Does Freedom Have A Color? ‘White Freedom: The Racial History Of An Idea’ – Book Review


“Think of how it all started: America was founded by slave owners who informed us, “All men are created equal.” All “men,” except Indians, xxxxxxx, and women. Remember, the founders were a small group of unelected, white, male, land-holding slave owners who also, by the way, suggested their class be the only one allowed to vote. To my mind, that is what’s known as being stunningly–and embarrassingly–full of shit.” – George Carlin (1937-2008)

“As they went past a tall, very young Negro turned and caught my eye. But the look he gave me was not in the least the kind of look you might expect. Not hostile, not contemptuous, not sullen, not even inquisitive. It was the shy, wide-eyed Negro look, which actually is a look of profound respect. I saw how it was. This wretched boy, who is a French citizen and has therefore been dragged from the forest to scrub floors and catch syphilis in garrison towns, actually has feelings of reverence before a white skin. He has been taught that the white race are his masters, and he still believes it.

But there is one thought which every white man (and in this connection it doesn’t matter two pence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when he sees a black army marching past. ‘How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?’” – George Orwell, “Marrakech” (1939)

I was exploring literature related to racism and American foreign policy for a conference presentation when I came across Tyler Stovall’s book (2021) and another intriguing title, Eurocentrism:History, Identity, White Man’s Burden (2020) by Michael Wintle. Interestingly, in 2021, the British professor Kehinde Andrews published The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World which deals with some of the issues that Stovall is talking about. In the same context, most readers must be aware of The Rise of Eurocentrism: Anatomy of Interpretation (1993) by Vassilis Lambropoulos and Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism: Modernity, Religion, and Democracy; A Critique of Eurocentrism and Culturalism (2009), not to mention Paulette Goodge’s book from 2003, The Power of Whiteness: Racism in Third World Development and Aid

Tyler Stovall’s book stands out in more ways than one. The generalizations might seem daring for a reader looking for factual accuracy in the relationship between what is generally considered as a universal value such as ‘freedom’ and a dubious category, largely based on perception, such as race. The almost indisputable assumption is that there is no person who would not want to be free. With extraordinary command on the subject, Stovall offers evidence to substantiate his point that, contrary to what it might seem, freedom always already meant ‘white’ and it continues to be so in the present. The word ‘freedom’ is probably one of the most popular terms on earth and perhaps one of the most misunderstood and at times abused, like the word ‘love’. We all wish to be free to pursue a life that we think is best for us. Whatever the limitations, we are also convinced that all people, in principle, must be free to act, think and speak what they feel and believe. But, like all words, the word ‘freedom’ has a history of its own.  It is neither a colorless term nor is it color-blind, as Stovall presents with historical data. 

Stovall defines white freedom as “the belief (and practice) that freedom is central to white racial identity, and that only white people can or should be free” (Stovall 11). A news report from August 30, 2021 talks of a “drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, initially claimed by U.S. officials to have destroyed a car packed with “multiple suicide bombers,” reportedly killed 10 civilians from one family, including several children.” The report further notes, “The Kabul drone strike is just one in a long string of attacks in Afghanistan by U.S. forces and their proxies reported to have killed large numbers of civilians. Past attacks have hit families traveling in cars and buses, wedding parties, hospitals filled with patients, and groups of farmers working in fields.” When President Trump said, “We will keep America safe, we will keep America strong, and we will keep America proud, so that our children and their children will forever and always be free” he is referring to what Tyler Stovall is talking about. It means that it is okay to kill innocent people (non-white) in other countries as long as “our (white) children” and “their (white) children will forever and always be free.” That’s when you see the connection between race and freedom. 

White Freedom, then, explores the modern history of two seminal concepts, freedom and race, and the relationship between them. In particular it considers how our ideas about freedom have been shaped by racial thinking, arguing that for much of the modern era liberty and white privilege have frequently been strange bedfellows at worst, soul mates at best. It certainly does not argue that white freedom is the only kind of freedom, that all modern visions of liberty are racist. It does suggest, however, that belief in freedom, specifically in one’s entitlement to freedom, was a key component of white supremacy. In societies governed by racial hierarchy, the whiter one was, the more free one was. Conversely, those who could not claim white identity were in many cases those who lacked freedom. The contrasts between white citizens, nonwhite colonial subjects, and Black slaves provide the most obvious examples of this, but they are not the only ones. As this study will show, the nature of white privilege and freedom certainly changed over time, but the link between the two remained tight enough to accentuate its continued existence as an historical phenomenon. (Stovall 10-11)

With historical events such as the French Revolution or any other major upheaval the opportunities for freedom increased for whites while at the very same time non-whites continued to be subjugated, ironically, both to justify and enable white freedom. 

A similar process unfolded in the United States at the end of the war…Not only did nearly 400,000 Black Americans serve in the armed forces, but roughly half a million Black southerners joined the Great Migration to the North between 1914 and 1920. In both cases, these movements out of the South (where ninety percent of the Black population lived at the time) brought new experiences of freedom and new levels of confidence…White American society responded to this new sense of Black empowerment harshly, emphasizing the importance of maintaining and reaffirming the color bar in America…The result was an unprecedented wave of lynchings of Black men. More African American men, nearly one hundred, were lynched in 1919 than in any other year of American history, and many of them were ex-soldiers in military uniform. The use of violence to restore the prewar racial order targeted not just Black individuals but entire communities. (209)

It is horrifying to read some of these things in the present – one is that black men must go to alien territories and fight for freedom and democracy and another is that they get lynched in their own country when it comes to their freedom and dignity as human beings. As distant as the 21st century might seem from such cruelty and hypocrisy, there is no doubt that systemic and institutional racism continues to thrive in subtle and not-so-subtle forms. It’s safer to discriminate against another person using a rule that legitimizes one’s actions rather than do it directly. Technological superiority is often taken for cultural and political superiority; imperialism ensures conformity at various levels. The history of underdevelopment complements the history of development. Often the politics of development serves as justification to claim civilizational superiority and worse, to subscribe to it as a worldview. What it only means is that whites are justified in the belief that their history of growth has nothing to do with slavery, colonialism and genocide.   

True freedom belonged to the civilized, and civilization was itself increasingly defined in racial terms during the modern era: the barbarians of the jungle might revel in a spirit of anarchy, but only those of culture and enlightenment could build a society based upon freedom. Racial difference was built into the very definition of liberty, therefore, in ways that would both foster and result from racialized ideas of freedom as white. (Stovall 26)

The chapter “Lady of Freedom, Lady of Whiteness: The Statue of Liberty as Symbol of White Freedom” offers an in-depth discussion of how the meanings of a statue supposedly standing for freedom could simply never be dissociated from ideas of race.

The Statue of Liberty has functioned as one of the greatest monuments in America by building what it means to be American around the myth of freedom, thus enabling Americans as a people to build their sense of national identity on the basis of that myth. It symbolizes the idea that American history is above all the forward march of liberty, for the nation and the world in general. (61)

Stovall adds, “As a symbol of both liberty and European immigration, the Statue of Liberty has to this day remained perhaps America’s leading icon of white freedom” (92). Immigrants from Europe, who previously were broadly in the category of non-whites such as Irish and Italians, gradually moved into the category of ‘white’ and consequently adopted racist beliefs, attitudes and behavior similar to the American whites. As Stovall observes,

I focus on the racial identity of the Statue of Liberty, its representation of the ideal of white freedom. Historians of whiteness have studied the ways in which European immigrants were gradually accepted as white in America, and their relationship with the Statue of Liberty is part of this history. In sum, the Statue of Liberty became a welcoming symbol of immigration when European immigrants became white. Those immigrants who gazed rapturously at the magnificent statue upon their arrival in New York harbor may have seen a symbol of freedom and prosperity, but they also saw a vision of whiteness, of what they ultimately could become in America. As this study has argued, whiteness and freedom were closely intertwined, and the changing relationship between European immigrants and the Statue of Liberty dramatically illustrates the history of white freedom. (83)

The relevance of the argument does not end with that. Stovall talks of how authoritarian populist regimes in the 21st century continue to prop white freedom. In his words, this is a “global phenomenon, as the electoral victories of Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in one twelve-month span, 2018–19, illustrate” (318).  What Stovall is able to demonstrate is that these regimes, despite seeming to be democracies on the surface, are able to successfully subvert the system of electoral politics to pursue dangerously divisive agendas. State power in the form of a bureaucracy indifferent to common concerns along with the systematic erosion of institutional autonomy, gradual disappearance of an independent judiciary, the overuse of police and army for purposes of stability where there ought to be dialogue and negotiation between different parties, the 24×7 badgering of masses with half-truths through the corporate-based media, all these factors make a mockery of democracy. Yet, most of these regimes, when they are in the non-western world, are pro-western. These authoritarian populist regimes exist to reinforce the ideological basis of white freedom. 

One of the main reasons behind PM Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the US was to offer India’s support to the US in its attempts to counter China’s influence. It’s the US that is threatened by China’s rise as a global power, not India. The US is not going to resolve India’s border issues with China. When Modi tells Congress, “The dark clouds of coercion and confrontation are casting their shadow in the Indo Pacific…The stability of the region has become one of the central concerns of our partnership,” the logical question is: why do we have to be subservient to American interests in the Pacific? What about the “coercion and confrontation” happening within India’s borders on a daily basis? But, western governments need a person like Narendra Modi in the third world – one who can keep his own people weak, backward and suppressed while at the same time ensuring that the world is safe for powerful white elites. These authoritarian regimes of the non-western world would not exist for even a few weeks or months if they did not enjoy the tacit or open support of one western country or another. The masses would deal with them the way traitors are dealt with. 

The general servility and colonial mentality of South Asians exemplifies this obsession with whiteness because it is not just about aesthetics but mainly about power. Such racial obsessions that acknowledge and reinforce white superiority complement the wholehearted support given to authoritarianism at home.   

“The new authoritarian populism is a complex affair, blending hostility to global elites, resentment at cultural change, and anger at working-class economic stagnation. But there can be no doubt that covert and overt appeals to racism and anti-immigrant hostility form a major part of its appeal…Hostility to immigrants, foreigners, Muslims, and racially defined Others in general has thus been a key driver of contemporary authoritarian populism” (318-319).

As Stovall further adds, “freedom in the modern era has been closely identified with the defense of the nation-state; today’s authoritarian populists see national cultures as threatened by globalization” (319). But, then, what does it mean for the world to ensure that freedom is not “white” any longer, but is as much black and brown and every other color on this planet? That’s a question we can no longer afford to ignore.


Stovall, Tyler. 2021. White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea. Princeton University Press.


Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is an independent scholar who, until December 2022, was a professor at The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India. He was “removed from service” for making allegations of corruption against an unscrupulous university administration and is currently challenging his dismissal in the court of law.

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