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The History of Freedom Is a History of Whiteness

In his new bookWhite Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea, the historian Tyler Stovall seeks to offer a new approach to the relationship between freedom and race in modern Western societies. This approach reveals a different historical perspective for understanding how the Enlightenment era, which provided the basis for modern Western conceptions of human freedom, coincided with the height of the transatlantic slave trade, and for how the United States could be founded simultaneously upon ideas of both liberty and African slavery, Native American genocide and systematic racial exclusion.

Stovall does so by arguing for an alternative explanation to what he describes as the standard “paradoxical” interpretation of freedom and race. “If liberty represents the acme of Western civilization,” says Stovall, “racism—embodied above all by horrible histories like the slave trade and the Holocaust—is its nadir.” In other words, the paradoxical approach sees freedom and race as opposites. This means that there is nothing about freedom that is inherently racialized. The relationship between freedom and race from this perspective, argues Stovall, is due more to “human inconsistencies and frailties than to any underlying logics.”

Stovall challenges the paradoxical view by arguing that there is no contradiction between freedom and race. Instead, he thinks that ideas of freedom in the modern world have been racialized, and that whiteness and white racial identity are intrinsic to the history of modern liberty. Hence Stovall’s notion of white freedom.

Stovall’s book aims to tell the history of white freedom from the French and American revolutions to the present. But to what extent can the vast history of modern freedom be reduced to white freedom? How can white freedom account for class differences? Moreover, if modern freedom is racialized how is it to be differentiated from fascism and others forms of white nationalism? And can political freedom break away from the legacy of white freedom? To answer these questions, I spoke with Stovall about the history of US slavery and immigration, the fascism of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, Trumpism, and Joe Biden’s recent election to the White House.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

TYLER STOVALL: In this study I argue that white freedom, which is a concept of freedom conceived and defined in racial terms, underlies and reflects both white identity and white supremacy: To be free is to be white, and to be white is to be free.

DSJ: Your thinking on white freedom has been strongly influenced by whiteness studies. Can you explain the connection between the two?

TS: Whiteness studies starts from the proposition that whiteness is not simply the neutral, unexamined gold standard of human existence, arguing instead that white identity is racial, and white people are every bit as much racialized beings as are people of color. White Freedom explores the ways in which the ideal of freedom is a crucial component of white identity in the modern world, that great movements for liberty like the American and French revolutions or the world wars of the 20th century have constructed freedom as white. More generally, this book follows the tradition of whiteness studies in considering how an ideology traditionally viewed as universal in fact contains an important racial dimension. I argue that frequently, although by no means always, in modern history, freedom and whiteness have gone together, and the ideal of freedom has functioned to deny the realities of race and racism.

Read entire article at The Nation