Saturday, April 05, 2008

The downside of integration

How confusing it must have been back then for the black bourgeoisie. What to do, what to do! On the one hand, it's the 1960s, and the gates have been opened to the world of whites, to jobs created by white men, to entry into places only once dreamed of. Here is the desegregation-integration so yearned for.

But on the other hand, what to do about the downside? Is there a downside? Well, yes, according to none other than Dr. Andrew Brimmer himself, who for years served as a leading economist and was on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Bank. Certainly, there was no more bourgeois, eager integrationist than Brimmer, the Harvard doctoral graduate, who taught at the Wharton School of Business and was appointed to public offices by three Presidents. Yet, here he was, in 1965, admitting that segregation had provided a kind of "protective tariff" when it came to black businesses, which, for years had met the needs of the black communities their entrepreneurial owners had helped develop.

And, he confessed, "The process of desegregation is already affecting adversely some of the key segments of the Negro middle class," referring to business and property owners. But wasn't this the very class for whom integration was invented, for whom black institutions, including school systems, were being scrapped?

Brimmer then went on to offer statistics showing the demise of black businesses, as owners were unprepared to compete with the more advanced enterprises of whites, which the black masses were now being encouraged to patronize. Go help the other guy prosper! Needless to say, as black businesses tanked, so did the communities around them. He cited the deaths of "restaurants, barber shops, hotels, hardware stores and mortuaries."

Brimmer also cited the impact of integration on a large black professional class, such as black teachers, most of whom were dismissed whenever a community's schools were merged, due to integration mandates. He pointed to such trends in Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Florida and Oklahoma.

Brimmer, the good civil rights advocate, and promoter of affirmative action, did not want anyone to get the wrong idea about what he was saying concerning the glories of integration, and clarified, "Obviously, I am by no means suggesting that the process of desegregation should be slowed down in order to lessen the effects on the Negro middle class." Wouldn't want to suggest anything like that.

Instead, he offered suggestions of what black entrepreneurs could now do with themselves. Instead of reaching for the large capital that would be required to create manufacturing enterprises or retail outlets like department stores in black neighborhoods, he claimed blacks should try to enter into joint ventures with "willing" whites. Find agreeable white owners of corporations who would grant franchises for sale of their products. And Brimmer just happened to have such a list in his pocket, a "sizable list," as he called it, compiled by the U.S. Commerce Department.

Brimmer, the good government functionary, assured one and all that Uncle Sam was on the case. Those former entrepreneurs might be losing their base in their own neighborhoods, but the government was looking out for minorities and had, in fact, established the Small Business Administration, which "has made numerous loans to Negroes under a new program."

Earlier economic-oriented black leaders, like businessman S.B. Fuller, banker Richard Wright, and educator Booker T. Washington, had always encouraged blacks with financial resources to develop capital in the manner of their counterparts in other ethnic groups; blacks were especially encouraged to emulate the entrepreneurial patterns of the country's immigrants. But under the guidance of the civil rights leadership, blacks were led towards finding government alternatives, as internal economic initiatives were abandoned. A great many left the path of business enterprise on which fathers and grandfathers had prospered.

Now, fast forward to 1991, and take a look at remarks made by New York millionaire businessman Percy Sutton. In a speech he presented as a participant on a “race relations” panel, he excoriated whites for still not doing enough. The dapper Sutton, a former Manhattan borough president and an owner of Inner City Broadcasting, was renowned for his ability to use race and politics to build his financial empire. Yet here he was cleverly whining about how New Yorkers lived in two worlds. “You live in your world and I live in my own world,” Sutton whimpered, as he attempted to depict “his world” in a pitiable light. Here he was, a leading figure in a city which at that moment had a black Mayor, a black Police Commissioner, and dozens of other black officials, playing white guilt to the hilt.

And then he capped off his speech with the saddest lament of all, the one that always wins the sympathy of those white folks, the one that stops all criticism in its tracks: “It doesn't make any difference what money I gather. I will always remain black.” Of course, the response to such a remark should be, So what? And a Chinese will always remain Chinese. But, instead, the ardent listeners usually imagine all manner of daily insults and social snubs. Was there some country club in which Sutton wasn't welcome, and should we care? His being black had not prevented his huge financial successes. In fact, skin color had not prevented blacks who lived in far more dire circumstances from achieving comparable success. Being black had not stopped those enterprising souls during the segregation era, who managed to found banks, along with endless varieties of businesses, schools, and acquired millions of acres of land.

This is because blacks have never been prevented from amassing capital among themselves, not even during the worst of times. A significant result of research, conducted separately by economic historians John Sibley Butler and Juliet Walker, is the evidence of the many blacks who, even before slavery ended, made the connection between the ownership of businesses and property and the ability to have greater control over what happened in their lives. Walker observes that "In pre-Civil War America, even the absence of political freedom did not preclude the business participation of blacks as creative capitalists. . . . Antebellum blacks developed enterprises in virtually every area important to the pre-Civil War business community."

She makes the case that the very principle that protected property rights in general, including slave ownership, was what protected the rights of blacks to own personal property and develop wealth, and writes, "It was the very sanctity of private property in American life and thought that allowed blacks, slave and free, to participate in the antebellum economy as entrepreneurs."

In her many articles and in her book, The History of Black Business in America, she offers examples of the hundreds of black entrepreneurs who, long before segregation ended, took advantage of a system where even an ex-slave with limited means could start a small business. Butler, in his book, Entrepreneurship and Self-Help Among Black Americans, also traces the development of business among blacks in pre-integration times and its significance in providing stable communities where generations were able to provide their children with higher education and professional training.

The naysayers like to exaggerate the extent and degree of white resentment when it came to black property. They would have you believe that whites spent most of their time in torching black businesses, in vengeance for some real or imagined infraction, as if this were the norm, instead of the exception. As so many blacks have pointed out again and again, it is not white malevolence that killed black businesses and the potential for further economic expansion. It is blacks themselves who did that. Once the doors were opened for black elites to integrate among whites, the elites rushed out, and made it clear that they were not about to take risks with their own resources, when they could now coerce such resources from the white man. There were blacks who went so far as to openly discourage enterprising blacks from initiating businesses or founding institutions such as schools, lest their successful ventures result in whites thinking that blacks were not, after all, in quest of integration.

Back in 1965, Andrew Brimmer sagely suggested, "While it may be embarrassing to view our own image in the mirror of change, we should look critically at ourselves and be instructed by what we see." Although it's a few decades too late, it was not a bad idea.

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