The Corner

‘America Does Not Want a Black Middle Class’

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a really interesting post/review of The Warmth Of Other Suns. He notes that the response in the North to the Great Migration of blacks from the South was often heartbreakingly cruel and bigoted. He bullets a list of takeaways from the book. Here are the first four:

1) The Great Migration was not an influx of illiterate, bedraggled, lazy have-nots. Wilkerson marshalls a wealth of social science data showing that the migrants were generally better educated than their Northern brethren, more likely to stay married, and more likely to stay employed. In fact, in some cases, black migrants were better educated than their Northern white neighbors. 

2) In this sense, the migrants to Northern cities resembled immigrant classes to whom black people in these same cities are often unfavorably compared to. There’s a quote in Wilkerson’s book which I can’t find where a supervisor basically says that blacks are the favored workers because they will work hard at the worst jobs for relatively little money. You would have thought the guy was talking about Hispanic farm-hands today.

3) The black migrants were not immigrants. They were citizens of this country who did not enjoy its full protection. Unlike other immigrant classes, blacks were never able to cash in on their hard work and middle-class values. For all of their work-ethic, education-valuing, and long-term marriages, they received the worst wages in the worst jobs, were limited to the worst housing, and stuffed in the worst schools. 

4) What becomes clear by the end of Wilkerson’s book is that America’s response to the Great Migration was to enact a one-sided social contract. America says to its citizens, “Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete.” The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract. It goes back, at least, to Reconstruction. 

I find number four particularly interesting and compelling (I don’t necessarily agree with everything Coates writes in his post by the way, but that’s not relevant here). Coates doesn’t mention it, but it’s worth noting that many of the mechanisms of this “half-assed social contract” were forged and defended as progressive laws. The Davis-Bacon Act is the most famous example, in that it was designed to benefit white union members at the expense of equally qualified but less expensive black labor. Here’s Princeton economist Thomas Leonard in one of his brilliant papers on the subject:

What is less well known is that the Progressive-Era transformation of the state’s relationship to the American economy was deeply informed by an influential, biologically based movement  for social and economic reform – eugenics.  Progressive-Era economics, like the regulatory state it helped found, came of age at a time when biological approaches to social and economic reform were at (or near) their apex.  

In justifying labor legislation, progressive economists joined eugenic thought to their theories of wage determination to argue that the superior, deserving poor could be uplifted only by removing from the labor force groups deemed biologically unfit – groups they called ldquo;unemployables.”  Blacks, immigrants, and those defective in character or intellect were regarded by progressives active in labor legislation less as victims of industrial capitalism, than as threats to the health and well being of the worthy poor and of society more generally. Progressive-Era reform economics ultimately argued that eugenic treatment of the biologically unfit – the so-called industrial residuum – was a necessary means to the end of uplifting the worthy poor (Leonard 2003). Many reformers also included women in the class of “unemployables,” if for somewhat different reasons (Leonard 2004)

Take, for instance, the minimum wage. The founding fathers of progressivism at the University of Wisconsin, but also such figures as Sidney Webb, saw the discriminatory aspects of the minimum wage as among its chief selling points. “Of all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites,” Webb said of the “unemployables,” “the most ruinous to the community is to allow them unrestrainedly to compete as wage earners.” E. A. Ross, the extremely influential progressive intellectual and author of the “race suicide” thesis (who was particularly bigoted against Chinese labor), explained the benefits of a minimum wage pithily: “The Coolie cannot outdo the American, but he can underlive him.” In other words, if you force employers to only pay a white man’s wages, he will only employ white men. Royal Meeker, a Princeton economist and adviser to Woodrow Wilson, explained: “Better that the state should support the inefficient wholly and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind.” 

Coates doesn’t mention the words “liberal” or “progressive” or “conservative. His indictment is aimed squarely at “America.” And as a collective matter, America surely deserves blame for the mistreatment of African Americans in the past. But it’s also worth noting that the more immediate authors of the “half-assed social contract” Coates rightly denounces are today counted as champions of the progressive movement. 


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