Classical Liberalism and the Problem of Race in America

The inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence hailed a transformative conception of the human condition by declaring that all men were created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

They did not say that such rights only belonged to those living in the British colonies of North America. It was not claimed that these rights belonged only to English speakers, or those of a particular religious faith, or members of some racial or ethnic group. The words are declarative and unequivocal, and universal. These are rights that belong to every human being. Period.

The great hypocrisy was, of course, that such rights were not extended to all human beings in America. There was slavery in the American colonies and later in the independent United States, especially in Southern states.

The Great Contradiction to a Free America

Discrimination, bigotry, and cruelty pervaded the relationships between Americans of European descent and those of African ancestry. Before the Civil War, this was institutionalized in legal, human slavery, even in the shadows of the Capital Building and the White House in Washington, D.C.

In the first number of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, published on January 1, 1831, there was included an article on, “The Slave Trade in the Capital.” It said

It is well, perhaps, the American people should know, that while we reiterate our boasts of liberty in the ears of nations… we ourselves are busily engaged in the work of oppression. Yes, let it be known to the citizens of America, that at the very time when the procession which contained the President of the United States and his Cabinet was marching in triumph to the Capitol, to celebrate the victory of the French over their oppressors, another kind of procession was marching another way, and that consisted of colored human beings, handcuffed in pairs, and driven along by what had the appearance of a man on a horse!

“A similar scene was repeated on Saturday last; a drove consisting of males and females chained in couples, starting from Roby’s tavern on foot, for Alexandria, where with others, they are to embark on board a slave-ship in waiting to convey them to the South... It is but a few weeks since we saw a ship with her cargo of slaves in the port of Norfolk, Va.; on passing up the river, saw another ship off Alexandria, swarming with the victims of human cupidity.

“Such are the scenes enacting in the heart of the American nation. Oh, patriotism! Where is thy indignation? Oh, philanthropy! Where is thy grief? Oh, shame, where is thy blush? . . . These shocking scenes must cease from amongst us, or we must cease to call ourselves free…”

With the incorporation of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, slavery legally ended in December 1865. But racial prejudice did not die. Segregation laws instituted in the Southern states at the end of the nineteenth century restored compulsory separation between whites and blacks.

George S. Schuyler, Advocate for the Rights of Black Americans

Today, it’s easy to forget how cruel segregation laws were to a large segment of the American population, all of whom were officially citizens of the United States. I offer the following examples from the period between the two World Wars, written by the brilliant, witty, and often bitingly insightful African-American author, George S. Schuyler (1895-1977).

I choose him not only because of the useful factual information in these articles, but because, while he may have flirted with socialism in his youth, he soon rejected all forms of collectivism. Schuyler became an outspoken anti-communist in the 1930s and advocated equal rights for black Americans before the law.

He wrote against some forms of compulsory integration as the mirror image of the coerced segregation that he spent his life opposing.

He believed so much in individual liberty and freedom of association that in the 1960s he wrote against some forms of compulsory integration as merely the mirror image of the coerced segregation that he spent his life opposing. Taking such a stand lost him the recognition and respect he had long enjoyed as a leading twentieth-century journalist and author in the African-American community.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, H. L. Mencken, then the editor of The American Mercury, opened its pages to George S. Schuyler. He contributed several articles on race relations that were addressed to a predominantly white readership. I especially recommend “Our White Folks,” a biting, witty, and brilliantly sarcastic portrait of the absurdities and arrogance of the rampant misconceptions about and the cruel treatment of “Aframericans.”

But an especially stark enumeration of those humiliations and indignities suffered by African-Americans at the hands of many in the white community may be found in Schuyler’s articles in The American Mercury on, “Keeping the Negro in His Place” (August 1929), “Traveling Jim Crow” (August 1930).

The Indignities and Humiliations of Racism

In everyday life, Americans of African ancestry were excluded from many parts of the wider society. For instance, blacks were either barred from the movie theaters or were restricted to seats in the back rows of the balcony, far away from the white clientele. A black family could only rarely enjoy a summer afternoon at the seashore, because the beaches were almost invariably restricted to “whites only.”

Blacks had learned, “Poets may sing of the sea being blue, but to the Aframerican pining for a dip it looks mighty white . . ..” said Schuyler, and then explained:

This is true of most American bathing places, whether on the seashore or inland. At almost all such places the blackamoor is persona non grata and the peckerwoods make no bones about ‘getting him told.’ At most of the beaches in the vicinity of New York City, Negroes are barred from going in bathing, not by ordinance but because no one will rent them bathing-suits or a bathhouse locker in which to put them on if they happen to own any. At many such places it is against the law to appear off the beach proper in a bathing suit, hence the Negro who arrives in his automobile ready for a plunge is likely to land in the hoosegow. The beach police are unusually 'vigilant’ in enforcing the letter of the law when an Aframerican heaves into sight.”

Sarcastically, Schuyler added, “Of course, few Negroes would want to go in swimming at Coney Island, even if they were permitted to hire bathing-suits and rent lockers in bathhouses, because of the swarms of white riff-raff that bask everywhere on the beach amidst cans, newspapers and pop bottles.”

Blacks could forget about going out for an evening of entertainment in many places, because here, too, the door was closed to any with a dark complexion. Schuyler explained:

When the weather is not inclement, he likes to go motoring and stop by some roadhouse to dance and dine. But what is his reception? Almost everywhere he is openly refused service or prevented from getting it by some subterfuge . . .

“Seldom do the police aid in putting them in their place, unless they become too vociferous in demanding their rights – which is very rare. The only time the guardians of the law themselves take a hand in maintaining white supremacy in places of recreation is when a cabaret or dance-hall in the Black Belt is reported to be black-and-tan: i.e., frequented by both blacks and whites. This must never be, of course, if the purity of the polyglot Anglo-Saxons is to be preserved.”

Rather than suffer such indignities, most African Americans, Schuyler went on, would stay within their black neighborhoods where they could retain degrees of self-respect from these humiliations. But due to the generally poor economic circumstances in such communities, the amenities and entertainments either did not exist or were of a far lower quality.

Racial Barriers on Roads and Trains Across America

Equally constraining and unkind were those instances in which an African-American went on vacation by car or needed to travel by train. Schuyler lamented:

Indeed, the troubles of Job seem trivial in comparison with those that bedevil the poor Aframerican who ventures forth to see his country. No matter in what part of it he may reside he knows very well that the hotel and resort advertisements he reads in the newspapers and magazines are not intended for such as he... 

“It is all well enough to say that the Negro traveler should go to one of ‘his own places,’ but Aframerican hostelries are not always at hand and when available they are frequently tenth-rate, owing to the small number of well-to-do Negro travelers upon whom they can regularly depend. In spite of the general belief that colored folk are all alike, the fact remains that there are all classes of people in Negro America, from tramps to millionaires, and a hotel or rooming-house quite satisfactory to stevedores, laborers and field hands would hardly be to the taste of a school teacher, a physician or an artist.”

For the ordinary black American, simply getting a railroad ticket was a perverse “adventure.” Before World War II and the construction of the interstate highway system, the primary means of long-distance travel in the United States was by train. Overnight train journeys were common, but rare was the black man or woman who could purchase a ticket for one of the Pullman car’s bed accommodations. Instead, they were confined to “black only” cars with hard seats and a much lower comfort than even the “third class” accommodations of a white passenger. Getting a meal in the train dining car was difficult, and often occurred only after all the white travelers had finished their meals.

Even innocent, little old black ladies were not saved from such treatment. But creative ingenuity could sometimes get around the color bar, said Schuyler:

I know a colored woman who frequently goes from New York to New Orleans and always puts on an apron when she gets below the [Mason-Dixon] line. It is a badge of servility that acts as a protection, since it definitely places her in the servant class. Of course the most rabid Negrophobe has no objection to riding in a Pullman car or diner with a Negro if that Negro is in a menial capacity. That such a seemingly absurd precaution is frequently wise was well-demonstrated three or four years ago when a Negro woman was dragged out of a Pullman car in Northern Florida by officers of the law and fined $500 for the crime of riding through that progressive Commonwealth in comfort.”

Schuyler wrote of many instances in which the “invisible line” of the Mason-Dixon Line changed attitudes and conduct by whites. He recounted an instance in which a group of black and white schoolteachers was traveling on the same train from Arkansas to a convention up north. When the train departed the station in Arkansas, the teachers remained in their respective “whites-” and “blacks-only” train cars. However, once the train crossed the Missouri border, “the whites trooped into the erstwhile Jim Crow car, a Negro school principal produced a quart of corn, and a good time was had by all until the end of the journey.”

But such episodes were few and far between compared to those in which whites refused to share the same train car with African-Americans, regardless of whether the ride was in the North or the South, but especially in the old slave states. Schuyler observed all this, having “traveled closed to 20,000 miles in the Coon and Cracker country” of the Southern states. But, he pointed out that on trains even in “the liberal North every effort is made to keep black diners away from white diners, though black waiters serve both.”

The stories that Schuyler relates go on-and-on, from the difficulties of getting a white taxi cab driver to take a black fare, to the problems of a black person finding gas stations where he could fill up his car outside of black neighborhoods.

Insisting on the Same Individual Rights as Everyone Else

Schuyler argued in a 1944 review of Gunnar Myrdal’s, The American Dilemma that African-Americans were increasingly unwilling to accept forever this culture of indignity and exclusion:

The so-called Negro is sick and tired of being booted about by those whom he does not regard as his betters (although they may think so). Today he wants all the rights and privileges any other American enjoys, and he means to have them. All of his leaders are unanimously agreed on that, and his 200 newspapers chorus it weekly. It would be a mistake, however, for any one to assume that this militancy of the Negro who is actually a mixture of European, African and Amerindian) is newly found. Throughout American history runs the fear of Negro uprisings and disorders, and the actual fact of numerous pitched battles resulting from efforts of Negroes to win the dignity of manhood status.

“All along the Negroes have been much more clear-visioned than the whites; and in the larger sense they have even been more patriotic because they have persistently fought for the American Creed – the principles which white America has loudly pronounced but grudgingly practiced, if at all.”

And as Schuyler emphasized in another article the year before,

Since what the Negroes want accords with the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution, they properly feel that right is on their side and they have fought and will continue to fight for it with a fervency approaching religious zeal . . . because even the most unlettered Negro knows that nothing less will lift him to full manhood status.”

As Schuyler went on, “The Negroes demand to live and travel where they choose, seek work where it is available, enjoy the same educational and recreational facilities” in place of, “White people [who] regard it as their right to have exclusive racial neighborhoods, lily-white educational and recreational facilities, and special privileges industrially,” made possible by segregation laws and racist behavioral arrogance.

Classical Liberals and the Race Problem in America

Concerning segregation laws and violence against Americans of African descent, what were the political and policy positions of American classical liberals and libertarians during this time? Early in the twentieth century, some spoke out against such things.

Articles lambasted the yahoo ignorance of Ku Klux Klaners who pulled pillowcases over their heads and acted like violent morons.

Albert Jay Nock, for instance, wondered “What We All Stand For.” In this article, Nock recounted an episode in 1911 Pennsylvania in which a black man, accused of killing a white policeman, was chased down by a mob and burned alive, with none raising his voice in opposition or even shock at such behavior.

Under the editorship of H. L. Mencken, the pages of The American Mercury were filled with articles by himself and other white and black authors lambasting the backward, yahoo ignorance and stupidity of Ku Klux Klaners who pulled white pillowcases over their heads and acted like violent morons against blacks and others.

Sometimes their, and especially Mencken's, word choices in dealing with race issues seem to be ill-chosen, but they were the linguistic products of their time. Language sensitivity had not yet attained our refinement. But readers can’t help but sense the ethical anger with which Mencken viewed racial injustices.

But what stands out most, at least from my reading, is that any fairly serious perusal of the classical liberal and libertarian literature of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, shows little interest or focus on the issues and problems of surrounding race relations in the United States.

Their primary and legitimate concern was with the growth and acceleration of political power and control over ever larger segments of life, especially by the Federal government, extending itself far beyond the confines of the traditional understanding of the limits placed on it by the U.S. Constitution.

Yes, most of such writings would rightly refer to the contradiction and inconsistency of slavery in American history. There might be a passing reference to the injustice of segregation laws as practiced in the Southern states. But there was little or no moral outrage against a legal system that compulsorily prevented peaceful and voluntary association among those of different races.

There were, of course, libertarian voices against segregation laws and racial discrimination.

Few, also, were the appeals for an immediate end to the segregation laws in the South, though none of the classical liberal or libertarian authors with whom I’m acquainted endorsed or condoned them in those middle decades of the twentieth century.

Friedman, Rothbard, and Rand on Race and Discrimination

There were, of course, real libertarian voices against segregation laws and racial discrimination. Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom (1962) highlighted the close and essential link between economic freedom and political freedom. Reduce the power of the state from virtually all forms of political intervention in the marketplace, and competitive opportunities for mutual gains from trade will reduce or eliminate the potential for governmental discrimination and persecution.

In 1963, Murray Rothbard analyzed “The Negro Revolution” emphasizing the State’s role in providing the coercive political means to sustain both slavery and the segregation laws, as well as the negative impact of economic interventions that closed market opportunities to African Americans; and, not surprisingly, Rothbard endorsed the basic justness of a cause wishing to free people from these oppressive denials of liberty.

Also in 1963, Ayn Rand wrote a powerful essay on the immorality and atavistic basis of racism. As she said, “Racism is the lowest, and most crudely primitive form of collectivism,” the “manifestation of a doctrine whose full expression is the tribal warfare of prehistoric savages [and] the wholesale slaughter of Nazi Germany.”

Rand emphasized that “There is only one antidote to racism: the philosophy of individualism, and its politico-economic corollary, laissez-faire capitalism.” Biology is an accident of birth, Rand argued. What matters is to look at and judge and treat human beings as individuals, as reflected in the reasoning powers of their minds and creative acts. Anything else easily leads to the damaging effects of a collectivist mindset.

The Missing Link: Moral Outrage Against an Immoral System

But where was the moral fervor demanding the end to segregation laws and racial prejudice among classical liberals and libertarians in the twentieth-century equal to the type of voice of indignation found in such nineteenth-century opponents of slavery as William Lloyd Garrison? One finds far too few.

Discussions concerning race and tolerance were left almost by default to opponents of racism only on the political “left.” Whatever my interpretation may be worth, I have never sensed any underlying racism or race prejudice in those leading libertarian writers in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Most of them, by focusing on the threats from the expanding interventionist-welfare state, seemed to miss what turned out to be one of the most profoundly important historical changes in America over the last one hundred years – the tearing down of racial barriers in everyday life.

As a consequence, discussions concerning race and tolerance were left almost by default to opponents of racism only on the political “left.”

Arguments concerning freedom of association were all predominantly analyzed through the ideological prism of those who favored political paternalism and coercive reform as the best avenues to racial justice, peace, and harmony.

This is now mutating into the race-based “identity politics” of contemporary America, threatening a return to the biologically-determined classification of individuals. “Rewards” or “punishments” are to be bestowed on all, based on the collectivist group category to which a powerless individual has been assigned by ideologically-driven, “progressive” social engineers.

Friends of freedom, therefore, must develop a way to breathe life into the philosophy and politics of individual liberty. Take back the moral passion and principled defense of freedom of association on racial issues with the same sense of justice with which the classical liberal enemies of slavery brought down that system of human bondage. Otherwise, we shall continue our journey on the ideological train of race-based collectivist government planning.