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.

In the American story, the major exception to assimilation, of course, was the exclusion of black America.

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.”

Upon visiting the North, the white Southerner invariably finds a subtle, and not so subtle, racial hypocrisy with an overlay of self-righteousness.

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.

From Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure by Gene Dattel. © 2017. Published by Encounter Books. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


  • Woodman
    Posted: Sat, 12/16/2017 01:04 pm

    It’s disappointing to see World buy into a seminal talking point of the left. Race is only a national problem today to those who subscribe to the notion that America is about male dominated white supremacy. Talk to visitors from the Ukrain or other ethnic states about American racism and you’ll hear the opposite story. Are there racist or anti Semitic people? Yes. Is it a national crisis? Only if you believe the left. 

    Posted: Sat, 12/16/2017 02:28 pm

    I agree with Woodman.  The national narrative is that the fundamental problems in America  in the moral, economic, and political spheres can only be understood through the lens of racism and white privelage. Once stated, it becomes a "truth" that can't be challenged.  This narrative will not lead to the strengthening of our country or our church. Rather it feeds into the discrediting of the church.   The problems in the American church are being defined using this same story line. (see Bryan Loritts article in the 10/27/17 issue of Christianity Today).  I don't think believers propogating this narrative fully understand the idealogy and movement they are alligning with.  I am dismayed that World apparently is unaware of the allignment as well.

    I marched in the Vietnam rallies in the 60's  We were angry and opposed to the wrongs of the "authorities" running our nation.  What few people understood was that those fomenting the rage had an ill defined agenda to dismantle the moral and political structures upon which our nation was built.  Most were willing to protest simply because the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)  were successul in defining the bad guys and taking the role of the good guys, It is easy to label people who think differently as oppressors and justify attacking and discrediting them.  It is much harder to have the wisdom and humility to see the log in your own eye.  But unless all sides of this issue are willing to dialogue with openness and humility, the moral decline in our nation will continue.  Our churches and faith will continue to follow the path of Europe.

  • GWKnight
    Posted: Sat, 12/16/2017 02:41 pm

    I disagree. Not that this is a seminal talking point of the left but that race relations is not a national problem.  I grew up in the 50's and 60's just outside of Boston, Mass.  Well aware of the riots occurring around the country and the active segregation of the South I, and my friends, all believed that the problem was elsewhere but not in our neighborhoods where peace and tolerance reigned. As a college student in the late 60's I travelled into Boston each Sunday to teach sunday school to a group of black children. Here I became aware that there was a level of distrust and separation between me and their parents.  It was also at this college, private and Christian, that I came face to face with racial hatred for the first time and, given the setting, found it very unsettling. Following graduation my wife and I moved to south Georgia with the Air Force.  It was here that I had to concede that my country was deeply, and perhaps irrevocably, racially divided. Over the past four decades I have observed the earnest beginnings of true racial reconciliation be co-opted and sidetracked by the well intentioned but wrongheaded thinking behind so many government programs.  What began with such promise seems now to be in its death throes. From segregation to "separate but equal" to fully integrated we are separating once more into identity based camps. Some, like me and my friend in the 60's, will see the problem as elsewhere but not in our neighborhoods and therefore a small localized problem.  From my experience, that is incorrect.  Our failure, as a nation, to effectively deal with the racial divide over the past half century has brought us to this point today.  I think that Mr. Dattel's rehearsal of race relations in America can serve well to instruct us as we struggle to live together as one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.  God have mercy on us if we can't.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 12/17/2017 06:20 pm

    Who cares if it's a talking point of the left? The only question we should care about is whether there is injustice or no. If there is, then we should fight injustice as we have opportunity to do so. Correct? So let's look at the facts and see whether there is injustice. The book quoted might be a good place to start. I think it would be rather hard to make the case that there is absolutely zero race-based injustice anywhere in our country.

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Mon, 12/18/2017 01:58 pm

    Laura is dead on here.  Who cares what the left says or doesn't say?  We ought only to be concerned with whether there is indeed injustice.  This article is mostly focused on the mistaken approach to the ongoing problems of violence and single motherhood in black communities.  Surely we can agree that is an issue requiring attention?

  • GaryG
    Posted: Thu, 12/21/2017 10:42 am

    The article makes these strong points, which are certainly not "talking points" of the Left:

    1. Immigrants to America should learn English.
    2. Northerners can be just as racist as Southerners.
    3. The only solution:  a change within black society to prepare for the future.

    Quite shocking to me is that the "only solution" is for a change within black society (and not anywhere else?).  I'm not sure I can agree with a statement as strong as that, because it seems to let me, a white Southerner, off the hook, and I would prefer to be part of the solution if possible.

    The point of the article is that racism still exists in the North as well as in the South, which is against the popular narrative that the race problem is and always has been just a Southern problem.  So if you disagree, your burden is to show that Northerners are not as racist as Southerners, both today and in the past.  And in doing so, you would be promoting a talking point of the Left, just by the way, but that wouldn't automatically make you wrong.

  • beep523
    Posted: Sat, 12/16/2017 04:41 pm

    I was happy to see that the author has included the choices made by the African American community to be a factor in the racism in the country. Yes, racism exists countrywide. As a northern white raised in a home by parents who saw no skin color, I have experienced the backlash from uppidy whites (rich and not so rich) who chastise me for being openly inclusive in work and social settings. However, I also disapprove of African Americans who deliberately try to be as different as possible from their white counterparts. Go into any black community and there are clothing stores that carry distinctive clothing that is not found anywhere else in the country. If they want to be included, they need to dress the part. Our founding fathers had it right. While we may have different political viewpoints, we gain nothing by trying to be culturally distinct. And the church needs to be the salt God intended it to be instead of huddling behind four walls blessing itself.

  • brightnsalty
    Posted: Sun, 12/17/2017 12:48 am

    That is a dangerous and disturbing ideology if I've ever heard it. They need to dress the part? Nothing to gain from cultural distinctions? So instead of living out their culture, you mean they should adopt white culture. Which is a cultural distinction...

    I think rather that the key is for us to learn as a nation how to embrace and appreciate our differences, learn from people who aren't like us and maybe get over our own prejudices based on outward appearance. At the very least, we shouldn't exclude someone from society or look down on them because of the way they dress. That's a pretty poor way to treat people. 

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Mon, 12/18/2017 02:08 pm

    I'd agree that being different simply for the sake of being different is a slippery slope, but I think we ought also to welcome what makes us different.  For instance, there are a great many things about my Dutch heritage that I take pride in, both in terms of upbringing and in food and mindsets.  It's true that I don't wear klompen or bloused pants anymore, and that I would consider anyone who does to be trying "a little too hard," but if someone wanted to introduce a modern practical form of those traditional dutch garments, I'd be happy to have another way to celebrate my heritage.

    (I would also have no problem with anyone else, regardless of heritage, wearing such garments--I have many thoughts on "cultural appropriation" that are not really relevant here)

  • MikeD
    Posted: Sun, 12/17/2017 03:43 pm

    What Dattel does not make clear in this excerpt (he does allude to it), is that there are different characteristcs to southern racism and northern racism. The southern version was overtly oppressive; the northern much more subtle. Dattel also points to the cultural impact on Blacks of their northern migration and attachs that to his picture of northern racism. This is a mistake, as it puts the blame for Afro-American choices on white America.

    Where Dattel needs to go, and perhaps does in the rest of the book, is to point out that it is the elitist racism of the Left that is most damaging to the process of Black assimilation into the multi-ethnic fabric of the United States.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 12/17/2017 06:22 pm

    Subtly oppressive is still oppressive. If anything, it's even more insiduous because it's harder to pin down and confront.

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Mon, 12/18/2017 02:12 pm

    I like a lot of this, although I would argue that it is also important to emphasize what makes us different as much as what we have in common.  There is no reason to completely throw away a heritage of being Irish, with all the culture and history that implies, simply in pursuit of being American.  But it is possible to emphasize what an Irishman has in common with a Japanese man, while still acknowledging that each have their own unique subcultures and backgrounds.

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 12/20/2017 01:57 pm

    It starts in the Church.  I had the unfortunate opportunity to listen to a relatively recent--within the last decade or so--recording of a Sunday School class on R. L. Dabney's views on slavery.  The class was based on Dabney's A Defense of Virgina and the South, which is actually a postbellum Christian apologetic for the Southern defense of the institution of slavery.  The fact that a Sunday school teacher would endorse this book in recent decades indicates that there remains a serious problem with racism in the Church, whether or not it is a minority view.

    That people dismiss the small minority of black votes for Republican presidents in recent elections concerns me, too.  This is an attitude problem, not a marketing problem.  To give up on the Black vote is to stop caring for the Black people.  When I also consider a recent conversation in which a presumably solid Christian felt the need to state that a man "who is a Jew" is preoccupied with money, I am concerned.

    A little leaven infects the whole lump.  We in the Church need to do a much better job of checking our own prejudices.  How do we feel when others dismiss as fantasy what we actually experience?  When do I feel the need to watch my six?  Why do I say, "Jews this," or, "Blacks that," or, "Whites the other?"  Do I believe that They are the problem--that if They would only change Their ways, then life would be much better for Them (and Us)?