Schansberg: Reckoning with Race

June 19, 2018

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

For all of the discussion about race, it is rarely informed by novel ideas, knowledge about historical research or careful analysis. I recently read three books that have much to offer those who are trying to understand race in America — past, present and future.

“Slavery by Another Name” — In his 2008 book, Douglas Blackmon describes “trade” between governments and industry, farms and coal mines — from the end of the Civil War until World War II in the Deep South. Local officials would arrest poorer people (usually African-Americans) for minor offenses or on trumped-up charges. Unable to pay the fines, their prison sentences would be extended considerably. The government would then sell the prisoners to local industry for the duration of the sentence — a practice called “peonage.” In particular, Blackmon focuses on the largely fruitless efforts of the federal government to end peonage in Alabama in the first decade of the 20th century.

They were “slaves in all but name” — a reality for 100,000-200,000 men. Why is this not well-known? It pales in comparison to pre-Civil War slavery. The victims were often illiterate and isolated. And it violates a key American myth that we use “to explain our past and to embroider our present. . . . [we] recoil from the implication that emancipated black Americans could not exercise freedom, and [often] remained under the cruel thumb of white America, despite the explicit guarantees of the Constitution . . . and the moral resolve of the Civil War.”

Blackmon also details the role of Darwinism and race. He contrasts the science of the day with earlier Christian efforts to promote “the essential humanity” and dignity of slaves. The new science encouraged people to form “crude explanations for why blacks should be returned to a ‘mild form of slavery’.” Science eventually became an ally to racial equality, but such practices were not eliminated until World War II. “It was a strange irony that after 74 years of hollow emancipation, the final delivery of African Americans from overt slavery and from the quiet complicity of the federal government in their servitude was precipitated only in response to the horrors perpetrated by an enemy country against its own despised minorities.”

“Bind Us Apart” — In his 2016 book, Nicholas Guyatt details the strategies for dealing with Native Americans and the end of formal American slavery. The most common approaches were some form of keeping “them” away from “us”: segregation near us but not alongside us; colonization in our territory but away from us; and repatriation in a country far away from us.

All of these were ideas promoted by people who were relatively liberal. Guyatt argues that they were aiming at a true and earnest version of “separate but equal” — even if we would find their methods troubling today. He argues that most people understood the tension in the American experiment — between the lofty rhetoric of equality and the realities of slavery and post-slavery struggles. But only a few took action: “This is the story of how ‘liberal’ whites — men and women who thought themselves enlightened and benevolent — struggle to realize this multiracial society in the formative decades of the United States.”

“Reckoning with Race” — In his 2017 book, Gene Dattel argues that the key for blacks is the “entrance of most black Americans into the economic mainstream.” To promote this entrance, he forcefully advocates cultural assimilation versus separation.

One of Dattel’s goals is to dispel an important myth: racism was not a South-only problem; it was a national scourge. He details Northern racism before and after the Civil War. He describes the North’s struggle with integration, inner city violence and rioting. And he notes the irony that all civil rights museums are in the South.

Dattel looks at our times and is rightly concerned about increased crime, the decline of the African-American family and the woeful implications of these trends. The far-larger issues are connected to class — which then overlaps disproportionately with race. To note, if you don’t deal with the family structure and stability problems of the poor and lower-middle class, and the subsequent problems with K-12 education, it is difficult to imagine improvement.

Dattel is also troubled by what he sees as a tendency in the African-American community and among its leaders to mostly avoid “individual and group self-examination.” At the end of the day, personal responsibility — by leaders and citizens — and assimilation into the economic mainstream through education hold out the best long-term hope for economic progress and social harmony.

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.


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