Drowning in a Rising Tide

New research on race and economics in America produces some unsettling findings.

By Nathan Pippenger

Does the left need to claim a Founder? If so, Christian Parenti recently argued, it should opt for Alexander Hamilton over Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, of course, is a common favorite for his idealistic, democratic rhetoric. But don’t be fooled, Parenti writes: he was on the wrong side of one of the early republic’s most important arguments, representing “the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy” in his famous dispute with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. Hamilton’s nationalizing economic vision–important even today as a counter to the excesses of laissez faire–was largely enacted “despite Southern opposition — and it remains the basis for the growth of American capitalism.”

Seeing slavery, and antebellum Southern life more generally, as the enemy of economic modernization is a common historical view. (Its legacy is reflected in Parenti’s linkage of Hamilton’s economic program to his anti-slavery advocacy.) But in recent decades, that view has been complicated by scholars, and a new book by Cornell historian Edward Baptist gives a rather different account of the relationship between slavery and American capitalism. “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear,” Baptist writes. “Yet it is the truth.” As Eric Foner, in a review, summarized the book’s argument: “Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”

Without trying to adjudicate this dispute, I’d just observe that the relationship between economics and race in America has always seemed to trip up even the most sophisticated observers. The problem is far too complex to summarize exactly, but it seems to stem from the (consistently unanticipated) disconnect between the progress of economic modernization and the stubborn persistence of racial inequality. The development of American capitalism, though guided by an anti-slavery thinker and implemented against the opposition of the slaveholding South, turns out to be more connected with slavery than we realized. That finding, in turn, brings to mind new scholarship examining the America of 150 years later. Consider the conviction of leading Southern intellectuals, before the Civil Rights Act, that economic modernization in the South would eventually lead to increased racial equality, and hopefully without the regional backlash that might attend federal intervention. But as Ira Katznelson recently summed up a new study of the era:

Economic development and the growth of cities did not produce a more decent racial order. Despite economic modernization and increasing urbanization during the 1940s and 1950s, southern business and political elites who refused to accept the liberalization of politics, social life, schooling, and job structures remained entrenched in their positions and preferences. Segregation and its system of racial humiliation persisted.

These dispiriting findings, if nothing else, should leave us skeptical about the benefits of a rising tide. And research on contemporary inequality has demonstrated that such problems continue: studies of economic mobility show that almost half of the African-American children born into families in the middle-class income quintile in the 1960s had fallen into the bottom income bracket by the late 1990s. Only 16 percent of whites had fallen as far over the same time period. This new wealth of historical research underlines the crucial point: even in good times, economic life in America has never been colorblind.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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