Progressivism’s Bigoted Past (and Present)

Progressivism embraced racism early in its history, a line of thought that continues to this day, only with different targets of scorn.  Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, two of the early advocates of progressivism in America, often manifested racial and/or ethnic prejudice.  Although he believed in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, TR generally soft-peddled his views about blacks.  But, he frequently mouthed shibboleths about Jews.  His antipathy toward hyphenated Americans who were not from the British Isles or northern Europe was also well known.  As president, Wilson exhibited his Southern heritage by a series of acts, from screening D. W. Griffith’s racist movie, Birth of a Nation, in the White House to resegregating domestic and military bureaucracies.  Wilson may have been the most virulent white racist to occupy the White House since slavery ended.

While Chief Executive, Franklin D. Roosevelt – probably the progressives’ favorite president – refused to admit Jews on the ocean liner St. Louis into America in 1939, incarcerated 110,000-120,000 individuals of Japanese descent in concentration camps after Pearl Harbor, and bowed to Southern racists in one New Deal program after another.  Lyndon Baines Johnson, also a foremost progressive, allegedly used the N-word when referring to African Americans.

The irony of progressivism’s history is that today’s versions of that hoary movement claim to be totally free of racial and/or ethnic prejudice.  Today’s progressives refuse to acknowledge that the movement’s early years included people like Margaret Sanger who espoused negative eugenics, a policy she said would remove the mentally unfit and cull inferior races from the U.S.  Sanger created the organization that is now known as Planned Parenthood.   

Progressives have diligently tried to expunge all awareness of her ugly past.  Hillary Clinton proclaimed Sanger as one of her heroes in 2009.

Sanger’s notions about eliminating the mentally unfit’s capacity to reproduce was codified by SCOTUS Justice Charles Evans Hughes’ assertion that “three generations of imbeciles is enough” in Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).  Sanger’s notions of what she characterized as inferior races applied mainly to African Americans.

As Kevin Williamson pointed out in the October 10, 2016 number of National Review, many of today’s progressives continue to express bigotry, although they now concentrate on charging their enemies, i.e., Republicans and conservatives, as racists.  They believe that large slices of America’s population can be lumped into a “basket of deplorables.”

It is still possible, however, to detect racist sentiments among progressives.  Take Barack Obama (please!), for example.  From at least his comments about the Cambridge (MA) police following the Henry Gates contretemps in 2009 to his reliance on Al Sharpton as his go-to-guy in the Ferguson (MO) clashes to his recent solicitude for the leaders of the racist Black Lives Matter movement, one can reasonably wonder if Obama isn’t a not so secret black racist.  Could it be that Obama is the mirror image of Wilson? 

Eric Holder’s assertion that African Americans are “my people” suggested he is.

In addition, as recently as the 2008 primary campaign for the presidency, some charged Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and her campaign staff with making racist comments.  As much as one wishes to attribute those charges to Obama’s and the Obamians’ thin skins, there are grounds for doubt.

Question:  Given the progressive movement’s bigoted past, how is it possible that today’s versions are able to tout themselves as committed to tolerance and multiculturalism?  Why have progressives, especially over the last half-century, been allowed to tout themselves as uniquely committed to racial and ethnic peace and social justice, and, moreover, to accuse their opponents of being racists, sexists, homophobes, and Islamophobes, without any serious and sustained contradiction?

These are the questions this essay seeks to answer.

Let’s start by acknowledging that many of the worst instances of racist and ethnic bigotry were said and/or done by progressives a long time ago.  Theodore Roosevelt was president from 1901 to 1909, and last sought the presidency 104 years ago.  Wilson left the White House in 1921.  Sanger died at the age of 84 in 1966, but her active work on behalf of progressive causes occurred decades earlier.  Even LBJ’s presidency was half-a-century ago.

Add this to the passage of many years since key progressives were most vociferous about their racist and/or ethnically bigoted views: large portions of the American public have the political memory of a gnat.  Given how long it’s been since key progressives openly espoused racism and/or ethnocentrism, we shouldn’t be too surprised that large portions of today’s public are clueless.

If that weren’t bad enough, progressives have worked for decades to cloud their past, and in the process have encouraged loss of historical memory all across the board.

Indeed, we must face the fact that, for decades, progressives have dominated most, if not all, the venues by which Americans learn about their nation’s past.  Do I have to reiterate the list of institutions typically employed to educate the public that are, at the least, heavily influenced by progressivism?  One instantly thinks of education (K-20), Hollywood, the entertainment industry – young people frequently say they get most of their political information from late-night TV and movies – the mainstream news media, and even mainline religion.  All, to varying degrees, have been influenced by progressives, who depict themselves and their progenitors in the most glowing ways.

Of lesser weight are those federal government agencies, especially the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service, that have been weaponized on behalf of progressive causes.  One can’t help wondering, for example, what role the IRS played in the New York Timess release of Donald Trump’s tax returns for 1995.

As America enters Donald Trump’s presidency, the time has come to shed more light on progressivism’s sorry past.  Doing so will not be easy.  Not only will progressives and their fellow travelers seek to prevent stories about the movement’s sordid past and present, some Americans, especially low-information types, will continue to tout the worthiness of progressivism’s root word, progress.  They need to learn that not all change is progress.

But, just as it was possible to taint the word liberal in the 1980s, it should also be possible to remind more people of where progressivism has been, and more than a few progressives still are.

The drive to taint liberalism succeeded prior to the advent of cable TV news networks, the Internet, and especially the rise of social media.  These new outlets provide a handy means for communicating to millions of people who otherwise rely on traditional communication outlets heavily influenced by progressives.

Properly to learn about progressivism’s bigoted past and present, we need to get that information to millions.  That’s where the new media of communication come in.