Friday, July 22, 2016

Hovenkamp on the Saga of Progressive Racism

Herbert J. Hovenkamp, University of Iowa College of Law, has posted The Saga of Progressive Racism:
American Progressivism has received a good deal of unwelcome attention, charged with blatant racism and promotion of eugenics, and thus with mainstreaming practices such as housing segregation, compulsory sterilization of those deemed unfit, and exclusion of immigrants on racial grounds. One question this raises is, if the Progressives were such racists, why is it that since the 1930s Afro-Americans and other people of color have consistently supported self-proclaimed progressive political candidates, and typically by very wide margins?

My argument here is, first, that one of the most powerful characteristics of the progressive State was its attentiveness to science – a characteristic that it retains to this day. When the Progressive Era was forming, however, genetic racism was the scientific model of the day, cutting across a wide range of disciplines and reaching people of all political persuasions, even into the most elite of American research institutions. By and large, non-Progressives were just as racist as Progressives and some significantly more so. Further, the Progressive period lay entirely within the southern era of Jim Crow legislated segregation, often making it impossible to identify particular racial attitudes in the New South as "Progressive" or simply as inherited features of long held southern racial ideas.

Second, if Progressive public policy on race differed from prevailing alternatives, it was that Progressives believed in a more active State. Racism supported by an activist legislative agenda can be much uglier than racism that is simply tolerated. One cannot characterize most of the segregationist, exclusionary, and other racist legislation passed during this era as "Progressive,” however. Southern states actively regulated racial exclusion by statute, and all of the racial zoning laws sometimes attributed to Progressives were passed in formerly slaveholding states. Whatever the ideological or scientific sources of these laws, they were supported by staunch anti-Progressives. The same thing is true of compulsory sterilization laws. For example, the Supreme Court Justices who voted consistently against Progressive labor protective and other regulatory legislation voted to uphold compulsory sterilization of mental "defectives." While many Progressives advocated for more restrictive immigration laws, nothing that was passed during the Progressive Era matched the explicit restrictions on Chinese immigration that came earlier, or the racist immigration restrictions enacted during the terms of anti-Progressive Presidents Harding and Coolidge after the Progressive Era had ended. Finally, the attempts to link Progressive support for minimum wage laws to racial exclusion fail because they misunderstand the objectives of the Progressive minimum wage commitment and, further, pick and choose a small number of idiosyncratic examples from an enormous economic literature.

Third, the one place where a sharp difference emerged between progressives and their various opponents was in the subsequent rejection of genetic racism in favor of more environmentalist, nurture-based models of human nature and development. More environmentalist views began to take hold in the social sciences in the 1910s and 1920s and began to change legal thinking in the 1940s. They found expression in a Supreme Court that was almost unanimously Democrat and self-acknowledged progressive. The result was gradual emergence of a division that has endured to this day, with progressives largely appearing as the champions of racial inclusion and diversity.