Accommodation or Agitation?

While writing the following essay for an economics course on African American entrepreneurship, it occurred to me that the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois closely parallels the broader debate between advocates of natural rights and consequentialism. Take a gander:

The debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois can be best characterized as both an agreement about ends and a disagreement over means. Both Washington and Du Bois agreed that the proper goal for African Americans is equal treatment under the law, equal social and civil status, proper education, and economic prosperity. However, they sharply differed over the best way to achieve these goals. While Du Bois’ approach of political and social agitation is admirable and in many ways desirable, and while some of his critiques of Washington’s policy of racial accommodation are well taken, Washington’s focus on economics—that is, his focus on improving material conditions rather than political and social equality—is, despite an apparent lack of idealism, better suited for achieving their mutually agreed upon goals.

In his well known “Atlanta Compromise” speech, Washington offered a racial compromise. To southern blacks, he advised, “Cast down your bucket where you are,” and avoid “artificial forcing” and “agitation of questions of social equality.” This concession would serve to placate white America’s fears of black insurrection, of revolt and revenge for the still-recent crime of mass racial slavery. In exchange for surrendering their demands for political and social equality, black southerners would be rewarded with the opportunity to share in economic prosperity and stability. Black Americans would concentrate on those fields in which they had a comparative advantage, using the skills they developed during slavery. The focus, Washington argued, should be on industrial training rather than a broad, liberal, higher education; on thrift and patience rather than immediate advance and agitation; and most importantly, on material, economic progress rather than civil and political rights. Washington did not deny that these former virtues are valuable and desirable; rather, his pragmatism countenanced against starting at the top instead of at the bottom. Only by pursuing economic self-sufficiency and material progress could blacks fully achieve racial acceptance and integration.

Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. While his strategy did result in impressive economic achievements in the late 19th and early 20th century, Washington failed to predict the scope and the effect of rigid racial segregation. Whatever respect successful black entrepreneurs and laborers may have garnered from their white counterparts, this success also created much hostility and resentment among their competitors, who turned to government regulation and state-sponsored discrimination to maintain their economic domination. Some, such as Manning Marable, have argued that Washington’s anti-union philosophy “provided a justification for racists inside organized labor to expel black members,” thereby removing a potential bulwark against economic instability. But this may be precisely backwards; perhaps Washington’s opposition to unions stemmed from his reaction to their previous racist exclusionary policies. As Washington himself noted, unions represent “a monopoly of the opportunity for labor.” Monopolies notoriously restrict supply in order to artificially increase prices, which--in the case of labor markets--entails restricting the number of potential laborers in order to increase the wages of the employed.

Du Bois’ argument for higher education is persuasive. Without well-educated black professors instructed by liberal arts colleges, who will teach the next generation of workers in industrial training schools? Despite his implicit disdain for “triumphant commercialism,” “accumulation of wealth,” and other things material, Du Bois does have a point that there is more to life than money. And while he correctly recognized the importance of specialization and the division of labor when he claimed that “Nature must…make men narrow in order to give them force,” Du Bois criticized Washington on this same point, for his “counsels of submission overlooked certain elements of true manhood, and … his educational programme was unnecessarily narrow.” There is no need to restrict the “higher training and ambition of our brighter minds;” those who wish to pursue the more intellectual fields of medicine, law, and journalism should certainly be able and encouraged to do so. On the other hand, Du Bois’ strategy of focusing on the “Talented Tenth,” while no doubt beneficial to those who compose this group, seems unlikely to significantly benefit the rest of community.

Apart from his insightful criticisms of Washington, it is not clear whether Du Bois’ opposing strategy of political and social unrest would have made things any better. Had the black community put more emphasis on politics and civil rights instead of economic achievement, would the imposition of Jim Crow restrictions been less likely? While there is no way to know for sure, the experience of other racial and ethnic minorities who have suffered from systematic discrimination suggests not. Jews and Asians have faced somewhat comparable social and economic exclusion, and yet their financial success and social integration came not with political activism, but with an apolitical emphasis on education, business enterprise, and an ethic of communal and familial self-help.

The fundamental insight of economics is that we live in a world of scarcity, and we must therefore decide how to best allocate these scarce resources to achieve our goals. Booker T. Washington firmly believed that, given the constraints of the society in which he lived, a trade-off would need to be made between success in the economic arena and success in the political arena. Demanding immediate social and political equality, while a requirement of justice, would likely result in a fierce backlash from white America, terrified of revenge for its sins. Instead, Washington urged his community to set aside its immediate hope for political equality and social integration--despite the legitimacy and rightfulness of these goals--and alternatively focus its efforts on material prosperity and economic progress. Once achieved, Washington assures us, “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” Despite his shortcomings, most notably his failure to recognize the devastating effect politics can have on restricting market activity, Washington’s advice remains relevant, not only to African Americans living in the aftermath of slavery, but to all subjugated, socially marginalized groups.

Sources:

John Sibley Butler. "Why Booker T. Washington Was Right: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics," in Thomas D. Boston (edited). A Different Vision: African American Economic Thought. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Manning Marable. “Booker T. Washington and the Political Economy of Black Education in the United States, 1880-1915,” Education with Production, Vol. 4, no. 2 (February 1986), pp. 10-37. (Published in Gaborone, Botswana).

Booker T. Washington. “The Atlanta Exposition Address,” in Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 3, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 583–587.

W.E.B. Du Bois. “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, 1903).

Share this

I don't think gradualism

I don't think gradualism fully captures the devide between Washington and Du Bois. If that were the case, Washington would have advocated the same path as Du Bois, but at a slower rate: push for political rights and social equality, but don't push for too much too quickly. However, this is not Washington's argument. Instead, he urges blacks to change their focus almost entirely from politics to economics, and that political equality will come as an indirect (but necessary) result of economic progress.

Here's where I see the parallel between consequentialism and deontology. Consider David Friedman's arguments in The Machinery of Freedom (I almost wrote The Structure of Liberty; funny how similar the two titles are). He tells us that he shares basic libertarian intuitions of justice, but at the same time recognizes that these intuitions are not widely shared. Rather than attempt the probably-impossible task of changing social norms through ethical persuasion, Friedman advises libertarians to, in a sense, "cast down our buckets where we are." That is to say, we accept the present conditions of social attitudes as they are, and work within these attitudes to achieve our goals. A common theme in both libertarian and non-libertarian thought, apart from some insignificant outliers, is the preference for economic growth and prosperity. Friedman suggests we use these sorts of widespread goals, for which economic analysis is well suited to advise, and thereby show how free market capitalism is the best system for their achievement, rather than try to convince people to change their minds about more specific ethical rules. As an indirect result of pursuing desirable economic consequences, we will also necessarily achieve natural liberty.

I find the similarity with Washington striking, and it helps to explain why Friedman and other "amoral" economists are so unpopular with many libertarians, just as Washington is almost universally looked down upon as worse than an Uncle Tom. Worse, Marable argues, because an Uncle Tom is passive and ignorant, while Washington was zealously active and well educated, so he should have known better than to "accomodate" social inequality. If you've ever heard the rantings of Hoppe when he starts in on the Chicago School and how their acceptance of the Coase Theorem makes them "worse them communists," Marable's criticism should be all too familiar.

"But one of the things that

"But one of the things that John Sibley Butler shows in the article listed above is that in the entire history of socially marginalized ethnic groups, nearly all that succeeded did so on account of non-political factors."

But the politics has to be so aligned as to allow them to succeed first. How many Jews from the Russian Pale were flourishing while the heavy hand of the Tsar blocked them from all forms of advancement, and do you realize what happened to the Igbo in the period between 1967 and 1970?

"The fact that Jewish celebrities today can downplay their heritage is only a result of the cultural changes within the Jewish community over the past 200 years, and the cultural changes within American society, which Butler argues should be credited to Jewish educational and financial success, and not political achievements."

I don't buy this argument for a second. Without Napoleon's highly political emancipation of Jews throughout the territories he conquered, there would have been no Jewish educational and financial successes to record in continental Europe outside of the odd exception like the Rothschilds - just look at the differing fortunes of the Russian and German Jews during the course of the 19th century to see how big a difference politics makes - and America's more liberal political system was vital to the much greater advances Jews were able to make in the new country. You simply can't ignore politics when discussing the outcomes of persecuted groups.

"Your charge is a particularly odious one, for it stifles any debate ethnic groups might have with each other, for each can say, “you don’t know me, you and I are not comparable.”

That you label it "odious" doesn't mean it isn't true; it is an empirical fact that I don't know what it's like to be Jewish or a woman, and in the latter case at least, I never will. To say that my statement is "odious" because it allegedly "stifles debate" is simply to reason backwards from desired conclusions to preferred axioms, which is an egregious lapse of reason. Saying that it's easier for those who don't have to suffer from a particular form of oppression to advocate that those who do adopt a gradualist approach is a commonplace truth that one cannot deny while trying to have an honest conversation.

And the answer to the "why"

And the answer to the "why" questions for why we should pursue certain desirable consequences...is because we desire them. If you are talking to someone who doesn't share a desire for peace and prosperity, then yes, you will need to change approaches. Luckily, very few people are like this. There's surely more room for agreement here than on questions like "what is human nature?", "what is the purpose of life?", "what is the highest human value?"

Lopez, yeah, I noticed the

Lopez, yeah, I noticed the connection to the abortion debate too, and then I read Beck's post and confirmed it. Great minds think alike?

**Outcomes matter, a lot.

**Outcomes matter, a lot. They matter so much that people can be convinced to support something they otherwise hate if they are shown it improves an outcome. However, I don’t think you’ll get very far advocating a ethics-less approach before someone you’re attempting to convince calls you on it.**

the same "why" questions apply to deontology. very simply, why should i accept your moral system? those arguments go nowhere at lot faster too.

Ghertner, quite by

Ghertner, quite by coincidence Beck has touched on your last paragraph, there. Scroll down to "You know what?".

Abiola, True, the

Abiola,

True, the experiences of these groups are not completely identical. But one of the things that John Sibley Butler shows in the article listed above is that in the entire history of socially marginalized ethnic groups, nearly all that succeeded did so on account of non-political factors.

Butler looks at Jews and Asians and other groups, not only in the context of American history, but all over the world. It is true that Jews have the option of blending in, but this is a fairly recent phenomenon, appearing only since the late 18th century in places like Germany with the Haskalah movement of Mendellsohn and others. Before then, even Jews who would have wanted to assimilate would have a nearly impossible time doing so, for their language, dress, and entire culture was based on closely-kept norms within isolated Jewish communities. The fact that Jewish celebrities today can downplay their heritage is only a result of the cultural changes within the Jewish community over the past 200 years, and the cultural changes within American society, which Butler argues should be credited to Jewish educational and financial success, and not political achievements.

Butler extends this analysis to both the Ibo people in West Africa, especially Nigeria, to Asians in East Africa, and to Chinese in Southeast Asia. These are all people who could not willingly choose to leave their ethnicity behind.

I take your last point, and it is true that I can never know exactly whan it feels like to be a black man or woman living in the United States. But I do know what it feels like to be a visibly noticable ethnic minority, and I know what it feels like to be the target of racism. Your charge is a particularly odious one, for it stifles any debate ethnic groups might have with each other, for each can say, "you don't know me, you and I are not comparable." Even apart from being Jewish, as I libertarian, I know exactly what it feels like to desperately want a truly just world where civil society prospers and political coercion is minimized, and yet be constantly discouraged by the fact that those who agree with me are a tiny minority. I recognize the wisdom of Booker T.'s strategy of appealing to those areas held in common, and of repressing my own personal beliefs about justice for the more realistic goal of achieving better material consequences.

Jews and Asians have faced

Jews and Asians have faced somewhat comparable social and economic exclusion, and yet their financial success and social integration came not with political activism, but with an apolitical emphasis on education, business enterprise, and an ethic of communal and familial self-help.

1 - Jews have always had the option of trying to blend in by changing their names, abandoning their religion and so forth, a strategy that many still use today - witness, for instance, Winona Horowitz, Sarah Michelle Gellar or many other celebrities who downplay their Jewish heritage. Blacks, obviously, have no recourse to such a strategem.

2 - Asians were never a significant presence in America outside of California thanks to the immigration restriction laws of the 1920s; that most of today's Asian immigrants are in America at all owes entirely to black agitation for non-discriminatory government policies, leading to the immigration reforms of the 1960s. What is more, most Asian immigrants are highly selected for in terms of education and other forms of cultural capital, so it's hardly appropriate to compare them to the descendants of slaves and Jim Crow, is it?

In short, the argument that black political activism was some sort of mistake is one without an iota of substance to it, and I for one see absolutely nothing of relevance in Washington's arguments for a "slowly, slowly" approach, which is much easier to think reasonable when one doesn't have to put up with the daily slights and injuries oneself.

A common theme in both

A common theme in both libertarian and non-libertarian thought, apart from some insignificant outliers, is the preference for economic growth and prosperity. Friedman suggests we use these sorts of widespread goals, for which economic analysis is well suited to advise, and thereby show how free market capitalism is the best system for their achievement, rather than try to convince people to change their minds about more specific ethical rules.

But you've been in the blog comment debates, Micha. You know what happens when you advocate for economic liberty, even from a strictly consequentialist/utilitiarian point of view: you get questioned on the fundamental ethics of your choice for that point of view, for preferring liberty over regulation. It happens in almost every single argument I've ever been in.

You say you're against taxation and people ask why. You say it's because it hurts economic development and people ask so what or you say it impairs the efficient allocation of capital and people ask but what about Medicare. You refer them to free market solutions and they ask but what about those who can't pay. It goes on and on and what they are getting at, I think, is really: On what moral basis do you make these statements?

Outcomes matter, a lot. They matter so much that people can be convinced to support something they otherwise hate if they are shown it improves an outcome. However, I don't think you'll get very far advocating a ethics-less approach before someone you're attempting to convince calls you on it.

The parallel with

The parallel with deontologist/consequentialist debates is pretty weak, I think. Not only were Washington's and du Bois's goals the same, they (probably) believed in them for essentially the same reasons: both believed that blacks were entitled to social and legal equality *as a matter of right and justice*, and *also* that making such equality happen would be materially beneficial to all. Their differences lay in questions of means: gradualist or not?

So a much stronger parallel might be made with the arguments between no-compromise anarchists (people who refuse to vote, think the LP is a bunch of unprincipled sellouts, etc.) vs. incremental reformers like the Catoites. Here is the relevant difference over means, and note that it's orthogonal to the deontology/consequentialism axis: Randy Barnett, for instance, is a strong deontological theorist who works for incremental reform within the existing system.