Socialism and the civil rights movement

Harold Meyerson shows his bias: 3500 words on socialist contributions to the civil rights movement, with no mention of libertarian and conservative contributions. There must have been some, right?

I second Harold’s endorsement of Harold Meyerson’s essay on the socialist underpinnings of the civil rights movement. Looking forward to the equivalent piece on the contributions of libertarians and conservatives to that struggle.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

49 thoughts on “Socialism and the civil rights movement”

  1. Legalizing all drugs would be the biggest step towards healing racial wounds in America since the abolition of slavery. The intentions of the drug war may not be nefarious, but the outcome surely is. And only Libertarians are suggesting the real solution to the problem.

    1. No doubt that explains the large proportion of African-Americans in Libertarian circles.

      1. Clearly, analyzing the demographics of “Libertarian circles” is the single key to understanding a just society.

    2. It is not true that only libertarians favor drug legalization. Many people (formerly called “liberals”) share libertarians’ views on social issues such as drug legalization, yet favor greater wealth redistribution (from the rich to the poor, that is) and single-payer health care.

      As for Anonymous’s comment, whether the proportion of African-American people who support drug legalization, as libertarians or as liberals, is high or low, does not constitute an argument for or against drug legalization. Drug prohibition is the current form of Jim Crow, regardless of what percentage of African-American people recognize that fact.

      1. Yeah, sure. I guess the “new Jim Crow” is the new black. Everything seems to be the “new Jim Crow” these days. As long as we’re on the subject, however, perhaps you or one of your libertarian brethren might like to take a stab at answering Mark’s question about where the libertarians were during the fight against the old Jim Crow. As Pete Seeger might ask: Which side were you on?

    3. Since it seems the thread is being dragged in this direction anyway, could you please explain why legalizing drugs would have a beneficial effect on African -American community?

      1. When did you last hear of a turf war over (legal) liquor sales operations producing fatalities?

  2. The movement was also a high moment for Judeo-Christianity. Most of those brave young Northern kids who went south to Mississippi for Freedom summer were Jewish, and most of the principal leaders of the movement were Christian pastors.

    1. To the extent that Judeo-Christianity refers to the Jewish religion, you’ve made an unwarranted assumption. Like many people of Jewish heritage, I am an atheist who has abandoned the religion’s holidays and rituals, as well as its beliefs. If some of the Northern kids who went to Mississippi were like me, then they did not consider their going a high moment for Judeo-Christianity.

      1. Yes, and, of course, both slave holders and abolitionists cited scripture. The question is always the extent to which religion is the basis for a belief or an excuse for a belief.

      2. I suppose that’s true but I think it’s worth remembering that history isn’t an episode of Herc and Xena.

    2. Let me relate a story from that era. In 1970 I was working in Toronto for the summer and living in some University of Toronto student housing. Sometime during the summer William Kuntsler came to town sponsored by the local SDS (Students for a Democratic society) chapter. he was giving a speech at one of the U of T auditoriums so I went and watch the warmup sessions. (I didn’t actually stay for his speech.)

      The guys doing the warmup of the audience were SDS activists and (I assume from the context) all Jewish guys.

      The warm up chants were all along the lines of “We support all liberation movements worldwide. Except the PLO.” “We oppose the United States and all it’s Fascist allies. Except Israel.”

      It was really quite stunning the hypocrisy. Afterwards, of course, a lot of these guys became Neoconservatives. Once they were satisfied that Jewish rights were properly protected they really didn’t give a damn for anyone else.

      1. DGM

        As someone who went to plenty of SDS organized events back in the 60s and early 70s, your story doesn’t ring true.

        Most folks in SDS were not Jewish, e.g., Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby Jeff Shero and Steve Kindred (father was Episcopal Bishop). SDS was founded in the Mid-West and had populist roots along with a connection with the League for Industrial Democracy. So, why would you assume they were all Jewish?

        Frankly, your claimed chants sound made up.

        It may be that your post reveals more about your views than the history of SDS. And just who were these guys who became neocons? Surely you don’t mean the four I named above. Perhaps you are unclear as to the difference between, say, the Progressive Labor Party and SDS.

    3. Keith,
      You’re one of the goyim, so you might not know this. Many of us Yids read “Judeo-Christian” as “Christian-but-eliding-the-Establishment-Clause.” I don’t take the phrase amiss from you, but only because we’re virtual debate buddies.

      The Jewish part of the Bible dealt with and implicitly justified slavery, but was pretty good on the issue by contemporary standards. You can’t judge ancient shepherds by modern standards. (The Book of Joshua, OTOH, is little more than an apologia for genocide.) I don’t know enough of the Christian part of the Bible to say for sure, but I don’t remember much in the Gospels that dealt with slavery, and the rest is too boring to read, for me at least. (Okay, Revelations is great stoner lit, but Paul is damned dull.)

      I was young during that era. My parents were relatively conservative by Jewish standards and by no means devoid of racism, but supported the civil rights movement as a matter of course. Why? They thought that if the schvartzes (their word, not mine) were #1, the Jews were #2. Anything that helped the former would help the latter, and it wouldn’t even look like being pushy. I think that the conduct of many Jews in that era might have been better than their motives.

      1. Many of us Yids read “Judeo-Christian” as “Christian-but-eliding-the-Establishment-Clause.”

        Yes. It often sounds a little like a bone thrown out to avoid charges of anti-semitism.


        1. I praised the young Jewish kids who went south for Freedom Summer and you detect thinly coded anti-Semitism? Oy.

          1. Keith,
            Nobody is accusing you of anti-semitism, coded or not. Nobody could think of it. At most, you were accused of excusable ignorance: not knowing that “Judeo-Christian” is a term that, although far short of fighting words, sets many Jews’ teeth on edge. Any well-bred person is aware of fighting words, and avoids them, and expects that use of them to have social consequences. But the “teeth-on-edge” stuff usually has no social consequences, especially when (as in your case) it is so obviously used in good faith. It’s the social equivalent of a sneeze: obnoxious to the sneezee, but no moral reflection on the sneezer. Since such words evoke little feedback, they are not on most people’s list of words to avoid.

      2. St Paul didn´t condemn slavery as a human institution, but he did think that at the deepest level it was made irrelevant by equality in salvation under the new dispensation: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Christians failed to think this through at all until the mid-18th century, and in many cases not even today.

      3. You can’t judge ancient shepherds by modern standards.

        No, I can’t. And if the Bible were claimed to be simply a piece of literature, I wouldn’t.

        But people claim the Bible is the word of God. And God should get basic questions of human equality correct, even if the humans She is trying to teach aren’t there yet.

        1. Dilan,
          Read the Biblical law on slavery. Try especially Exodus 21, or Deuteronomy 15. Then compare it with out current debtor-creditor law. In some ways, the ancient Hebrews did better on basic questions of human equality than we’re doing today. Not that we’re setting much of a standard.

    4. Important to distinguish ethnicity from religiosity. Jews were, and are, over-represented on he left side of the political spectrum, and the Civil Rights movement was very much a “left” enterprise, so Jews were way over-represented in the leadership (something many of he rising generation of black leaders came to resent). And the Jewish tradition has rich resources to call on if you want to rally people around justice for the oppressed. But the rabbinate, and the synagogues, had (I think) a fairly minor role, and I’d be surprised if there was a positive correlation among Jews between being observant and being in the movement; my guess would be the other way.

      Since back then virtually everyone in the country who wasn’t Jewish was Christian, at least nominally, most of the people on both sides of the struggle were Christians. Institutionally, the black churches had a huge role, consistent with their standing as central community institutions. Some “mainstream” Protestant clergy and some Catholic leaders (Theodore Hesburgh, for example) played their part; but among northern white Christians, as among Jews, I doubt the more religious were more active. In the South, of course, virtually all of the white religious leadership was on the other side (e.g., church schools functioned as segregation academies). The contemporary “Christian right” grew in part out of Jerry Falwell’s concern about interracial dating.

      You could made a good case that the Puritan strain in American culture helped foster “movement” politics, and that there’s a relationship between elements of the Jewish religious tradition and Jewish progressive politics. More generally, you could claim a relationship between American religiosity and the moralism of American politics, which made it easier to mobilize large numbers of northern whites for a cause only indirectly their own.

      But on average it doesn’t seem to me that American believers, or their religious institutions, covered themselves with glory. The religious commitment most over-represented in the movement, compared to its share of the population, was probably atheism.

  3. Well, if you want to argue that the election of the first African-American president was a step forward for the civil rights movements, it is a step that arguably wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of George W. Bush, probably the most conservative president in American history. So, there’s that.

  4. Professor Kleiman,

    I think it’s the definition of “dirty pool” to try to use the heroic-on-its-own-goddamn-terms Civil Rights struggle as a prop and a cover in the broader Socialist vs. Capitalist debate.

    Is it really necessary to oversimplify and misappropriate historical personages and arguments to re-run the Dubois-vs.-Washington debate for the millionth time? It is?

    Okay, start here.

    1. I’m not debating socialism v. capitalism, or Dubois-v.-Washington. I’m pointing out that the actual American political movements that claim to support “liberty,” and use “socialist” as a dirty word to mean anything that might favor the non-rich over the rich, in actual historical fact supported the system of racial subjugation, and are still allied with the folks who would like to go back to it. If Milton Friedman’s enthusiasm for capitalism really had any connection with freedom, why wasn’t he working hard to end Jim Crow?

      1. If Milton Friedman’s enthusiasm for capitalism really had any connection with freedom, why wasn’t he working hard to end Jim Crow?

        Because he was trying to figure out the optimal velocity of M3? Were J.K. Galbraith or James Tobin working hard to end Jim Crow?

        By the way, I met Friedman once at Stanford before he died. He was talking to a bunch of us snots and left us with two pieces of policy advice to make the world better: work for school choice and end the War on Drugs. IF he were to tailor proposals that would specifically help African-Americans, it’s at least arguable that he could do no better than the two planks he actually gave us.

        1. I’m not clear on how exactly school choice and drug legalization would represent a significant benefit to African-Americans, even in the present day. I don’t see either as offering much to African-Americans under the best of circumstances but ff you are suggesting these as the solutions for Jim Crow, then I am simply in awe of your religious devotion to the magic elixir of Libertarianism.

          Can you please elaborate on how school choice and drug legalization represent a benefit to black people specifically? Also, I’m actually assuming that you’re not proposing these things as solutions to Jim Crow but if you actually are, could you please explain how these would work in the Southern United States of that era?

          1. Also, I’m actually assuming that you’re not proposing these things as solutions to Jim Crow but if you actually are, could you please explain how these would work in the Southern United States of that era?

            You assume correctly

            Can you please elaborate on how school choice and drug legalization represent a benefit to black people specifically?

            Challenge accepted. The War on Drugs, in practice if not in theory, is profoundly racist. One familiar statistic is that Blacks and Whites apparently use cannabis at similar rates but African-Americans are arrested at a far higher rate than Caucasians. Don’t listen to me, listen to the ACLU. That particluar report is about marijuana but there’s a broader theory at work here: consensual crimes, particularly those involving small contraband for personal use, provide a perfect pretext for arbitrary harassment of disfavored minorities. So far too many young minority males get swept up by the criminal justice system. These are human beings but our criminal justices system, purposely or not, rapidly dehumanizes them.

            So the War on Drugs isn’t really about keeping some nice pale kids from smoking joints and listening to Floyd, it’s about keeping those uppity n!ggers in their place. (What, you thought Jim Crow just disappeared?) No one cares if some narcissistic money-worshiping Republican Investment Banker snorts cocaine in his $4000/month Manhattan apartment but every Drug Warrior thinks it’s very important that when the cops roll through the ‘hood and rough-up young unemployed dudes of a swarthier persuasion that those young man of from the duskier races are appropriately deferential towards their fair-skinned betters in blue uniforms. (Punks gotta learn to show some respect, ya know? Know their place and all that.) It is the White Man’s Burden to fund all of those gratis accommodations (3-hots-and-a-cot) for his little black and brown brothers, but the White Drug Warrior will always rise to the occasion. Always.

            I could go on at even greater length about school choice but I won’t. You don’t have to be a Right-Wing Libertarian Douchebag like myself to be in favor of school choice. Look every middle class person and above has de facto school choice. This is about Hirschmann’s Exit, Loyalty, and Voice. Poor people are de facto confined to Monopoly Public Schools. (Or as we libertarian weirdos call them, “Government Schools.”) Black people are disproportionately poor. (This is the legacy of historical institutionalized racism as well as other things.) Ergo, Black people are disproportionately confined to Monopoly Public Schools. What kind of service do we get from monopolies whether public or private? Sh!tty service. How do we break up monopolies? We do it with Freedom of Choice. You don’t have to be an Objectivist Nerd/Lifelong Virgin to be in favor of this. Bill Clinton gave us Charter Schools. Well-regulated charter schools–which is a New Democrat proposal if I’ve ever heard one–is school choice.

            Alright, that’s my answer to your dare. I welcome your response.

          2. I’ll add to Dead or in Jail’s comment that drug prohibition breaks up black families, increasing the number of children who grow up without fathers, and it gives the people convicted lifelong criminal records, which severely limit their employment opportunities and their right to vote. If drug prohibition’s purpose is not to keep African-Americans as a permanent underclass, then it might as well be.

          3. = = = I could go on at even greater length about school choice but I won’t. You don’t have to be a Right-Wing Libertarian Douchebag like myself to be in favor of school choice. Look every middle class person and above has de facto school choice.

            Up until 1970 every non-black US resident and immigrant had school choice too: they could choose to attend well-designed, well-funded, reasonably well-operated[1] public school systems – whether they lived in the rapidly-expanding suburbs or dense urban areas – or they could pay for private schools. Starting around 1970s – coinkydentially when the balance of the white population had moved to the suburbs and the exurbs started forming – the free universal public schooling of decent quality choice was removed from urban dwellers and minorities (but of course it remained for far-suburb and exurb dwellers). Now we need to “fix” the problem by shoveling tax money to the Imagine Schools scam and the grifter Michelle Rhee. Amazing how that works.


            [1] Yes, I’m aware of the problems that urban public schooling had (1) in general (2) specifically in the 1960-1980 time frame; I was on the front lines of trying to fix some of them. I’m also aware that we can no longer steal essentially free labor from highly qualified women restricted to teaching. I’d still challenge the “destroy your school of choice” crowd to look at the list of graduates from New York Public Schools, Chicago, Boston, LA, etc from 1870-1970 and show me a comparable example from a Duncan/Rhee/Obama/Koch charter school program.

        2. No, actually, Friedman didn’t spend all his time worrying about M3. He spent some of it opposing anti-discrimination laws. From Capitalism and Freedom, published two years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodations:

          I believe strongly that the color of a man’s skin or the religion of his parents is, by itself, no reason to treat him differently; that a man should be judged by what he is and what he does and not be these external characteristics. I deplore what seem to me the prejudice and narrowness of outlook of those whose tastes differ from mine in this respect and I think the less of them for it. But in a society based on free discussion, the appropriate recourse is for me to seek to persuade them that their tastes are bad and that they should change their views and their behavior, not to use coercive power to enforce my tastes and my attitudes on others.

          That, of course, was Barry Goldwater’s view then, and it’s Rand Paul’s today. In the South, of course, discrimination wasn’t a matter of mere choice; where not actually imposed by law, it was enforced by custom, supported as needed by violence. And of course the “majority” support for those laws were protected by the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. But all Friedman could see was the threat that “coercive power” would be used to “impose tastes and attitudes.”

          1. So, he opposed anti-discrimination laws for the same reason he opposed Jim Crow laws.

          2. Yeah, Friedman was wielding the old “it’s their behavior, not the skin color, that bothers me” excuse. Did he invent that, too? I doubt it, the man had not a single original bone in his body when it came to money.

            I see that same sleight of brain regularly trotted out in letters to the editor and internet forums by folks hoping it helps them dodge the racist tag their other comments usually cause one to infer that is exactly what the problem is.

          3. In the South, of course, discrimination wasn’t a matter of mere choice; where not actually imposed by law, it was enforced by custom, supported as needed by violence. And of course the “majority” support for those laws were protected by the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. But all Friedman could see was the threat that “coercive power” would be used to “impose tastes and attitudes.”

            This is a strong point and it cannot be easily dismissed. Another beautiful theory (this time libertarian) slain by an ugly fact-pattern.

          4. Reducing moral and political choices to mere ¨tastes¨ says all you need to know about Friedman as a human being, great scholar or not.

          5. This – any, if not most economists, spend their time in obscure technical details of their profession – when they’re not drinking themselves into oblivion while lamenting the declining quality of undergraduates 🙂

            Milton Friedman was an extremely prolific, wide-ranging and public intellectual, whose goal was to affect both policy and how people thought, on a number of issues.

        3. The first is a failure; it’s nothing more than neoliberal looting combined with right-wing crushing of any social system seen as a node of opposition.

          The second is good.

          IIRC, Friedman also promoted the idea that the ‘free market’ would end racism.

          BTW, Friedman can’t be compared to just any economist; he was a prolific popular writer and promoter of social ideas.

  5. Rightwingers, of course, are even more complimentary of socialism than Professor Kleiman. According to right wing orthodoxy, not only was MLK Jr. a communist, but FDR’s reforms were socialist-inspired.

    1. MLK wasn’t a Communist. But I don’t think his economics (social-democratic, AFAIK) were the best thing about the man. (The best things about him were his courage in standing up, at great personal peril, for human dignity and equality and for organizing politically to actually make it happen. He was also a great follower in the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience established by Thoreau.)

      What the heck does FDR have to do with this discussion?

  6. I’ll say this for the American Communist Party – they may have had some contemptible ties to Stalinist Russia, but they were also one of the few political parties in the US that took a strong stand against racism, and actively went beyond that to include members of all races in their ranks.

    I didn’t consider the Jackson Era and franchise as a reason as to why socialist parties never caught on here, but it makes sense. I usually figured it was because of less visibly hardened class lines, unlike in many of the European countries (who were all coming out of periods where the aristocracy had held immense, hereditary power in their governments).

    1. says that this one is the best. (It also has the advantage of apparently being the most contemporary of the pack.)

  7. Dead or In Jail,

    I don’t find your reasoning very persuasive. With regard to drug offenses, you seem to be assuming that the reason why, for example, African-Americans are arrested under circumstances for which white people engaging in identical conduct is some form of racial animus. Yet, if racial animus is actually the basis for the higher, presumably discriminatory rate arrest and incarceration, I cannot see how simply eliminating one of the countless possible grounds for arrest and prosecution removes the ability of police and, presumably, the entire legal system to continue to arrest and impression blacks at a higher rate, if it is their wish to do so.

    That is to say, you are assuming that many, perhaps most drug arrests are viewed as an opportunity to arrest blacks for crimes (real or ostensible) for which the police would not arrest a similarly situated white person. Likewise, the criminal justice system appears to lockup blacks at the higher rate for drug crimes. But it would only be a true benefit to African-Americans if it were also true that no other ostensible basis for discriminatory arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment of blacks could possible be invested, which, frankly, seems unlikely and maybe even absurd—most particularly during the Jim Crow era.

    It seems to me that the main beneficiaries of legalization would probably be the coke-snorting bankers, who would now have zero risk arrest. Yet because you do not address the various social pathologies in both the white and black communities that lead to the higher rates of arrest and imprisonment for blacks, I do not see how that community would necessarily be better off.

    With regard to education, and particularly in the context of the Jim Crow era, the notion that vouchers would serve to put blacks and whites on an equal footing is simply laughable in light of the history of massive, violent resistance to the civil rights movement by Southern whites. There were many instances of efforts by Northerners of all races to establish schools for black children or to improve the then existing black schools, all of which ended badly.

    What I see in the Libertarian movement is an effort to rewrite its history of opposition to the civil rights movement and commandeer that movement’s heritage to promote its own preferred policies. To return to Mark’s point, I don’t remember any Libertarians or conservatives joining in the struggle—quite the contrary, they were extremely vigorous in championing the economic and associational rights of white people to the detriment not only of black but of civil society generally.

  8. At least some conservatives (libertarians, like Friedman, were substantially in favor of civil rights, but thought freedom of association was a right) thought that allying with a socialist movement was a bad idea–even if in some particular case they were right, the death toll from the Russian and German variants was already known to be over 30 million (the real slaughter–the Chinese version–was just getting started).

    1. “Russian and German variants”

      Since one of the first thing that Nazis did was to ruthlessly crush socialists and socialism, perhaps you’re posting from another timeline?

      1. The “Nazis”–the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei –the “National Socialist Worker’s Party”–crushed socialists? Really? They hated communists–a rival variant of socialism, with more Russian influence–but they were socialists, and very proud of it.

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