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Classical Liberalism and the Problem of “Race” in America

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The masterful words in the American Declaration of Independence that have inspired untold millions of people around the world hailed a transformative conception of man and the human condition by declaring that all men were created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What stood out in these words is that they did not say that such unalienable rights only belonged to those living in the British colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. It was not claimed that these rights belonged only to those speaking the English language, or practicing a particular religious faith, or those who were members of only one or some racial or ethic groups. The words are declarative and unequivocal, and universal. These are rights that belong to each and every human being. Period.

The great contradiction and practical hypocrisy was, of course, that such rights were not extended to all human beings in America. There was human slavery in the American colonies and in the, then, independent United States, especially centered in the Southern states.

Slavery the Great Contradiction in a Free America

Discrimination, bigotry and cruelty pervaded and persisted in the relationships between Americans of European descent and those of African ancestry.  Before the Civil War it was institutionalized in legal human slavery, including in the shadows of the Capital Building and the White House in Washington, D.C.

In the first number of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, published on January 1, 1831, there was included an article on, “The Slave Trade in the Capital.” It said

“It is well, perhaps, the American people should know, that while we reiterate our boasts of liberty in the ears of nations … we ourselves are busily engaged in the work of oppression. Yes, let it be known to the citizens of America, that at the very time when the procession which contained the President of the United States and his Cabinet was marching in triumph to the Capitol, to celebrate the victory of the French over their oppressors, another kind of procession was marching another way, and that consisted of colored human beings, handcuffed in pairs, and driven along by what had the appearance of a man on a horse!

“A similar scene was repeated on Saturday last; a drove consisting of males and females chained in couples, starting from Roby’s tavern on foot, for Alexandria, where with others, they are to embark on board a slave-ship in waiting to convey them to the South … It is but a few weeks since we saw a ship with her cargo of slaves in the port of Norfolk, Va.; on passing up the river, saw another ship off Alexandria, swarming with the victims of human cupidity.

“Such are the scenes enacting in the heart of the American nation. Oh, patriotism! Where is thy indignation? Oh, philanthropy! Where is thy grief? Oh, shame, where is thy blush?  … These shocking scenes must cease from amongst us, or we must cease to call ourselves free….”

Slavery may have legally and formally ended in the wake of the Civil War, with the incorporation of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865; but racial prejudice did not die and segregation laws instituted in the Southern states during the closing decades of the nineteenth century restored compulsory separation between individuals who by their accidents of birth were classified as either “white” or “black.”

George S. Schuyler, Advocate for Rights of Black Americans 

It is easily forgotten, today, how inhuman and insensitive, how cruel these segregation laws were to a large segment of the American population, all of whom were officially citizens of the United States. The following examples that I wish to offer from the period between the two World Wars are from some articles written by the brilliant, witty, and often bitingly insightful African-American author, George S. Schuyler (1895-1977).

I choose him not only because of the useful factual information in these articles covering an earlier period of the twentieth century in America, but because, while he may have flirted with socialism in his youth, he soon rejected all forms of collectivism, became an outspoken anti-communist beginning in the 1930s, and advocated equal rights for black Americans before the law in a system of individual freedom and private enterprise.

He believed so much in individual liberty and freedom of association that in the 1960s he wrote against some forms of compulsory integration as merely the mirror image of the coerced segregation that he spent his life opposing. Taking such a stand lost him the recognition and respect he had long had as one of the leading twentieth century journalists, opinion writers, and authors in the African-American community.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, H. L. Mencken, who was then the editor of The American Mercury, opened its pages to George S. Schuyler, and he contributed several articles on race relations and attitudes that were addressed to what was a predominantly white readership. I highly recommend one of the most biting, witty and brilliantly sarcastic portraits that have ever been penned on the absurdities and arrogance of white beliefs and misconceptions about and their cruel actions toward “Aframericans,” in Schuyler’s article, “Our White Folks,” which appeared in the December 1927 issue of The American Mercury.

But a stark enumeration of those humiliations and indignities suffered by African-Americans at the hands of many in the white community may be especially found in Schuyler’s articles in The American Mercury on, “Keeping the Negro in His Place” (August 1929), “Traveling Jim Crow” (August 1930).

The Indignities and Humiliations of Racism 

In everyday life, Americans of African ancestry were excluded from many parts of the wider white society.  For instance, blacks were either barred from the movie theaters in cities, great and small, around the country, or were restricted to seats in the back rows of the balcony, far away from the white clientele. Rarely could a black family enjoy a summer afternoon at the beach, if they lived near the seashore, because the beaches were almost invariably restricted to “whites only.”

Blacks had learned that, “Poets may sing of the sea being blue, but to the Aframerican pining for a dip it looks mighty white….” said Schuyler, and then explained:

“This is true of most American bathing places, whether on the seashore or inland. At almost all such places the blackamoor is persona non grata and the peckerwoods make no bones about ‘getting him told.’ At most of the beaches in the vicinity of New York City, Negroes are barred from going in bathing, not by ordinance but because no one will rent them bathing-suits or a bathhouse locker in which to put them on if they happen to own any. At many such places it is against the law to appear off the beach proper in a bathing suit, hence the Negro who arrives in his automobile ready for a plunge is likely to land in the hoosegow. The beach police are unusually ‘vigilant’ in enforcing the letter of the law when an Aframerican heaves into sight.”

Sarcastically, Schuyler added, “Of course, few Negroes would want to go in swimming at Coney Island, even if they were permitted to hire bathing-suits and rent lockers in bathhouses, because of the swarms of white riff-raff that bask everywhere on the beach amidst cans, newspapers and pop bottles.”

Blacks could forget about going out for an evening of entertainment in many places, because here, too, the door was closed to any with a dark complexion. Schuyler explained:

“When the weather is not inclement, he likes to go motoring and stop by some roadhouse to dance and dine. But what is his reception? Almost everywhere he is openly refused service or prevented from getting it by some subterfuge….

“Seldom do the police aid in putting them in their place, unless they become too vociferous in demanding their rights – which is very rare. The only time the guardians of the law themselves take a hand in maintaining white supremacy in places of recreation is when a cabaret or dance-hall in the Black Belt is reported to be black-and-tan: i.e., frequented by both blacks and whites. This must never be, of course, if the purity of the polyglot Anglo-Saxons is to be preserved.”

Rather than suffer such indignities, most African Americans, Schuyler went on, would stay within their black neighborhoods where they could retain degrees of self respect from these humiliations at the hands of whites over whose conduct they had no control. But due to the generally poor economic circumstances in such communities the amenities, conveniences, and entertainments either did not exist or were of a far lower quality.

Racial Barriers on Roads and Trains Across America

Equally constraining and unkind were those instances in which an African-American went on vacation by car or needed to travel by train. Schuyler lamented:

“Indeed, the troubles of Job seem trivial in comparison with those that bedevil the poor Aframerican who ventures forth to see his country. No matter in what part of it he may reside he knows very well that the hotel and resort advertisements he reads in the newspapers and magazines are not intended for such as he….

“It is all well enough to say that the Negro traveler should go to one of ‘his own places,’ but Aframerican hostelries are not always at hand and when available they are frequently tenth-rate, owing to the small number of well-to-do Negro travelers upon whom they can regularly depend. In spite of the general belief that colored folk are all alike, the fact remains that there are all classes of people in Negro America, from tramps to millionaires, and a hotel or rooming-house quite satisfactory to stevedores, laborers and field hands would hardly be to the taste of a school teacher, a physician or an artist.”

Getting a railroad ticket was a perverse “adventure” all of its own for the ordinary black American. We need to remember that before the Second World War and the construction of the interstate highway system the primary means of any longer-distance travel in the United States was by train. An overnight journey was common for all, but rare was the black man or woman who could easily purchase a ticket in one of the Pullman cars used for bed accommodations on a train almost anywhere in America. Instead, they were confined to “black only” cars with hard seats for the trip, and often of a much lower quality or comfort that even a “third class” ticket for a white passenger. Getting a meal in the train dining car was difficult, and often only after all the white travellers had finished their lunch or dinner meals.

Even innocent, little old black ladies were not saved from such treatment. But creative ingenuity could sometimes get around the color bar, said Schuyler:

“I know a colored woman who frequently goes from New York to New Orleans and always puts on an apron when she gets below the [Mason-Dixon] line. It is a badge of servility that acts as a protection, since it definitely places her in the servant class. Of course the most rabid Negrophobe has no objection to riding in a Pullman car or diner with a Negro if that Negro is in a menial capacity. That such a seemingly absurd precaution is frequently wise was well-demonstrated three or four years ago when a Negro woman was dragged out of a Pullman car in Northern Florida by officers of the law and fined $500 for the crime of riding through that progressive Commonwealth in comfort.”

Schuyler wrote of many instances in which the “invisible line” of the Mason-Dixon Line changed attitudes and conduct by whites. He recounted an instance in which a group of black and white schoolteachers were traveling on the same train from Arkansas to a convention up north. When the train departed the station in Arkansas, the teachers remained in their respective “whites-” and “blacks-only” train cars. However, once the train had crossed the Missouri border, “the whites trooped into the erstwhile Jim Crow car, a Negro school principal produced a quart of corn, and a good time was had by all until the end of the journey.”

But such episodes were few and far between compared to those in which whites refused to share the same dining or club car on a train with African-Americans, regardless of whether the ride was in the North or the South, but especially in the old slave states. Schuyler had observed all this, having “traveled closed to 20,000 miles in the Coon and Cracker country” of the Southern states.  But, he pointed out that on trains even in “the liberal North every effort is made to keep black diners away from white diners, though black waiters serve both.”

The stories that Schuyler relates go on-and-on, from the difficulties of getting a white taxi cab driver to take a black fare to their destination to the problems of a black person finding gas stations where he could fill up his own car to continue on his way in areas not predominately populated by other African-Americans.

Insisting on the Same Individual Rights as Everyone Else

Schuyler argued in a 1944 review that he wrote of Gunnar Myrdal’s, The American Dilemma that African-Americans were increasingly unwilling to accept forever this cultural of indignity and exclusion:

“The so-called Negro is sick and tired of being booted about by those whom he does not regard as his betters (although they may think so). Today he wants all the rights and privileges any other American enjoys, and he means to have them. All of his leaders are unanimously agreed on that, and his 200 newspapers chorus it weekly. It would be a mistake, however, for any one to assume that this militancy of the Negro who is actually a mixture of European, African and Amerindian) is newly found. Throughout American history runs the fear of Negro uprisings and disorders, and the actual fact of numerous pitched battles resulting from efforts of Negroes to win the dignity of manhood status.

“All along the Negroes have been much more clear-visioned than the whites; and in the larger sense they have even been more patriotic because they have persistently fought for the American Creed – the principles which white America has loudly pronounced but grudgingly practiced, if at all.”

And as Schuyler also emphasized in another article the year before, in 1943, “Since what the Negroes want accords with the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution, they properly feel that right is on their side and they have fought and will continue to fight for it with a fervency approaching religious zeal … because even the most unlettered Negro knows that nothing less will lift him to full manhood status.” As Schuyler went on, “The Negroes demand to live and travel where they choose, seek work where it is available, enjoy the same educational and recreational facilities” in place of, “White people [who] regard it as their right to have exclusive racial neighborhoods, lily-white educational and recreational facilities, and special privileges industrially,” made possible by segregation laws and racist behavioral arrogance.

Classical Liberals and the Race Problem in America

An interesting and important question is what were the political and policy positions of American classical liberals and libertarians during this time concerning segregation laws and violence against Americans of Africa descent?

Early in the twentieth century some like H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock spoke out against such things. Nock, for instance, wondered, “What We All Stand For,” in an article in which he recounted an episode in Pennsylvania in 1911, in which a black man accused of killing a white policeman was chased down by a mob and burned alive, with no one raising his voice in opposition or protest or even shock at such behavior.

H.L. Mencken filled the pages of The American Mercury under his editorship with articles by himself and other white and black authors lambasting and lampooning the backward, yahoo ignorance and stupidity of Ku Klux Klaners around the country who donned their white pillow cases over their heads and acted like violent and vicious morons against blacks and all other normal human beings.

Sometimes their choice of words or phrases, especially by Mencken, in dealing with race and race issues seem to our more enlightened ears to be ill chosen, but they were the linguistic products of their time in which language sensitivity had not yet attained our more advanced refinement. But it is impossible to not sense the ethical anger with which Mencken viewed all such racial injustices.

But what stands out most, at least from my reading, is that any fairly serious perusal of the classical liberal and libertarian literature of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, shows little interest or focus on the issues and problems surrounding race relations in the United States.

Their primary and certainly legitimate concern was with the growth and acceleration of political power and control over larger and larger segments of personal, social and economic life, especially by the Federal government extending itself far beyond the confines of the traditional understanding of the limits placed on it by the U.S. Constitution.

Yes, most of such writings would rightly refer to the contradiction and inconsistency of slavery in American history. There might be a passing reference to the injustice of segregation laws as practiced in the Southern states. But there was little or no moral outrage or loud cry of indignation against a legal system that compulsorily prevented peaceful and voluntary association among those who might be members of different biological races due to accident of birth.

Few, also, were the appeals for an immediate end to the segregation laws in the South, though none of the classical liberal or libertarian authors with whom I’m acquainted endorsed or condoned them in those middle decades of the twentieth century.

Friedman, Rothbard, and Rand on Race and Discrimination

There were, of course, real libertarian voices against segregation laws and racial discrimination. Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom (1962) highlighted the close and essential link between economic freedom and political freedom. Reduce the power of the state from virtually all forms of political intervention in the marketplace, and competitive opportunities for mutual gains from trade will reduce or eliminate the potentials and possibilities for governmental discrimination and persecution of an individual or a group.

In 1963, Murray Rothbard analyzed “The Negro Revolution” emphasizing the State’s role in providing the coercive political means to sustain both slavery and the segregation laws, as well as the negative impact of economic interventions that weaken or closed market opportunities to African Americans; and, not surprisingly, Rothbard endorsed the basic justness of a cause wishing to free people from these oppressive denials of liberty.

Also in 1963, Ayn Rand wrote a powerful and forceful essay on the immorality and atavistic basis of racism. As she said, “Racism is the lowest, and most crudely primitive form of collectivism,” the “manifestation of a doctrine whose full expression is the tribal warfare of prehistoric savages [and] the wholesale slaughter of Nazi Germany.”

Rand emphasized that, “There is only one antidote to racism: the philosophy of individualism, and its politico-economic corollary, laissez-faire capitalism.” Biology is an accident of birth, Rand argued. What matters is to look at and judge and treat human beings as individuals, as reflected in the reasoning powers of their minds and creative acts. Anything else easily leads to the damaging effects of a collectivist mindset.

The Missing Link: Moral Outrage Against an Immoral System

But where was the moral fervor and ethical insistence demanding the end to explicit and implicit segregation laws and racial prejudice and behavior among classical liberals and libertarians of the twentieth century equal to the type of voice of indignation found in such nineteenth century opponents of slavery as William Lloyd Garrison? One finds far too few.

Whatever my interpretation may be worth, I have never sensed any underlying racism or race prejudice in those leading libertarian writers in the middle decades of the twentieth century. But focused on the wider threats from Big Government and the expanding interventionist-welfare state, beginning with FDR’s New Deal, most of them seemed to miss or considered not of equal importance what has turned out to be one of the most profoundly important historical changes in America over the last one hundred years – the tearing down of racial barriers and prejudices in many if not most corners of everyday life.

As a consequence, the debates and discussions concerning race, tolerance and the proper institutional order of a free society in an America whose history has been inseparable from the divide between blacks and whites was left almost by default to opponents of racism on the political “left.”

Arguments concerning freedom of association in markets and personal relationships surrounding race problems in America were all predominantly analyzed through the ideological prism of those who considered political paternalism and coercive reform as the only or best avenues leading to racial justice, peace and harmony.

This has now been mutating into the race-based “identity politics” of contemporary America that really threatens a return to a biologically determined classification of individuals, and the “rewards” or “punishments” to be bestowed on all based on the collectivist group category to which the powerless individual has been assigned by ideologically driven “progressive” social engineers.

Friends of freedom, therefore, in my view, must develop ways of breathing life into the philosophy and politics of individual liberty that takes back the moral passion and principled defense of freedom of association on racial issues with the same sense of right and justice with which the classical liberal enemies of slavery brought down that earlier institutionalized system of human bondage. Otherwise, we shall continue our journey on the ideological train of race-based collectivist government planning.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).