The Progressive Jim Crow

From Progressive-Era Economics and the Legacy of Jim Crow

Progressives and Race: Spoiling the Picture

If there were dark clouds in this otherwise “bright” period of “progress,” they were World War I, the most destructive and murderous international conflict ever in which the USA inevitably was drawn, and the rise of institutional racism, otherwise known as Jim Crow. World War I, while admittedly a disastrous event of one sort, did serve to further uproot the conservative and regressive monarchies of Europe. Thus, from the Progressive perspective, there was a small but important “silver lining” in the dark cloud of war.

Jim Crow laws were another matter altogether, but Progressive historians had a ready-made explanation for what clearly were the implementation of policies that exacerbated inequality at a time when intellectuals, journalists, and politicians were beating the drums of equality. The Progressive advocates of Jim Crow, write historians such as C. Vann Woodward and David W. Southern, simply suffered under a “blind spot” of racism. While their intentions were good, and while the economic policies they advocated ultimately would advance the cause of African-Americans, the practitioners and creators of Jim Crow were blind not only to the needs of blacks, along with their basic humanity, but also were unable to understand that they unwittingly were helping the very people they claimed to hate.

There is another way to view Progressive policies, however, one that does away with the so-called blind-spot-of-racism narrative and replaces it with a viewpoint that recognizes that the very economic and social “reforms” that Progressives championed and for which they receive ubiquitous praise actually were intended to harm blacks and other minorities that found themselves out of favor with American Progressives.

In 2013, David Kiriazis and I published an article in The Independent Review in which we openly challenge the “blind spot” thesis and claim that Progressives wanted to harm black Americans and that their reforms were the tools which they employed to carry out their goals. Far from making economic life “fairer” and more open via the regulatory process, we argue that the Progressive Era regulatory machine did what government regulations always do: create economic winners and losers through the creation of barriers to entry, raised business costs (which favored the larger business enterprises that also were politically-connected) and in the process created government-sponsored economic rents.

In an eye-opening paper, Thomas Leonard of Princeton University lays out how Progressives embraced the faux science of eugenics in an attempt to “weed out” ethnic groups that Progressives considered to be vastly inferior to educated whites. Blacks were among those groups that Progressives believed needed to be subjugated to white rule and pushed into the margins of society, with the tools being economic “reforms” and the implementation of the minimum wage.

Some quotes from intellectuals of that day simply are shocking. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and an icon of Progressivism spoke of the need to “exterminate the Negro population” through a program of birth control and sterilization. Economists such as Irving Fisher, Frank Fetter, Simon Patten, and Edward A. Ross saw the presence of blacks and immigrants from Eastern Europe as destructive to American society and believed that the implementation not only of eugenics, but also imposing a minimum wage would help “purify” the country by keeping the “unemployables” out of the workplace.

Likewise, the most passionate economic “reformers” of the early Progressive Era, such as US Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, also were the most vocal racists and based their campaigns on going after established businesses and blacks. (Woodward could not reconcile himself to what he saw as the inconsistency of Tillman’s political and economic Progressivism with his racism.)

Leonard points out that the Progressives saw the increased unemployment caused by the minimum wage to be a net social benefit, which went against the standard neoclassical viewpoint of economists like Alfred Marshall, A.C. Pigou, and Phillip Wicksteed, who saw job losses via the minimum wage as imposing a social cost. If one promotes the viewpoint today that increasing the minimum wage will create higher levels of unemployment, especially among blacks, then that person is a racist, according to socialist Harold Myerson, who writes for the Washington Post.

There are no slaves like those who love their chains.

Wise blacks – especially Christians – would be well advised to distrust the promises of Those Who Love Them, and push – day after day, year after year – to get their own money, by serving the customer, while making sure to build into their children Christian ethics, literacy, numeracy, and a desire to work out their spiritual and financial salvation,’with fear and trembling’.

The day is rapidly approaching when the centralizing socialist dreams of The Right Sort will come a’cropper. Be sure not to be dependent on the Welfare State for anything at all, before that day arrives.

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