White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea
by Tyler Stovall
(Princeton University Press, 436 pages, $29.95)
When a historian makes much of the phrase “free, white and twenty-one” and tortures for three pages the question of whether Emily Brontë’s anti-hero Heathcliff was black, are we supposed to admire his eclecticism or mock the junk-shop scrap-gathering of intersectionalist thought? Tyler Stovall bundles such trivialities as if they bore the weight of serious argument, and it’s a shame, because there’s a very good argument in his new book, though not the one he believes he has.
The least unkind thing that can be said for White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea is that it’s late to the party. Predecessors have already faulted Western notions of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, arithmetic, grammar, law, and music. They’ve lambasted the Enlightenment’s rationalism as racist, as Stovall does. And they’ve chastised anyone with expectations of a civil society, as Stovall does. Now comes the belated revelation from a former president of the American Historical Association that the very concept of freedom, as it evolved in the West over a couple of thousand years and in particular since the Enlightenment, is inseparable from racist white identity.
“Put baldly, at its most extreme freedom can be and historically has been a racist ideology,” Stovall declares in his Introduction: “Freedom and Its Dark Sides.” (p. 5.)
Stovall, who a year ago became dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University, is author also of Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (1996) and Transnational France: The Modern History of a Universal Nation (2015). A reader of the latter, which examines France’s Enlightenment heritage, will find a difference in emphasis in the new work.
Stovall’s thesis builds on arguments that have become familiar in the last twenty years: that Enlightenment thinkers didn’t much admire Africans living in a Hobbesian state of nature, and were in some instances financially conflicted as they benefitted from the Atlantic slave trade; that as Enlightenment ideas of natural rights and liberty were adopted in the Americas, slaves (and Indians) were excluded; that since the Civil War people of European descent have perceived their interests as conflicting with those of blacks; that the rise of American conservatism was essentially a movement to protect white interests against black encroachment, and that the idea of “freedom” as it exists in the West is at its heart racist and anti-democratic.
A reader could have reservations about many things, from Stovall’s intersectionalism, which brushes away logical necessity as connections are discovered, to assertions of fact on matters that historians continue to debate. Some readers might object more strongly to the racialist tone: Can we imagine Princeton University Press slapping its imprint on a work that substituted a censorious “black” in these section headings: “America, the White Light in the West”; “The Rise of White Democracy and the White to Vote” (cute!); “White Freedom and the Peace of Paris”; “Making a World Safe for Whiteness”; “The New White”; “White Freedom Past (with apologies to Charles Dickens)”; “White Freedom Present”; “White Freedom Yet to Come.” The tone suggests the professor has issues that aren’t purely historical.
The assertion that Enlightenment thinkers weren’t Afrophiles, while scarcely original, is an important early step in the argument. Stovall offers a pungent example from Immanuel Kant:
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. [David] Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality.1 (p. 108-9.)
He could have offered this from Hume himself:
I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There was never a civilized nation of any other complexion than white.2
Or in the century that followed, this from Hegel:
[The Negro] exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality—all that we call feeling—if we would comprehend him.3
Citing European thinkers’ ethnography, Stovall declares: “The Enlightenment … occupied a seminal position in the birth of scientific racism.” (p. 108.) And: “As [Emmanuel] Eze has argued, ‘the Enlightenment’s declaration of itself as “The Age of Reason” was predicated upon precisely the assumption that reason could historically only come to maturity in modern Europe.’” (p. 109.)
There are a couple of problems with this. The Enlightenment occupied a seminal position in todo scientific, as well as in much that is pseudo-scientific, including Marxism, which along with tribalism has been the scourge of Africa; Stovall gives both of these a pass (on which, more later). And reason hizo come to maturity in European thought. Where else? But beyond that, was there any observation available to 18th and 19th century thinkers that would have led them to a different perspective on Africa and its inhabitants — something along the lines of, Give Africa two hundred years and her ideas and civilization will rival Europe’s? For that matter, what would be the empirical basis for such a belief about Africa today? Stovall doesn’t say, but we’ll get to it.
The economic benefit of the Atlantic slave trade to Europe is painted large. Stovall tells us, “The economic prosperity of western Europe that made Enlightenment society and culture possible rested to an important extent on the backs of African slaves.” (p. 106.) He provides no statistical support for this flourish, and the point has been debated among economic historians for decades.4 Several major Enlightenment thinkers — Locke, Hume, Voltaire — are cited as having held investments that benefitted from the slave trade (pp. 107-8), but the footnoted citation is limited to Locke.5 No matter. “Such examples,” Stovall declares, “merely reaffirm the broad importance of slavery to European economies in the eighteenth century.” (p. 108.)
I am, I admit, nitpicking. The historian’s submission of scholarship to rhetoric is, in a sense, irrelevant, except as a convenience to narrative-creation, which can hardly shock anyone. Like the philosopher, the historicist has a point to make when he anchors himself to the desk. (So in this instance does the reviewer.) The economic case for slavery, or John Locke’s participation in the Caribbean plantation economy, is useful to taint the architects of liberal thought while saying nothing about liberal thought per se, which is the real target, embodying as it does (somehow) the core idea of “white freedom.”
This is ironic because it is European thinkers’ reach for the universal on which Stovall and his anti-whiteness colleagues rely for justification. Acceptance of natural rights as a valid concept has to underlie the complaint that it’s been inequitably applied. Stovall handles his embarrassment on this point by ignoring it. But he may understand the issue.
He notes a conflict between freedom, in classical liberalism’s vision, and democracy:
The essence of liberalism, as developed by Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu and John Locke, emphasized the importance and rights of the individual.… [D]emocracy stressed the prerogatives of the collectivity.… In the aftermath of the Age of Revolution many liberals were horrified at the prospect of democracy, equating it with terror, anarchy, and mob rule. The specter of the Terror in the French Revolution, where liberal politicians were sent to the guillotine by crowds of “savage” sans-culottes, was a case study in the dangers … of vesting political power in the hands of the people. A number of leading intellectuals and politicians, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Burke, and John Stuart Mill, inveighed against “the tyranny of the majority.”… [A]s James Madison … put it, the role of government was “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] second to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they might themselves be led.”(pp. 139-40.)
Stovall isn’t in Madison’s camp. He particularly isn’t there when white people seek to restrain government “interference to promote the interests of other races at the expense of whites. Personal liberty [in the Reagan years] was therefore, as the popular struggles against school integration showed, to a very important extent racial liberty.” (p. 295.) He may not be there when government is asked to restrain some people’s transient passions. He’s remarkably silent on the question (and on this, too, more later).
“The interests of other races at the expense of whites” is a telling phrase. Its implication is clear if its limits are not. Stovall isn’t alone in viewing society as a zero sum game: economically, socially, intellectually. The theme pervades the recent writings of black racialists, who argue that every facet of the Western canon — including standards of metaphysics (objective reality) and epistemology — is hostile to black interests. As the unavoidable Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, puts it:
Another unnamed logic of Whiteness is the presumed neutrality of White European enlightenment epistemology. The modern university — in its knowledge generation, research, and social and material sciences and with its “experts” and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom) — has played a key role in the spreading of colonial empire. In this way, the university has validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous, and non-European knowledges.6
Ibram X. Kendi, the second Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, tells us,
… Europe judging the rest of the world from European cultural standards … is where the problem started back during the so-called Age of Enlightenment. Whoever creates the cultural standard usually puts themself [sic] at the top of the hierarchy.7
But how deep does this idea lie, that principles that evolved over centuries in Europe and had nothing to do with race are inherently injurious to people of more recent African descent? And how far are these ethnocentricists willing to take the idea that Western “cultural standards” of thought — and, it follows, behavior — equate with colonization? Is there some alternative set of standards that these writers would find acceptable?8
Stovall doesn’t tell us, at least directly. He shamefully neglects most of the footings on which the American Revolution was built, which predate the Enlightenment by a couple of thousand years. A reader finds little evidence in this book that the American founders looked as much to the ancient world for guidance as to the Enlightenment. The Federalist isn’t mentioned. The name Cicero appears once, in his description of piracy. John Adams’s reverence for Cicero, the Roman Republic’s champion — “all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united in the same character, his authority should have great weight” — might never have been written. Several of the Framers, including signatories to the Declaration of Independence and drafters of the Constitution of the United States, affectionately quoted “Tully,” as they nicknamed Marcus Tullius Cicero, who argued for the existence of natural law, the necessity of equality before the law, property rights, the reasons for leaving the state of nature and forming a civil society, and, drawing somewhat on Polybius, the idea that the best government is that which draws on several forms and empowers different interests so that they keep one another in check. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison, writing as Publius, harked back to the wisdom and courage of the Roman Republic’s first consul, almost 2,300 years earlier. None of that history of thought is mentioned in White Freedom, because it wouldn’t fit. It would be irrelevant to Stovall’s theme that from the Enlightenment on, liberal thinkers — and, it has to follow if his complaint it to mean anything, liberal values — were racist.
Having tied the post-Enlightenment idea of freedom to whiteness, Stovall is left with the burden of offering an alternative. White freedom in opposition to what? A more democratic society, perhaps, but what would that mean? He professes support for an idea of liberty, but of what sort? Looking ahead, he ventures:
For me … the ultimate question is not so much whether racism will disappear and the universal vision of freedom triumph. Rather it is whether future societies will overcome the need for white freedom by assuring a good life for all their members. (p. 321.)
He doesn’t disclose a detailed view of what political principles might permit, let alone assure, a good life. The closest he comes is seventy pages earlier as he quotes, approvingly, Julius Nyerere’s intertwining of positive with negative rights:
“For what do we mean when we talk of freedom? First, there is national freedom; that is, the ability of citizens of Tanzania to determine their own future and to govern themselves without interference from non-Tanzanians. Second, there is freedom from hunger, disease, and poverty. And third, there is personal freedom for the individual; that is, his right to live in dignity and equality with all others, his right to freedom of speech, his right to participate in the making of all decisions which affect his life, and freedom from arbitrary arrest … — and so on. All these things are aspects of freedom, and the citizens of Tanzania cannot be said to be truly free until all of them are assured.” (p. 258.)
As a historian might have mentioned, none of them was achieved, never mind assured. Nyerere’s Ujamaa (“family”) collectivism, which forced scattered populations into villages, was an economic disaster. That it was coercive is something a forthright historian might have mentioned. (The “villagization” program worked no better when it was tried in Ethiopia and Mozambique. But it hadn’t advanced the good life either in socialism’s original test kitchen, when the beneficiaries were kulaks.)
Perhaps some other bright ideas out of Africa? Stovall acknowledges that “by the end of the 1960s virtually all of the newly created African states had become military dictatorships.” (p. 284.) He recites, without criticism, the excuse offered up by Kwame Nkrumah (who in Ghana blended socialism with tribal blood ritual) that the point of authoritarian government was making the new states “free of outside control, especially control by international capital.…” (p. 282.) Stovall describes Nkrumah as “perhaps Africa’s greatest independence leader.” (p. 284.)
As indigenous Africa had scant capital, and none of liberalism’s legal protections to permit capital formation, that left most of the post-colonial continent dependent on aid. This might suggest that the scholar’s favored theories of freedom have proved wanting. Forgive me for focusing on Africa, but I can only follow the author. In opposition to white freedom, what?
Stovall is not so explicitly neo-Marxist as, say, Kendi, who calls capitalism and racism “conjoined twins” (p. 156, How to Be an Anti-Racist). But there’s a curious disconnect if we want to imagine that in assailing “white freedom,” Stovall’s intentions are less hostile to a liberal society than Kendi’s. There might be room for well-behaved people in his democratized village, but only if they toss aside an unreasonable belief that “non-white freedom” permits ownership of anything the collective covets (or spurns, in the case of a claim to a civil society).
And this raises a question about the broader context of this book and so many others in the “anti-whiteness” wave. Liberalism was a distinctly Western product because it had no competition from the rest of the world. Nor has any emerged. Rather than providing a viable model for creating wealth and personal happiness, the current anti-whiteness movement echoes what Lewis S. Feuer described as disaffected intellectuals’
consciously regressing to primitivism.… [The] neo-primitivism does not arise from tribal conditions of life; rather it is a conscious protest against the values of Western civilization.… The neo-primitivist intellectual, glorifying violence, wishes scientific reason to abdicate in favor of the revolutionary instincts.9
Professor Stovall does not celebrate violence. He ignores it, both historically and in the present unless it is directed against blacks. Yet there is a curious focus, early in this book (pp. 23-58), on a more primitive concept of freedom, what he rightly calls “savage freedom,” embodied in childhood fantasies such as Peter Pan and piracy. I don’t want to put words in the professor’s mouth, but without the social structure of liberalism an outcome in which man returns to the state of nature and savage freedom is a plausible conjecture.
Neo-primitive aptly describes the mobs that have sacked American cities in the past year. So does savage. It describes the blanket rejection of the idea that black citizens bear personal responsibility for their acts. In much of the United States, if we’re talking about “assuring a good life,” freedom for blacks as well as for citizens of every other description means freedom from the violent behavior of many blacks, which requires a liberal social order.
So why doesn’t Professor Stovall mention this? There are 11 entries in the index for the term “murder” covering pirates, Nazis, and white oppressors, but no mention of black violence. Again, turning to his focus on Africa, is it completely immaterial to a student of competing social forms that today ethnic, tribal, or religious conflicts rage in much of Africa, including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Tunisia? — assuming that South Africa is quiet this week. Or that most of the rest of the continent is locked under various forms of dictatorship?
Couldn’t he have spared a word, in the context of the requirements of a good life, for the black murder rate in the United States? If we live in an urban area, it certainly affects our perception of being free regardless of our race. The national rate is approximately 14 persons killed by a black for every 100,000 black citizens.10 That’s just over nine times the non-Hispanic white rate. In Baltimore, just for perspective on what a community abandoning “white” norms can accomplish, the kill rate by blacks is running at 90 per 100,000. That is double the rate of the worst (documented) states of modern Africa.11
And if one looks forward to a “good life for all,” wouldn’t the hope for that — if we abandon the empirically tested Marxist fantasies of Nyereres, Nkrumahs, and Kendis — require some attention to the Enlightenment’s gift to the world of liberal capitalism (and of the elaborate structure of property rights that makes accumulation and investment possible)? Yes, yes, I know; it was all built on slavery. Curiously, chattel-slavery and human trafficking remain viable businesses today in the Sahel region, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan, and South Africa. Capital formation hasn’t been a notable consequence.
Nominal per capita GDP of the world tells a story. In Tanzania it’s projected by the IMF at $1,100 this year. Ghana’s may reach $2,400. Except for a couple of oil exporters, it mostly goes downhill from there: Chad $740, Niger $633; DR Congo $590, Mali $983, Burundi $265. Thank you, Ujamaa. And no thank you.
John C. Boland is a former senior editor of Barron’s whose articles have appeared on the editorial page of el Wall Street Journal, in the New York Times, the (Baltimore) Sun, Fortuna, and elsewhere. His novels include The Man Who Knew Brecht (2012).
1. This appears to be from Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 1764. Stovall cites a secondary source.
2. “Of National Characters,” 1753. Cited in “Hume’s Revised Racism,” John Immenwahr, Journal of the History of Ideas, July-September 1992.
3. “Racism and Empiricism,” Kay Squadrito, Behaviorism, Spring 1979. Squadrito notes, “Noam Chomsky has … argued that the empiricist view of human nature facilitates expressions of racist ideology,” citing his Reflections on Language (1975).
4. Historians debate the economic role of slavery in Europe and the Americas. Marx made it the foundation of capitalism. Eric Williams (Capitalism and Slavery, 1944) found it financed the Industrial Resolution. Louis Sala-Molins (Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment, 2006) has estimated that at least a third of all commercial activity in eighteenth century France was related to the slave trade. David Richardson and Stanley Engerman put the contribution of slavery to British national income at 1% to 5%.
5. “Three Approaches to Locke and the Slave Trade,” Wayne Glausser, Journal of the History of Ideas, April-June 1990. Glausser discusses John Locke’s investment of six hundred pounds in the Royal African Company, which trafficked in slaves. There is no documentation of investments attributed to Hume and Voltaire.
6. “We Are All for Diversity, but. . . ,” Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy, Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2017, p 561.
7. How To Be an Antiracist, 2019, p 90.
8. In America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics (Cascade, 2019), Joel Edward Goza denounces the Enlightenment itself. Its departure from religion and religious morality through three seminal thinkers—Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith, the unholy “trinity”— has led us to a property-preserving, capitalist system that “carved white superiority into American identity. . . .” (p 11)
9. Marx and the Intellectuals, 1969, pp 219-20.
10. FBI Uniform Crime Reporting, Table 3, 2019.
11. World Population Review, Violent Crime Rates, 2021.