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Black Power & White Welfare, Yesterday & Today

Reflections on Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896

Most of us--99% at least--must pay the other 1% by week or month or quarter for the privilege of staying here and working like slaves

Henry George in his 1886 campaign for Mayor of NYC (p. 561)

“Americans lived [in the late 19th century] in a transnational world, though the common currents of that world—immigration, trade, the exchange of ideas, the movement of plants and animals—led to a reaction that increasingly strengthened borders and boundaries.  American nationalism found expression in nativism, tariffs, and immigration restrictions.” (p. 867)

Mark Twain may or may not have said “history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes,” but after reading Richard White’s engrossing 2017 tome The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, the thought feels inescapable.  While Donald Trump has sometimes been compared to his (or Steve Bannon’s) favorite predecessor, Andrew Jackson, White implies parallels between the last half of the 19th century and today that seem more resonant and pertinent.  I beg his pardon in advance for perhaps taking the rhymes further than he intended.

The Trump Presidency has revived tensions around issues that mainstream thinkers had thought already settled: racial equality, the independence of the judiciary, free trade, Presidential decorum, etc.  And it has exacerbated tensions around already contested issues such as immigration, voting rights, gun rights, the role of police, public schooling, and economic inequality.  Richard White reminds us that our current period does not represent a sharp departure from our history, but rather an elaboration of long-standing themes in American culture.

White describes a period of initial Black empowerment (Reconstruction, generally dated from 1865-1877) succeeded by an unleashed liberalism (supposedly free market, but actually government-enabled), which came to abandon support of Black freedom, while social inequality increased amongst all groups.  Before exploring further this parallel to today’s politics, it might be instructive to make note of other rhymes:

  1. During the Gilded Age (which White dates from the 1870s-1876), there was an environmental crisis that engulfed the cities—disease, fire, water, sewerage, and pollution—and daunted political leaders.  The environmental crisis tested the viability of urban life.  “Without increased governmental powers, cities—the center of the new industrial economy—threatened to be unlivable” (p. 867.)  The spread of “tuberculosis provided both more evidence that personal choice and the market were not going to solve the environmental crisis and the authority and tools of the new municipal agencies were still too limited”.  (p. 515). The extent of the crisis demonstrated the limits of the “nuisance doctrine”, a product of liberal thinking, in which individual violators (polluters, etc.) were held responsible without an overall approach to systemic urban problems.  The limited solutions propounded in this period benefited the 1% more than the 99%.  ‘Municipal tax policy passed he burden of the crisis to taxpayers as a whole while preserving the benefits, and profits, of the proposed solutions for the wealthiest.  The poor derived the ”least benefit from the infrastructure of sanitation and clean water in the cities.” (p. 516).  “Public policies created an urban infrastructure at little cost to developers, while providing a windfall to the property owners.”  (p. 504).  It remained for the Progressive period to increase municipal administrative capacity, though not always to equitable effect.  Today the environmental crisis is even more threatening, as well as global, and it is questionable that the political capacity exists to effectively respond. Market solutions like carbon (emissions) trading hardly measure up to the scale of the problem.  A larger government role is required for serious action, precisely what fossil fuel companies and neoliberal ideologues disdain.
  1. Catholicism was feared as an anti-democratic, corrupting foreign religion.  In 1850 Catholics constituted 5% of the population, by 1905, 17%.   Abolitionist and moralist minister Henry Ward Beecher “regarded the Catholic church as unsuited for the age and for a democratic United States” and saw the priesthood as an aristocracy and Catholicism a form of ”submission and a suspension of reason” (p. 315).   New Hampshire Senator Henry W. Blair even called for the deportation of Jesuits.  The Catholic Church did take anti-democratic and anti-liberal positions.  The Pope’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors had condemned the separation of church & state and the Catholic Church generally opposed pubic schools, and “rejected contract freedom, individualism, liberty of conscience, and equality” (p. 316).  The battle over public schools was protracted; in the end public, secular schools and a parallel system of Catholic schools emerged.  Anti-Catholicism was interweaved with anti-immigration and with some trends in the anti-monopoly movement –embodied in organizations like Henry Bowers’ American Protective Association.  Today groups like ACT! for America (founded in 2007), are dedicated to combating what it describes as 'the threat of radical Islam' to the safety of Americans and to democracy.  Ten states have already adopted legislation that prohibits the use of foreign law in their state courts, with the focus on Islamic Sharia law.  In 2017, sixteen states have proposed legislation on the subject.  No national Muslim organization has ever called for Sharia to supersede American courts.  Todays’ nativists feel the same sense of foreign-ness and threat from Muslims and Muslim immigrants and refugees that Gilded Age nativists felt toward Catholics.

Public schools have come under attack as bureaucratic, ineffective ‘government’ schools.  Efforts continue to provide public money for religious private schools, while other alternatives such as charter schools and home schooling have gained traction.

  1. In the last half of the 19th century, immigration was a contentious issue as immigrants increasingly came from southern and eastern Europe (more unskilled, more Catholic and Jewish). Chinese laborers made up ¼ of the work force in California in 1880.  Chinese immigration was banned in 1882 (the ban was not lifted until 1943).  Anti-Chinese feeling was omnipresent; particularly on the West Coast—Sinophobia fueled the growth of the Knights of Labor. An 1879 referendum on Chinese exclusion in California passed by a vote of 150,000-900. (pp. 380-82).  There were numerous unpunished massacres of Chinese workers, including at Rock Springs in Wyoming in 1885 and at Snake River in Hells Canyon, Oregon in 1887.  Resentment of the low wages that Chinese often worked at was mixed in with a fearful Sinophobia, which White argues differed from anti-Black racism because nativists worried that Chinese would win in economic competition, and unless banned would displace white Americans, a fear elaborated in 1880 by Pierton W. Dooner in The Last Day of the Republic, which features a Chinese army invading California. (p. 381).

European immigrants were also considered a danger to American culture and values.  MIT President Francis Walker agued that “native-born Americans would have gladly done the work immigrants performed no matter how dangerous and low-paying, if there had been no immigrants present [his ‘displacement principle’].”  “The new immigration”, he thought, had become a race to the bottom as Italians replaced Irish and then Jews replaced Italians..  the dregs of Europe.”  “They were ‘beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence.” “Americans had the duty of self-protection, and they had to protect a system that was the envy of the world.” (pp. 697-99).  He was not alone among the intellectual class who feared ‘race suicide’.   Economist Edward Bemis, for instance, specialized in exaggerating the numbers of immigrants, who while increasing in numbers constituted a declining percentage of the total population. Immigrants were blamed for increasing crime even as the crime rate was probably falling (p.703).  They were tainted by ‘foreign’ ideologies such as socialism and anarchism.  Despite his belief in labor solidarity, even (cooperativist and later socialist) Eugene Debs trafficked in anti-immigrant thinking.  He was hostile to Southern European Catholics and eastern European Jews as well as Chinese (and he did not oppose Jim Crow).   Anti-immigrant fever overlapped with Social Darwinism in the works of Josiah Strong, who promoted the racial destiny of Anglo-Saxons to beat back the perils of “Romanism, Socialism, Mormonism, Wealth, and the City” (p. 571).    

Today, while anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism have not disappeared (especially amongst the alt-right), Jewish and Catholic ethnicity and religiosity have been largely de-racialized.  Hostility to immigrants has been displaced onto people of color from Latin America and the Middle East, who are damned as purveyors of drugs, gangs, and terrorism.   Fear of economic decline and jobs competition is intermeshed with racism.   For nativists, Americans remain the victims of foreign intrigue--ignoring the disruptive role of the US in immigrants’ countries of origin, whether economically (NAFTA) or militarily.  Chinese have been pegged as part of the ‘model minority’ even as contemporary fears of China’s global capacity provoke nativist outrage.                       

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  1. Fourteenth Amendment & Corporate personhood: The 1868 Fourteenth Amendment’s (original) intent was to ensure fair treatment for the freed people.  White traces the transformation of its use to a key defense of corporate power and property rights beginning with the dissent of Stephen Field in the Slaughterhouse cases (1873). (pp. 811-12).  The guarantees of the amendment were ”turned into unadulterated contract freedom”, questioning the right of legislatures to restrain or regulate working conditions under the doctrine that came to be called ‘substantive due process’ which argued that governments could not take property and give it to another.  The source of progress and freedom was deemed to be the protection of property, relying on Adam Smith’s classical economics more than the Constitution. Freedom was morphing into the unfettered ability to dispose of property with courts as the main arbiters.  Anything that limited contract freedom was considered the equivalent of slavery.  Supreme Court cases in the 1880s[1] led to the classification of corporations as ‘persons’ under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The distinction between artificial and natural personhood became blurry. (pp. 812-17).  The 1905 Lochner v. New York decision, following the logic of these earlier decisions, ruled unconstitutional a state law limiting bakers’ working hours. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions varied, sometimes permitting state regulation of work conditions.  In Northwestern Nat Life Ins. Co. v. Riggs (1906), the Court accepted that corporations are for legal purposes "persons", but still ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment was not a bar to many state laws.  However, this was not because corporations were not protected under the Fourteenth Amendment—rather, the Court's ruling was that the Fourteenth Amendment did not prohibit that type of regulation.      While the majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)—upholding the rights of corporations to make political expenditures under the First Amendment--made no reference to either corporate personhood (or the Fourteenth Amendment), it revived controversy over the validity of the concept of corporate personhood.  2012 Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney notably asserted that: “Corporations are people, my friend.”  His words symbolized the dominance of corporations in the nation’s political life. In response, there have been calls for the abolition of corporate personhood.[2]
  1. Women’s rights & the home:  White uses Frances Willard, the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) as the paradigmatic women’s rights activist of the Gilded Age.  “She was expert at taking the common belief in separate spheres for men and women and turning it into an argument for equality.”  “She created an imperial home where boundaries constantly expanded.  Anything that affected the home and the family became the political concern for women and a rationale for extending suffrage to them.” (166).  She was able to “combine the threat to the home [by drunkenness, etc.] with a critique of women’s subordination  in it.”   (p. 166).  White notes that “temperance did not always involve nativism; but it often did”  and many suffragettes advocated that “’that Woman, who is truest to God, and our country by instinct and education, should have a voice at the polls where the Sabbath and the Bible are now attacked by the infidel foreign population of our country.”  (p. 553).  Anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells criticized Willard and others for invoking the dangers of rapacious Black men.[3]

The invocation of home and family remain a touchstone of mainstream politics with the women’s and LGBTQ movements routinely accused of destroying the family.  Whether women have special moral authority is controversial inside these movements.  Home, family, and gender are being reconceived.  While the current wave of the women’s movement was stimulated by the strengths and weaknesses of the civil rights and Black power movements—as the Gilded Age women’s movements was birthed in the Abolitionist movement—tensions between a predominantly white women’s movement and the struggles of people of color have not disappeared though there is also momentum for an anti-racist feminism. 

  1. Tariff:  Gilded Age Republicans generally supported tariffs, to protect emerging industries, especially the steel industry, but complemented by other tariffs (as on wool) to secure broader support.  “Its political function became as important as its economic function.  The byzantine and ornate tariff structure offered many constituencies compensation for their pain.”  (pp. 372-73).    Andrew Carnegie confessed that “it was the tariff more than anything else that brought him into the steel business.”  (p. 658)  “Republicans equated even modest tariff reform with free trade, a doctrine of both the slave South and Great Britain, the great enemies of free labor.” (pp. 587-88)  Anti-monopolists, often but not always Democrats, castigated “the tariff [as] the ‘mother of trusts’ a triumph of avarice over liberty.” (p. 586).  As tariffs tended to raise the price of consumer goods, Republicans cushioned that blow with the Arrears Act of 1879, which provided, with tariff-based money, pensions for dependents of US soldiers killed in the Civil War, as well as for disabled soldiers.  Civil war pensions became the leading expenditure of the federal government subsidized by the tariff.   “Republicans protected an unpopular policy [the tariff] by making it the chief support for a popular policy. [support for ex-Union soldiers and dependents].” (p. 374).  As with Great Britain in the 19th century, as noted above, and the United States in the late 20th century, free trade policies seemed to serve the interests of the dominant economic power.  The consolidation of the European Union and the economic rise of China have served to undermine the American economic dominance along with hegemonic neoliberal ideology.  Trump has reignited tariff policy as an issue to the consternation of establishment Republicans (ardent free traders), among others. 
  1. End of the ‘frontier’ and the expansion of US dominion: White points out the psychological impact of the 1890 census which declared the ‘end’ of the frontier: “There was real angst over the changing nature of the country, and this would be loaded onto the idea of a vanished frontier.  But real worry rode an imaginary horse” (p. 649).  At the July, 1893 World’s Congress of Historians in Chicago during the Columbian Exposition, Frederick Jackson Turner presented “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, in which he noted the “closing of a great historical moment”  (p.763).  White points out that it initially attracted little attention, but eventually became quite influential.  Its thesis was that American democracy was shaped on the frontier.  The impact of the moving frontier line: the forging of the unique and rugged American identity occurred at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness.  American democracy was the primary result, buttressed by individualism, egalitarianism, and violence. "American democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier" ("The Significance of the Frontier in American History". The Frontier in American History, p. 293).  Almost simultaneously Theodore Roosevelt composed his 7-volume. The Taming of the West, an ode to white settler colonialism.

Turner and Roosevelt’s narratives served multiple purposes.  It shifted attention from the Civil War—and the abolition of slavery—to the conquest of the West as the central American story and the source of its ‘exceptionalism’.  North and South could share in the ‘taming’ of the frontier.  It also served to distinguish America from Europe.  For Turner, the frontier undermined Old World institutions such as established churches, aristocracies, standing armies, intrusive government, and highly unequal land distribution.  Its ‘disappearance’ meant the possible loss of American dynamism, innovation, and Turner feared for the future of democracy.  Could America survive without a frontier to conquer?  The metaphor of the frontier continued to resonate in the soaring rhetoric of Presidents, including FDR and JFK. 

In the 1960s, historian William Appleman Williams connected end of frontier anxiety to the global imperial expansion of the US initiated in 1898 with the seizure of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines.  Today, there is anxiety about the declining power of the US imperium throughout the world.  If the US is not #1, the most powerful nation in the world, what is it?  Making America Great Again is a desperate slogan to restore1950s Jim Crow America before defeat in Vietnam and the emergence of Chinese power, and before demands for women’s equity.  Can America find a role in the world without dominating it? 

Narratives of decline surfaced and had influence during the Gilded Age but the prospect of growing American economic and global power meant that narratives of progress still had power.  Today, dystopia rules the cultural landscape with Americans newly pessimistic about their futures.[4]

Significance for Today

For me, these parallels stunningly demonstrate enduring continuities in American history.  I want to emphasize that they exist in the context of the struggles of people of color.  The abolition of slavery in 1865 was thought to usher in a “new birth of freedom”.  The 20th century civil rights movement reputedly removed the stain of racism from the American character.  Each case was celebrated as a triumph of American liberalism,

According to liberal doctrine, abolition was supposed to enable freed people to be part of the regime of free labor and develop into independent republican citizens.  “Liberals easily accepted the idea of a homogenous citizenry since they conceived of society as a collection of autonomous rights-bearing individuals rather than as an assemblage of classes, ethnic groups, or other collectivities… They made the contract between buyer and seller the template of all social relations.  The endless web of individual contracts was how society constituted itself.” (p. 57).  The pretense was that abolition had yielded individuals separated from Black community and removed from racial subjugation.

The abstraction of free labor did not survive the reality of a situation of unrepentant, vengeful Southern Redeemers, especially when there was to be no ‘40 acres and a mule’ to provide even minimal, initial material support.   Rural dependency, sharecropping and eventually Jim Crow were the result.  As federal military support for freed people declined and then disappeared, troops were made available to further dispossess Native people in the West and guard the border (p. 33) to support western expansion (including protecting the new railroads).  This not only meant seizing Native land, but also the suppression of Native culture in a largely vain attempt to turn surviving Indians from ‘savagery’ to independent republican citizens.  And as an anti-establishment Populist movement—with some effort at inter-racialism embodied in, for instance, the Fusion movement in 1890s North Carolina—gained traction, the repressive response was corruption of elections and voter suppression, appeals to white supremacy, and when that didn’t suffice, racist violence.

What might all this mean for today?  Does the suppression of Black empowerment –embodied in mass incarceration, police repression, voter suppression, re-segregation, and the legitimation of racist rhetoric--improve the lives of those privileged with a higher social status? Is relative privilege something of a delusion in a declining, increasingly desperate overall situation?

White’s work makes clear that the current outpouring of white nationalism is no aberration in American culture, that neither Reconstruction nor the civil rights revolution of the 1960s destroyed the currency of white supremacy in American life.  Notions of republican citizenship—constituted by ‘real Americans’--continue to marginalize people of color.

I would argue that rather than Black empowerment being a threat to ‘white’ working and middle class welfare, the history of the last half of both the 19th and 20th centuries demonstrates that the push back against people of color was part of a tendency toward greater overall social and economic inequality and a harder life for most people, including non-elite whites.  On the other hand, Black empowerment has often benefited whites though they have been loath to admit it.  For instance, Reconstruction brought public schools to most of the South for the first time while desegregation of southern public schools arguably improved deplorable public schools at least as much for white people.  Subsequent school re-segregation has not obviously improved public schools for anyone. 

The promise of 19th century free market liberalism revived as 20th century neo-liberalism proved false once again.  Ronald Reagan’s ideological comrade, Margaret Thatcher, recapitulated liberalism’s core assumption: in the 1980s: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”[5]  The replacement of society by the market and community by autonomous individuals was taken for granted.  African-Americans, freed from 19th century slavery or 20th century Jim Crow were to be full participants in the American ‘dream’; and when that didn’t materialize, their ‘uncivilized, backward, irresponsible’ culture was blamed for holding them back. 

But liberalism and concomitant capitalist expansion also disappointed working people as a whole.  The Gilded Age not only resulted in increased economic inequality, but also as White emphasizes, in basic declines in overall health--decreases in life span, and  even height for all groups, including native-born whites.  As White comments: “It put the lie to the image that the United States was a good poor man’s country.” (pp. 478-81). 

The recent news of the decline in white male life span was a stinging reminder that all is not well for non-elite white people.  The institutionalization of Jim Crow at the end of the 19th century, the growth of the New Jim Crow system of mass incarceration in post-Civil Rights America, the rise of nativism in both eras, morphed into the triumph of Donald Trump.  White nationalism (along with patriarchy) has continuing resonance.  The Progressive era (generally dated from the 1890s to 1920) , which supplanted the Gilded Age, did allow for important anti-racist activism—including the creation of the NAACP and the emergence of leaders from Ida B. Wells to W. E. B. Du Bois to Marcus Garvey—but establishment political leadership including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, remained white supremacist and oblivious to the centrality of racism.  The Progressive movement coexisted with the institutionalization of Jim Crow.  Today many leaders of the Democratic opposition share the same obliviousness to the power of racism, if not quite the same crudeness or virulence.  Moderate Democrats want the opposition to Trump to focus on appeals to a nativist working class, and many ‘progressive’ Democrats don’t grasp the profound entanglement of race and class in American history, culture, and society.

Dispossession of Indian land did end up benefiting masses of white people—though the 1% benefited more--starting in the colonial era.  Monopolization of skilled trades starting in the Gilded Age benefit masses of white people to this day.  Chinese exclusion spared wage competition for West Coast whites.  Federal housing policies in the 1930s and beyond allowed whites effective ways of accumulating not only decent housing but family wealth as a result.  Our criminal justice system continues to target people of color. 

Rather than avoid or downplay issues of race, the urgency is to demonstrate how racism obscures the realities of unbridled capitalism and how the myths of free market capitalism do not address the needs of the 99%.  The white members of the 99% may either comply with free market discipline, try to take advantage of individual profitable niches, or move in a resentful, racist direction deflecting blame from the powerful.  Gary Younge points out[6] that the harvest of not forthrightly addressing racial issues--in the name of perceived, short-term election practicalities--is Brexit and Trump.  Whatever the psychic wages of “whiteness”— discounting its cost in provoking a fearful and resentful society—suppression of the rights of people of color does not currently enhance the lives of most people. 

I do not mean to ignore or downplay these harsh realities of privilege.  My point is that even more than in the Gilded Age, disempowerment of people of color is no boon to white people.   The continental frontier is gone, the days of US world dominance are numbered; and the narrow-mindedness and potentially catastrophic destructiveness of neoliberal capitalist development is exposed by the dangers of climate change.  Neoliberal policy has hollowed out communities based on rust-belt industries and abandoned many to the inhuman whims of the market.  Neo-conservatism has led us into disastrous, mean-spirited, counterproductive, costly, and futile wars.  While fewer whites than people of color are victims of gun violence, the casualty rate for American whites still far exceeds that of Europeans.  Life is not looking up for most people in the US.  “In terms of white privilege, whiteness is all they’ve got left. So they fight for it even harder—because without that, what are they?”[7]  White privilege will not rescue most people as the entire ship sinks.  The old lifeboat is leaking too.  Empowerment for all, not caste power, is our spiritual, moral, and political banner.  Black Lives Matter is a clarion call that all lives matter.  A crucial task is to expose the scam of white supremacy..  Otherwise I am afraid that we are doomed to repeat the same old rhymes.  Let’s try racially conscious freestyle or an inclusive free verse for a change.


[1] See (Santa Clara vs. Southern Pacific--1886—and Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania – 125 U.S. 181—1888.

[5] Thatcher:  in an interview in Women's Own in 1987;…