Oscar Stanton De Priest (1871-1951) was the first African-American elected to Congress in the 20th century. Like Barack Obama, he rose through Chicago machine politics. Unlike Obama, De Priest was a Republican firmly opposed to big government. He lost his seat in 1934 when African-Americans voted their empty pocketbooks and began a massive switch from the Republican Party that had claimed their allegiance for 70 years to the Democrats who have claimed their allegiance for the past 75.
That switch had political consequences-Democratic control of Congress, with rare exceptions-and socioeconomic ones as well: Asian immigrants typically built businesses and many African-Americans have as well, but black economic progress in the popular mind is connected to government growth and affirmative action. Schoolroom and media accounts during February's Black History Month celebrate big-government proponents but generally ignore fighters for individual liberty like De Priest, NAACP co-founder Moorfield Storey, Howard University dean Kelly Miller, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.
Jonathan Bean's Race & Liberty in America (University Press of Kentucky and The Independent Institute, 2009) points out that "academic booklists reflect the politically correct view that left-wing liberals or radicals completely dominated the struggle for racial freedom." Bean's excellent book shows that many African-American leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries had a different emphasis. Those leaders prized individual rights, Christianity, and markets where the only color is the green of greenbacks. Those leaders knew that government power enforced racist codes and segregation.
Free markets, as Frederick Douglass understood, work for minorities. (Some streetcar companies opposed segregation because it increased their cost of doing business.) From the Civil War to the 1890s, ex-slave Douglass' stump speech emphasized "WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put." Douglass sided with employers over racist unions and asked that they give the ex-slave opportunity: "Give him a chance to do whatever he can do well. If he fails then, let him fail! I can, however, assure you that he will not fail. Already he has proven it. As a soldier he proved it."
In 1924 Kelly Miller, the Howard University dean who was the first African-American admitted to Johns Hopkins, also argued that blacks should favor free markets rather than government or union power: "The capitalist has but one dominating motive, the production and sale of goods. The race or color of the producer counts but little. . . . The capitalist stands for an open shop which gives to every man the unhindered right to work according to his ability and skill. In this proposition the capitalist and the Negro are as one."
But the development of federal jobs programs and welfare during the 1930s moved many African-American leaders to the big-government side. In 1951 Zora Hurston decried such selling out for temporary advantage: "Throughout the New Deal era the relief program was the biggest weapon ever placed in the hands of those who sought power and votes. . . . Dependent upon the Government for their daily bread, men gradually relaxed their watchfulness and submitted to the will of the 'Little White Father,' more or less. Once they had weakened that far, it was easy to go on and on voting for more relief, and leaving Government affairs in the hands of a few."
Those few, in one sense, have done well by African-Americans over the past half-century: Federal power ended the segregationist power of state and local governments. The feds also mandated affirmative action programs that helped some blacks achieve middle-class status. And yet, as Shelby Steele, Stephen Carter, and others have pointed out, those programs left many blacks wondering whether they could have made it on their own, and left others wallowing in welfare.
As sociology professor Anne Wortham concluded in 1978, "For blacks like me, the supreme irony of having to contend with affirmative action measures is that we grew up in a tradition which prepared us for precisely the opposite-that tradition which measured achievement in terms of merit as evidenced by one's skill, knowledge, experience, interest and attitude. . . . [Now] I am branded as incapable of walking through the gates of opportunity on my own."
The black-left alliance has produced obvious economic benefits for some African-Americans, but at what cost?