Race and America’s Soul

Myron Magnet, National Review, November 24, 2017

What gives Gene Dattel’s Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure its special power is that, even after its bracingly original and thoroughly researched account of the racism of the abolitionist North from the late 18th century until long after the Civil War, the book nevertheless does not shrink from laying the ills of today’s black American underclass not at the door of a painful history, with ample blame for northern as well as southern whites, but squarely at the feet of black Americans themselves. {snip} Still, America fought a war to end the evil institution, had a civil-rights movement to try to erase its malign remnants, and spent decades on affirmative action and other nostrums to expunge even the faintest remaining traces. Whatever white Americans could do to atone for and repair the damage they caused, they have done, as much as imperfect humans in an imperfect world can do. Now, Dattel argues, it’s up to black Americans to save themselves

The most surprising part of the book is Dattel’s documentation of the racism of northern abolitionists. As early as the 1790s, about a decade after Massachusetts had abolished slavery and while Connecticut was in the midst of its gradual abolition, the white townspeople of Salem and New Haven fretted that the movement of blacks into their neighborhoods would crash property values by up to 50 percent. Nor did Yankees make any distinction between free-born blacks and freed slaves, as an 1800 survey by the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences found. Yale president Timothy Dwight, who sponsored the survey with lexicographer Noah Webster, summed up its consensus on the state’s blacks: “Uneducated to principles of morality, or to habits of industry . . . they labor only to gratify gross and vulgar appetites. Accordingly, many of them are thieves, liars, profane drunkards, Sabbath-breakers, quarrelsome, idle.” New Haven’s freedmen, Dwight expanded a decade later, “are, generally, neither able, nor inclined to make their freedom a blessing to themselves” and end up as “nuisances to society.” Little wonder, given such attitudes, that as white immigrants crowded into the new nation, employers preferred them to native blacks, left with mostly menial jobs as domestic servants, chimney sweeps, washerwomen, and outhouse cleaners.

Half a century after Connecticut’s survey, New York senator and former governor William Seward {snip} pronounced that “the African race here is a foreign and feeble element . . . incapable of assimilation . . . a pitiful exotic unnecessarily transplanted into our fields, and which it is unprofitable to cultivate at the cost of the desolation of our native vineyard.” Just after the Civil War, Seward added that “I have no more concern for [Negroes] than for the Hottentots. They are God’s poor, they always have been and always will be so everywhere.” Abolitionists, said ex-slave author and clergyman Samuel R. Ward in the 1840s, “best love the colored man at a distance.” {snip} Even the midwestern states carved out of the Northwest Territory, from which the Founding Fathers famously had banned slavery, instituted an array of discriminatory laws from their birth, banning black immigration at the most extreme or, less harshly, banning black suffrage, jury service, poor relief, intermarriage with whites, or admission to white schools. When the Civil War threatened the North and Midwest with an influx of newly freed blacks — when, indeed, the victorious Union Army requested those states to admit black refugees and even sent some north by trainloads — outraged officials in Massachusetts and Illinois balked, and angry mobs turned back the trains. The Army reversed its policy, containing freedmen in the South and putting them to work on abandoned cotton plantations. Indeed, some northern officials hoped emancipation would lure their existing black populations southward

{snip}

Presidents Andrew Johnson and Rutherford Hayes had no commitment to a radical remaking of the South. Indeed, Hayes had told an old friend, {snip} that the South needs a “let-alone policy. . . . The future depends on [the] moderation and good sense of Southern men.” Four years earlier, by the start of President Ulysses S. Grant’s second term, the majority of northern whites already agreed with Hayes. They wanted troops out of the defeated Confederacy. {snip} No matter how many civil-rights laws Congress passed to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments — and it passed many — they were dead letters without federal soldiers to enforce them. The more so because the Supreme Court was gelding those laws even as Washington was gutting the army. After the Court’s infamous decisions in the Slaughter-House Cases of 1873 and Cruikshank of 1876, which denied that the 14th Amendment extended to blacks the privileges and immunities of U.S. citizenship as defined by the first eight amendments, and denied further that that amendment forbade the states from encroaching upon those privileges, the Dishonor Roll includes the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, which — to the praise of Harper’s and the New York Times — voided the 1873 Civil Rights Act granting equal access to theaters, restaurants, hotels, and railroads to all American citizens; Plessy v. Ferguson in 1886, which legalized segregation if separate accommodations for the races were equal in quality; and Williams v. Mississippi, which in 1898 validated that state’s effective disenfranchisement of blacks eight years earlier. Northerners, no more welcoming than they were before the Civil War, wanted blacks to stay in the South, where the cotton plantations offered ample work for them, not as slaves but as sharecroppers, a system with scant legal protection of their economic rights. {snip}

{snip} Ex-slave Booker T. Washington saw manual or domestic labor as the first step up the ladder of economic mobility and thus by no means degrading. “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized,” declared the founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute for teaching blacks skilled trades. {snip} If the business of America was business, he believed, black Americans needed vocational training to take part.

Socialist W. E. B. Du Bois — Harvard’s first black Ph.D., a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and editor of its magazine, Crisis — wanted no part of American industrial capitalism. Redistribution, not production, was his focus. Let white America wallow in the world of grubby accumulation; {snip}. So while he valued education, like Washington, he believed its goal was political power, not economic advancement, and he urged blacks not to let their education dilute their sense of a separate, special group culture. That proved fatal advice, especially given Dattel’s interesting account of Du Bois’s cultural premonitions. However much he disdained bourgeois economics, Du Bois sensed the necessity of conventional morality for a people’s rise. He worried that, by his estimate, a quarter of black births in 1900 were out of wedlock, and only half of blacks observed “monogamic sex mores,” as opposed to whites’ 2 percent and 90 percent, respectively. He also worried that black preachers were too interested in making money to “adopt a new attitude toward rational amusement and sound moral habits.” He saw, in other words, that black cultural mores had a self-destructive streak, and that the one indigenous black institution that could preach a moral message was shirking its principal duty. {snip}

In 1914, 90 percent of American blacks still lived in the South. But World War I’s urgent need for workers, as unemployment plummeted from 8.5 percent to 1.4 percent between 1914 and 1918, sparked the Great Migration of blacks northward, with businesses recruiting all capable hands. {snip} The northern cities herded the new arrivals into ghetto slums, run-down and never repaired, unsanitary and unhealthy, with short life expectancy and high rates of infant mortality, illegitimacy, marital desertion, and crime. In Chicago, some blacks who dared move into white neighborhoods had their houses bombed — 58 in 1917 and 1918{snip}. Schools were segregated, and black teachers, clinging to their jobs, resisted integration wherever cash-strapped cities tried to desegregate and consolidate schools. Dattel gingerly insinuates two key, ultimately unanswerable and almost incendiary-to-ask questions about this state of affairs. With jobs plentiful and well-paid, why so much social pathology? {snip} Dattel’s second implicit question is, Why did whites desert en masse the public schools of northern cities in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision (which Dattel, like so many authors, wrongly believes overturned Plessy v. Ferguson)? Was it merely the ugly racial hatred seen in the expressions of the leaders of the Boston school-busing boycott of the mid-1970s? Dattel’s implicit answer, again, is that he’s not so sure. {snip} By 1964, Dattel observes, Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer was reporting on the effect that such “at risk” children (the era’s euphemism for underclass black kids) had on the culture of the schools they attended. Undernourished, often physically abused, improperly cared for, deficient in language skills and vocabulary, they displayed such “apathy, outrageous behavior, [and] resistance,” Glazer wrote, that they subverted school discipline, too often creating a climate of anarchy in the classrooms and hallways in which more motivated kids couldn’t learn. Racism and black social pathology, Dattel implies, exist in such a dialectical tangle that in the 20th century it became impossible to untwist cause and effect. In any event, the rationale behind the coerced integration of neighborhoods and schools has been the belief that the environment forms the individual, and that the environment of the larger middle-class community can trump the environment of the immediate family, imbuing it with the values that underlie success. But what if the opposite is no less true — that the introduction of a dollop of underclass cultural pathology into an ordered mainstream community curdles and corrodes?

Dattel’s emphasis on the North leads him to write a gloomier-than-usual account of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. {snip} Of course he celebrates, if briefly, the heroic and hugely constructive aspects of the movement {snip}. And of course, Dattel hails the results: the Civil Right Acts of 1964 and 1965, plus the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Nor does he minimize the self-help efforts that civil-rights leaders urged upon their followers, to take full advantage of these measures. {snip} But almost from the start of this admirable segment of the civil-rights movement {snip}, a W. E. B. Du Bois–style countermovement gathered steam, Dattel points out in his original, remarkably comprehensive, and scrupulously researched history. If social pathology plagues black America, that’s not a problem for blacks to solve, Black Muslim separatist Malcolm X declared in 1964. It’s a problem resulting from “economic and political exploitation” by white landlords and shopkeepers {snip}. And if blacks rioted, as they did in New York City and Rochester that year, the press lied in “depict[ing] the rioters as hoodlums, criminals, thieves, because they were abducting some property,” Malcolm charged. What he meant, Dattel translates, is that, since “politicians, white merchants, and white landlords were the thieves who had stolen property from the black community . . . it’s all right to steal and burn down the neighborhood.” Those 1964 outbreaks were minor compared with the Watts riots of 1965, which killed 34, injured thousands, and destroyed 100 Los Angeles ghetto blocks — five days after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Equally grievous mayhem resulted from the Newark and Detroit riots of 1967. By then, even the nonviolent Martin Luther King (sensing his growing irrelevance) began to waffle, calling the riots “a distorted form of social protest,” instead of the criminal anarchy that they were

In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, {snip} began demanding “black power” {snip}. Two years later, {snip} limousine-liberal mayor John V. Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy, {snip} had decided to decentralize the city’s school system, turning over control — the power to hire, fire, award tenure and promotion, and set curricula — to community school districts. After segregating white teachers in their own cafeterias and lounges, Ocean Hill–Brownsville’s entirely African-American governing board began asserting its power by firing 19 white teachers. It jettisoned civil-service exams for promotion, on the claim that they were culturally biased against blacks in their emphasis on such white Western norms as merit, materialism, and competition. The new curriculum would foster creative, spontaneous, cooperative black learning styles, supposedly different from cold, abstract, elitist white learning styles, so amenable to disciplined, structured teaching of reading, writing, and math. Black history and culture would take center stage, with an emphasis on resentment of white oppression. As for discipline, since blacks were victims, of course black students would challenge authority by cursing at teachers, misbehaving, and even hitting white teachers — for which there would be no punishment. {snip}

Equally prophetic was heroic civil-rights organizer Bayard Rustin’s contemptuous 1970 dismissal of the same tendency on college campuses. Campus militants demanding black-studies and black-history courses, he said, were “forsaking the opportunity to get an education. . . . If engineering requires too much concentration, then why not a course in soul music,” assuring that classes will be “a soothing, comfortable experience . . . like watching television?” {snip} As black U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young told a newscaster in 1970, “It may take the destruction of Western civilization to allow the rest of the world to be free” — a sentiment you could hear on almost any college campus today

{snip}

… By the new millennium, the belief that white oppression bore sole responsibility for black shortcomings had hardened into orthodoxy. {snip} By the new millennium, the belief that white oppression bore sole responsibility for black shortcomings had hardened into orthodoxy. {snip} Even the broadly accepted consensus among blacks in 1968 that cops unjustly ignored black-on-black crime and should arrest the thugs preying on their own community has vanished, replaced by the mantra that police — now black as much as white — oppress blacks on behalf of a racist society

But hardened into orthodoxy how? For this, Dattel makes clear, we can thank the universities. To redress America’s 300 years of racism, these culture-transmitting institutions embraced affirmative action with a vengeance, with the eight Ivy League schools boosting black enrollment 35 percent in the decade ending in 2016. Though that increase totals a paltry 393 students, Yale, with 12 percent of its Class of 2021 black, now zealously offers 49 courses in African-American studies and 45 in African studies — up from one when Dattel was an undergraduate there in the 1960s — and it has increased the ranks of its black faculty members proportionally. In an especially craven act of self-abasement, Yale removed the name of alumnus John C. Calhoun, the slave-owning South Carolina senator who held off the Civil War for two decades, from one of its colleges, replacing it with the name of a woman no one has heard of. What do these 94 courses, and hundreds like them in academic America, teach? The unifying theme, says Dattel, “is the reinterpretation of American history as one extended nightmare of grievances,” an incapacitating rather than an empowering lesson that generates “a state of perpetual paralysis characterized by an absence of free will among the aggrieved.” Meanwhile, those who teach such courses are churning out books arguing that black family dysfunction results from the undeserved jailing of so many black men in America’s “carceral state,” a maliciously racist society that arbitrarily spirits away upstanding men who would otherwise be model husbands and fathers — notwithstanding that black Americans commit murder at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined, and black New Yorkers, 23 percent of the city’s population, commit two-thirds of its violent crimes. {snip} Concurrently, propaganda-cum-community-organizing groups such as Black Lives Matter, with $33 million from ethically puzzling billionaire George Soros at the time Dattel wrote — now augmented by the $18 billion that Soros has given his Open Society Institute, which is becoming as toxic as the Ford Foundation in its War on Poverty heyday — spread the message far and wide. {snip}

Dattel’s solution to America’s racial dilemma takes one step further a suggestion that, he recounts, drama critic Robert Brustein made two decades ago to black playwright August Wilson. Black Americans are no longer slaves, Brustein said, but Wilson talks about himself “as if you are standing on the ground of the slave quarters . . . representing yourself as a 300-year-old man. That fact is, things have changed over the course of the last 300 years.” {snip} “Before we can achieve any major,” [says Dattel] “broad-based improvement in the social and economic status of blacks, they must develop a frank process of self-examination to replace the current unwillingness to look objectively at destructive behavioral norms. Otherwise, the myriad programs designed specifically to aid blacks will fail to achieve large-scale transformation. The particular burden — of facing themselves — lies squarely on the black community.” And I have a further suggestion for the community at large. Stop letting professors, pundits, so-called philanthropists like George Soros, rap stars, TV political comics, and the like wreck our precious inheritance of Western culture, especially since the unintended result has been to hurt blacks rather than to help them. If you disapprove of the damage they do, don’t support or countenance them. Above all, if you’re a donor to a university, no matter how much gratitude or nostalgia you may feel for the great days of 30, 40, or 60 years ago, don’t give them another dime (unless you went to Caltech or Hillsdale). These institutions now dispense prestige, fast evaporating, not education. They provide social and business connections, not learning, except for hard-science departments and medical schools. They deserve neither respect nor contributions. They are dogmatic, unthinking, heretic-persecuting, decadent, and corrupt, {snip}.

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