aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Some thoughts on race, economics, and history

I was doing some reading recently on an area of American history that isn't covered very well in any courses I've ever taken: the late 19th Century and the dawn of modern race relations. Most U.S. History courses spend only token amounts of time on Reconstruction and then shift focus from the South and its problems to the story of urbanization, immigration, tycoons, tariffs, and imperialism. As a result, the story of the competing visions of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois is usually ignored, though it sets the stage for everything else we know about race relations in the the last hundred years.

Booker T. Washington was born in slavery, achieved an education for himself, and set about to spread education to former slaves and descendants of slaves in the South. In 1895, he offered what was called the Atlanta Compromise with the white establishment: he advocated for black people accepting their second class citizenship in the South in return for State governments funding schools and colleges that would benefit blacks and for protection of blacks' property by courts and police. On the side, he quietly funded a number of civil rights cases, but confrontation with the structural racism of the day, he felt, was less important than helping blacks advance economically.

In effect, what he was trying to do was to create a black Middle Class by the well-worn technique of Redemption and Lift. He encouraged education, along with hard work and thrift. He trusted that economic liberty would lead to other kinds of liberty, as we have seen in the attempts of Communist governments to introduce capitalism -- which led to the collapse of Communism. This was always a long-term project, and of course, the vicious racism of many whites in the South meant that promises made by Southern politicians didn't always mean much. The schools were founded and many blacks got a good education, but they still lived a precarious, subjugated existence in the South.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a northern Black who had gone south to teach at Atlanta University, at first accepted Washington's Atlanta Compromise. But the violence and humiliations black people were subjected to led him to reject compromise. Du Bois and others founded the NAACP in order to offer a different path. The main purpose of the NAACP was to fight for civil rights. In doing this, they offered not only hope, but the dignity of resistance. In the end, Du Bois's approach won out over Washington's. The result is that most people I know, both black and white, probably think that Du Bois and the NAACP were the first on the scene and that blacks have always followed their ideology.

And there was (and is) quite an ideology on offer from the NAACP. Whereas Washington was in favor of capitalism, Du Bois advocated various forms of socialism. Washington saw even the poorest blacks as potential members of the Middle Class. Du Bois saw black Americans as stratified into a "submerged tenth" whom nobody could do much to help, a "talented tenth" which formed an elite with the education and connections to lead the struggle for civil rights, and the mass of blacks in the middle who could be significantly helped if they followed the lead of the elite, "talented tenth."

This, by the way, is the usual form socialism takes. It advertises itself as a movement aimed at raising the poor, but in fact is always run by elites. These elites then act as patrons, enrolling the rest of the people they claim to represent in their clientage. Socialism is always BY the elites, FOR the poor (but not the really poor). This explains why prominent black leaders on the left always speak so nastily about black conservatives, BTW: the idea that you could rise to leadership without being vetted by the patrons and admitted to the official elite threatens the whole system. It also explains why UNITY is harped on so much. If you could rise on your own, then the patron is irrelevant. So patronage systems always work to make clients dependent upon patrons and to mask the parasitical nature of patronage.

All this is not to say that the NAACP didn't do some great work. They fought the battles that won the rights that blacks had been denied. They deserve full credit for doing so. But the economic question has to be addressed, and here, the Du Bois tradition needs to be looked at more closely. Absent pervasive, institutionalized racism, which approach -- the creation of a Middle Class through entrepreneurial capitalism or a patronage-backed unity advocating for socialism -- is more likely to raise standards of living and create opportunities for blacks in America?

Note what I said: absent . . . racism (which, compared to a hundred years ago, is largely the situation in America today). It's no contest. Capitalism trumps socialism every time. Eastern Europeans will tell you so. Even Britons will tell you so. Socialism has worked best in fairly small, mostly homogeneous populations in northern Europe. It's been a bust everywhere else, and it's even starting to show some cracks in its best stomping grounds. Meanwhile, capitalism -- Middle Class capitalism, not necessarily tycoon capitalism -- has always raised living standards and led to greater political as well as economic freedom. Think of the Wesleyan Revival: the ultimate example of Redemption and Lift.

The heirs of W.E.B. DuBois could acknowledge this and, while justly celebrating the end of the bad old days, shift their focus to advancing African-Americans' prospects through the kind of entrepreneurship that Booker T. Washington envisioned. Unfortunately, they are stuck in the bad old days, and too often they merely descend into race-baiting in order to keep their leadership of a movement that has, in many ways, outgrown them. Meanwhile, like socialists all over the world, they continue to hold onto elite privileges while advocating policies that trap millions in poverty.

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