A racialized freedom?

Is freedom a white privilege, circumscribed by power relations based on race?? This is the subversive question posed by the American historian Tyler Stovall before he disappeared in 2021, comparing the American, French and other empires over two centuries.

Despite the growing attacks from conservative movements against works dealing with questions of race and racism, historians continue, in the United States as in France, their work of interpretation. In White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea, Tyler Stovall, former president of the American Historical Association, specialist in the history of the working classes and black populations of France, who recently passed away, continues this collective research. The oxymoron of the title sums up the point of the book: far from having been a universal right, freedom in contemporary times has been circumscribed to a restricted number of individuals by a set of racialized discourses and practices.

The main interest of the book lies in its ambition as vast as it is scholarly. The work develops a comparison between the United States and France, two republics built around the idea of ​​freedom, a comparison completed by developments on the United Kingdom and the British Empire, Germany and several countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. The work also offers a long-term study, on the two centuries which separate the Atlantic revolutions from the fall of the Berlin Wall (1789-1989). It is within this framework that the author examines the racial origins of the notion of freedom and contemporary Western democracies.

There white freedoma concept stimulating delicate use

The work explores this well-known paradox at the origin of contemporary political liberalism: although freedom has been established as a universal value and right, it has historically constituted a system of exclusion and oppression, even extermination. The United States and France have in common a history based on both the celebration and the negation of freedom, as demonstrated, among other things, by transatlantic slavery, colonial massacres, the Native American genocide and racial discrimination. Thomas Jefferson embodies this paradox: a man of Enlightenment and a large slave owner, he proclaimed, with his revolutionary counterparts, that all men are created equal in the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). Stovall refuses the moral register explanation of hypocrisy to initiate a historical investigation demonstrating the internal consistency (p. 5) of the paradox: the notions of freedom and race did not develop in a relationship of contradiction but of articulation. There white freedom thus assembles two initially antithetical terms into a concept which designates the set of beliefs and practices defining the social and political identity of people considered white and holders of an inalinable right to freedom, in the name of which the imposition of a global regime of domination on the world can be justified considered non-white.

A gift offered by France to the United States for the centenary of their independence, the Statue of Liberty constitutes, according to the author, a concrete materialization of this racialized freedom (chapter 2). This world-famous icon was originally created, and long understood in American political culture, not as a symbol of universal liberation, but of racial exclusion of non-whites and social exclusion of the working classes, two types of exclusion targeting people in particular. black and recent immigrants. The history of the statue makes it possible to update in the United States as in France the policies of extension or restriction of freedom according to the position of social groups within a hierarchy crossing in particular the criteria of class, race, gender and nationality. From this point of view, the Statue of Liberty would be the largest representation of white freedom in the world (p. 95).

Like any concept, that of white freedom proposed by Stovall seeks to make sense of multiple situations. However, its use in the book, over two centuries and several continents, sometimes tends to standardize the very different realities that it intends to explain. Being white and free in Mississippi in 1950 does not have the same meaning as in Prussia in 1850, where the majority of individuals undoubtedly did not think of their social condition in these terms. The difficulty of using the concept is therefore similar to that of the concept of whiteness, which requires very precise contextualization to maintain its heuristic power.

Race, the founding principle of liberal democracies

The work uses the concept of white freedom to study four historical paradoxes: the liberal revolutions of XVIIIe century present their principles as universal but apply a racialized freedom (chapter 3); the liberal democracies that emerged from it imposed regimes of colonial oppression throughout the world on XIXe century (chapter 4); these democracies wage two world wars then a cold war in the name of free world for a freedom ultimately reserved for certain groups (chapters 5 and 6). The author contributes to each of these fields of research, now very documented, by studying how the notion of freedom has historically justified the discourses and practices of exclusion based on race and, conversely, how the notion of race has circumscribed the discourses and practices of inclusion freedom fund.

As a historian of the working classes, the author proposes a model of intersectional analysis in which the concept of white freedom is only operative in connection with class and gender parameters. If the apogee of European Enlightenment could also have been that of the transatlantic trade, it is because freedom in XVIIIe century was defined as the attribute of rational individuals, which according to the dominant conceptions of the time very largely excluded the non-European world, but also the poorest and women in Europe. Likewise, European colonialism in XIXe century is studied by Stovall with regard to the hierarchies of race, class and gender which made it possible to justify the differentiated levels of citizenship granted to the populations of the empires: full citizenship for the men of the upper classes of the metropolises, partial for the men of the working classes and women, and almost non-existent for the indigenous populations of the colonies. A situation which the current world, structured around the opposition between white wealth and non-white poverty at the global level, bears the legacy of.

By taking up the classic analyzes of WEB Du Bois, Aim Csaire, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Stovall shows that there is no absolute gap between liberal democracies and fascist regimes, but a continuity, even, within the latter, a realization of certain founding principles of Western liberalism since the XVIIIe century. To defend the freedom of the Aryan race, the Nazis, for example, explicitly drew inspiration from the laws of racial segregation and Indian politics in the United States to set up their own racial lawslidology of Lebensraum and, ultimately, the genocide of Jews and gypsies. In this sense, fascism would represent an exacerbated manifestation of white freedom. Stovall therefore moves Hannah Arendt's famous thesis into The origins of totalitarianism (1951) to show that fascism should not first be studied in relation to European colonialism and imperialism, but in the light of the racialization processes working on European liberal democracy.

A plea for plural universalism

The work aims to offer a global history of white freedom. By synthesizing decades of historiographical work and proposing a renewed analytical framework, Stovall studies the relationships between freedom and race in an intellectual, social and political history which borrows from numerous fields of research, including the history of slavery, the history of the Enlightenment, the history imperial and colonial, racism, whiteness, Nazism, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, etc. The coherence of the analysis is based on a remarkable mastery of historiography, usefully referenced in notes and bibliography, even if the works cited, including when the subject concerns France, have most often been published in English. As a result of its ambition, the subject is sometimes abundant and, as a historical synthesis and outline of a field of research, White Freedom could perhaps have taken the more compact and direct form of an essay, or even a manifesto.

Among the avenues of research opened up by the book is the global study of the fight against discourses and practices based on white freedom. Indeed, if the work analyzes the imposition of white freedom, it is less attentive to the forms of resistance to this imposition. Certainly, extensive pages are devoted to the radical freedom experienced by pirates, often former slaves, in the West Indies. XVIIIe century (chapter 1), by the Haitian revolutionaries, also former slaves, between 1794 and 1804 (chapter 2) and by the activists of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (chapter 6). However, the renewed forms of freedom proposed by international movements such as the abolitionist movement in XIXe century, the feminist movement since the XIXe century and the decolonization movements in XXe century are little or not studied. The work invites us to write a global history of non-white freedom in contemporary times.

Tyler Stovall places his work in this political and ethical perspective. By placing power relations based on race at the heart of the analysis, he questions the dominant representations of contemporary Western history celebrating freedom, equality, democracy and human rights. On the contrary, Stoval points out, on the model of the political and epistemic gesture inaugurated by the Haitian revolutionaries, the racial origins of Western universalism, not to reject but to universalize the universalism inherited from the Enlightenment, in order to preserve it as a regulatory ideal for social justice. . in many respects, White Freedom can therefore be read as the scientific testament of a major historian, the translation of which could inspire historiographical research and political debate in France, on questions that are as controversial as they are poorly understood.