The more I read of Thomas Sowell’s latest book, Intellectuals and Race, the more I am persuaded that the era of progressivism may have been just as damaging to the history of black progress in American than the Jim Crow era. From the latter part of the 19th-century through the 1930s progressives sought to use government as a means of addressing the social ills of society. It was an era where leading intellectuals, in partnership with politicians, expanded the scope of the government’s decision-making authority to address the needs of the poor. It was an era where good intentions created more problems than policy makers anticipated. Sowell explains how these policies were especially harmful to minorities in chapter 3 of the book.
Progressives believed that science could explain the differences in racial progress in America between various ethnic groups. Empirical data on group differences in crime rates, disease rates, mental test scores, and school performance, Sowell argues, grow as an ever-increasing justification for arriving at racialized conclusions about how people lived. American progressives took a largely negative view about the aptitude not only of blacks but also of immigrants of Eastern and Southern Europe. During this era, for example, it was just assumed that blacks were incapable of mentally performing in ways comparable to whites and were, then, a potential drain on society. The implications later were that blacks needed to be assessed according to different performance scales on standardized tests because they simply were not as intelligent as whites.
As a way of freeing society of those who would impede social progress, eugenics was celebrated as a means of aiding society. Progressives like Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt want to prevent excessive breeding by the wrong kinds of people, including particular races. “Eugenicists feared that people of lower mental capacity would reproduce on a larger scale than others, and thus, over time, bring about a decline in the average IQ in the nation,” observes Sowell. Unfortunately, this set the stage for the promotion of abortion in Harlem as an extension of The Negro Project supported by Sanger and others.
Because blacks were seen as incapable of competing against whites, due to innate low mental capacity, economists like Alfred Marshall and John Bates Clark advocated for minimum wage laws as a way of preventing “low-wage races” from lowering the standard of American life. In fact, the progressive era was the beginning of the cementing of a worldview that believed government to be the primary means of preventing “lower races” from being left out of the American Dream. Government policy could overcome bad genes for lower races.
If we think carefully about the social engineering proposals of policy makers of the last 60 years we might learn significant truths by unpacking the anthropological presuppositions of particular social welfare agendas. What Sowell does, in this one chapter alone, is expose the fact that what drove many policies of progressives is the idea that lower races cannot help themselves and cannot advance without the help of government. On the surface, this many seem like “compassion” but in the end it remains an affront to the human dignity of all.