The Failures of Federal Race-Based Paternalism


Lipton Matthews – September 21, 2020

In an address to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1865, Frederick Douglass noted that he had often been 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!

Having been born into slavery, Douglass was a man who understood the failures of government policy quite well. Moreover, the paternalism of the plantation was perhaps something he had no desire to recreate in the halls of government in postbellum America.

And Douglass has often been proven correct. For example, we can note the strides African Americans made in creating self-sufficient communities before the Great Society. Residing in an environment of rampant racism and actual structural barriers, the African American community attained phenomenal success in improving its social welfare. From the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, African Americans were pioneers in charting self-help societies. “The popularity of the fraternal society among African Americans rivaled, and often exceeded, that among immigrants,” writes leading 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 African American communities. 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.

Furthermore, history informs us that even communities that are targets of racism can thrive provided that they have the freedom to act. 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 among them 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 have historically been quite capable of functioning on their own, as noted by economist Thomas Sowell in his book Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? Sowell argues that economic advancement for blacks was impressive during the 1940s, and the number of blacks in high-level professions more than doubled during 1954–64, well before the peak years of the civil rights movement.

Today, however, a major impediment to economic empowerment in the black community remains 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 these schools are consistently berated by leftists as agencies of racism.

While the Left consistently believes itself to be the friend of the downtrodden, the fact is that the Left more often than not supports policies that hinder countless Americans of all backgrounds in attaining economic success for themselves and their families. 

Originally published at  

Image source: Getty

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