerizing narratives of the white man’s burden,” Melamed writes, “but those of liberal antiracisms—of reform, of color blindness, of diversity in a postracial world—that explained (away) the inequalities of a still-racialized capitalism.”31 Racial liberalism inaugurated an age of antiracism in which all condemned racism while little changed in the fortunes of Black and brown people in the United States. This nonsensical “racism without racists” wouldn’t have held together long if not for a shift in racial liberal time from the distant to the near future, from the “far off” of the white man’s burden to the “not long” of the white man’s solution.

Liberal foundations and other NGOs led that transition. “The war,” the Julius Rosenwald Fund announced in 1945, “has stimulated new efforts in the field of group relations on the part of old organizations, and has prompted the creation of many new ones.”32 More than two hundred new agencies, it found, had formed in the final eighteen months of the war. A 1948 head count discovered eight hundred more.33 But the largest of them did not regard their good works as ends in themselves but as models for government action. The measure of success for a foundation, as Edwin Embree, the head of the Rosenwald Fund, liked to say, should be whether “the work is taken up by the state.”34 Embree and other liberal elites recognized the state, which had grown stronger through the emergencies of the Depression and another world war, as the vehicle for a rising racial liberalism and sought to direct the coming age of reform.

The wartime swing toward stronger government and weaker civil liberties wouldn’t seem like an ideal environment for civil rights reform, but President Franklin Roosevelt, though unwilling to desegregate the armed forces, did use executive orders to answer some demands from Black soldiers, workers, and organizers. Carey McWilliams, the California leftist and future editor of the Nation, called on Roosevelt to use the wartime strength of his office to enact antiracist reforms, stressing, in his 1943 Brothers under the Skin, “the opportunity to use wartime emergency controls to develop a new pattern of relationships [among racial and ethnic communities].” McWilliams came to see, as did Embree and other liberal reformers, the war-strengthened state as the first and last audience for arguments about racial change. “The problem of colored minorities in the United States is merely a reproduction on a miniature scale of a set of similar problems which will be faced by whatever federation of powers or international organization emerges from this war,” McWilliams argued, as if writing a letter to the president, who had issued the Atlantic Charter, the forerunner to the United Nations Charter, in 1941. “By taking the initiative here, we might be in a position to assert real world leadership in relation to these same problems after the war.”35 The government’s embrace of liberal antiracism in the 1940s and 1950s, while often attributed to Cold War self-interest (“Cold War civil rights”), originated during World War II, when liberals like Embree and leftists like McWilliams looked to the wartime executive as the ultimate horizon of antiracist struggle.36

Foundations, endowed with the eternal wealth of industrial fortunes, did not see redistribution but education as the answer to what ailed the United States, and they modeled that agenda for the government. An American Dilemma, the 1944 urtext of racial liberalism, which the Carnegie Corporation first commissioned in 1937, recommended an “educational offensive against racial intolerance” and celebrated the Office of War Information’s messaging on race and Black service in the army, marines, navy, and defense industries. “When now, in the war emergency, the Negro is increasingly given sympathetic publicity by newspapers, periodicals, and the radio, and by administrators and public personalities of all kinds,” Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist and lead author, wrote, “one result is that the white Northerner is gradually waking up and seeing what he is doing to the Negro and is seeing also the consequences of his democratic Creed for his relations with Negroes.”37

The Carnegie Corporation, the Rosenwald Fund, and other foundations encouraged the nation to read for change, distributing book lists for white liberals with titles like Basic Readings for Americans Concerned about Race Relations and A Selected List of Readings on Racial and Cultural Minorities in the United States, with Special Emphasis on Negroes. When the President’s Committee on Civil Rights issued, at the Truman administration’s behest, recommendations for reform, it concluded with a call for a “long term campaign of public education to inform the people of the civil rights to which they are entitled and which they owe to one another.”38 The turn to education as a low-cost solution to centuries of stolen land, lives, and labor made literature, as Melamed shows, a leading instrument of nonredistributive antiracism through which white readers could “get to know difference” while reinforcing their claims to the wages of whiteness.39 Although some scholars maintain that the “affective work” of literature can counteract the violence of racial theft—that racial liberalism does not have to be the soft glove of white wealth accumulation—affective engagement has often stood in for material change, further elevating the status of white liberal elites and offloading blame onto Black and brown communities or members of the white working class, whom they assume not to have received an education in antiracist feeling.40

The racial liberalism of Buck, Embree, and An American Dilemma reached a far wider audience than decision makers in Washington and readers of Lillian Smith and Richard Wright. In 1948, the UN Social and Economic Council directed UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) to recommend a “programme of dissemination of scientific facts designed to bring about the disappearance of that which is commonly called race prejudice.” UNESCO assembled a committee of anthropologists and sociologists to draft a statement. Although the committee members hailed from seven different countries, the United States had the most voices in the room, including the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and the British American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who served as lead author. The final statement, “The Race Question,” reflected the American racial doctrine to which Frazier, a silent coauthor of An American Dilemma, and Montagu had contributed. “The problem of race,” it established, “has its roots in ‘the minds of men’” as a “belief in the innate and absolute superiority of an arbitrarily defined human group over equally arbitrarily defined groups” that “threatens the essential moral values.”41 Through intergovernmental organizations, war, and business, the United States transmitted racial liberalism to the world, circulating the idea that racism constituted a wrongheaded belief that could be remedied with scientific facts and a moral education. That idea minimized the enduring legacies of colonialism, enslavement, and genocide, as we know, but it also gave cover to the future theft of land and labor in the decolonizing world. The settlement of Western armies and multinationals in Africa and Asia had nothing to do with race, UNESCO maintained, as long as they thought and said the right things. In forecasting the end of racism in an undefined near future, racial liberals renewed it as a material regime.

Racial liberalism derived coherence from Jim Crow. Adherents regarded it as the antithesis of segregation, a construction that shut out race radicalisms and bred a host of other binaries—exclusion versus inclusion, biological racism versus cultural difference, racial essentialism versus environmental “root causes”—that made reform look like the revolution radicals had foreseen. “The old world is dying, but a new world is being born,” Carlos Bulosan, the novelist, remembers his brother telling him amid the California labor movement of the 1930s. “The old world will die so that the new world will be born with less sacrifice and agony on the living.”42 A new world did arrive, but much of the old world lived on in it. Inclusion, it turned out, could be as violent as exclusion. Cultural and environmental ideas about race could sustain the same hierarchies that biological arguments had. That does not mean that racial liberalism constituted a “new” Jim Crow. But racial liberalism did use Jim Crow to foreclose more radical alternatives that could have brought about the world that Bulosan dreamed might come.

Bulosan and other Asians in the United States found themselves caught between two racial binaries in the age of racial liberalism. Heeding the social science of the time, racial liberals built a wall between racial and ethnic difference, obscuring their interconnectedness, biologizing Blackness (often under the guise of culture), and imagining the nation as a drama in Black and white—or, in the words of the anthropologist Franz Boas and his students, “Negroid” and “Caucasoid.” (Their third, catchall racial division, “Mongoloid,” surfaced as, at most, an afterthought in mainstream thought and then vanished into ethnic murkiness.) Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, and other non-Black communities of color faced either erasure or recruitment to a liberal anti-Blackness through the coordinated binaries of white/nonwhite and Black/non-Black.43 Pauli Murray, the civil rights and women’s rights activist, noted in the introduction to States’ Laws on Race and Color, her 1951 guide to state segregation laws, a critical resource for Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, that state houses also targeted “Indians, Chinese, Japanese and other Orientals” with restrictive legislation but admitted that she didn’t know what to do with that information.44 It didn’t conform to the dominant language of the time. Activists have been struggling ever since to find a coalitional language that doesn’t elide anti-Blackness, that doesn’t traffic in what one scholar describes as “people-of-color-blindness.”45 Racial liberalism did not invent white racial dominance or anti-Blackness, of course, but it did, while insisting that we shall overcome, limit the tools with which a rising generation, the civil rights generation, could combat them.

Setting themselves against segregationists, through whom they defined racism as exclusion, racial liberals declared themselves the bearers of antiracism. The term racism did not come into wide usage until the 1940s—most credit the anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s 1940 Race: Science and Politics—and that established segregated water fountains as an enduring icon of racism and integrated classrooms as a signifier of antiracism. This iconic racism and antiracism obscures the fact that, as the historian Manning Marable once observed, Black people have been “‘integrated’ all too well,” that “capitalist development has occurred not in spite of the exclusion of Blacks, but because of the brutal exploitation of Blacks as workers and consumers.”46 A constraining discourse, racial liberalism did not account for that kind of integration or for Bulosan’s Marxist antiracism. When C. Vann Woodward sat down to write The Strange Career of Jim Crow a few months after the Warren court overturned Plessy, he thought he would chronicle the rise and fall of segregation in the South. He didn’t know that he would also chart the ideological conditions for the rise and fall of the civil rights movement.

Metaphors We Die By

Antiracism as war, as reform, education, and integration. Antiracism as color blindness. The time of racial liberalism registers in the figurative language most Americans, including conservatives and radicals, use to address race. That language can be difficult to do without. Some of the best arguments against a dematerialized racial liberalism have been made in the racial liberal terms of crisis and solution, encouraging activists to, for example, “treat the disease and not just its symptoms.”47

The cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their field-making Metaphors We Live By, argue that “human thought processes are largely metaphorical,” that figurative language, far from mere ornamentation, structures how humans conceive of and act on their environment. If one culture understands argument as war and another as dance, that will, they suggest, structure differences in how the societies debate. (It may also structure differences in whether and how often they go to war.) “In allowing us to focus on one aspect of a concept,” Lakoff and Johnson write, “a metaphorical concept can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor.”48 When a culture understands argument as war, it may lose sight of how argument can be collaborative. When a culture conceives of racism as a disease on a nation, it may overlook how racism constituted that nation and how antiracism might take forms not limited to cure-seeking. We live by metaphors, as Lakoff and Johnson argue, but we also die by them—some with less and some with more, some sooner and some later. The figurative language of race tends to reflect dominant material racial interests. That language in the age of racial liberalism sustained the misdistribution of resources and life chances with a subtle but constant command: look to the state, wait on time.

Linear time, the time of racial liberalism, often goes unnoticed because it feels natural. We struggle to think outside it. “Try to represent what the notion of time would be without the processes by which we divide it,” Émile Durkheim wrote in 1912, “a time which is not a succession of years, months, weeks, days and hours! This is something nearly unthinkable.”49 The historian Lynn Hunt, echoing Durkheim some one hundred years later, observes, “Time feels like an essential and defining feature of human life, yet, when pressed to define it, we inevitably fall back upon duration, change, and ultimately, the tenses of our languages, past, present, and future.”50 Language itself acts as a barrier to investigating linear time not as a transcendent fact but as something social and contingent. The anthropologist Carol Greenhouse traces the dominance of linear time in the West to the arrival of Abrahamic religions and their eschatological belief that time originated with creation and will end with a resurrection of the dead and final judgment. The secular idea of linear time descends, Greenhouse suggests, from that messianic time, which came to overshadow other, recurrent forms of time (day/night, summer/winter) because it better served emerging states and markets. But linear time has also carried forward that religious germ. “Even in secular contexts,” she writes, “the linearity of time reproduces both the cry for redemption and the form of redemption in its basic proposition that the individual, though fundamentally alone, can find completion by participating—and only by participating—in a cosmic order through social institutions that serve the end(s) of time.”51 Racial liberalism built on that linear scaffolding, constructing the demand (inclusion, fulfillment of a constitutional ideal) and furnishing an institutional answer (declarative legislation) for racial change in the United States. When King asked Woodward and his twenty-five thousand fellow demonstrators, “How long?” and answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” he addressed the time of racial liberalism but also retrieved the messianic origins of linear time in which the bend of the arc breaks and the near future transforms into now.52

Racial liberal time runs on a national clock. Benedict Anderson, the political scientist and historian, argued that modern nations embraced linear time because it allowed fellow nationals, most of whom would never meet face to face, to imagine themselves as living under the same flag. All moved through clock and calendrical time together. Most French people would remain strangers to one another, but they would set their clocks and turn their calendars together, creating a sense of belonging in moving through “French time” as one.53 Anderson built his famous claim on Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in which the German Jewish philosopher, in exile from the Third Reich, described modern national time as “homogeneous” and “empty”—uniform, turned toward the future, and without historical content. Benjamin, looking instead to a messianic “time of the now,” argued that the historian must arrest time in a social “configuration” that transcends clock and calendar rather than continue to record it into an ever-unfolding, blank future. The struggle of the working class would, he believed, be “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”54 No revolution would ever come from a faith in progress and a gaze on a distant or near future.

Neither Anderson nor Benjamin acknowledged, as Neda Atanasoski, Hartman, Lowe, and other scholars have since, that the homogeneous time of the modern nation arose from and secured colonialism and the slave trade, locating white Western men within what Anderson called the national “meanwhile” and colonized and enslaved people and their descendants at some distance behind it.55 The novel and the newspaper, the media of the emerging nation, taught European men that they belonged in national time and delivered to others a narrative of gradual advancement—of future inclusion within that time, of liberated grandchildren.56 Racial liberalism took that guarantee and accelerated it: one more offensive, a last reform, a final cure. The shortened horizon led not to liberation but, after a generation of declarations and assurances, to an imagined ending.

Where nonlinear forms of racial time (recurrent, accumulative, transcendent) emerged, liberals used gender to contain them, anointing a Black Moses on whom it fell to deliver the Black masses to freedom and forgive the white masses of their sins. This “charismatic scenario,” as literature scholar Erica Edwards observes, reduced a heterogeneous struggle to the words and actions of one man and, in the hands of racial liberals, transformed what might have been a radical break in modern national time into a march through it, over the Red Sea and into the future.57 Most Black women found themselves cut out of racial liberal thought because it tended to subordinate them to charismatic Black men while elevating white women like Ruth Benedict, Grace Halsell, and Lillian Smith to the status of “race women.” (Most liberal white men continued to think of themselves in universal terms, as embodiments of Man, not as race men.) The anthropologist Margaret Mead, catering to that racial-gender calculus, refused to write a book on race unless she could do it with a Black man because, she said, white women and Black men “carried the burden” of antiracism in the United States.58 She recruited James Baldwin, with whom she recorded a seven-and-a half-hour conversation, releasing it as a formless, tossed-off, but still best-selling book.

Black women could see the writing on the wall long before King’s arc. In the late 1940s, Claudia Jones observed that the Black church “tended to confirm the man’s authority in the family” and argued for a socialist movement coalescing instead around the Black woman, “who combines in her status the worker, the Negro, and the woman.”59 Octavia Hawkins, a Chicago welder and labor leader, thought activists, including some radicals, erred in romanticizing resistance. “Everything I do is absolutely necessary for my own existence,” she told an interviewer in 1951. “The history of my race, the history of my economic class, my personal experiences as a woman give me but one choice.”60 Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Childress took a critical look at the Moses model of Black struggle in their fiction—Hurston in her third novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, and Childress in Gold through the Trees, which the Committee for the Negro in the Arts staged at Harlem’s Club Baron in 1952. In two acts that take the audience from ancient Ur to the trial of the Martinsville Seven, Childress introduces “a Moses named Tubman” washing clothes at a northern hotel with two other Black women to raise funds for the underground railroad. When the fictional Harriet Tubman urges the others on, one answers, “I guess it’s easy to talk like that when you’re ‘Moses.’ It’s easy to kill yourself for something when thousands of people are cheerin’.” She, an unknown woman in the struggle, could die and “nobody’d know or care!”61 Childress thought that the Black Moses narrative, whether gendered male or female, obscured more than it illuminated, disguising a mass movement with individual heroics and imagining death as an occasion for overcoming, a sacrifice made to move the clock another tick toward freedom.62 The FBI, which tracked Childress’s movements from 1951 to 1957, made it difficult for her and other race radicals to tell stories that didn’t bend toward justice. The language of racial liberalism made it difficult for the rest of the nation to hear them.63

The first figurative framework of racial liberalism—antiracism as war—consolidated the racial state. Benedict urged scientists to serve on the “race front.”64 Her colleague Montagu, the lead author of the UNESCO race statement, called them to “combat.”65 The Pittsburgh Courier demanded a “Double V,” envisioning “victory at home against prejudice and discrimination as well as victory abroad against the enemies of democracy.”66 The framework that arose from that statist crusade—antiracism as civil rights—routed activism to Washington. The President’s Committee on Civil Rights reassured Americans in 1947 that, in assembling recommendations for the Truman White House, the members had “seen nothing to shake our conviction that the civil rights of the American people—all of them—can be strengthened quickly and effectively by the normal processes of democratic, constitutional government.”67 The consecutive emergencies of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War strengthened the federal government, which, seeing rising anticolonial and antiracist movements as emergencies of a different kind, declared itself a civil rights state. (A member of President Truman’s staff later claimed that, in forming the PCCR, the administration had coined the term civil rights.)68

The wartime rhetoric of liberal social scientists and Double Vers furnished the framework with which Truman federalized civil rights, authorizing his and future administrations to intervene in obstinate southern states but also undercutting a surging Black human rights movement that had turned not to Washington but to the new United Nations, the Pan-African Congress, and other international organizations. When the National Negro Congress, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Civil Rights Congress took their demands to the world, the state countered with civil rights. It would defeat racism. It would right it. When the historian and Washington insider Arthur Schlesinger articulated his liberal individualist “vital center” as a refuge from the extremes of the Right and the Left, he situated the good liberal between the fascist and the communist but also between the southern segregationist and the antiracist Black internationalist. He urged an “unrelenting attack on all forms of racial discrimination” and a “battle against racism” and insisted that legitimate antiracism emanated from the White House.69

The civil rights state should not redistribute resources, Schlesinger argued—that would be too close to communism for comfort—but educate the nation about the evils of racist attitudes through law. “While we may not be able to repeal prejudice by law,” he wrote, “law is an essential part of the enterprise of education which alone can end prejudice.”70 Law did not work overnight but could educate a nation over time. Books could also serve that cause, Schlesinger thought, including his own. The racial liberal framework to which he subscribed—antiracism as education—taught Americans to read for change. The state would fight and right racism. It fell to Americans to read it into oblivion. One Los Angeles educator described reading right-minded books about race as “an indirect but extremely effective way of lessening race prejudice.”71 A sociologist of communication called it the “most important” movement to “mitigate group prejudices.”72 Schlesinger advised reading Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal. A young James Baldwin related a conversation with a liberal friend who felt confident that as long as Americans continued to read race novels “everything will be all right.”73

From the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, racial liberal education shifted from the adult to the child, from antiracism as education to another figurative frame—antiracism as integration—that invited fantasies of color blindness. The 1950 White House Conference on Children and Youth connected the integration of schools to the integration of a future “American personality.”74 The sociologist R. M. MacIver remarked that Black and white children raised in an integrated environment “tend to forget, if they ever knew, any barrier between them.”75 Gordon Allport, a founder of personality psychology, observed that “what vanishes in an integrated personality are the racial bogies and traditional scapegoats who have nothing, really, to do with life’s woes.”76 He and his colleagues in the emerging field encouraged jurists to have faith in the innocent minds of the nation’s children, leading a transition from antiracism as race-conscious adult education to antiracism as color-blind child education, from the novelist’s crusade to change white minds to the scientist’s effort to form them. The Warren court’s 1955 ruling that the defendant school districts in Brown v. Board must desegregate “at the earliest practicable date” and “with all deliberate speed” signaled not a crisis of racial liberalism, as some argued then, but a culmination of the racial liberal’s faith in the national future, which couldn’t, after all, have a date.77

Racial liberalism established the state as the arbiter of antiracism and heralded a change in racial consciousness as the solution. Liberal antiracism, whether as war, civil rights, education, or integration, called for short-term action that would terminate in a not-too-distant future. When that future didn’t come, racial liberals changed course, turning to a final, bad-faith frame—antiracism as color blindness—that led the nation to see race as a fiction to dismantle. “How does one journey away from untruths,” Grace Halsell asked herself in 1968, “the old myths that are not spoken but are rather a part of the atmosphere and accepted like the sunlight and the earth beneath you?”78 Halsell, a white woman, decided to do what Ray Sprigle and John Howard Griffin had done before her and cross the color line. Her six months as “Black Grace Halsell” came as a revelation, a kind of religious conversion that left her, at the height of Black Power and race radicalism, advising her millions of readers to see through race.

From Sprigle in the late 1940s to Griffin in the late 1950s to Halsell in the late 1960s, the strange career of the modern white minstrel mirrored that of racial liberalism itself, as white liberals donned blackface first in the name of progress and then in a bid for deliverance. Calls to defeat, reform, educate, or cure racism faded in the late civil rights era. Now the racial liberal would disassemble race. The movements of the 1950s and 1960s threatened to decenter white liberal elites, who, along with the Black middle class, had been the chief beneficiaries of racial liberalism. Color blindness and multiculturalism (color blindness with a twist) allowed them to resecure their racial status. Racial time had come to an end. Or should, they said, if we could surrender our illusions.

The Liberal Frontlash

James Baldwin had a different vision of the end of racial time. In 1973, Robert Chrisman, a founding editor of the Black Scholar, visited the writer at his home in Southern France. He wanted to ask him about the civil rights movement, for which Baldwin had served as a reluctant spokesman, and Black Power. Baldwin, then forty-nine, caught the younger man off guard with his answers. He believed, he told Chrisman, that the civil rights movement had been “doomed to political failure” but that the results of the movement had “nothing to do with civil rights.” It had revealed the United States and the modern West for what they were: anomalies doomed to destruction. “I really begin to look on the 2,000 year reign of this system, which is coming to its end, as a long aberration in the history of mankind, which will leave very little behind it except those people who have created an opposition to it,” he said, sketching the outlines of a world in which “there are new metaphors, there are new sounds, there are new relations.”79 Baldwin, who had once looked to “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” to “achieve our country,” now looked to the abolition of that consciousness.80 But he didn’t look forward to a better version of 1973 but backward through two thousand years of Christian time to imagine the forgotten alternatives—different language, different music, different forms of being and belonging (to “those people who have created an opposition to” the reigning order). Although Baldwin did take a shot at President Richard Nixon, describing his administration as the “Fourth Reich,” he attributed Nixon’s rise not to a conservative backlash to Black civil rights but to a generation of white allies who had trusted in time and now rushed to the end of it.81 Time may not move forward at all, Baldwin mused. Emergent social formations may not arise out of the future but out of the residual, unarticulated worlds that had come before and remained, in the now, hidden beneath liberal consciousness.

Few scholars now subscribe to the backlash thesis, which blames the limitations of the racial reforms of the 1960s on an aggrieved white working class that abandoned the New Deal Left for a dog-whistling new Right in 1968 and never went back. Most attribute the shortcomings of the civil rights era to a long white resistance movement or to internal divisions within a heterogeneous liberal coalition or, as HoSang, Melamed, Murakawa, and Reddy do, to white racial liberals who constructed a racial discourse that constrained a rising antiracist tide. HoSang names that discourse “political whiteness,” Melamed a “formally antiracist, liberal-capitalist modernity,” Murakawa “liberal law-and-order,” Reddy a “freedom with violence.”82 An accelerated liberal time measure structured that discourse, whatever we call it and in all the various forms it takes, regulating what could be demanded but also when it could be demanded and for how long.

The political scientist Vesla Weaver uses the term frontlash to describe how the same conservative elites who lost the struggle to maintain segregation and Black disenfranchisement in the early to mid-1960s restaged that conflict through crime in the late 1960s (and won).83 But that conservative message—if we want to call it that; liberals also criminalized Blackness—would not have found the footing that it did if not for an earlier liberal frontlash that dematerialized, nationalized, and set a time limit on antiracism. The liberal frontlash furnished the hegemonic time that created a desire for and reinforced a white entitlement to a bad-faith color blindness and a wishful multiculturalism, two imagined endings to racial time. That is not to let racial conservatives off the hook or to ascribe unlimited influence to racial liberals but to suggest that they shared more common ground than either let on; their agendas benefited from being set against one another in a two-sided conflict that screened out other actors and movements.

When Chrisman asked him what “closing words” he might offer “brothers and sisters engaged in active struggle,” Baldwin admitted that he didn’t know if he had the language. He felt a “resurgence of consciousness,” he said, but couldn’t say why. He told Chrisman about his godchildren in California—the three sons of the actor David Moses—and then meditated on the end of the modern world. Baldwin did not, as most liberals would, see in children an ever-brighter American future but rather the defiant, often forgotten histories of “those people who have created an opposition” to that future and who reveal it as contingent.84 Hartman describes a similar nonlinear concurrence as “the time of slavery,” which troubles the belief in time as a linear march around the clock and through the calendar, out of bondage and into freedom. “The stories we tell about what happened then, the correspondences we discern between today and times past, and the ethical and political stakes of these stories redound in the present,” she writes.85 Time doesn’t move forward in a continuous, unbroken run. It accumulates. Then societies configure it into narratives that affirm some and forget others, making the world that is seem like the world that had to be. Benjamin, for all the messianic flights of “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” had a secular historical argument to make. His ideal historical materialist does not construct a linear chain of events as if working through “the beads of a rosary” but identifies the “constellation” that the historical materialist’s moment forms with other, earlier moments.86 Racial liberals believed that they would ride the tailwind of progress into the future and that racial conservatives, seeing it as a headwind, would be carried along. Baldwin, looking back on the age of racial liberalism and the movement it had enabled and constrained, could see destruction ahead and looked elsewhere, neither forward nor backward but alongside, to a different constellation of time. “We are,” Hartman writes, “coeval with the dead.”87

Racial liberalism, though declining after Martin Luther King acknowledged C. Vann Woodward after a long walk from Selma, has resurged at times of racial crisis ever since, offering the reassurance of a chimeric national creed. A deradicalized King has often served as the icon of that creed—the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice, children being judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Conservatives speak fluent racial liberalism. So do radicals, who, if they don’t translate their demands into the language and time of racial liberalism, will find themselves either ignored or translated against their will. Take the legal scholar Derrick Bell, who, in his best-selling Faces at the Bottom of the Well, argued that the belief in a better, brighter racial tomorrow did more harm than good and made a case for unwavering struggle rather than silver-bullet solutionism. The Los Angeles Times wondered why he couldn’t, like King, “preach to the unconverted.”88 Charlie Rose asked him, at the end of a long interview, “And so what’s the cure?”89

The strange career of racial liberalism endures in the language and time through which we encounter and engage in antiracism. Sometimes we have no other choice but to struggle through it, as we build, in Baldwin’s words, “new metaphors” and “new relations.”90 For now we can at least do with racial liberalism what Woodward thought he might with Jim Crow. When a “theory ceases to account for the observed facts of common experience,” he said in Charlottesville, “it would seem to be time to discard the theory. In lieu of another to offer in its place, we can at least try to understand what has happened.”91


1. Martin Luther King Jr., “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March,” in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shephard (New York: Warner Books, 2001), 131.

2. King, 122–23.

3. C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 92. See John Herbert Roper, C. Vann Woodward, Southerner (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 198.

4. The historian David Brion Davis, a colleague of Woodward’s at Yale, acknowledged in a footnote in the New York Review of Books that “historical bible” seemed to be Woodward’s rendering of King’s thoughts. David Brion Davis, “The Rebel,” review of The Future of the Past, by C. Vann Woodward, New York Review of Books, May 17, 1990, 30n1.

5. Woodward, Thinking Back, 89. See brief for appellants on reargument, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in Landmark Briefs and Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States, vol. 49, ed. Philip B. Kurland and Gerhard Casper (Arlington, VA: University Publications of America, 1975), 563–78.

6. C. Vann Woodard, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 47.

7. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), 1021.

8. See Mark Anderson, From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 109–16; Neda Atanasoski, Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 12; Ruth Feldstein, Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930–1965 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 4, 46–53, 73–80; Karen Ferguson, Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 23–48; Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 189–97; Lani Guinier, “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma,” Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (2004): 95; Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 13–23; Gregory S. Jay, White Writers, Race Matters: Fictions of Racial Liberalism from Stowe to Stockett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 13–34; Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 18–26, 51–90; Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11, 31–39; Chandan Reddy, Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality, and the US State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 11, 37–39; Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); and Ellen D. Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 4, 152–53, 227–28.

9. Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), xvii.

10. Jason Morgan Ward, Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 2. For two famous versions of the backlash thesis, see Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (New York: Norton, 1991), 15, 59; and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 21–22, 207. For a “longer view of massive resistance” that dates back to the New Deal era, see Ward, Defending White Democracy, 7. Historian Daniel Geary argues that, although racial liberalism all along contained “diverse and conflicting strands” that never amounted to a real consensus, sociologist and future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous 1965 The Negro Family brought irreconcilable fissures in the “postwar liberal mindset” to the surface. Daniel Geary, Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 9.

11. For longer histories of a never-not-racialized liberalism, see David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 57–73; Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115–24; Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 6–7, 39–41; and Charles W. Mills, Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 28–48. Hartman writes that “the universality or unencumbered individuality of liberalism relies on tacit exclusions and norms that preclude substantive equality” (122). Lowe argues that “modern liberalism defined the ‘human’ and universalized its attributes to European man,” with race enduring as the “trace” of violent exclusions from and inclusions within that universal (6). Mills, while theorizing a “radical black liberalism,” contends that “racial liberalism, or white liberalism, is the actual liberalism that has been dominant since modernity” (203, 31).

12. The sociologist Howard Winant describes how migration, movement building, state reform, and greater transnational, cross-racial interaction set off a “worldwide crisis of racial formation” after World War II. That crisis ended, he argues, with a “dualistic” reformism that curbed but also allowed for the survival of white racial dominance. Howard Winant, The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 135, 146. See also Melamed, Represent and Destroy, 4–7.

13. Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven” (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1922), 45.

14. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, rev. ed. (New York: Galaxy, 1957), 179.

15. Woodward, Thinking Back, 94.

16. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 191.

17. Quoted in John Herbert Roper, C. Vann Woodward, Southerner (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 198.

18. C. Vann Woodward to Susan Woodward, January 1, 1970, box 60, folder 735, C. Vann Woodward Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

19. For more on Woodward’s ostensible rightward turn, see Sheldon Hackney, “C. Vann Woodward, Dissenter,” Historically Speaking 10, no. 1 (2009): 31–34.

20. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 3rd rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), v.

21. See Howard N. Rabinowitz, “More Than a Woodward Thesis: Assessing The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” Journal of American History 75, no. 3 (1988): 853.

22. King, “Selma to Montgomery March,” 131.

23. Martin Luther King Jr., “‘A Look to the Future,’ Address Delivered at Highlander Folk School’s Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Meeting,” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson, vol. 4, Symbol of the Movement, January 1957–December 1958 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 271, 275.

24. Hortense J. Spillers, “Moving on Down the Line: Variations on the African-American Sermon,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 252, 259.

25. Martin Luther King Jr. “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” in A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran (New York: Warner Books, 1998), 209, 210.

26. “Blitzkrieg on Harlem,” Amsterdam News, November 15, 1941.

27. “The Other Side of Harlem,” New York Times, November 12, 1941.

28. Pearl S. Buck, “Harlem Seen as Symbol,” New York Times, November 15, 1941.

29. Buck.

30. Anderson, Boas to Black Power, 11; HoSang, Racial Propositions, 20; Melamed, Represent and Destroy, xv; Murakawa, First Civil Right, 44; Reddy, Freedom with Violence, 37.

31. Melamed, Represent and Destroy, 8–9.

32. Charles S. Johnson, introduction to Directory of Agencies in Race Relations: National, State, and Local (Chicago: Julius Rosenwald Fund, 1945), 3.

33. Directory of Agencies in Intergroup Relations: National, Regional, State and Local, 1948–1949 (Chicago: American Council on Race Relations, 1948), ii.

34. Edwin R. Embree, “Timid Billions,” Harper’s, March 1949, 29. Embree had been making that argument—that foundations should seek to model behavior for the state—crediting it to Julius Rosenwald himself, since taking charge of the fund in 1928. See Edwin R. Embree, “The Business of Giving Away Money,” Harper’s, August 1930, 327.

35. Carey McWilliams, Brothers under the Skin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1943), 300, 324–25, 325.

36. Goldberg, the scholar of race and liberalism, argues that the modern state “has always conceived of itself as racially configured.” Self-defined color-blind states, including the United States, would best be described, Goldberg writes, as “racist states absent race, post-racial but not post-racist, raceless yet racist.” The United States has also at times fashioned itself as an antiracist state without ever forfeiting white racial rule. Goldberg, Racial State, 2, 263.

37. Myrdal, American Dilemma, 49, 1010.

38. President’s Committee on Civil Rights, To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947), 173.

39. Melamed, Represent and Destroy, 15.

40. Jay, White Writers, Race Matters, 16.

41. UNESCO, “The Race Question” (Paris: UNESCO, 1950), 1, 3.

42. Carlos Bulosan, America Is in the Heart: A Personal History (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946), 189.

43. For more on the interaction between white racial rule and anti-Blackness and how it functions in non-Black communities of color as a ceiling and floor, an inclusive “foundational Blackness,” or a disorienting “racial interstitiality,” see Claire Jean Kim, “Are Asians the New Blacks? Affirmative Action, Anti-Blackness, and the ‘Sociometry’ of Race,” Du Bois Review 15, no. 2 (2018): 226; John D. Márquez, Black-Brown Solidarity: Racial Politics in the New Gulf South (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013), 51–52; and Leslie Bow, Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 9.

44. Pauli Murray, States’ Laws on Race and Color (Cincinnati: Woman’s Division of Christian Service of the Methodist Church, 1951), 5.

45. Jared Sexton, “People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery,” Social Text 28, no. 2 (2010): 47.

46. Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 2.

47. Guinier, “Racial Liberalism,” 100.

48. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 6, 10.

49. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (New York: Macmillan, 1915), 10.

50. Lynn Hunt, Measuring Time, Making History (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2008), 4.

51. Carol J. Greenhouse, A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics across Cultures (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 22.

52. King, “Selma to Montgomery March,” 131. Greenhouse observes that linear time does not have to serve the ends of the state or a ruling class but can be a “technology of resistance and counterresistance.” She cites, for example, labor struggles for restrictions on working hours. The legal scholar Mary Dudziak observes that linear time can sometimes “dictate history,” that in wartime “actions that would normally transgress a rule of law are seen as compelled by the era, as if commanded by time.” A wartime leader may blame the times for an extreme decision, believing that time will move forward and out of that era of time-dictated decision making. “Faith in the inevitability of progress,” Dudziak writes elsewhere, “can generate complacency.” Greenhouse, Moment’s Notice, 23; Mary L. Dudziak, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 23; Mary L. Dudziak, “Brown and the Idea of Progress in American Legal History: A Comment on William Nelson,” Saint Louis University Law Journal 48, no. 3 (2004): 857.

53. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 22–31.

54. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 261, 262, 260.

55. Lowe, in surfacing the enduring “intimacies” between colonized, enslaved, and Indigenous peoples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reveals how a residual social formation “may be articulated within new practices, in effect, as a ‘new’ emergent formation.” What Raymond Williams called residual, dominant, and emergent social formations (and pre-emergent structures of feeling) should not, she argues, be mistaken for a linear forward march through time. Atanasoski identifies how the United States has wielded linear time as an instrument of race making, sorting the world into the “progressive expansive racial time of U.S. liberalism and the regressive, cyclical racial time of the other” in which freedom has not and may never be achieved. Lowe, Intimacies of Four Continents, 19; Atanasoski, Humanitarian Violence, 40.

56. While Anderson argued that the novel and the newspaper “provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation,” Lowe identifies the autobiography as the “liberal genre par excellence” for how it affirmed “the individual’s passage to freedom through economic industry and political emancipation.” Historian Michael O’Malley suggests that the emergence of the feature film in the early twentieth century “restocked the reformer’s quiver” with linear, causal tales stitched together to communicate the “temporal foundations of morality” to immigrant audiences. Novels, newspapers, autobiographies, and narrative films—all have served to naturalize linear time and the racial divisions it creates and conceals. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 25; Lowe, Intimacies of Four Continents, 46; Michael O’Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (New York: Viking, 1990), 221, 214.

57. Erica R. Edwards, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 17. From Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, the charismatic scenario, Edwards argues, mistakes “a series of collective attempts to remake the world” for “a liberal rights struggle produced by gifted leadership” (119). The political scientist Shatema Threadcraft chronicles how that scenario—she casts it within the larger tradition of Afro-modern political thought—has elevated masculine “black action in civic space” and devalued “the realm of intimate relations and its associated capacities,” combating racial hierarchies with a “gendered bodily capacity hierarchy.” The charismatic scenario, for all that it hasn’t delivered, has endured because it conforms to the comfortable grooves of racial liberal time, reassuring the nation that it will, under the rhetorical guidance of a singular Black leader, overcome racism. Shatema Threadcraft, Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and the Body Politic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 27, 28.

58. Margaret Mead, “A Rap on Race: How James Baldwin and I ‘Talked’ a Book,” Redbook, September 1971, 71.

59. Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!,” Political Affairs 28, no. 6 (1949): 56, 63.

60. “Modern Harriet Tubman Fights for Peace, Freedom on Chicago’s Teeming Southside,” Freedom, June 1951, 3.

61. Alice Childress, Gold through the Trees, in Selected Plays, ed. Kathy A. Perkins (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011), 30, 33.

62. Childress challenged the Moses model elsewhere. In one of her “Conversations from Life” columns, which ran in Freedom and later in the Baltimore Afro-American, Mildred, Childress’s working-class alter ego, attends a Black History Week meeting, where she grows tired of hearing about “Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, and many others.” She stands and tells the gathering, “You folks kept talkin’ about ‘many others.’ . . . But you didn’t tell much about them,” and shares some stories about her grandmother, a miner’s wife who raised seven children and “rassled with death, Jim Crow and starvation.” Alice Childress, “The ‘Many Others’ in History,” Freedom, February 1952, 2, 8.

63. Childress and other race radicals faced enormous obstacles in the anticommunist 1950s, the literature scholar Mary Helen Washington writes, because “a major support for antiracist radicalism in the 1940s and 1950s was the Communist Party,” leading anticommunist crusaders to go after radical Black writers regardless of their affiliation, or lack thereof, with the CPUSA. She identifies Childress’s generation of Black leftists as the censored link between the Black Popular Front of the 1930s and 1940s and the Black Power and Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 2.

64. Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, The Races of Mankind (New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1943), 3.

65. UNESCO, “Race Question,” 1.

66. “Nation Lauds Courier’s ‘Double V’ Campaign,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 7, 1942.

67. President’s Committee on Civil Rights, To Secure These Rights, 10.

68. See Philleo Nash, oral history interview by Jerry N. Hess, February 21, 1967, Harry S. Truman Library and Museum,

69. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 191, 190.

70. Schlesinger, 190.

71. Marion Horton, “Invitation to Read,” ALA Bulletin 41, no. 12 (1947): 436.

72. Alfred McClung Lee, “The Press in the Control of Intergroup Tensions,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, no. 244 (1946): 151.

73. James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Partisan Review 16, no. 6 (1949): 582.

74. Helen Leland Witmer and Ruth Kotinsky, eds., Personality in the Making: The Fact-Finding Report of the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952), 414.

75. R. M. MacIver, The More Perfect Union: A Program for the Control of Intergroup Discrimination in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 236.

76. Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954), 339.

77. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 349 U.S. 294, 300, 301 (1955).

78. Grace Halsell, Soul Sister (New York: World Publishing, 1969), 22.

79. James Baldwin, “The Black Scholar Interviews: James Baldwin,” Black Scholar 5, no. 4 (1973–74): 34, 42.

80. James Baldwin, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” New Yorker, November 17, 1962, 144.

81. Baldwin, “Black Scholar Interviews,” 35.

82. HoSang, Racial Propositions, 20; Melamed, Represent and Destroy, 4; Murakawa, First Civil Right, 9; Reddy, Freedom with Violence, 37.

83. Vesla M. Weaver, “Frontlash: Race and the Development of Punitive Crime Policy,” Studies in American Political Development 21, no. 2 (2007): 236.

84. Baldwin, “Black Scholar Interviews,” 41, 42.

85. Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 133.

86. Benjamin, “Theses,” 263.

87. Saidiya Hartman, “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 4 (2002): 759.

88. Alex Raksin, review of Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, by Derrick A. Bell, Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1992.

89. Charlie Rose, season 1, episode 233, aired August 17, 1992, on PBS.

90. Baldwin, “Black Scholar Interviews,” 42.

91. Woodward, Strange Career, 1st ed., 95.