A national problem
Books | Racism has been historically a failing in the North as well as the South
by Gene Dattel
Posted 12/16/17, 10:10 am
Gene Dattel’s Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure made our 2017 Books of the Year short list in the “Understanding America” category because it teaches us what many overlook: Racism was as much a Northern failing as a Southern one. During the first half of the 19th century Northerners tried to keep African-Americans from coming into their states, and took away voting rights if they did. After the Civil War, Northerners worked hard to keep freed slaves away. That worsened conditions for ex-slaves: Their former masters could turn millions who had no alternative into sharecroppers.
Dattel shows that only when the Great War in 1917, followed by the 1924 immigration cutoffs, left employers desperate for workers, did Southern blacks take the steel rails north. One result was enormous disruption. Dattel looks at African-American family demoralization and high illegitimacy rates, and also notes two major broad structural problems that bulwark cultural failings: Poor schools, and War on Poverty laws that reward failure instead of success. The excerpt below, courtesy of Encounter Books, gives you a sense of the history Dattel eloquently presents, and the five periods of African-American experience that he portrays. —Marvin Olasky
From the birth of the nation, America has relied on assimilation to mold a cohesive society. Assimilation has meant the acceptance of common goals, common values, a common language, and a common legal system that leaves abundant room for cultural heritage. George Washington clearly outlined the country’s attitude toward immigrants and their heritage in his 1790 letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island. He welcomed the Jews, promising tolerance, protection, and the “good will of other Americans” while reminding them of the obligations and responsibilities of good citizenship.
The Founding Fathers had witnessed the catastrophic results of European fragmentation by land, ethnicity, language, and culture. These were practical men. National unity was the only means of survival. They could also observe firsthand the inherent weakness and vulnerability of the Native American tribal organization, which led to internecine warfare among the tribes and various collaborations with European countries against each other in their battles.
Tribalism and provincialism had to give way to a national identity. As it happens, no other country has attracted so many immigrants from diverse backgrounds and absorbed them into a cohesive unit necessary for the survival of the whole. Immigrants by the millions still come to America for political, religious, and economic reasons but overwhelmingly for a better material life. A large part of their success has been due to America’s adaptable free enterprise system.
White immigrants left the “old country” and came voluntarily to America. African Americans, involuntary immigrants, arrived in slave ships, first in the seventeenth century, and have been struggling with their identity—national or separate—ever since.
The first Naturalization Act in 1790 specified that “any white alien, being a free white person” was eligible for citizenship. In an America with race-based slavery, where did a free black fit into the assimilation scheme? Although the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 granted citizenship to blacks, social norms continued to exclude them from the process of assimilation.
Other newcomers to American shores were urged toward assimilation. In 1793 Washington welcomed German immigrants but cautioned them against retaining their “language, habits and principles.” Better that they “intermixed,” he wrote, “with our people … assimilate to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people.”
We need to be reminded of the practicality of the Founding Fathers’ vision. Washington was a land surveyor and real estate investor before he was a general and a president. Thomas Jefferson mastered law, mathematics, horticulture, and architecture; he wanted a distribution of immigrants “sparsely among the natives for quicker amalgamation.” Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, discoverer of the electrical conductivity of lightning, printer, advocate of hard work and education, and a self-made man. He, too, advocated the distribution of immigrants among English speakers. The Germans “begin of late,” warned the sage Franklin, “to make their Bonds and other legal Writings in their own Language, which—though I think it ought not to be—are allowed good in our Courts.” The chaos and inefficiency of allowing multiple-language contracts was obvious then and remains so now.
When Irish-American groups in 1818 applied for a designated section of the Northwest Territory to be set aside exclusively for Irish settlement, Congress, in an emphatic, defining decision, rejected this attempt at separatism. Afterward, new states gained admittance to the union only when they had a majority of English speakers.
The prerequisite for a successful ethnically diverse population living under one roof is assimilation, which leads to a national identity, unity, and the practical means to facilitate social, legal, and commercial interchange. Ethnic cultural heritage can remain a distinct part of identity after concessions are made to assimilation. Prosperous large countries such as Japan, Korea, and those of Western Europe have homogeneous populations. They have not been concerned to develop an assimilation process. Europe is now being tested by its Muslim immigrants, some of whom it sees as incapable of assimilation.
In the American story, the major exception to assimilation, of course, was the exclusion of black America. But the Supreme Court’s ending of legal segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision marked the beginning of a new era. With restrictions removed, values and merit might now prevail over race and ethnicity. Despite Southern resistance, most Americans assumed that our racial dilemma was thus being solved in the 1960s. The promise of Brown seemed to play out in the Civil Rights Acts, the War on Poverty, the end of overt public segregation, and the removal of suffrage barriers. Yet the Northern urban race riots of the sixties, in New York, Watts, Detroit, and Newark, warned of a racial chasm, filled with complex social issues.
Although the 1968 “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” (now known as the Kerner Report) is the benchmark definition of American racial issues, the number of conferences, commissions, and reports on race in America has been continuing and endless. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” in 1965 exposed the plight of black family structure, a product of crime, slum housing, and “high rates of alcoholism, desertion, illegitimacy and the other pathologies associated with poverty.” Two decades earlier, the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal had explored the problems of black Americans in An American Dilemma, and the same issues had been recognized by the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier in The Negro Family in Chicago, a classic study from 1932. Does anyone remember the First Mohonk Conference on the Negro Question, chaired by former president Rutherford B. Hayes in 1890?
The parade continues. In June 1997 President Bill Clinton announced “One America in the 21st Century: The President’s Initiative on Race.” In 2014 President Barack Obama rolled out yet another program, “My Brother’s Keeper.” None of these has solved the “Negro Problem.” They are highly visible gestures designed to “do something” while generating publicity.
Reckoning with Race investigates five key periods of the African American experience. In each there have been failures, whole or partial, in the assimilation process that is necessary for full participation in the economic mainstream. There have perhaps been missed opportunities, but major discriminatory obstacles have also been at work except for during the last period.
In the first period, from the signing of the Constitution in 1787 to the end of the Civil War in 1865, I consider the frequently overlooked situation of free blacks in the North. In confronting the black experience in America, all roads lead to the well-charted territory of race-based slavery. But Northern attitudes toward free blacks in the years before the Civil War form an indispensable guide to the African American experience after the war. If blacks, a tiny 2 percent of the Northern population, could not be successfully absorbed, the postwar acceptance of large numbers in the North, after Emancipation, would be impossible. American historians usually omit a critical distinction between the attitude of white Northerners toward race-based slavery and what they thought about free blacks. White Northerners were for the most part vehemently anti-black and obsessively feared a black migration north.
In the second period, from 1865 to World War I, the white North began during Reconstruction (1865–1877) with total control over an utterly defeated adversary before reconciling with the white South. The result was a rejection of any plan to disperse blacks in the North and a direct and indirect containment policy for keeping blacks in the Southern cotton fields. The black population of the North remained at about 2 percent while millions of white European immigrants poured into the country. Historians now seek to view the Reconstruction years as a successful biracial experience. But the small number of temporary white teachers, the black office holders, and the short-term impact of black suffrage did little to advance the newly freed slaves toward equality.
In the third period, from roughly World War I until the 1960s, occurred the Great Migration of blacks north. War-induced labor shortages, not racial tolerance, led blacks to a false promised land of wages, voting rights, and the beginning of a middle and upper middle class but also to the debilitating environment of an urban ghetto and consequent race riots.
The next two stages brought the end of overt legal segregation and the first possibility that blacks might enter the economic mainstream en masse. The fourth period was marked by civil rights legislation, violence, the advent of black militancy, resistance to integration in both North and South, and massive programs to assist blacks in the transformation to economic prosperity. The detailed Kerner Report, a reaction to the devastating race riots of the 1960s, outlined for blacks the path to full membership in American society.
In the fifth chapter I recount events of the past fifty years—the structural flaws of black life in America, the real and imagined discriminatory impediments, the evergreen topic of racial difficulties, and a recognition of the only solution: a broad-based effort within black society to truly prepare—a word used by the civil rights giants of the 1960s—for the future.
IN THE PROCESS OF THIS INVESTIGATION I encounter a number of myths that need to be busted. For one, both whites and blacks have viewed the South as the exclusive and durable scapegoat in America’s racial ordeal. This singular focus on the South may be soothing to white Northern consciences, but it has also provided an escape from the reality of the North’s own unenlightened racial world. In fact, the race problem in America has always been a national problem, not exclusively Southern. It is a mistake to think otherwise and leads to flawed responses to the problem. Hence, after the Great Migration and after overt legal segregation in the South disappeared, no racial utopia emerged.
White Northerners reflexively cite odious Southern phenomena—lynchings, legal school segregation, “colored only” signs, and “back of the bus” status. They ignore school segregation in their own communities, race riots, and the large black underclass in Northern as well as Southern cities. Civil Rights museums proliferate in the South while the North predominantly memorializes episodes of racial tolerance. Civil Rights courses generally study the South almost exclusively. Altogether the narrative is scarcely objective. Upon visiting the North, the white Southerner invariably finds a subtle, and not so subtle, racial hypocrisy with an overlay of self-righteousness. Ample evidence, which I present, shows that white Northerners, in the words of one black abolitionist, “best like the colored person at a distance.”
I also attempt to clarify the damaging misuse of the term “people of color.” Martin Luther King Jr. had some choice words in 1968 about conflating black Americans with foreign “people of color”; he thought some young black militants “are color-consumed and they see a kind of mystique in being colored, and anything not colored is condemned.” In his speeches King accepted color-consciousness in American society, though in his “I Have a Dream” speech he famously yearned for colorblindness. The attempt to combine the experiences of various Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and Latin American ethnicities under the umbrella of a nonwhite brotherhood flouts cultural, economic, and societal distinctions.
In another questionable association, current racial issues are likened to those of the 1960s as a way of cloaking today’s problems with the aura of the civil rights movement. In fact, the closest parallel is to the separatist ideologies of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, both of whom have recently gained prestige. Many of the great leaders of the civil rights era, in contrast to black leaders today, understood the need to prepare blacks to enter a competitive world and to recognize and deal with their own “shortcomings.”
IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY most black spokesmen avoid individual and group self-examination. Instead the black community has developed an immunity to self-criticism that seriously impairs accountability and corrective measures. Black activists have become apologists. They defend black behavior as if it were religious dogma. As an example, the astounding incidence of single-parent families within the black community is viewed as a product of incarceration and poverty or rationalized as an acceptable norm. Destructive black-on-black crime is no longer discussed. The individual has thus become not only a member of a group but subservient to the group. Free will has become subordinate to the legacy of slavery, past injustice, and the current environment. But if historians are correct that even slaves never lost their agency, and if race-based slavery could not eliminate free will, why do blacks wish to surrender their individual self-determination?
In the age of political correctness, hypersensitivity to perceived disrespect has been met by protest rather than objectivity and reliance on the legal system. Separatism is encouraged under the guise of an exaggerated form of multiculturalism. This aberrant strain dominates campus curricula and politics. An appropriate multiethnic approach asks what we have in common; today’s iteration dwells on what makes us different. The separatist implications lead to what Marcus Hanson in The Immigrant in American History would have pejoratively dubbed a disunited “patchwork nation.” The governing political system for this unwieldy collection would necessarily be an autocracy, not a democratic republic.