Stop Infantilizing African Americans

All too often, the message conveyed by media, academia, and government is that African Americans are incapable of expressing agency. Policy wonks never discuss a Jewish, Asian, or white agenda, because these groups are deemed sufficiently competent to solve their own problems. Few recognize the covert racism of attempts to “assist” African Africans. Economic freedom, for example, does not feature prominently in the liberal quest to ameliorate the conditions of American blacks, because it does not fit the agenda. We are told that there is something inherently fragile about African Americans, making them perpetual victims. 

Many have espoused the subtle racism of the Black Lives Movement, without recognizing an effort to infantilize African Americans. African Americans possess the foresight and talent to uplift themselves from the trenches without the benevolence of the state. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood this quite clearly even in the nineteenth century. In an address to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1865, Douglass noted everybody had asked, “What should we do with the Negro?” Douglass remarked: “I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall… And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”

Perhaps we need to be reminded of the strides African Americans made in creating self-sufficient communities before the Great Society. Residing in an environment rampant with racism and actual structural barriers, the African American community attained phenomenal success in improving social welfare. During, the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, African Americans were pioneers in chartering self-help societies. “The popularity of the fraternal society among African Americans rivaled, and often exceeded, that among immigrants,” writes historian David T. Beito in his essay, “Mutual Aid for Social Welfare: The Case of American Fraternal Societies.” “Unlike their white counterparts, African American secret societies were more likely to offer formal life and sickness insurance as well as informal mutual aid. In 1919, the Illinois Health Insurance Commission estimated that 93.5 percent of the African American families in Chicago had at least one member with life insurance. African Americans were the most highly insured ethnic group in the city.”

Some reformers automatically assume that more government programs can reduce poverty in the African American community. Yet the evidence shows that such initiatives not only sap individual efforts but also crowd out nongovernmental actors necessary for fostering trust and social capital in communities. Private welfare allows people to develop relationships in their communities, thereby creating long-lasting networks that are often useful in other aspects of life such as business and professional relationships. In detailing the pernicious effects of welfare, economist Assar Lindbeck notes that “generous welfare-state arrangements in Western Europe are, therefore, an important explanation for the limited per capita hours of work in that part of the world. As a comparison, per capita hours of work (per year) in the United States are between 30 and 50 percent higher than in Western Europe.”

Furthermore, history informs us that when African Americans are provided with the freedom to participate in the economy their community thrives. Professor Loren Schweninger has furnished a surplus of data chronicling the rise of African American entrepreneurs in the South, during the late eighteenth century. He sharply illustrates the success of African American entrepreneurs in an environment of hostile racism: “Despite the anti-free black sentiment among some whites, free Negroes in the region entered a variety of business pursuits. In towns and cities, they became builders, mechanics, tradesmen, grocers, restaurateurs, tailors, merchants, and barbers. Even during the American Revolution, a small group of skilled artisans and craftsmen had emerged in Charleston, South Carolina. By the 1790s, several had built up thriving businesses, especially in the furniture and building trades. Housebuilder and carpenter James Mitchell, who for many years lived above his shop, had become so prosperous by 1797 that he sought to rent a six-room house with stables and outbuildings.”

Even in the presence of deep-seated racism, African Americans are indeed capable of functioning on their own. Maverick economist Thomas Sowell promulgates this argument in his book Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? Sowell argues that the number of blacks in high-level professions more than doubled between 1954 and 1964, whereas their advancement in other types of occupations was astounding in the 1940s, before the apex of the civil rights revolutions, than in the 1950s, when the civil rights movement was in its heyday.

Helping African Americans means creating an environment where they can unleash their entrepreneurial abilities. A major impediment to economic empowerment in the black community is occupational licensing. Matthew D. Mitchell of the Mercatus Center reports that “the licensing of barbers reduces the probability of a black individual working as a barber by 17.3 percent.” States like Florida and Pennsylvania have successfully embarked on major reforms to reduce the impact of occupational licensing requirements on employment prospects. Similarly supporting educational freedom by promoting school choice in the form of charter schools, for example, is a proven strategy to boost the performance of African American students. Studies show that African American charter school students outperform their peers in the public-school system, but they are consistently berated by leftists as agents of racism. Notwithstanding the reverence for government handouts on the left, the truth is that the government can only empower African Americans by offering them the freedom to fail or succeed as individuals. 

Lipton Matthews is a researcher, business analyst, and contributor to and the Federalist.

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