The resignation of Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, as Senate
majority leader has focused attention once again on the politics of race in
America. Clearly, Republicans must do far more than they have done to
explain why their policies are not only not racist, but will do far more to
help blacks than those of the Democrats.
The idea that blacks would ever switch over to the Republican
Party is considered absurd by most politicians. After all, some 90 percent
of blacks routinely vote Democratic. But before the Great Depression, they
voted Republican just as routinely and by similar majorities.
In the post-Civil War era, blacks voted Republican because it
was the party of Abraham Lincoln, who freed them from slavery. And in
Southern states, Democrats were the party of "Jim Crow" laws that
institutionalized discrimination and prevented blacks from prospering.
This was still true in 1932, yet a large number of blacks began
voting Democratic that year for the first time. Since Franklin Roosevelt did
not campaign on civil rights or do anything in particular to attract black
votes, he must have gotten black support some other way.
Historians generally agree that what Roosevelt had to offer
blacks was the same thing he had to offer whites: economic recovery. His
opponent, Republican Herbert Hoover, was viewed as responsible for the Great
Depression and having no plan for dealing with it. Hence, for those
suffering from unemployment and falling living standards, FDR was the only
candidate offering them hope.
Blacks were especially receptive to Roosevelt's message because
they were suffering more from the depression. A key reason is that about 50
percent of all blacks were farmers in the early 1930s. Farmers in general
were especially hard hit by the Depression because falling prices reduced
their incomes while magnifying their debts.
The irony is that Roosevelt's economic policies actually hurt
black farmers. His plan to raise farm prices mainly involved reducing
production. Moreover, the method he chose to do this was particularly
injurious to tenant farmers, rather than landowners. Since only 20 percent
of black farmers owned their land, the effect of this policy was to push
many blacks out of farming. This led to the great Northern migration of
blacks from the South to the industrial cities of the North.
Unfortunately, many blacks found that other New Deal policies
hurt them in the North, as well. The most important was legislation greatly
strengthening the power of labor unions, which often excluded blacks. The
American Federation of Labor (AFL), which mainly represented skilled
craftsmen, was especially hostile to black membership. The Congress of
Industrial Organizations (CIO) was more hospitable, but it was still not
Throughout the Roosevelt era, blacks pressed for civil rights
laws to open voting, and end poll taxes and lynching. But FDR strenuously
resisted such measures, fearing a loss of Southern support. As historian
Paul Moreno put it, "Roosevelt's unwillingness to antagonize his Southern
white supporters was the chief limitation on New Deal racial policy."
It was not until Harry Truman became president that the
Democratic Party took the first baby steps toward instituting civil rights
for blacks. But even small steps, such as outlawing discrimination in the
military, were seen by Southerners as unacceptable. That is why Strom
Thurmond ran against him in 1948 -- an action praised by Lott.
Where Republicans got on the wrong track is by not explaining
why it is government that is at the root of meaningful racial
discrimination. Private businesses really have no incentive to discriminate.
They would just lose sales and the services of valuable employees by doing
so. As economists such as Gary Becker have clearly shown, discrimination in
the private sector simply doesn't pay.
Discrimination only works when enforced by government.
Historically, most of it was imposed by state governments. To the extent
that federal laws broke it down, that is unambiguously a good thing. It is
no coincidence that the wage gap between blacks and whites narrowed sharply
after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Republicans should have been much more vigorous about attacking
"Jim Crow" laws in the South. But they saw federal intervention as a
two-edged sword. Eliminating discriminatory state laws was good, but
increasing federal power was not. They feared (rightly) that passing new
federal laws to offset the effects of bad state laws was potentially
counterproductive. The correct course was to repeal the discriminatory state
laws, not superimpose new federal laws.
Unfortunately, today's discriminatory federal laws do not appear
as overtly anti-black as the Southern "Jim Crow" laws did. It is much harder
to explain why the Davis-Bacon law or the minimum wage hurt blacks more than
state laws requiring separate drinking fountains and bathrooms for them in
Southern states. But to my mind, depriving someone of the right to earn a
living is the worst discrimination of all.