The Entwined History of Freedom and Racism

The Entwined History of Freedom and Racism

Liberty for Whom?

The racialized history of freedom.


Give us liberty and give them death,” said David Duke at a rally for the Ku Klux Klan in Baton Rouge, La., in 1975. His thunderous words were a play on the famous quotation from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Henry’s statement was intended to express his commitment to the well-known American ideal of freedom, which he and his peers took to be at stake in their forthcoming revolutionary struggle with the British Empire. But when Duke gave this speech as the Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, he had in mind another ideal with deep roots in American history: racial domination.

The two men could hardly have more different legacies. Henry is venerated as a “founding father,” while Duke is reviled as a disgraceful bigot. But any attempt to delegitimize Duke’s appropriation of Henry’s words and the ideal they represent must also contend with an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth: The freedom that Henry, a plantation and slave owner, and his fellow founders took to be worth defending was also linked to the racial domination that organized life and labor in the American colonies. The revolution was a struggle for self-rule, but it also sought this self-rule in order to control the land conquered from Native Americans and the labor extorted from abducted Africans. It was a politics of freedom entwined, from the outset, with a politics of enslavement and exploitation.

Tyler Stovall’s new book, White Freedom, attempts to answer the questions raised by this juxtaposition of Duke and Henry. How, he asks, can we square the “acme of Western civilization,” the ideal of liberty celebrated in the US and French republics, with its “nadir,” that of racial slavery, colonialism, and genocide? In plainer terms, “How is it,” as the English writer Samuel Johnson sardonically asked in 1775, the same year as Henry’s address, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of [enslaved] negroes?”

Through painstaking and comprehensive historical research, Stovall addresses these questions by means of the concept named in his book’s title: white freedom. For centuries, he argues, writers, intellectuals, and politicians have tried various strategies to reconcile the United States’ and France’s brutal histories of racial domination, settler conquest, and slavery with their stated commitments to freedom. Many of these strategies have hinged on an attempt to use one to explain away the other. Those who defend the historical legacies of both countries insist that liberty is their true moral foundation; racism, colonialism, and slavery were transitory imperfections that the march of “progress” eventually brought to an end. Those who view them as irredeemable often contend the reverse: that racism is, as Stovall puts it, the “true inescapable reality of Western culture and society.” But as he demonstrates, at the heart of the two nations were both a commitment to liberty and a vision of society in which this liberty was unequally distributed and deeply racialized. The result was freedom for those at the top of the racial hierarchy, supported by and premised upon the unfreedom of those at the bottom.

According to Stovall, then, the dueling realities of freedom and slavery, liberty and domination, master and slave, are not just a clash of opposites; instead, they have been and continue to be counterparts in the making of modern history. To be free, Stovall notes, has long meant to be white, and to be white has conversely long meant to be free.

To explain the symbiotic relationship between racism and freedom, Stovall begins by charting the history of liberty and domination in modern North Atlantic history. His first chapter recounts the fascinating history of piracy, particularly in the Caribbean, including how the French and US republics sought to restrict the practice. Among the Caribbean pirates—many of whom had formerly been enslaved—a “rough racial democracy” prevailed. Electing and removing their captains by the principle of “one man, one vote,” many of the pirate outfits were in fact more democratic than the republics from which they stole. But the pirates’ self-government and their freedom at sea also threatened French and US sovereignty: They attacked shipping lanes key to transatlantic commerce; they made coastal territories vulnerable; and their sense of democratic equality posed a challenge to the republics’ racial hierarchies both at home and abroad. For the US and French republics to ensure their reigns, the pirates and their “savage freedom” had to be eliminated.

The drive to develop navies and eliminate piracy on the high seas also came home to roost. Much as the United States and France sought to suppress the pirates, Stovall contends, they sought to dominate and control the children in their own countries, and they did so in the name of a new form of freedom: one defined not by bucking formal power structures (as the pirates did) but by respecting them. Resistant to authoritarian control, the teenager and the pirate alike needed to be introduced to new forms of discipline—systems of domination that American and French society insisted enabled new forms of liberty.

Out of this new definition of freedom also came, Stovall notes, a racialization of those deemed not worthy to receive it. On the one hand was a freedom defined by savagery and subalterns; on the other was a set of natural liberties and rights owed only to adult white Europeans, whether they lived in America or in Europe. As colonization and the Atlantic slave trade both expanded, they became even more integral to justifying the regimes of domination and violence erected by those republics in the pursuit of freedom.

This new notion of freedom was not only racialized but gendered and then also domesticated. While the French revolutionary symbol known as Marianne is famously depicted in Eugène Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People as a bare-chested woman wielding a musket and bayonet in the violence against the old regime, her descendant the Statue of Liberty—given to the United States by France—offers a contrasting depiction of liberty: a serene, robed woman holding a torch rather than a weapon. Freedom, yes, Lady Liberty tells us, but a pacified form of it.

Stovall then turns to the way this new domesticated and racialized mode of freedom fit into the peculiar double movement of world politics over the 18th and 19th centuries. While liberal democracy and expanded social freedoms began to extend throughout the domestic spheres of American and European republics like the United States and France, these same powers expanded their authoritarian colonial control over much of the rest of the world.

How could these nations reconcile their valorization of self-government with their actual practices of slavery and colonialism—the ultimate forms of government by others? This is where Stovall’s earlier story about how freedom became racialized in the 18th and 19th centuries intersects with his story about how freedom became the province of the few and not the many. Racism helped square the circle: The right and privilege of self-government was linked to what was perceived as Europeans’ unique capacity for rational thought. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, the doctrine of liberty ought to apply only to “human beings in the maturity of their faculties.” “Despotism,” on the other hand, was “a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.”

In France, the tensions between the new republic’s commitment to freedom and its actual violence and domination were well represented by the Marquis de Condorcet. The fiery French radical was one of slavery’s most vociferous European foes, yet he also opposed the immediate emancipation of the enslaved. As with the American founding fathers, slavery as a metaphor for unfreedom was a clear and present evil, but on the actual social institution that structured the lives of Africans throughout the French Empire, Condorcet and his fellow abolitionists demanded a bit of nuance. The Society for the Friends of the Blacks, of which he was a member, attempted to get the National Assembly to pass a motion to end French participation in the slave trade, but it stopped short of an attempt to end the slave trade itself. Stovall reports that Condorcet also insisted that enslaved Black people were unprepared for emancipation and that he ultimately “foresaw freedom coming to blacks when they merged with and disappeared into the white population through miscegenation.”

Condorcet and the French radicals were not alone. Most of the Enlightenment’s intellectuals, from Immanuel Kant to the physician François Bernier, offered elaborate theories that affirmed the right to freedom for white Europeans while simultaneously producing cutting-edge racial science. Kant, for instance, wrote that there was only one innate right, “freedom,” which meant “independence from being constrained by another’s choice.” Yet he also wrote approvingly of a critique of a proposal to free Black slaves, since they lacked the mental capacity to be good laborers without being coerced into activity. Likewise, he regarded Native people in North America as “incapable of any culture” and “far below even the Negro” in their adaptability and strength. The embrace of freedom and the embrace of racism were complementary positions, not contradictory ones: The case for freedom for Europeans was also the case for unfreedom for the rest of the world.

In the United States, Thomas Jefferson perhaps best embodied this vision of freedom, even if there were many other contenders, such as Patrick Henry. In 1776, Jefferson famously wrote the Declaration of Independence, which held that “all men are created equal” and endowed with an inalienable right to liberty, even though he owned more than 600 human beings—surely some sort of conflict, should we take his words literally. He also wrote, in 1781, Notes on the State of Virginia, which held that Black Americans—free or enslaved—should be “removed beyond the reach of mixture.” “It is not against experience to suppose,” Jefferson argued, “that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”

Whether in Condorcet’s France or Jefferson’s America, racism served—rather transparently—to justify those political institutions that were sharply and clearly opposed to the letter of the principles being invoked to legitimate them. By naturalizing European superiority, Stovall shows, Jefferson, Condorcet, and other thinkers could justify a system of freedom for some while complacently accepting the domination of many others—and the “white” in white freedom was society’s way of organizing who played which role.

Some may argue that the examples of Jefferson, Condorcet, and the rest imply that racial domination boils down to errors in thinking about race and justice, or that white freedom is merely an inconsistency in reasoning from abstract ideals and principles to concrete political questions. But what drove the formation of republican freedom and its racialized forms of enslavement and colonization was material more than ideational. These thinkers were explaining an economic, political, and military stratification of society that already existed and that had not waited for such justifications. After all, by the time they were writing, the European empires had been amassing wealth through enslaved labor for several generations. These men were offering highbrow justifications of this system of exploitation only to make it palatable to polite society. As Aimé Césaire explained in his classic “Discourse on Colonialism,” killing and plunder tend to come first and the “slavering apologists” later. The conquistadors spent vastly more effort “justifying” themselves with sword and bullet; putting a flattering rhetorical cloak on naked plunder was a pressing concern only for later generations.

Despite Stovall’s focus on cultural and intellectual history, this primacy of violent domination proves to be a central theme in White Freedom, and in his final chapters he pays close attention to how the West’s pursuit of political power and profits has proved more historically decisive than the doctrines of liberty and racism that its intellectuals devised to justify this pursuit. Britain and France saw World War I, for example, not as a struggle to end imperial domination but as an opportunity to expand it—so long as they were the ones doing the dominating. In the midst of fierce battles in France and what is now Iraq, they signed the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide the Ottoman Empire between them at the war’s end. This did not stop many nations from seeking to free themselves from this domination after the war, as national liberation struggles and revolts erupted from India to Ireland. Nevertheless, the conclusion of World War I marked a return to a politics that saw freedom as an ideal for some but not all. In 1919, in the Punjabi town of Amritsar, British colonial troops raked protesters with machine gun fire, killing hundreds, rather than allow a demonstration against their rule. In Korea, millions of people organized against Japanese colonialism, prompting a similarly violent response that claimed thousands of lives, while in France, the government resorted to the mass deportation of “exotic” Chinese laborers from its colonies throughout the Caribbean and Africa, replacing them with workers from southern and eastern Europe. During the same year in the United States, there was widespread racial violence and terrorism, especially against returning Black veterans, who were more assertive of their right to self-rule than white freedom could countenance. The summer after the war’s conclusion was known in the United States as the Red Summer for its massive wave of violence nationwide, as white mobs looked to restore the racial order.

For Stovall, this march of white freedom continued into World War II and the Cold War years. Nazi Germany sought to expand its empire while also racially purifying its society at home, and it did so under the banner of freedom for the German Volk—providing one of the book’s most powerful and persuasive demonstrations of the complementary relationship between freedom and race.

Looking to the model of racial domination developed by the United States, the Third Reich passed the Nuremberg Laws, which installed racialized tiers of legal protections, stripping German Jews of their citizenship and barring sex and marriage between “Germans” and “non-Germans.” This program of racialization and marginalization eventually culminated in the death camps—which also drew on techniques of genocide the German Empire had used in Namibia—where millions of Europe’s Jews, a half million of its Romani, and others targeted for their sexual or gender identity or physical or mental disabilities perished. In this way, the Nazis brought home to Europe the violence and racial subjugation that the European powers had practiced in their colonies, in what Hannah Arendt called the “boomerang effect” of imperialism.

The defeat of the Third Reich represented a powerful blow to this nakedly racist and authoritarian conception of white freedom. As Stovall shows, however, the postwar consensus that arose out of the Allies’ victory posed another challenge to realizing a vision of freedom cut loose from racism. President Harry Truman presided over the ascendant nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which cast themselves as representatives of the “free world” against the “captive nations” of the Soviet sphere. But this program of freedom curiously failed to include the captive nations of the British and French empires—nations that, as Stovall points out, were not referred to as nations at all.

These captive nations, however, had their own conception of freedom and were willing to fight for it. Figures like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere challenged the West’s continued embrace of racial domination with a demand for freedom from empire. This led, Stovall writes, to “one of the most dramatic series of events in modern world history,” as the number of member states of the United Nations swelled from 55 in 1946 to more than double that by 1965, the vast majority of them former colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. World War II and its political aftermath challenged the idea of white freedom “to an unprecedented degree in modern history,” he concludes. A new conception of freedom, cut loose from its racialized origins, began to proliferate, even if it remained threatened by both the former imperial powers of Europe and the ascendant one in the United States.

While the concept of white freedom is Stovall’s, the subject of how freedom and race are entwined is not new. Carole Pateman’s insightful analysis of the gender domination inherent to the liberal social compact in The Sexual Contract inspired a similar analysis by Charles Mills in his 1994 book The Racial Contract, which considered how the social compact that safeguards liberal freedoms is also composed of several other compacts that protect the freedom of white people to dominate and exploit the nonwhite peoples of the world. Radical political theorists like Neville Alexander, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Oliver Cox made their own cases for how liberal freedom had become racialized, insisting that, contrary to what many claim, the social structure and political ideals of liberal democracies can coexist with racial domination.

Outside the academy, the critical notion of white freedom has influenced much of the Black activism of the past century to the present day. Ida B. Wells, for instance, outlined many of the same connections between freedom and race. In her turn-of-the-century speech “Lynch Law in America,” she rejected a description of lynching as the “sudden outburst” of an “insane mob,” characterizing it instead as “the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law,’” above and beyond the written law, that allows and even demands violence against Black and Indigenous people, while reserving the freedom-preserving written law for whites.

Half a century later, Aimé Césaire and an ascendant generation of anticolonial activists leveled similar accusations at the French Empire and the broader constellation of Western powers that enabled it, with Césaire writing that the “great thing” he held against such “pseudo-humanism” is that its very concept of human rights is “sordidly racist.”

While Stovall’s account of freedom and race is a compelling one, he might have done more with this deeper critical tradition, if only because so many of its advocates put forth visions of a freedom liberated from the shackles of racism. For example, along with the Caribbean pirates and France’s Marianne, he might have considered how maroon society and the liberated colonies offered alternative conceptions of emancipation. While Stovall provides a thoughtful answer to the question “What does it mean for freedom to be white?,” the reader may also want one to the question “What does it mean for freedom not to be white?”

Nonetheless, White Freedom’s strengths resonate far more than its weaknesses. The book is a treasure trove of historical detail, but it’s also written clearly and persuasively, such that the overarching themes of race and freedom consistently ring louder than the minutiae. Its focus also helps Stovall to provide a coherent narrative about a political history of multiple countries spanning multiple centuries. His history of American and French racial politics outside of their domestic sphere is commendable, making these empires accountable for their total domains of control and influence, including their oft-ignored colonial endeavors and effects on global politics.

White Freedom is also a worthy addition to the recent surge of work rethinking the connection between race and other fundamental aspects of our social system, from the discussions of The New York Times’ 1619 Project and critical race theory to leftist debates about racial capitalism. The recent global protests against racism and police violence suggest that these issues may continue to powerfully shape politics for quite some time.

Stovall concludes with a juxtaposition of two US presidents: Ronald Reagan, who demanded in 1987 that the Berlin Wall be torn down in the interest of freedom, and Donald Trump, who demanded—along with the House Freedom Caucus—that the United States build a wall along its border with Mexico. In both cases, “freedom” represented a specific vision: a social order dominated by the United States. Reagan’s speech called for the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the rise of a new world order of unregulated capitalism upon which white freedom was built. In the ensuing era of unchallenged capitalism, Trump sought to build a wall that would free Americans from the burden of sharing their zones of wealth and domination with the Global South.

White freedom, Stovall reminds us, has a history, but it is no mere historical idea: Its defenders inherit a balance of power and the political advantages that centuries of white freedom have helped shape. But we inheritors of a different legacy—the efforts of those who forced white freedom into key retreats over the past centuries, thereby increasing the political freedoms of most of the people on this planet—are also alive and well. As the late Nipsey Hussle once said, “You build walls, we gon prolly dig holes.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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