How can a racist country be free?

In his book, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea, Tyler Stovall draws examples from France and the U.S., countries whose ideals of freedom were paradoxical.

Can a country built on the ideal of freedom be racist? We’re taught to believe that such drastically different ideas simply cannot coexist. Yet they often do.

As renowned historian Tyler Stovall, dean of Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, puts in in his new book, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea: “To be free is to be white and to be white is to be free.”

Stovall spoke about his book’s findings during a recent virtual conversation with Santa Clara’s Center for the Arts & Humanities as part of its year-long Twin Pandemics events series responding to COVID-19 and racial injustice.

Drawing on examples dating back to the 18th century, Stovall examines the frequent link between whiteness and freedom—a link that doesn’t always apply equally to people of color.

“The idea simply wouldn’t leave me alone,” he said. “The idea of the relationship between whiteness and freedom, between race and freedom, was so interesting and so compelling, I found that ultimately in order to get any sleep at night I had to sit down and write this stuff up.”

Liberty on display
The head of the Statue of Liberty on display in France before she was shipped in pieces to the United States. Both countries idealize freedom but have paradoxical realities of that value. / Image courtesy the Library of Congress

Stovall focused his research on the U.S. and France—two countries that place freedom at the heart of their national identities. Yet both have distinct histories of racial discrimination that call that identification into question.

When it declared independence in 1776, for example, the U.S. was a major holder of slaves. Meanwhile, it was the height of the Enlightenment period in France—philosophers were advocating for liberty and progress during a time that also marked the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

One of the most prominent symbols of freedom around the globe is the Statue of Liberty, a monument created in France in the mid-19th century and gifted to the U.S. to mark the ending of slavery.

Though today it’s considered the ultimate symbol of diversity and freedom in America, the statue was once embraced by anti-immigrant forces as a symbol of whiteness at a time when immigrants were seen as a danger to the U.S., Stovall said.

This complex and often contradictory concept of freedom exists within the very walls of the U.S. Capitol—a building often known as the temple of liberty yet built in part by Black slaves, he said. That paradox played out on January 6, 2021, when hundreds of mostly-white supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, bypassing security to enter buildings forbidden to the public and threatening to harm lawmakers who were trapped inside.

“The idea of paradox between this focus on liberty and this practice of racism has often shaped this debate,” Stovall said. “What I wanted to do was challenge this idea. Saying that freedom and racism were opposites did not explain, ultimately, why they continued to work together so often. If they were so opposed to each other, why were they often so united? It was not a contradiction to emphasize that some people could be free and others could be slaves in the same system, as long as you made that distinction on racial grounds.”