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The Romance of Race: Three Lessons from History

Sometimes, issues of black and white aren't so black-and-white.

by James Leroy Wilson
June 26, 2012

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The Romance of Race: Three Lessons from History

Ron Unz, publisher of The American Conservative, has another important project at Unz.org. As he explains it, the site provides "convenient access to the digitized archives of a wide range of periodicals from the last two centuries, most of which have never before been available outside the dusty shelves of research libraries."

This is important work. One gets a better understanding of history by reading contemporary accounts and opinions as it unfolds, and Ron Unz is to be thanked.

I was naturally drawn to periodicals of the classical liberal and libertarian traditions, such as H.L. Mencken's American Mercury, Foundation for Economic Education's The Freeman, and the Cato Institute's Inquiry. When viewing articles from each publication's first year, I was drawn to articles relating to race relations, wondering, "What did they think about this issue at the time?"

It was a wake-up call, a reminder that issues relating to racism can't be reduced narratives of good guys versus bad guys.

Of course, the cause for equal liberty under the law was, and is, just. But politics is more complicated than that.

And from what I gleaned from three articles, from three different historical eras, is that:

1. Not all forms of injustice are created equal.
2. The "heroes" are often morally confused - and that's putting it charitably.
3. The villain may be a lot like you or your neighbor.

I will explain these in turn:

1. Not all forms of injustice are created equal.

In 1977, American politicians such as Jimmy Carter and Andrew Young were equating South Africa's Apartheid regime with the American South's Jim Crow laws. History professor George M. Fredrickson debunks this in the November, 1977 Inquiry.

Fredrickson explains, point by point, how the two systems were vastly different. Among the differences:

  • Blacks were a 20% minority in the American South, an 80% majority in South Africa; American blacks were less of a "threat" to white political interests.
  • With farming mechanization, the Southern economy depended less and less on sharecroppers by the time of the Civil Rights era, whereas South Africa's economy still depended on servile black labor in places like diamond mines.
  • Unlike black South Africans, American blacks weren't constantly subjected to police state controls determining where they could live and work.
  • American blacks and whites shared a common religion, Christianity, whereas much of black South Africa culture (at least circa 1977) was more tied to tribal customs and cultures.

In short, South African whites had much more to lose in granting blacks civil and political rights. It's amazing South Africa ever made a peaceful transition at all. Fredrickson seemed pessimistic about that possibility.

In any case, Apartheid and Jim Crow were both evils, but they were very different. And if oppression and injustice under Jim Crow was bad, it was far, far worse under Apartheid. In the U.S. the black person was generally free aside from a few restrictions; in South Africa, blacks weren't free at all.

2. The "heroes" are often morally confused - and that's putting it charitably.

Conservative critics of programs like Affirmative Action accuse white progressives of being the true racists, because they believe that blacks can't make it without white help.

Whether such accusations are cheap rhetorical gimmicks or not, one classical liberal smelled something bad in Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion in Brown v Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. Brown ruled that even in the instance of white and black schools receiving equal funding, facilities, books, etc., that blacks would suffer educationally if they were not integrated with whites in the classroom.

F.A. Harper, writing in The Freeman in May, 1955, surmised that the unanimous Court decision implied black ("Negro") inferiority: "According to the Supreme Court Justices, segregation has a detrimental effect only on colored children, not on both colored and white children equally nor on Whites alone."

Harper concludes, "If I were a Negro, I suspect I might resent the implied inferiority of Negroes contained in this opinion."

Segregating the races in schools or anywhere else was never a good idea, and served no noble purpose.

And yet I agree with Harper that there is something fundamentally wrong with Warren's opinion. Instead of treating each individual as equal under the law to everyone else as seems to be required by the 14th Amendment, Warren helped create the presumption that blacks were somehow not equal to whites, and only the help of whites could make them equal. Instead of treating the Constitution's requirements of equal protection, as the law of the land, Warren treated it as an "ideal" or policy goal.

3. The villain may be a lot like you or your neighbor.

In the mid-1920's, the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in American life, particularly in the Democratic Party.

But were all Ku Kluxers involved in lynchings of blacks and other terrorist acts? Not at all.

The 1920's version of the Klan captured offices in Anaheim, California and the state government in Indiana. As described by Gerald W. Johnson in a 1924 American Mercury essay, a typical Ku Kluxer of the period did not wish malice on anyone. Not his kitchen help, not local black entrepreneurs, not the neighboring Catholic priest. As Johnson tells it, he would deplore lynchings of any of them. Yet he was paranoid and determined to maintain the cultural supremacy of "Nordic Protestantism" and "100% Americanism."

Upon further research, I discovered that the Klan even made inroads into the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, where it drew 40,000 members opposing non-Protestant immigrants from Eastern Europe.

And yet, it appears that those running the 1920's Klan seemed to be in it for the money, selling robes and memberships along with the ideology. Many who may have been seduced by one thing or another about the Klan lost interest quickly, and membership dropped from 4-5 million in the mid-1920's to about 30,000 in 1930. There are maybe 3,000-5,000 members today; maybe 1 in 10,000 people.

In other words, the Klan didn't have the same bad reputation in the early 1920's as it does today. And, over 90% of those who joined quickly dropped out, detecting that the Klan was a scam.

Today, there is nowhere near the degree of literal "race-ism" that existed 90 years ago. Overwhelmingly, whites and Christians renounce ideas that blood determines character. But their War on Terror, War on Drugs, and anti-trade/anti-immigration policies are evidence that most whites retain the same kind of paranoia that was prevalent in the Klan.

It is possible that your great-grandfather was briefly a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's. This may be shameful and embarrassing; indeed, I suspect most grandchildren and great-grandchildren of 1920's Klan members don't even know that their ancestor was involved. But it could be that all he was doing was protecting his "culture" and "values" as he saw fit, and quickly dropped out of the Klan when he saw that it wasn't what he expected.

- - -

History is by no means a romantic struggle between good and evil, heroes and villains. It is a complicated affair. Even those who promoted great injustices thought they were in the right. Let's not forget this, particularly when we advocate the use of The State to solve social problems. There are few "good guys" and "bad guys." There are, instead, a lot of confused guys who want to protect their own interests and values.

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