Race, economics, and politics

Posted: Dec 27, 2002 12:00 AM
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 entirely receptive. 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.