I read with
article by Wilt Alston on the dearth of black libertarians.
I have long been the only libertarian among my circle of (mostly
black) friends, and I think the somewhat unique cultural background
of American blacks (the only type with whom I am intimately familiar)
has made less than fertile ground for the growth of libertarian
are generally the descendants of slaves. That peculiar institution
set the groundwork for a lot of black cultural traditions and social
habits. Individualists who fought for their own rights were in short
supply because that trait did not make you better able to survive
and prosper. Quite the opposite, in fact. Far too often, blacks
who had the burning desire to improve themselves had to hide this
desire, lest they be considered uppity and be subject to sanctions.
Though I find Lincoln an opportunist and murderer, it is fact that
actions he set into motion led to the freeing of the slaves at the
time in which they were freed. That is something blacks can’t say
of Calhoun (though consistently following his ideas on government
would lead to that conclusion, though he himself may have loathed
that result), as much as I personally admire his insight into government
and freedom. It is a historical accident that the federal government
forced abolition on the South, which would have inevitably come
without the assistance of Union soldiers. Readers of this site are
keenly aware of this, but we all know that, all too often, we take
the baby along with the bathwater, and, indeed, often have trouble
realizing the two can be separated at all.
did the fact that blacks saw the federal government as their emancipators
have on black culture? Well, for one thing, it meant that one of
the first places blacks went for jobs was the government, which
was basically all under federal control immediately after the Civil
War. Growing up in Mississippi, I knew few successful black businessmen.
Black professionals were usually teachers, preachers, and government
workers of various sorts. That’s just how it was. That’s where the
opportunities usually were. In particular during my father’s and
grandfather’s times, the protection of the federal government was
the best way black folk knew to be successful. Black-owned businesses
generally catered to blacks only. It would, in fact, be dangerous
in many parts of the country for them to attempt to do otherwise.
This meant that most of the outside money which was coming into
black neighborhoods was coming from the government, since the professionals,
the high income earners, were frequently working for the government.
There has always
been (since slavery’s end), as far as I can tell, a kind of black
aristocracy. Not the natural aristocracy of Jefferson, but one based
upon the coercive power held by basically any white man over any
black man. This meant that if you had a problem which required white
involvement, you spoke first to a black person with a personal relationship
with a white person of influence. A person who was hand picked,
you might say, as the "black leader." This is one reason
you have always seen black community leaders in this country to
an extent which you just don’t see with other ethnic groups. This
leader was often the preacher, who was one of the few black people
who had the means and motivation to become literate (most jobs blacks
were working didn’t require literacy, so the infrastructure and
incentive to obtain it was lacking). As a result, blacks traditionally
have deferred to the authority of such people. At least in the small
churches of the rural areas of the South, firing or censuring a
misbehaving minister is incredibly difficult. Indeed, he normally
has to do something completely unChristian such as have an affair
with a parishioner in order for this to happen. If he simply doesn’t
do his job well, or violates the charter of the church, that usually
won’t be sufficient cause to get most of the members to act. The
assumption is that he has been divinely authorized to lead them.
(I remember many times as a child when people would stand up in
church and criticize some practice, first making sure to note that
they were not criticizing the minister because they know he has
been "set above them.") As a result, many black institutions
are much more oriented towards the charismatic leader than the underlying
doctrine. We see that all too clearly, for example, in the Nation
of Islam. Note how they always fawn over their leaders, even to
the point of committing obscene blasphemies such as referring to
W. Fard Muhammad as Allah in Person and Elijah Muhammad as the Messenger
of Allah. This sort of worship of authority was inculcated into
slaves by necessity, and has been exploited by government (and private)
demagogues ever since.
were victimized due to government protection of the planters, then
it was government which freed them, then government which was the
most favored employer. Black people generally look fondly upon both
the black Union soldiers (who were largely fighting for freedom,
unlike their compatriots) as some of the few blacks at the time
to be openly armed and seemingly having their human right to self-defense
and self-determination recognized in a way which was not common
at that time. They also look fondly upon the Buffalo Soldiers, even
though those men were aiding in a genocidal campaign against Native
Americans. Finally, black people getting to be the oppressor instead
of the oppressed! To be fair, of course, most of the people who
celebrate them don’t celebrate their actual killing of Native Americans,
they celebrate that their value was recognized by the government,
which is often taken to mean the majority of white people living
at the time.
values have not had much opportunity to get going among most blacks.
When Jim Crow laws and lynchings were plaguing people, it was the
federal government which is largely recognized, rightly or wrongly,
as having ended these evils. When blacks were excluded from businesses
and schools, once again it was the federal government which is regarded
as having brought freedom to the oppressed. The struggle for freedom
for blacks in this country is largely therefore regarded as rich
men, in league with state governments, versus the federal government.
Considering that worldview, is it any wonder that libertarianism
has not taken root? Individualism just does not have a well-established
history among most black people. How could it? So, for the most
part, black political views tend to boil down to the government
which harms versus the government which helps. Individuals, then,
according to this view, have to choose sides, because those are
the only two which exist.
libertarianism never got a good opportunity to get off the ground.
The culture in which most of us have been brought up has had a contraceptive
effect on the birth of libertarian ideas among blacks. The millions
of "libertarian unborn" which were prevented and aborted
due to this culture are sorely missed. We see it in the terrible
state of black America every day. There is hope, however. The fact
that blacks are equal before the law, through whatever means that
has been achieved, is a key issue which should not be ignored. It
is only lately, when the government is finally becoming an equal
opportunity oppressor that libertarianism is starting to resonate.
Though my friends aren’t generally libertarians (most are Democrats,
but one is a Bush Republican), I find that actually talking to them
personally and describing what the government does is very effective
at helping them see the value of libertarian philosophy. So, while
black libertarians are in short supply, demand for the ideas we
hold are increasing. There is therefore, I feel, an unprecedented
opportunity to spread libertarianism among black people. There are,
in fact, more obvious reasons for blacks to be libertarians than
just about any other American ethnic group.
A. Wicks [send him mail]
is Unix administrator in Atlanta.