I read with interest the 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 values.
American blacks 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.
What effects 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.
So, blacks 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.
Libertarian 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.
Black 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.
July 13, 2006