An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2011

Freedom, Equality, Race

Jeffrey B. Ferguson
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This essay explores some of the reasons for the continuing power of racial categorization in our era, and thus offers some friendly amendments to the more optimistic renderings of the term post-racial. Focusing mainly on the relationship between black and white Americans, it argues that the widespread embrace of universal values of freedom and equality, which most regard as antidotes to racial exclusion, actually reinforce it. The internal logic of these categories requires the construction of the “other.” In America, where freedom and equality still stand at the contested center of collective identity, a history of racial oppression informs the very meaning of these terms. Thus the irony: much of the effort exerted to transcend race tends to fuel continuing division.

JEFFREY B. FERGUSON is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Black Studies and American Studies at Amherst College. He is the author of The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents (2008) and The Sage of Sugar Hill: George S. Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance (2005).

Our current era of race relations in America maintains racial distinctions largely through the expectation that they will soon disappear. This stands in contrast with previous periods, in which such categories as black and white counted as durable facts of descent and destiny. One side of the current race debate plays up the disappearance of racial distinctions, sometimes by exaggerating the virtues of color blindness. The other side guards against the diminishment of such distinctions, at times going so far as to equate current racial problems with the dark and distant past of slavery and Jim Crow. For the first camp–what we might call a “party of hope”– current racial realities signal the promise of a raceless future where skin color may have no more societal import than does eye color. The second –a “party of memory”–aims for a similar goal, but it generally casts its ultimate purpose in more pluralistic terms. This party finds the waning of timeworn forms of racial identity, along with the deeply etched barriers that gave rise to them, threatening to the very political movements that might bring about lasting positive change. Ironically, the party of memory finds what the party of hope would call racial progress somewhat dangerous to ultimate racial justice. No less curious is the party of hope’s prevailing expectation that after more than two hundred years of constant racial strife, black and white identity in the United States will simply fade away.

In some ways, the expectation that race will disappear seems particular to our era of race relations; but in other ways, the thought goes back quite far. Most Americans have always regarded the abiding values of our country as universal, and therefore raceless. Because they think of such principles as equality and freedom in this way, they believe that eventually, in an essentially good and fair country such as ours, these high ideals will prevail over the more parochial values that keep us apart. Historically, this progressive mindset has come with many good intentions on the race question but much less follow-up. For this and other reasons it has long been an object of attack for scholars of the African American experience. Those who believe that racial problems will go away on their own tend not to act directly to solve them, or they put forth half-stepping measures that address some issues but invent, reinvent, or exacerbate others. Over time, this tendency has contributed mightily to the cloud of betrayal that hangs constantly, and sometimes ominously, over the American racial discourse. At its worst, the seemingly benign idea of progress, which many still regard as the soul of the American dream, can serve as a mask for crass class interest, or can allow racists to “blame the victim” and thus to deny the cruel meaning of their anti-democratic views. Yet these consequences of progress do not contradict the meaning of such foundational values as freedom and equality so much as they manifest their inner logic.

It is worth remembering the uncomfortable and often repeated fact that our most cherished American principles have as one of their most important sources the minds of slavemasters and slave traders. Discerning observers of the American experience, such as the historian Edmund Morgan, have demonstrated a necessary relationship between the freedom cries of slavemasters and their status as absolute rulers of stateless men and women who were regarded primarily as property and as human beings in a much less formal register. In American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), Morgan argues that ruling-class Southerners at the time of the American Revolution–Patrick Henry, for example–tended to associate all subordination with the wretched condition of their slaves.1 They employed this analogy in their idealistic insistence on freedom from the British. Henry’s famous eruption on the floor of the Continental Congress, “Give me liberty or give me death,” marked him as a radical republican, one ready to pay the highest price for independence. Nevertheless, the reverberant utterance of this slaveholding Virginian (and others like him) bequeathed a cruel legacy to generations of Americans. Unlike free white men, Henry’s slaves lived under the very condition that would presumably have driven their freedom-loving master to kill and to die. Henry’s formulation, oddly, justified the degradation of African Americans by the very condition that the degradation caused; in no small measure, it associated blackness with shame. Though they lived to guarantee the freedom of supposedly independent men, and yearned for freedom in their own terms despite their abasement, African Americans suffered for how starkly they symbolized what white men both feared and despised.

Many writers have observed that the Enlightenment, through its emphasis on human powers, gave freedom its modern meaning; but it also codified the modern idea of race as one way to distinguish those worthy of liberty from the irrational, uncivilized, and superstitious “others” who supposedly lived in a perpetual past. In other words, this period handed down most of the reasons to believe in race along with the justifications for despising and resisting it. As the Enlightenment gave life to the modern concept of race, it created the conditions that force us to explain and theorize this category incessantly. In the hands of early race theorists such as Linnaeus, Blumenbach, and de Buffon, seemingly objective biological categories like skin color and skull size served as impartial measures that positioned man as a subject of his own scientific inquiry and thus as an object of new forms of power/ knowledge that enabled the shaping and control of populations. Thus, human freedom in this era, and thereafter, depended crucially on a thoroughgoing form of subjection that created its own human hierarchies, which in some ways reinscribed ancient ideas of descent and inheritance but now with new and highly influential scientific imprimatur. As the modern concept of freedom carried with it the inclusive language of universalism, it also privileged certain human qualities: rationality, possession of nature or property, power, resistance, and autonomy, to name a few. Instead of membership in humanity as it is, freedom signified communion with humanity as it ought to be. Those who failed to qualify for this imagined ideal often faced terrible consequences, as the long history of slavery, imperialism, sexism, and class oppression demonstrates amply.

From their inception, the concepts of freedom and race have reinforced each other in the making of modernity; they continue to do so today, though the concept of race has shifted in its definitional grounding, from nature to culture. Despite the fact that some of the old biological valences remain active, the post-civil rights concept of race relies mainly on values, modes of signifying, and behavior. Rather than membership in a biological group, “whiteness” represents a cultural norm that non-whites may receive rewards for adopting– though acquiring the necessary cultural capital to do so can prove almost impossible for many. Here, as the social theorist Etienne Balibar points out, the work of exclusion occurs through the regulation of inclusion rather than forming an absolute line of demarcation between the races.2 Those able to conform to the normalizing logic of post-civil rights “whiteness” live freer lives than those who cannot, as the dismal statistics showing racial disparities in wealth, health, education, and criminal justice reveal so evidently. Under this regime, the work of racial exclusion can occur quite efficiently but without overt racism. In contrast with the frontal assault of the pre-civil rights racial regime, which occurred more or less in the open, the new dispensation conducts most of its oppressive labor behind a smokescreen of elaborate racial etiquette and discursive deflection that communicates racial fear and aversion across an ever wider range of signification.

In its more recent cultural guise, race continues to play a strategic role on the exclusionary side of modern freedom; for the excluded, however, racial identity still has deep attractions, partly because the sheer existence of barriers to full social advancement provides a backdrop against which group solidarity might be perceived in moral terms: as part of a long and righteous struggle for freedom. This idea is well established among African Americans, who, out of the necessity of historic struggle, have formed an alternately heroic, sacrificial, and sometimes melodramatic sense of group belonging laden with collective memories of struggle on the wrong side of the American color line. These struggles have served not only as ways of acquiring freedom, but also as a means of performing it culturally and politically across a great range that encompasses modes of self-fashioning, artistic styles, and direct forms of political resistance and protest. This tradition of performing freedom has helped raise African American identity above the level of mere external imposition as it has created a point of identification for those outside the group to symbolize their own freedom struggles.

As a dominant value in American life, freedom has always stood beside, and competed with, the idea of equality. Nowhere has the complex relationship between these two bedrock concepts had greater impact than in the history of race relations, and rarely has their mutual opposition and entanglement received more trenchant treatment than in the work of the nineteenth-century French aristocrat and social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville. In his classic Democracy in America (1840), he observed that in a country where all men are created equal, those not recognized as equals may not be regarded as men. Tocqueville’s eminently logical formula sets out in elegant form the intimate connection between a high universal ideal and a foundational violence that it maintains through masking. Following Tocqueville’s calculation, hierarchies of descent grow naturally from the inner tensions of democratic values, not out of a failure to attend to them. Americans constantly reinvent racial distinctions and invidious race theories in part to resolve the quandary of their national condition, which entails basic equality on one side and a battle for individual distinction or status on the other.

Basing his observations on an extensive tour of the United States during the 1830s, Tocqueville regarded American society as a test case for the prospects of a new and inexorable world-historical process in which equality, individualism, and democracy would increasingly displace privilege based on birth and permanent class structures. He contemplated America at an early stage of its development with the chaos and despotism of post-revolutionary France, and the slipping grip of his own class, well in view. Though he recognized the positive potential of democracy, he remained equally cognizant of its constitutional flaws: its tendencies toward conformity, dictatorship of the people, corruption, greed, envy, moralism, intellectual shallowness, voluntary isolation of the individual from collective life, and many other weaknesses both large and small. For Tocqueville, American society in the 1830s represented a wonderful opportunity to observe whether such defective tendencies would prevail because it offered a perfect photo-negative of the European social picture: a place where sheer newness put immigrants and near-immigrants, strangers to the land with no permanent barrier between them, in a society where they might arrange life according to their tastes, talents, and desires. Many of the saving graces and sustaining patterns that Tocqueville recognized in American democracy–its local associations and communal public life, its ascetic faith in the value of work, its dynamic and expansive world-altering will–stand endangered in our own age; thus, we may still wonder about the ultimate survivability of our way of life. Or, in light of American race relations from slavery to the present, we might wonder whether Tocqueville understood entirely the full array of forces that have made American democracy cohere. In the end, the stability of our democracy may depend as much on the maintenance of racial inequality, vouchsafed by the anxieties of equality, as it does on the values and structures that Tocqueville so famously cited.

Without “blackness,” or some such negative or countervailing category, “whiteness” would not have achieved its stability as the primary mode of identification in America. And without the stabilizing effect of “blackness,” one of the main justifications for the average white person to count himself a member of the same group as the richest would not exist. As several important scholars of whiteness studies, such as David Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, and Matthew Frye Jacobson, have shown, this formula has provided one of the greatest bulwarks against the formation of entrenched class identity, even as Americans of all colors and persuasions strive to climb the class ladder partly by blending in.3 Whiteness, with all its confused connotations of universality and particularity, of destiny and sheer emptiness, still prevails as a reason for some of the poorest Americans to tolerate their condition, even as demographers anticipate the day, not more than forty years from now, when the American majority will, in numbers, take on a darker hue.

In his famous section “On the Three Races that Currently Inhabit America,” Tocqueville contributed a foundational pillar to a long tradition of social analysis that would regard the problem of black and white as an aberration rather than a constitutive feature of American social and political life. Though he analyzes the slave South in detail, he treats it as the opposite of the industrial North, which for him represented the future of American democracy because of its burgeoning productivity, culture of equality, and the competitive anxiety of its citizens. In the South, he surmised, the existence of slavery retarded development. Rather than productive, the South was lazy; instead of progressive, it remained mired in the past. Lacking ingenuity, it depended on a narrow range of cash crops; lacking equality, it suffered from the absence of inner drive in its rank-and-file citizens, who depended on relatively unproductive slaves to do most of the work. None of these characteristics augured well for the survival of the South. Underdeveloped by its own economic and cultural commitments, faced with an expansive and dynamic sectional competitor, and threatened by the natural increase of its slave population, it faced an imminent crisis. In time, Tocqueville imagined, the South would lose its grip on its slaves, in part because these unfree people, as members of a society that prized equality, would never accept their unequal station, and thus could never embrace the spirit of European peasantry. Yet, he thought, whites would never admit blacks as equals. A racist himself, Tocqueville believed that whites everywhere in the United States would understandably continue to discriminate against an inferior people, and that blacks stood little chance beyond establishing their own state by conducting a war against indolent Southern whites. Given their numbers, and what he regarded as the decrepit moral state of their white enemies, he liked their chances in such a conflict.4

Tocqueville’s analysis of race in “On the Three Races that Currently Inhabit America” commands current interest much more for its connection to his larger theory than for its historical accuracy. Much of what he anticipated simply did not happen. Moreover, few current historians of American slavery would take up his dichotomous view of North and South, his dim account of slavery’s profitability, his unitary view of the slave system, or his somewhat mechanical rendering of the effects of the peculiar institution on the hearts, minds, and motivations of slaves and slaveholders. Nevertheless, Tocqueville’s theoretical terms in Democracy in America do provide a good foundation for understanding how the value of equality helped reinforce the perennial American obsession with racial distinction.

Tocqueville believed that white Americans, beyond their motivations rooted in racism, would find black Americans hard to accept because of the radically unequal station from which they started. Locked in an absorbing competition with their peers and exceedingly nervous about the prospects of rising and falling in the game of distinction, white Americans would always feel compromised by their association with a degraded and inferior people; their anxiety derived in part from how perfectly the condition of congenital inferiority and social invisibility reflected their own worst fears. The promise of American life, rooted in the idea that no permanent social barrier stands between even the lowest white man and the very richest, comes with the devastating prospect of freefall: those who can rise infinitely can also fall into uncharted territory of vulnerability, invisibility, and loss. Cut off from strong claims to a primordial past, and staked on the prospect of ever better days to come, white Americans needed to invent the nigger–the nameless, faceless, incompetent who warranted no respect –in order to hide from the real prospect of becoming one. The “psychological wage” of whiteness, which W.E.B. Du Bois famously identified in Black Reconstruction (1935) to explain what kept the white and black working classes apart, rested heavily on this formula, for no matter how far a white person fell in the competition with other whites, he could always look back and spot a dark face in his rearview mirror. Given the broad patterns of American politics since the late 1960s–from the success of the Republican “Southern Strategy,” to the disaffection of Northern working-class whites who abandoned the Democratic coalition in the 1970s and 1980s, to today’s racially inflected Tea Party movement and paranoid fears concerning a “Marxist,” “Fascist,” “Muslim,” African American president–it would appear that an unfortunately high proportion of whites still subscribe to this way of thinking.

In his many essays on race and American identity, Ralph Ellison wrote artfully of what he called the democratic “chaos” that white Americans sought to avoid through their various projections onto African Americans. Today, this process might have more varied economic and social consequences than in the pre-civil rights era when Ellison gave it such eloquent codification, but the moral consequences have not changed very much at all. According to Ellison, these projections have at their root the cowardly avoidance of ethical responsibility to give shape to the self within a democratic culture. At its best, Ellison suggested, such a culture demands sincere engagement with diverse human possibility; at its worst, it cowers behind candy-coated fantasies of goodness already achieved and bounty with no consequence. As diligent and successful shapers of a way of life, African Americans have affirmed democratic possibility under the toughest circumstances by facing the ultimate threat of nothingness and bringing themselves into being, though they have also succumbed in countless ways to illusions stemming from the anger, despair, and resentment endemic to their social circumstance. Ellison’s protagonist in the novel Invisible Man (1952) spends the larger part of the book living the false life of a black man on the make who takes his signals concerning who to be from whites, whose humanity he cannot clearly recognize for lack of facing his own. Just as whites project their desires onto him, he regards them as mere conduits to power, and thus as gods of a sort. His power fantasy engenders only weakness.5

The game of projection at the heart of race relations comes, according to Ellison, with a large portion of paranoia, as whites, subject to the identity confusion so basic to American life, know on some unconscious level that black skin forms the mystic writing pad of their own desires. Of course, blacks sense the same thing: that in important ways, white Americans, for all their apparent strength as a group, remain vulnerable and always a bit worried that the person behind the black mask must know their desires– and with that truth in hand, may well be putting one over on them. Today, in our post-civil rights period, a large part of this game occurs around the public drama of continuing black anger, the notion of “pulling the race card,” and the seemingly bottomless need from whites for confirmation from blacks that racism no longer exists, or at the very least that they as individuals bear no visible trace of the unspeakable sin.

To this observation some might answer that black people no longer suffer from invisibility in the same way they did when Ellison penned his famous works. Over the last thirty years, although large portions of the black lower and working classes have remained poor–indeed, many have become even poorer–the black middle class has risen to unprecedented heights of professional achievement, inclusion in important institutions, and social exposure. Today, the appearance of black Americans in advertising and the media no longer surprises, nor do the images they portray necessarily reflect stereotypes. Some popular stars, such as Tiger Woods, whose multiracial background would not have spared him from being considered black in the pre-civil rights era, dwell in an apparent racial twilight zone that seems “neither black nor white, yet both.”6 Though the country remains highly segregated residentially and educationally, and intermarriage rates between blacks and whites show only incremental increases, surveys of white Americans reveal a continuing diminishment of overt racism rooted in ideas of biological inferiority. And the clincher of this case needs almost no mention: our president is an African American.

Yet these signs of progress seem to engender their opposite. The effort that our society has exerted to make advances in race relations has also served at times to reinforce the importance of race in our politics and to encourage new styles of racial identification. Nothing reflects this fact better than the effect of affirmative action policies, which have granted middle-class blacks unprecedented access to important institutions, but at the same time have led many whites to think in zero-sum terms about racial progress: a job given to a black American is one denied to a more qualified white. At times, even our celebrations of racial progress serve to reinforce boundaries between the races because they require us to reinscribe race discursively by employing it as a mode of classification. Recently, a reporter commented after a speech by President Obama that, during the course of that address, he had forgotten Obama’s race. No doubt his thought reflected that of many Americans of every description. Of course, this reporter’s amazement at experiencing a supposedly raceless moment required him constantly to note, as Obama spoke, that he really was in the presence of the “other,” but in a fashion both new and unapproachable because otherness itself was absent. In a sense, Obama had provided a moment for the reporter that exceeded the limits of his racial categories. But recognizing this fact required the evocation of a highly reified and essential form of blackness, a virtual thing in itself requiring almost no content. Though Obama did not “talk black” or “act black”–apparently he did not even “look black” to this reporter– somehow he was black, nonetheless.

Such are the confusions of our moment, emanations of an undigested past. In Black Odyssey (1977), a book that over the years has become a classic in black studies for its challenge to the progressive brand of American historiography, Nathan Huggins reaches back in his epilogue to wonder how the sprawling green visage of the new world first appeared to the twenty slaves aboard the fateful Dutch ship that lay off the shore of Jamestown in 1619.7 In making this gesture, he parodies (to some extent) the final scene of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), which famously reflects on the beauty and tragedy of the American insistence on remaining forever new. Though he does not say so directly, Huggins suggests that the powerful effect of Fitzgerald’s famous passage, in all its tragic wisdom, depends in part on the exclusion of those early black captives, who also brought dreams with them, however muted by misfortune. While these dreams, and the efforts they engendered, would over generations play a great role in constituting the American experience, so would the attempts to exclude them or to play down their importance. Our nation has certainly made some progress on this record, but it has not arrived at the new narrative of the American experience that Huggins thought necessary to align American dreams with the events that have made us who we are. Race has marked American culture trenchantly, as it has marked the basic principles that we regard as raceless. Recognizing the full meaning of this thought will require a new narrative, indeed. In his last sentence, both in homage and in mild derision, Huggins quotes the famous last line of Gatsby, which still merits our deepest reflection: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”


  • 1On the connection between republicanism and slavery, see Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 363–390; also Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” The Journal of American History 59 (1) (June 1972): 5–29.
  • 2Etienne Balibar, “Is There a ‘Neo-Racism’?” in Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class (London: Verso, 1991), 17–28.
  • 3See Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness (New York: Verso, 2007); and Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).
  • 4Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 302–391.
  • 5Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1995); Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Mask of Humanity,” Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1995), 24–29, 41; see also in the same volume, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” 53.
  • 6This is the title of Werner Sollors’s authoritative account of interracial literature in America; see Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
  • 7Nathan Irvin Huggins, Black Odyssey: The Afro-American Ordeal in Slavery (New York: Random House, 1990), 243–244.