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Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (Independent Studies in Political Economy)
Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (Independent Studies in Political Economy)
Jonathan Bean
University Press of Kentucky, 2009
306 pp., $24.95

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Reviewed by Paul Harvey


Inventing a Tradition

Race, liberty, and classical liberalism.

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The classical liberal tradition always has grappled with its own self-contradictions when dealing with race. Government activism in the service of racism—for example, segregation laws and internment camps—are lambasted here by heroic voices in defense of individual freedom; this is the glory of the story of race and liberty told here. But absolutely necessary government activism in securing greater racial justice (such as the civil rights acts of the Reconstruction era and the 1960s) consistently has been opposed by scores of classical liberals in American history, some anthologized here, most not. That dilemma of the tradition begs for analysis.

All forms of liberalism have their internal tensions and contradictions; that's why "left liberal" authors have led the charge in analyzing the shortcomings of the New Deal in terms of reinforcing segregationist and gender-biased wage structures. In their best historical work, left liberals (who are, it must be said, grotesquely caricatured, even slandered, in this book) have recognized the contradictions and difficulties of government involvement in pursuit of economic and racial justice. This text, too, would have been much stronger had the editor used the opportunity to analyze not only the triumphs but also the difficulties and contradictions of a classical liberal tradition that has at various times been on the side of the angels, and at other times on the side of the demons.

Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History at usreligion.blogspot.com

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