Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part two–one hundred years of unequal freedom

In the 1840s, French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw difficulties the United States would face dealing with a population of Africans surrounded by a dominant culture of Europeans. De Tocqueville did not prophesy the Civil War, but he realized that slavery would end in North America. He warned that the African population would not be easily assimilated into the European culture of the United States, anticipating that conflict between the two populations was inevitable.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860, some southern states seceded and formed a Confederacy. Northern states answered Lincoln’s call to go to war to preserve the Union. The Confederate states seceded to preserve their practice of slavery, as their own documents from the time reveal. Northern states went to war, not to free the slaves, but to keep the country united; even Lincoln said that he would accept the continuing presence of slavery if it would keep the nation undivided. His Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves—only the slaves held in the rebellious Confederate states. Only the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution ended slavery in the entire country, and that amendment was not passed until after the Civil War had ended.

Although the purchase and sale of slaves had operated until capitalistic practices, southern plantation owners perpetuated an economy that predated the rise of capitalism. After the war, they attempted to continue a feudal economy, treating the freed slaves as serfs who lived on white-owned land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, leaving the white property owners in control of the political and social structure of the southern states. Northern reformers attempted to bring capitalism and equality to the south. They brought railroads, factories, and banks to the south. They established schools for black children and adults. They set up political systems that allowed black adults to vote, and some blacks were elected to positions in the local, county, and state governments. When this time of Reconstruction ended, the white power structure in the south reasserted their power. They instituted voting practices that kept black citizens away from the polls and prevented black candidates from being nominated. They reduced or eliminated black access to education. They used lynchings, race riots, and other crimes to terrorize the black population, keeping them under control of the same wealthy whites who had previously owned slaves.

National law, built upon the premise that all people are created equal and have certain human rights, allowed for the development of “separate but equal” benefits for white and black citizens. Schools were permitted to function, but taxes collected from white families funded schools for white children and taxes collected from black students funded schools for black children, perpetuating the poverty of black citizens and the predominance of white citizens. Businesses, medical care, and even train and bus transportation were segregated. Sometimes enforcement of the law bordered on the comic: a museum planation in Arkansas has preserved a doctor’s office which had separate entrances and separate waiting rooms for white and black patients but only a single room for treatment of all patients.

Many black workers traveled north, hoping for better opportunities in the big cities. Already those cities had traditions of separate neighborhoods for separate cultures—German, Swedish, Irish, Italian, Polish, and so on. Soon black neighborhoods were created, complete with black schools, black churches, and black businesses. Segregation, “separate but equal,” was as real in the north as it was in the south.

Would socialism have provided greater equality for white and black citizens at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century? Definitely not. Every step in that direction continued to separate white and black, giving greater benefits to the white. White labor unions, among other expectations, were intended to keep factories from replacing white workers with black workers. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided much more help to white workers and families than to black. One reason for the disparity was that local direction of government programs always fell into the hands of the same powerful families that had managed the economy before the war and after Reconstruction. They had no intention of offering true equality to their black neighbors under any economic theory.

During this “separate but equal” era, some American blacks found ways to succeed. Black labor unions were developed for industrial and for agricultural workers. Black businesses, following the principles of capitalism, brought services to black communities and wealth to black entrepreneurs in both north and south. Black banks, black insurance companies, and black social organizations grew. Black schools, including institutions of higher education, improved. Although many schools for blacks limited their education to vocational training, others offered broader education. Black writers and poets, black musicians, and black historians and philosophers all gained an audience among both black and white Americans.

During these years, the United States did not meet its high standards of “liberty and justice for all.” Life was unfair for black citizens, native Americans, and immigrants from Europe and Asia; poverty persisted among populations of every culture and nationality. Prejudice and discrimination were widely practiced against blacks, Chinese, eastern Europeans, Catholics, and Jews. Capitalism was not the problem; socialism would not have solved the divisions and inequalities of American society. But in the later half of the twentieth century, new ideas and new approaches would make greater efforts to provide Civil Rights to all citizens of the United States. J.