Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure. Gene Dattel.
Encounter Books, 2017. 312 pages.
Long before they exploded into violence at Charlottesville, race relations seemed so intractable that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “the white and black races will [never] … be upon an equal footing.” Nearly two centuries later, this seems to be another doleful example of Tocqueville’s prescience.
In Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure, which is to be released later this month, Gene Dattel chooses to concentrate on what he dubs “the fulcrum of this issue: the entrance of most black Americans into the economic mainstream.” He plumbs the importance of education as a preparation for economic life. But he grounds both in the irreplaceable bedrock of a free and virtuous society.
Religious readers may be surprised to learn that blacks’ subordinate status came, in part, from false religious teachings about the Book of Genesis. An article in the Connecticut Journal in 1774 stated forthrightly that “God formed [blacks] … in common with horses, oxygen, dogs &c. for the white people alone, to be used by them either for pleasure or to labor with other beasts.” Similarly, Mississippi politician Sergeant S. Prentiss said in 1836 on the floor of the state legislature that slavery is “the legitimate condition of the African race, as authorized both by the laws of God and the dictates of reason.” Today, notions of blacks being pre-Adamite creatures, formed on the fifth day of creation with the “beasts of the field,” are confined to the fever swamps of the minuscule Identity Christian movement. The reference highlights the indispensable role traditional exegesis, correct anthropology, and a consequent respect for human dignity play in promoting liberty.
Blacks found themselves condemned to an existence as mere objects rather than subjects. Dattel, a financial historian and former investment banker, shows in exquisite detail how economic factors definitively shaped the black experience. Brought to this country as human chattel, slaves were denied any education that would allow them to escape the plantation system, before or after emancipation. Northern politicians wanted black slaves freed – and contained to the South. Blacks’ presence was only desired when leaders such as Massachusetts Governor John Andrew wished to use them to fulfill his state’s military quota without drafting whites.
Various institutions, especially the black church, tried to find a path into the economic mainstream. In 1831, Reverend Simeon S. Jocelyn tried to open a vocational education college for blacks in New Haven, Connecticut – but town residents, including Yale University, shut him down. Labor shortages created by World War I began the Great Migration northward, yet economic codes – and barriers preventing blacks from taking “commercial courses” – artificially restricted most to low-paying menial work more subtly than Jim Crow laws or the apartheid color bar.
When allowed to flourish, free enterprise benefited members of all “races.” Madam C.J. Walker presided over an all-black cosmetics empire that made her $600,000 during her lifetime. She used the money to fund Tuskegee Institute, and in 1917 she became a member of the NAACP’s executive committee. Another heroine, “Pigs’ Feet Mary,” began accumulating her $375,000 fortune by selling chitterlings, corn, and pigs’ feet on the sidewalk from a baby carriage.
But economic opportunities within the segregated black community proved too narrow to create widespread prosperity. Dattel repeatedly states that businesses simply cannot generate enough revenue if they are confined to a racial and economic minority. As Jack Kemp and Jesse Jackson would later agree, “Capitalism without capital is nothing but an ‘ism.’”
The debate over how to move forward has centered on whether to embrace the free market or advocate greater government intervention and regimentation. Dattel personifies these forces in the persons of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1895, Washington encouraged blacks to flourish in whatever economic avenues are available to them, since “no race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” By so doing, blacks could “rise to the level of owning stores, operating factories.” Frederick Douglass, too, advised blacks in 1853, to “learn not only to black boots but to make them.” Decades earlier, nationwide ethnic conventions longed for the day that blacks would “form joint-stock companies and mutual-savings banks.”
Du Bois advocated a “fuzzy brand of Marxism,” once writing, “Folks ain’t got no right to things they don’t need.” Du Bois recognized family breakdown within the black community as a social malady, but blamed it on “economic hindrances to sound moral life.”
As he weaves his engrossing narrative Dattel, who explored this territory before in Cotton and the Making of America, underscores the importance of national economic growth lying beneath the surface of each historical development. In response to the long hot summer of 1967, when no fewer than 159 race riots roiled the nation, the Kerner Report suggested “creating one million new jobs in the public sector in three years, creating one million new jobs in the private sector in three years … [and] encouraging business ownership in the ghetto.” The funding for such programs would come from unspecified “economic growth.”
Christians and all people of goodwill who seek racial reconciliation should pursue fiscal policies that expand the nation’s economic assets. Whether the individual sides with Washington’s view emphasizing initiative or Du Bois’ redistribution, resources must first exist. Free markets, more expansive trade, lighter regulations, and a flatter, broader tax code free entrepreneurs to generate wealth. The jobs they create, in turn, liberate each individual to offer his or her God-given gifts to the world.
Instead, the nation has instituted “myriad federal programs [that] have failed to transform employment for blacks in the workforce.” Failing schools – which he believes should face competition from charter schools – place job security above children’s economic future. Further, college-bound blacks receive little guidance toward better paying jobs. A 2016 study from Georgetown University found blacks clustered in “lower-paying majors.”
Along the way, Dattel notes, single-parent households, divorce rates, and abandonment have expanded in tandem with the welfare state. A family-centered culture that encourages virtue, thrift, and “responsibility,” he writes, must replace berating middle-class values. He continually returns to the point, in his own words and through others, that the black church alone can instill the virtuous and hopeful order necessary to end four centuries of needlessly squandered human capital.
Reckoning with Race suffers, as well as benefits, from the author’s peculiar background. As a Southerner educated in the Ivy League, Dattel clearly intends to demythologize the North as a bastion of racially progressive thought and practice. It is unclear such an undertaking is necessary in the present context, particularly in a work of limited scope. Moreover, he spends pages at a time poring over the racial views of Northern figures who, we find at the end of his rabbit trails, held views entirely conventional for their day. This form of sectional presentism adds little to the book.
Dattel could have broadened his cultural critique by commenting more upon black criticism of the West as a whole. “Freedom and a high standard of living are products of Western civilization,” he writes. He notes that Andrew Young wondered aloud in 1970 if American blacks weren’t “the revolutionary vanguard that God has ordained to destroy” Western civilization – something he regarded as, on balance, desirable. Young would go on to serve as Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the UN before becoming president of the National Council of Churches. Such assessments merit a fuller response in an age when universities replace the writings of Plato with those of Frantz Fanon.
Like most commentators, Dattel is better at analyzing the problem than providing concrete solutions. But his conclusions are presented in a remarkably unmodulated and prescriptive tone. “Economic advancement must be the number one goal for black Americans,” he writes. “If black family structure continues in its present form, educational and vocational obstacles may be virtually insurmountable.” In an age where dialogue has been replaced with admonitions to “check your privilege,” that is combustible.
Clearly Dattel – a white Southerner – cannot hope to escape the same criticism leveled against Barack Obama, Don Lemon, and Bill Cosby. One must hope against hope that such criticisms will focus on the substance of his arguments, not the identity of the person making them. If they do, they will find that Dattel has offered his readers a well-documented account of how the intertwining cords of culture, virtue, and economic hope may ease America’s most enduring fault line.
(Photo credit: Tim Pierce. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)