Will whites ever vote to improve life for black Americans?

David Horowitz called me anti-American, anti-white and ignorant for saying no, but history says I'm right.

By Philip A. Klinkner
July 20, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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David Horowitz made me the poster boy for left-wing anti-patriotism recently for my statement, in a review of Ward Connerly's autobiography ("Creating Equal: My Fight Against Racial Preferences") in the Nation, that "throughout American history, in nearly every instance in which they have been given a direct vote on the matter, the majority of white Americans have rejected any measure beneficial to the interests of blacks."

Horowitz called that assertion "anti-American, anti-white and astoundingly ignorant" because, in his view, American history is a tale of sure and steady improvement in conditions for black Americans.

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"Given the fact that whites have been the American majority throughout the nation's history," Horowitz argues, "it would be interesting to hear leftists like professor Klinkner explain how blacks have made any progress at all, if they have not made it through the expressed will of the white majority: how the slave trade was ended; how the slaves gained their freedom; how the Constitution was amended not only to outlaw slavery but to guarantee equal rights; how segregation was ended; how civil rights were enforced; how voting rights were guaranteed; how anti-discrimination laws were passed; how affirmative action was launched; how the welfare system was funded; and how African-Americans became the freest, richest and most privileged community of blacks anywhere in the world."

Well, let me explain. My statement in the review of Connerly's autobiography discussed his use of direct popular referendums as a way of attacking affirmative action. What I actually said was, "The method by which [Connerly's] attack on [affirmative action] has been mounted -- direct voter referendums -- reveals an overwhelming pattern of white racism. Throughout American history, in nearly every instance in which they have been given a direct vote on the matter, the majority of white Americans have rejected any measure beneficial to the interests of blacks. At times, such propositions have passed, but only with a coalition of a majority of minorities and a minority of whites."

As the article made clear, I was referring to direct popular votes -- plebiscites, ballot initiatives, referendums and the like. Each of the examples of racial progress Horowitz cites to refute my statement occurred through legislative or executive action, not direct popular votes. To my knowledge, the only examples of popular referendums when a majority of whites voted for measures in the interest of blacks (or, conversely, against measures that harmed black interests) are the referendums on black suffrage in Iowa and Minnesota in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and when a (bare) majority of white South Carolinians voted in 1998 to eliminate the anti-miscegenation clause in their state constitution.

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Perhaps there are other examples that I have overlooked, but I doubt very much if there are enough to even come close to matching the dozens of cases when a majority of ordinary whites, when given the direct opportunity to do so in the privacy of the voting booth, refused to extend the most basic rights of citizenship to black Americans. In the 19th century, whites throughout the nation voted overwhelmingly to deny blacks the right to vote and, in some states and territories, to exclude them altogether. In more recent decades, popular white majorities have routinely voted against fair-employment and open-housing laws.

In some cases black interests did prevail in these referendums, but only when a coalition of a majority of nonwhites and a minority of whites was large enough to prevail overall. Thus my skepticism about whether direct voter referendums offer a level playing field for the contest over affirmative action.

Horowitz is correct that at times whites in executive or legislative positions have enacted measures to advance the cause of racial equality. But this is hardly the tale of white benevolence that he suggests. Indeed, significant progress in the status of black Americans has come only under the duress of certain major wars. As Rogers Smith and I show in our recent book, "The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America" (University of Chicago Press), significant progress toward racial equality has come only under three conditions:

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  • When the United States is engaged in a war that presents a strong threat to its national security and thus requires the contributions of black Americans for victory;

  • When the nature of our enemies in those wars forces Americans to stress their ideological commitments to democracy and equality;

  • When domestic political movements take advantage of the military and ideological pressures of war to leverage for greater civil rights for black Americans.

    Thus, only during and immediately after the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II and the Cold War have black Americans made significant progress toward equality. Outside of these particular wartime eras, however, the position of black Americans has either stagnated or worsened.

    Indeed, Horowitz acknowledges at least part of this dynamic in his discussion of the movie "The Patriot" and his example of how after the Revolutionary War, North Carolina equalized the laws against murdering black slaves and whites. (The law was actually changed in 1791, not in 1782 as he asserts.) This is not an isolated example, as the Revolutionary War led to the ending of slavery north of the Mason-Dixon line and to the extension of political and civil rights for blacks throughout the new nation.

    This, however, is only part of the story. What Horowitz omits is that as the military necessity and ideological fervor of the revolution faded away, these advances in black rights were rolled back. Take again his example from North Carolina. Beginning in 1801, a series of state court decisions began to once again make distinctions between the killing of a black slave and the killing of a white man. More broadly, black Americans, both slave and free, North and South, saw a significant erosion in the rights and liberties that they once possessed. Only with the coming of the Civil War would military and ideological pressures again force a positive change in the status of black Americans.

    Horowitz correctly acknowledges the linkage between the American Revolution and black freedom. But he should also acknowledge that that linkage was incomplete, fragile and temporary. To ignore either point is to distort American history.

    Finally, Horowitz asserts that black Americans are "the freest, richest and most privileged community of blacks anywhere in the world." Perhaps this is true, but it is indisputable that they remain, despite our nation's ideology of equality and individual rights, less free, less rich and less privileged than white Americans.

    Surely the black Americans who fought and died in the American Revolution (as well as in every other American war) did so not just to be better off than blacks in other countries. They fought so that they and their descendants would be full and equal citizens in a nation in which skin color would not condition one's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    It is no slur on our Founders or their principles to acknowledge that they and we have failed to achieve this goal. It is, however, an insult to suggest that we need no longer try. To paraphrase the great patriot Patrick Henry, if this be anti-American, make the most of it.

    P.S. My historian colleagues insist that I correct Horowitz's attempt at smearing them by association. I am a political scientist, not a historian.


  • Philip A. Klinkner

    Philip A. Klinkner is an associate professor of government and director of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He is the co-author (with Rogers Smith) of "The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America" (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

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