Rents and race: legacies of progressive policies.

Author:Anderson, William L.

Responding to a proposed 1898 law that would racially segregate rail cars in South Carolina, the Charleston News and Courier editorialized the proposal as ridiculous. The newspaper declared of race relations: "As we have got on fairly well for a third of a century, including a long period of reconstruction ... we probably can get on as well hereafter without it [the proposed law], and certainly so extreme a measure should not be adopted and enforced without added and urgent cause." The editorial did not stop there. Instead, it employed reductio ad absurdum rhetoric to declare that if rail cars were to be segregated, there also should be Jim Crow "eating cars," the "Jim Crow Bible for colored witnesses to kiss," and beyond (qtd. in Woodward 1974, 67-68). In other words, legal segregation on rail cars not only was unnecessary, but also preposterous.

Yet within a decade South Carolina and most southern states did have the Jim Crow eating, housing, bathrooms, and, yes, Bibles for "witnesses to kiss" and beyond, and even the News and Courier would endorse the same policies that it had formerly ridiculed. Historians for the most part see the explosion of Jim Crow laws at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century that required African Americans to be segregated from whites as a natural progression of racism that followed the Civil War, along with the social upheavals that followed as black chattel slavery was ended by military force.

In his popular book The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1974), C. Vann Woodward documents the rise of Jim Crow laws, yet he also claims that this development was ironic because it occurred during the Progressive Era. It is unthinkable to many historians to connect progressivism, with its emphasis on business regulation and reform, to an American era of apartheid. Instead, they seem to think along the same lines as David Southern (1968), who writes that race was a "blind spot" with Progressives and their otherwise worthy social agenda.

This essay, however, argues with this view, directly connecting progressivism and institutional racism, especially Jim Crow laws. Just as Murray Rothbard (1989) demonstrated the important link between progressivism and the American entry into World War I, we intend to demonstrate that the institutional racism of Jim Crow did not occur in spite of the Progressive moment, but rather because of progressivism and that it is linked specifically to the Progressive agenda of economic regulation. Furthermore, we do not draw our conclusions because some Progressives (such as Woodrow Wilson) personally were virulent racists, but rather because the regulatory institutions that Progressives created enabled the Jim Crow system. Progressivism, focusing on economic and social regulation, created new economic rents for which different groups of people would compete against one another, accentuating the already-existent ethnic divides. Because many Progressives believed that political and economic elites should rule society, it is not surprising that many of them turned toward eugenics (Leonard 2005), which would only serve to exacerbate racial conflict.

Progressives mixed ideology, science, and economic regulation and eschewed the original protections given by the U.S. Constitution, believing that the decentralized form of federalism and things such as private-property rights and limits to government actions stood in the way of social reform. Woodrow Wilson (1885) wrote that the constitutional system of checks and balances was outdated and needed to be eliminated or seriously changed. It was Wilson who firmly institutionalized Jim Crow policies in the federal government, where they would remain entrenched until after World War II. It was also during Wilson's term of office that the second movement of the Ku Klux Klan was formed with the president's blessing (Freund 2002).

There already is a wealth of literature on the Progressive movement, so this essay concentrates narrowly on the racial legacies of progressivism as they pertain to economic regulation. We examine literature dealing with the effects of the regulatory regimes brought on by Progressive "reforms," and then we apply that analysis to how these "reforms" affected race relations in the United States during that period.

We first link Jim Crow viewpoints with Progressive politicians. We then use economic analysis to demonstrate how the development of Jim Crow laws dovetailed with the Progressive economic "reforms" to create economic rents that could be exploited by whites and by the politicians who helped to create those reforms.

Jim Crow and the Progressives

As stated in the introduction, we intend to demonstrate that Progressives did not vacillate between the "high ideals" of economic regulation and the baseness of racism. Instead, they were for the most part racists who wove views on economic regulation into their larger social theories.

Woodward (1974) writes that Progressives "capitulated" to Jim Crow, as though they did so reluctantly, and Southern (1968) argues that institutional racism was a "blind spot" of Progressives, but the record tells a different story. Progressives did not begrudgingly accept the tenets of Jim Crow but instead were in the vanguard of establishing the American apartheid system. John Dewey, John R. Commons, Herbert Croly, Lyman Abbott, Charles Francis Adams Jr., Hoke Smith, Thomas Nelson Page, James Boyle, John W. Burgess, Herbert Baxter Adams, and his idealistic student Woodrow Wilson represent the leaders not only of Progressive economic and social theories, but also of the racial purity and segregation viewpoints that became legal and social policy in the United States (Southern 1968).

If there was a catalyst for the adoption of these viewpoints, it was Darwinism and the theory of evolution. Southern writes:

The scholarly liberals denied that society or economic enterprise should be a vicious struggle for existence, and they denounced the negative and amoral view of government espoused by Darwinist conservatives. Still the very same progressives most inconsistently lauded the "struggle of the races," and concluded that an inferior race like the Negro deserved no better than second-class citizenship. For instance, Edward A. Ross of the University of Wisconsin was a commanding figure who vehemently opposed the philosophy of laissez-faire as nothing but a vile corruption of Darwinism. (1968, 49) Southern further writes of Ross, who advised Progressive Wisconsin politician Robert La Follette:

While discarding [Herbert] Spencer's biological analogies to politics and society, Ross did not hesitate to employ them freely in his defense of racism. In The Old World in the New Ross stigmatized all the "new immigrants" as "strikebreakers and scabs" from lower races. They were alcoholics, unhygienic, and prone to insanity. He cried out against the millions of inferior immigrants who were lowering the character of America. A nation must have a "pride of blood" and an "uncompromising attitude toward the lower races," he declared. As might be expected, Ross employed his racist arguments against the ill-bred Negro. (1968, 49-50) Decrying what he sees as the disconnect between the supposed ideals of Progressives and their racial viewpoints, Southern writes of John R. Commons, founder of the American Economic Association and American Economic Review, "[O]n matters pertaining to race, Commons seemed more of a reactor than a thinker. Ross' racism was connected with his opposition to immigration, but in his harangues against immigrants he did not fail to chastise the Negro race. In Races and Immigrants (1907), Commons wrote that all tropical races were 'indolent and fickle.' The only way that a Negro would adopt the strenuous life of the Anglo-Saxon, he said, was by some kind of coercion. Moreover, the Negro was 'lacking in the mechanical idea' so necessary for an advanced industrial society" (1968, 50).

At best, writes Southern, some Progressive leaders tended to be ambivalent about race. For example, Croly, while claiming that "the Negro was morally and intellectually inferior" to whites, nonetheless did not attack American blacks as did Ross and Commons (Croly 1909, 81). Nor did Walter Lippman or Walter Weyl, though neither believed that much could or should be done to bring about racial equality. Weyl wrote, "The Negro problem is the mortal spot of the new democracy," and, like Southern nearly fifty years later, he believed it still to be a blind spot (Weyl 1912, 342).

Intellectuals, however, usually don't write laws or impose public policies. Politicians do, and many Progressive politicians of that age clearly were not racial moderates. Even if the intellectuals at best were ambivalent about the "Negro question," the politicians were not; the Negro was to have no part in the "Progressive America" except to be forced into lower social and economic castes.

The racism of Progressive politicians was institutional and enforced by law. The Charleston News and Courier could editorialize that legally enforced segregation did not have to be instituted because the postwar South had been able to get along without it for three decades. For example, during his first term in office (1885-89), President Grover Cleveland entertained Frederick Douglass and his white wife numerous times in the White House, and there was no public outcry (Southern 1968, 5). However, when President Theodore Roosevelt had Booker T. Washington as a White House guest in 1901, Senator "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman of South Carolina declared that the visit "will necessitate our killing a thousand n*ggers in the South before they learn their place" (qtd. in Southern 1968, 4). Indeed, Tillman came to power primarily using racially charged rhetoric, which contrasted to his political predecessors, such as Governor Wade Hampton, who had appealed to the better side of South Carolina's voters in the 1870s...

To continue reading