jimsleeper.com » Race: A Skin Color Isn’t a Culture or a Politics

Race: A Skin Color Isn’t a Culture or a Politics

Aspirations toward an American, civic-republican identity should not determined by race. (CNS photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters).

(Note: This section’s introductory remarks, written in 2022, are much longer than the introductory remarks for of any other section on this website except for the one on News Media, the Chattering Classes, and a Phantom Public. A list of my major linked pieces on race follows this essay.)

“Constraining us to define our citizenship and even our personhood more and more by race and ethnicity in classrooms, workrooms, courtrooms, newsrooms, and boardrooms, today’s liberalism no longer curbs discrimination; it invites it. It does not expose racism; it recapitulates and, sometimes, reinvents it. Its tortured racial etiquette begets racial epithets, as surely as hypocrisy begets hostility. And it dishonors’ liberals’ own heroic past efforts to focus America’s race lens in the 1950s and ’60s, when conservative pieties about color blindness concealed monstrous injustices.” 

— From the Introduction to Liberal Racism, 1997

Liberal Racism is only partly an indictment of liberals. It’s also a protest against making racial identity a central organizing principle of our public life. The new U.S. Census strongly suggests that there’s no longer a civic-cultural norm in “whiteness” but also that no official racial color-coding can tell us who “we” are. In 1920 the philosopher George Santayana noted that Americans “have all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty. To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career.” Precisely because the United States has become racially, ethnically, and religiously more complex than institutional color-coding can comprehend, we should be working overtime on narratives, principles, habits, and bonds that transcend racial groupism.

—From “Scrapping the Color Code, Commonweal, October 2021

These observations, separated by 25 years, show that most of my views and arguments concerning racial identity politics haven’t changed. Events since the mid-1990s haven’t dissolved the post-racial, civic-republican convictions and hopes that I sketch here and in “Looking for America” and “A Civic Republican Primer” and “The Obama Chronicles”. 

Almost every white American has had a “first time” encounter with blackness. I don’t mean the very first time that every “white” interacted with someone whose physiognomy is “black” or non-white. I mean the first time that a white American (or one who passes for white and self-identifies that way) experiences racial blackness as signifying a profoundly different historical, biographical, or cultural difference. In a white person’s mind at such a moment, blackness may signify slavery and its repercussions that were “lathered into the foundations” of the American republic, as Roger Wilkins has put it, and it may signify white oppression and a need to atone — or to double down or to flee.

Some societies treat race more fluidly and ecumenically than ours, because American national identity has long used race as a stand-in for other, deeper contradictions between our civic-republican, egalitarian principles and our actual practices. From the earliest English American settlements in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, the gap between egalitarianism and domination has been driven by greed, power-lust, and herd-like huddling that have divided humans since even before what we now call “race” was a factor in their reckonings.

Greed and power-lust were evident in the fabrication and worship of the Golden Calf at the very foot of Mt. Sinai. Ancient Greeks slaughtered and enslaved one another without reference to race as the visual, physiognomic signifier of hostile cultures that it has become in American life. The more that our republic has prided itself on vindicating universal ideals against ethno-racialist myths of sacred blood and land, the more the republic’s failures have driven some Americans to seek succor and self-justification in separate racial and tribal camps and religious communions that excuse or even sanctify our race-based failings instead of challenging them. 

Such excuses sidle up seductively into a person’s self-understanding. If a larger civic culture is becoming thinner and colder, alternative ethno-racial bastions will seem thicker and warmer–but also less “American,”, as Santayana’s comment, quoted above, suggests.

My own first encounter with blackness and these bittersweet truths came in 1976, when I was a graduate student with a side job teaching mostly white, working-class veterans at a junior college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One evening I brought my class to hear James Baldwin speak at Harvard. Try to imagine the painful intersections of class, race, and culture in my students minds as they say in that hall with hundreds of Harvard undergraduates, many of them black. Or read my description of that moment in this Harvard Crimson account. A year after writing it, I carried some of its lessons about the co-dependency of social-class and racial differences– into my decade-long immersion in black inner-city Brooklyn. Or maybe that first encounter carried me, a young, New England civic-republican moralist, into a New York approximation of George Orwell’s experiences “Down and Out in Paris and London.” 

I lost and found myself in black, Hispanic, and white-ethnic neighborhood life, politics and journalism. Many of my earlier intimations of racial identity and difference dropped away as I lived along and across race lines that I’ve sketched and assessed in my signature essay “Orwell’s Smelly Little Orthodoxies and Ours” and in The Closest of Strangers,

David Garrow’s Washington Post review of this book

Some of my left-leaning presumptions about the centrality of race in America have outlived those years in Brooklyn and in citywide journalism., but older civic-republican inclinations have survived more strongly: I’ve learned — and, in some pieces here, I argue — that only a civic culture that’s thick enough to live in on race-transcendent terms can carry Americans past our dangerous tendency to make race a key arbiter of civic dignity and national destiny. Too many Americans retreat into illusions about racial identity whenever our civic-republican venture seems hopelessly rootless and draining. Blacks’ constant, maddeningly intimate exposure to civic promises that are cruelly broken has made some of them the American creed’s most eloquent champions, others its most nihilist assailants: That struggle to belong fully to the American republic is the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world. When it has been loving, it has driven much of our music and the civic culture’s richest appeals. In 2008, Barack Obama expressed them brilliantly in the civic republican equivalent of a religious revival rally. 

But because that struggle has been unrequited for so long, those whom it has embittered often choose hurting over hoping, deepening the racialist coordinates within which they’ve had to orient themselves to survive. In consequence, whites have often expected blacks to come to the public arena bringing just rip-offs and rebellions more often that the searing moral uplift of a King or an Obama. Yet to watch more and more blacks running municipalities, military machines, and multinational corporations is to watch the demons of blackness withdraw along with the angels. For whites, it will be to surrender white contempt along with doting condescension. 

Telling these truths as I lived them in Brooklyn became my burden in The Closest of Strangers. Some liberals and leftists resented my charge that they were misappropriating the moral cachet of “civil rights” to camouflage their compromises with “the system” or to justify their rage at it. Conservatives, eager to score points against leftists and liberals, hypocritically touted my civic-republican warnings against racial identity politics. I’ve kept the faith of my experiences and reckonings in Brooklyn. 

Black leaders and writers who shared civic-republican aspirations and insights like mine had trouble expressing them very strongly in public. Brave black truth-tellers in daily journalism in the mid-1990s such as N. Don Wycliff and Clarence Page at the Chicago Tribune and William Raspberry at the Washington Post, were eclipsed by hipper, angrier columnists and by retaliatory black conservatives who were being subsidized, in effect, to put down the hip poseurs and their liberal backers. Yet Wycliff, Page, Raspberry, and a few others held to the best of a civic-republican black tradition of struggle.

Writers like those I’ve just named, of whatever color, have been ahead of their time, not behind it, because they’ve understood something that champions of “identity politics” seldom acknowledge: As Santayana anticipated, we’re all lurching into the uncharted waters of a Post-ethnic America., as the historian David Hollinger calls it in his book by that name. Whether by historical accident or an irrepressible logic in its founders’ intent, America’s destiny is to diminish the power of racial differences as determinants of human worth and belonging.

That doesn’t mean that black communities of memory and endurance should disappear, but I do envision an American identity beyond blackness or whiteness. I envisioned it in Harper’s in 1996, and in Liberal Racism, published a year later, and, most recently, in Commonweal in 2021. Along the way, these arguments have drawn some respectful critical attention, as in this interview with Robert Siegel for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered;” in my own commentaries on that NPR program; and in this interview with The Atlantic.  I debated my analysis with Al Sharpton on the Charlie Rose Show, with Derrick Bell on the PBS News Hour, and in an online reading with questions and answers at Barnes & Noble and in appearances on The Charlie Rose Show. I clashed with the Black linguist John McWhorter 20 years ago by arguing that he misrepresented his own perfectly valid objections to obsessive liberal color-coding of civic life by lending too much credence to hypocritical conservative professions of color-blindness.

Americans should be able to grow up in or to join distinctive ethno-racial communities that tap wellsprings of tradition and enrich their aspirations. Masters at summoning such literary and political expression within and across race lines, such as the black writers Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, A. Philip Randolph, Toni Morrison, and many more, have shown how people can be culturally distinctive yet outward facing — “rooted cosmopolitans,” as Anthony Appiah has called them. So did the young Barack Obama when he decided to join an African-American community of memory and endurance that hadn’t really been his own. 

Americans must be free to leave such affinity groups without censure or stereotyping. Over time, too, disparate communal wellsprings commingle, and some disappear. When New York’s first African American mayor, David Dinkins, called the city a “gorgeous mosaic” of racial and other groups, I respected the sentiment but demurred at the metaphor: A mosaic’s tiles remain fixed in color and place, but human communities and individuals change places and even colors amid cultural interaction and interracial marriage. If everyone were a mosaic’s tile, who would be its glue? Each of us is the glue whenever we act as citizens, as voters or as jurors do when they assess evidence by trans-racial standards (See “Daily Life and the Jury System,” Dissent, Winter, 2008.) 

It’s one thing to make such arguments abstractly. It’s something else to have made them in decades of “advocacy journalism” as a neighborhood newspaper editor and publisher, a muckraker for The Village Voice, a New York Daily News columnist, and a contributor to political magazines. What follows is a sample of my grounded reckonings with race. Contact jimsleeper@aol.com for more. 



“Scrapping the Color Code,” Commonweal magazine, 2021. This essay offers the most recent summary of my views about racial identity in America. It has videos and interviews with me on the PBS News Hour, at The Atlantic, at Brown University, and at other venues.

Video of Jim Sleeper and Lani Guinier in conversation at Brown University in 2009 about race and political representation. Guinier, who died early in 2022, was a brave, distinguished, and controversial fighter for racial justice. Although I disagreed with her in some ways, as this video shows, I respected her greatly.

The Perils of Identity Politics: A Warning to the Left, Tikkun, 1991

Political Correctness Reflects Crises More Than It Causes Them – NYTimes.com, Nov. 12 2016

Civic liberals and race, Boston Globe, 1992. Written just after John Kerry had ignited a controversy by questioning some aspects of affirmative action.

“The Limits of Indignation,” The American Prospect, 1998. My review of books by Alex Kotlowitz, Nicholas Lemann, and Thomas and Mary Edsall. 

“The Content of ‘Black’ Character,” The Washington Post, 1996. Review of books by Henry Louis Gates & Cornel West, by Benjamin DeMott, and by C. Eric Lincoln

 “Racial Atonement,” The New Leader, 1997. Review of books by David Shipler and Orlando Patterson)

 “Toward an End of Blackness,” Harper’s, 1996. An evocation of America’s racial destiny after controversy about Alex Haley’s Roots. 

“He Is Somebody,” The Washington Post, 1992. Review of Marshall Frady’s biography of Jesse Jackson Frady 



“Nightmares of Rage and Destruction,” The Washington Post, 1996. (Review of books about race war by Carl T. Rowan and Richard Delgado)

Rudy Giuliani vs. Al SharptonDaily News, 1994

Al Sharpton tries to pick up the pieces, The New Republic, 1996 

Black Activism and Misogyny, The New Republic, 1990

Al Sharpton tries to replace Daniel Patrick Moynihan as U.S. Senator from New York. The New Republic, 1994 

Quack Race Doctors (Prof. Leonard Jeffries) Daily News, 1993

The OJ Simpson Verdict, The New Republic, 1995 

Massacres on Long Island and in Israel expose similar evils; two Daily News columns, 1994 and 1995 

A pivotal contest to succeed Shirley Chisholm in Congress pits an idealist against an opportunist. The idealist won. The Village Voice, 1982 

Blacks, Jews, and Good Faith Gone Wrong, The Nation, 1991 

The case of the Central Park jogger, 1989, and beyond. “This was our first encounter with alternative sets of facts. Different sides had different facts, and they were not going to budge,” I told Mike Kelly, author of the gripping, relentlessly honest Color Lines: The Troubled Dreams of Racial Harmony in an American Town (about tensions in Teaneck, NJ) and a columnist at NorthJersey.com.  Kelly and I sense that we haven’t learned the whole truth of what happened that night in Central Park and, subsequently, in the criminal justice system, even though it’s probably true that the five men convicted and later exonerated in the case didn’t bludgeon and rape the jogger.

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Mike Kelly, an indomitable truth-teller

Witness to a Nightmarish Divide, The Washington Post September 14, 1995. My review of Mike Kelly’s Color Lines: The Troubled Dreams of Racial Harmony in an American Town

**Race, Campus Protests, Helicopter Pundits, and What Black Students Really Experience at Yale, Salon, Nov. 25, 2015.  Travel warning: This piece reports things I haven’t seen elsewhere, but it’s many layered as well as long. (I didn’t write the awful headline or choose the photo.)



Liberal Racism: How Liberals Got Race …amazon.com

Trumpism isn’t “history”: But our blindness to history could lead to its comeback | Salon

“The End of the Rainbow?” The New Republic, 1993 

New York City’s Fateful Mayoral Election of 1993, Giuliani v. Dinkins; three Daily News columns. See especially the second column, “A ‘Race Man’ Views the Mayoral Contest,” about the Rev. William Jones:

The Rev William Augustus Jones (1934-2006)

Chicago’s Larger-than-Life Mayor Harold Washington, The Washington Post, 1992 

Some ironic consequences of racial districting, The New Republic, 1996


Federal ‘diversity’ police on campus, The Washington Post, 1991 

Diversity as it should be in public schools, Daily News, 1995 

Diversity as it should be in colleges, The New Republic, 1991

“Ward Connerly Gets Pinched,” The Weekly Standard, 1997. (Was I angered by what the New York Times had done here, or what?) 

The Failure of “Money Liberalism‟Newsday, 1992; a review of Mickey Kaus’ The End of Equality.

Journalistic Color Coding, a review of William McGowan’s Coloring the News for The Los Angeles Times, 2002 

“Is Affirmative Action Doomed? Should It Be?” A symposium in Commentary magazine, 1998 

Review of Nathan Glazer’s We Are All Multiculturalists Now and Martin Marty’s The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good. Published in The New York Times, April 27, 1997. (Years later, I hosted Glazer in a discussion of race at Yale.)

“Not All White Men Are Racists,” Chicago Tribune, 1995

In Living Color: Bookforum, Dec./Jan. 2015. A review of the historian Jason Sokol’s All Eyes Are Upon Us, his perceptive analysis of how whites are two-faced about race and how both faces — the idealistic and the racist, in the same community and even the same person — can be utterly sincere. Also posted by History News Network.

What I’ve learned from 25 years in America’s “race” debates. The Washington Monthly, June 1, 2014. A short post prompted by, but not joining, the debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait.



This Anger Isn’t Just Black and White, Washington Post, “Outlook” section cover piece, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009. This column, prompted by a white police officer’s arresting Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates as he tried to enter his own home, proved so controversial that the Post hosted a live, online discussion with Jim Sleeper and Washington Post readers on September 21, 2009. This is a transcript of the discussion.

Earlier Washington Post columns on race by Jim Sleeper:


The Caribbean Black Challenge – The Washington Post August 24, 1986

From the Ashes of a Harlem Tragedy January 21, 1996

Federal ‘diversity’ police on campus, The Washington Post, 1991

The Cold War and the Color Line, Washington Post, Feb 3, 2002. A (skeptical) assessment of Thomas Borstelmann’s argument that the American civil rights movement gained a lot of its ground when U.S. foreign-policymakers wanted to enhance American standing with new, post-colonial nations and the Soviets who were pandering to them with anti-racist propaganda.




Jim Sleeper’s Washington Post reviews of books on race