Is Racial Justice a Conservative or a 
Liberal Thing?

Cliff Williams

A former student wrote recently, “Most colleges have started lurching to the left politically, which is a real shame since the point of college is to learn to think for oneself and be exposed to different types of speech and expression, so I’m not sure I would agree with the content of your Race and Justice course.” 

I had not thought of my Race and Justice course, which I taught at Wheaton College in Illinois, as either liberal or conservative, so I was puzzled to see it thought of as liberal. Justice, I had thought, was blind to politics. And, yet, upon reflection it struck me that some of the topics connected with racial justice in the U.S. have a conservative-liberal divide.

One such divide is over who is responsible for rectifying racial injustice. Conservatives generally say that individuals should rectify it—white people need to have the right attitudes toward black people, and act on those attitudes. If white people are racists, they need to have a change of heart, which is the foundation for changed behavior.

Liberals, however, generally want the federal government to rectify racial injustice. Waiting for people to change their hearts is too slow. It may, in fact, never happen. Moreover, a change of heart does not always lead to proper behavior. Laws are needed to insure that, liberals commonly say.

This divide is connected to a further divide: conservatives generally believe that the primary cause of racism, and social ills generally, is due to individual actions. Individuals make up social groups and corporate entities, such as businesses and governments. So it is individuals who are responsible for what social groups do.

Liberals, on the other hand, generally believe that racism is due primarily to social causes, that is, to corporate and systemic practices. These are commonly said by liberals to be the main cause of racism in the U.S. The racially discriminatory practices and policies of corporate entities go beyond what individuals in the entities do. Institutional racism is real.

Conservatives also do not think that black people should think of themselves as victims, because that would undermine their sense of responsibility to make something of themselves. When you think of yourself as a victim, you tend to blame the victimizer for your condition and thus believe that they are the ones who need to change, not you. And this is an abdication of responsibility to change your own life.

Liberals, however, constantly refer to black people as victims. They have been enslaved, lynched, prevented from voting, and discriminated against in jobs, education, housing, and incarceration. Liberals believe that this is an extremely important fact that conservatives tend to ignore.

These are major differences. Perhaps they could be reconciled if conservatives were willing to admit more importance to institutional racism and if liberals were willing to admit that personal responsibility plays more of a role in racial equality. Reconciliation of these differences, however, is not what I want to focus on in this article. The main point I want to make, a point which has not been mentioned in talk of racial equality, is that conservatives and liberals can agree on a number of important things. The two sides, in fact, should agree on these things.

One of these is the importance of listening to black people tell their experiences of coping with racism.

One Saturday afternoon about four decades ago my wife bought a book of slave narratives at a garage sale for a quarter. I don’t know why she thought I would like it. At the time, I had no special thoughts about racial matters even though we had lived through the Civil Rights Era the previous decade.

I read the narratives and was deeply moved. There were graphic descriptions of beatings and rapes. Restrictions of basic liberties were detailed. “Oh,” I thought. “This is what slaves went through.”

I, of course, knew about slavery. But it was merely abstract and impersonal knowledge, not concrete and up close. The same was true of my knowledge of other racial inequalities. I had heard of segregation practices, but had not been acquainted with individual accounts of the effects of them. I had heard of lynchings, but had not read stories of specific lynchings. If I had heard about Emmett Till’s murder, it had been merely brief and cursory knowledge. (See The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson.)

There is an important difference between knowing about racial inequalities and listening to those who are damaged by it. When knowing about racial inequalities, one encounters statistics, patterns, and social conditions. When listening to those who are damaged by racial inequality, one encounters pain, loss, and injury. Knowing about racial inequality is good, but it can keep one at a distance from individual responses to it. Listening to individual responses breaks down that distance.

When you listen to someone who is in pain, you can scarcely avoid feeling their pain. When you listen to someone who has been unjustly discriminated against, you can scarcely avoid feeling their anger at having been violated. When you listen to someone who has been denigrated or mistreated because of their race, you can scarcely avoid feeling strongly the need for fair and equitable treatment.

Listening is important because it brings us into contact with the realities that are behind the statistics, patterns, and social conditions. It is this contact that tells us what black people experience when they are unjustly harmed. Both conservatives and liberals should be able to agree on the importance of this contact, simply because it is the sharing of one human’s suffering with another.

Conservatives and liberals should also be able to agree that the suffering of black Americans has been grievous. It has been both extensive and intensive. It has been extensive because it has reached into nearly every aspect of their lives—employment, education, housing, incarceration, and everyday interactions with white Americans. It has been intensive because it has often produced acute pain.

Both conservatives and liberals should be able to agree that suffering still occurs, in varying degrees. There are, to be sure, laws that mandate equal treatment. But even a little active listening reveals that black Americans are not always protected by these laws and that the laws do not cover every aspect of racial interaction.

Conservatives and liberals should be able to agree that one aspect of the harm done to black Americans is emotional. In his Race Matters, Cornel West writes that “neither liberals nor conservatives dare to tread into the murky waters of despair and dread that now flood the streets of black America” (page 19). In his The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time, Christopher Lebron argues that those who are recipients of racial inequality often wrestle with a sense of being less valuable.

Conservatives and liberals should be able to agree that racism is both explicit and implicit. Explicit racism occurs when deliberate and overt racial inequality is expressed, such as in a Ku Klux Klan rally. Implicit racism occurs when racial harm is produced without explicit intention, such as in facial expressions, words, or policies that unintentionally discriminate.

“Microaggressions” are an example of implicit racism that both conservatives and liberals can agree occur. Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue describes racial microaggressions as “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” These communications, he said, “are usually outside the level of conscious awareness of perpetrators.” The intentions of those expressing microaggressions are far from the hateful attacks of overt racists. Yet they may hurt their recipients even more than explicit racism does. Again, a little active listening discloses this.

Liberals who concur with these points might argue that they entail the need for extensive political and social engagement. Their argument would go like this:

1. Black Americans continue to be recipients of racial harm.
2. When significant numbers of people suffer harm, political intervention is justified.
3. Therefore, political intervention in racist practices is justified.

The important idea I want to make is, again, that both conservatives and liberals can agree on the truth of statement 1. The difference between the two political standpoints involves statement 2. This is the statement that differentiates conservatives and liberals.

Sometimes, though, it seems as though conservatives and liberals disagree about statement 1. Conservatives sometimes seem to shy away from admitting that black Americans continue to be recipients of racial harm as though it would undermine their conservative principles. And liberals pounce on the fact asserted in statement 1 as though it automatically proves their side of the divide.

Both are mistaken. Statement 2 is separate and distinct from statement 1. It needs to be argued for on grounds different from those that support statement 1. The arena of the debate between conservatives and liberals should be statement 2 and not statement 1.

It is time for both conservatives and liberals to say more about the harm that continues to be done to black Americans, both public and personal. Even though the two political stances differ about solutions to racism, acknowledging this harm would itself go some way to healing the racial alienation that continues to be a prominent part of American life.

© 2018 by Cliff Williams