Visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and between exhibits of dinosaur skeletons, Asian elephants and Alaskan moose you might notice a bust of Henry Fairfield Osborn and a plaque honoring Madison Grant. Osborn and Grant were two of the country’s leading conservationists in the early 1900s. They also were dedicated white supremacists.
Osborn, a former president of the museum, founded the Eugenics Education Society—now known as the Galton Institute—which sought the improvement of humanity through selective breeding. Grant, a co-founder of the Bronx Zoo, is known today for his influential 1916 best seller, “The Passing of the Great Race,” a pseudoscientific polemic arguing that nonwhite immigrants—which included Eastern and Southern Europeans by his definition—were tainting America’s superior Nordic stock. Osborn, who was a zoologist by training, wrote the introduction to Grant’s book, which Hitler called “my Bible.” The New Yorker magazine once described Grant as someone who “extended a passion for preserving bison and caribou into a mania for preserving the ‘Nordic race.’ ”
Given their options, why are liberals so focused on monuments to Civil War figures? Politically, it makes some tactical sense. The GOP has spent decades warding off claims of racism, and forcing Republican politicians to defend prominent displays of Confederate statuary keeps them on the defensive. On another level, however, liberals make a fetish of Civil War monuments because it feeds their hallowed slavery narrative, which posits that racial inequality today is mainly a legacy of the country’s slave past.
One problem with these assumptions about slavery’s effects on black outcomes today is that they are undermined by what blacks were able to accomplish in the first hundred years after their emancipation, when white racism was rampant and legal and blacks had bigger concerns than Robert E. Lee’s likeness in a public park. Today, slavery is still being blamed for everything from black broken families to high crime rates in black neighborhoods to racial gaps in education, employment and income. Yet outcomes in all of those areas improved markedly in the immediate aftermath of slavery and continued to improve for decades.
Between 1890 and 1940, for example, black marriage rates in the U.S. were higher than white marriage rates. In the 1940s and ’50s, black labor-participation rates exceeded those of whites; black incomes grew much faster than white incomes; and the black poverty rate fell by 40 percentage points. Between 1940 and 1970—that is, during Jim Crow and prior to the era of affirmative action—the number of blacks in middle-class professions quadrupled. In other words, racial gaps were narrowing. Steady progress was being made. Blacks today hear plenty about what they can’t achieve due to the legacy of slavery and not enough about what they did in fact achieve notwithstanding hundreds of years in bondage followed by decades of legal segregation.
In the post-’60s era, these positive trends would slow, stall, or in some cases even reverse course. The homicide rate for black men fell by 18% in the 1940s and by another 22% in the 1950s. But in the 1960s all of those gains would vanish as the homicide rate for black males rose by nearly 90%. Are today’s black violent-crime rates a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow or of something else? Unfortunately, that’s a question few people on the left will even entertain.
Just ask Amy Wax and Lawrence Alexander, law professors at the University of Pennsylvania and University of San Diego, respectively, who were taken to task for co-authoring an op-ed this month in the Philadelphia Inquirer that lamented the breakdown of “bourgeois” cultural values that prevailed in mid-20th-century America. “That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow,” they wrote. “Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. . . . Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”
The professors noted that disadvantaged groups have been hit hardest by the disintegration of these middle-class mores and that the expansion of the welfare state, which reduced the financial need for two-parent families, hastened social retrogression. “A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect,” they wrote. “Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.”
For the suggestion that something other than continuing racial bigotry and the legacy of slavery has contributed to racial inequality, a coalition of faculty and students at the University of Pennsylvania promptly accused the professors of advancing a “racist and white supremacist discourse.” The reality is that there was a time when blacks and whites alike shared conventional attitudes toward marriage, parenting, school and work, and those attitudes abetted unprecedented social and economic black advancement.
Follow us on Twitter
Like us on Facebook