As I recounted in a previous article, progress for Blacks in general is fragile but especially perilous for the masses of working class and poor people in Black America. In my judgment, this is primarily because race-based remedies to overcome past and present affects of enslavement, segregation, discrimination and structural racism have virtually been eradicated. Though affirmative action was originally conceived as a remedy for past and present discrimination against Blacks, in the current climate of “race neutral” public policy and jurisprudence, it has largely been reduced to achieving “diversity” in the academy and workplace. Indeed, the “reverse discrimination” case filed by White firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut may spell the end of affirmative action as a race- based remedy. To add insult to injury, the Supreme Court is also scheduled to rule on whether Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act should be terminated. This section provides that states with a history of exclusion or gerrymandering based on race must receive pre-clearance before making changes in voting procedures. Not surprisingly, the states of the old Confederacy are leading the charge to eliminate this provision.
Ironically, the election of America’s first Black President may serve to impede efforts to come to grips with the persistent disparities and inequities that still have large numbers of Black people mired in poverty. There is a danger that many Americans will view improvements in “race relations” under a Black President as the culmination of the heroic struggle for freedom and equality by Africans in America. This is a perception that scholars, activists and organizers must resist at every turn, insisting that racial justice, achieving equity and parity in a just and humane society must be the ultimate goal of the Black freedom struggle. To this end, there must be a calculated and concerted effort to revive race-based remedies to achieve racial justice.
America’s penchant for historical amnesia notwithstanding, the case for race-based remedies is deeply rooted in the nightmare of this nation’s history of racial oppression and economic exploitation of Black people; oppression and exploitation that benefited/developed America and its Euro-ethnic/White residents while retarding/under developing the sons and daughters of Africa. As Dr. Claud Anderson details in Black Labor, White Wealth, a significant portion of the wealth of America is directly or indirectly attributable to the enormous super-profits derived from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and generations of free labor extracted from enslaved Africans who toiled from Wall Street, the plantations in the South to the nation’s capital. Given the “acceleration principle” and “multiplier effect” as factors in economic growth/development, all Euro-ethnics benefited, though unevenly, from profits reaped from the “peculiar institution.”
The institution of chattel slavery is the genesis of the persistent social/economic disparities between Africans and Europeans in this country; a state of chronic inequality which could only have been overcome by the vigorous application of race-specific remedies designed to fully incorporate formerly enslaved and quasi-free Africans as equal citizens in a land not of their choosing. Unfortunately, there has never been consistent political will to achieve this objective.
In his essay The Constitutional Right of Negro Freedom, noted Constitutional scholar and people’s attorney Arthur Kinoy persuasively argues that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, established citizenship and bestowed the right to vote on Blacks respectively, were specifically intended to fully incorporate formerly enslaved Africans into the nation as equals. Adopted in the decade immediately following the Civil War, these Reconstruction Amendments were the first race-based remedies. Setting aside the fact that a plebiscite was never conducted to ascertain whether the formerly enslaved Africans wished to become American citizens or not, these Amendments fell short of achieving the intended effect. By 1877 an explosive White backlash in the South resulted in a “compromise” that virtually nullified the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Reconstruction Amendments. A rigid system of apartheid was instituted and violently enforced in the south. It would take nearly a century of struggle to regain the rights lost during the Post Reconstruction era.
Equally as telling, however, is the fact that the Reconstruction Amendments provided political/civil rights without accompanying social-economic rights. Impoverished formerly enslaved Africans were freed and made citizens of the United States, a capitalist society, without any compensation in the form of property and/or a permanent guarantee of entitlement to education, housing or healthcare. Having provided the free labor that generated wealth for a developing nation, no permanent programs were instituted to close the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites. Though Sherman’s Field Order #15 allocated 40 acres and a mule for thousands of formerly enslaved Africans with land from South Carolina to Florida, the Order was revoked by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Southern Homestead Act was also potentially a source of land/property for Blacks but access to this program was fiercely resisted by Whites who systematically ensured that parcels of land went to their kith and kin; land which could be passed on to future generations to under gird their social-economic status. The Freedman’s Bureau, which was established to provide healthcare, housing and educational opportunities for Black refugees from the Civil War, did offer useful services including establishing scores of educational institutions. Faced with Southern resistance, however, the Bureau was short-lived. With the advent of Post Reconstruction, Blacks faced the harsh reality that political rights had evaporated and no permanent programs had been instituted to ensure their social and economic development.
The case for race-based remedies does not end there, however. Much of American history can be described as a longstanding affirmative action program for Euro-ethnics that generated wealth and opportunity for Whites while stagnating and blunting the interests and aspirations of African Americans. We have already recounted how the Southern Homestead Act overwhelmingly benefited Whites rather that Blacks. Moreover, the southern apartheid system was designed to give privileges and opportunities to Whites over Blacks. Certain categories of jobs were “set aside” for “Whites only.” In most instances where Blacks and Whites worked the same job, Whites were paid more for doing the same work. Blacks were locked in quasi-peonage in the South as sharecroppers, tenant farmers and agricultural laborers. There were few opportunities beyond these fields as Blacks were systematically excluded from skill crafts like carpentry and brick masons, occupations that they were well suited to pursue. In addition, in his essay Demand for Black Labor, Harold Barron points out that in the aftermath of rapid industrial growth in the North after the Civil War, more than 10 million immigrants were imported from Europe to fill relatively well paying jobs in the factories, foundries and mills. These jobs could have been filled by Black laborers from the South. These late arriving immigrants would eventually move up the ladder to achieve a more secure economic status than their Black counter-parts.
Once the great migrations to the North by Blacks commenced, they found life better than the apartheid system in the South. However, affirmative action for Whites was still the order of the day. Blacks were the “last hired and first fired” in most occupations. Certain occupations were off limits to Blacks even in the North, and in most occupations, Blacks were confined to the most menial, dirty and low paying jobs. There was a color line blocking Blacks from reaching higher paying jobs. When the Hungarian Revolt against the Soviet Union erupted in 1956, thousands of Hungarian immigrants flocked to cities and towns in the U.S. like Youngstown, Ohio. I vividly recall Hungarian immigrants being immediately hired to jobs in the steel mill that my father was not allowed to work.
Agricultural extension agents in the South who systematically discriminated against Black farmers; a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) which assisted Whites to obtain home mortgages while denying Blacks; urban renewal programs which destroyed Black business districts and neighborhoods; and red lining by banks that denied Blacks the capital to build businesses or develop their communities on an equal footing with Whites. American history, past and present, is replete with examples of affirmative action for Whites which produced benefits that could be transferred to the next generation. Because of structural racism, Blacks could only pass on deficits to the next generation.
In composite, this history of racial exclusion of Blacks and advantages, privileges and benefits accrued by Whites explains the persistent disparities in income, wealth and other social-economic indicators between the races. Comprehend these historical factors and you understand why ultimately race-based remedies are imperative if Africans in America are to achieve equity and parity with their White counter-parts. This is the raw, naked truth that Americans must confront and address if racial justice and reconciliation are ever to become to part of “a more perfect union.”
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.