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Racial presuppositions

Progressivism Presuppositions

Anthony Bradley



The more I read of Thomas Sowell’s latest book Intellectuals and Race themore I am persuaded that the era of progressivism may have been just a damagingthe history of black progress in American than the Jim Crow era. From thelatter part of the 19th-century through the 1930s progressives sought to usegovernment as a means of addressing the social ills of society. It was an erawhere leading intellectuals, in partnership with politicians, expanded thescope of government’s decision-making authority to address the needs of thepoor. It was an era where good intentions created more problems than policymakers anticipated. Sowell explains how these policies were especially harmfulto minorities in chapter 3 of the book.

Progressives believed that science could explain the differences in racialprogress in America between various ethnic groups. Empirical data on groupdifferences in crime rates, disease rates, mental test scores, and schoolperformance, Sowell argues, grow as an ever-increasing justification forarriving at racialized conclusions about how people lived. Americanprogressives took a largely negative view about the aptitude not only of blacksbut also of immigrants of Eastern and Southern Europe. During this era, forexample, it was just assumed that blacks were incapable of mentally performingin ways comparable to whites and were, then, a potential drain on society. Theimplications later were that the blacks needed to be assessed according todifferent performance scales on standardized tests because they simply were nota intelligent as whites.

As away to freeing society of those who would impede social progress eugenics wascelebrated as a means of aiding society. Progressives like Margaret Sanger andEleanor Roosevelt wanted to prevent excessive breeding by the wrong kinds ofpeople, including particular races. “Eugenicists feared that people of lowermental capacity would reproduce on a larger scale than others, and thus, overtime bring about a decline in the average IQ in the nation,” observes Sowell.Unfortunately, this set the stage for the promotion of abortion in Harlem as anextension of The Negro Project supported by Sanger and others.

Becauseblacks were seen as incapable of competing against whites, due to innate lowmental capacity, economists like Alfred Marshall and John Bates Clark advocatedfor minimum wage laws as a way of preventing “low-wage races” from lowering thestandard of American life. In fact, the progressive era was the beginning of cementinga worldview that believed government to be the primary means of preventing “lowerraces” from being left out of the American Dream. Government policy couldovercome bad genes for lower races.

If wethink carefully about the social engineering proposals of policy makers of thelast 60 years we might learn significant truths by unpacking theanthropological presuppositions of particular social welfare agendas. WhatSowell does in this one chapter alone is expose the fact that what drove many progressivepolicies was the idea that lower races cannot help themselves nor advancewithout the help of government. On the surface, this may seem “compassionate”but it remains an affront to the human dignity of all.