Were Blacks Better Off Under Jim Crow Laws?

On Friday, I posted to FB: “Phil Robertson stood tall for his beliefs [about homosexuality] and A&E caved.”

My friend Michael responded: “Phil’s “beliefs” include black people supposedly enjoying living under racist Jim Crow laws.”

Michael, Phil didn’t give any “beliefs” as you describe. He said this: “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

In this GQ interview excerpt, Phil simply described what he saw. That was his experience. But let’s extrapolate out from what Phil Robertson saw to the general condition of blacks in America under Jim Crow and today. The black family under Jim Crow was in better shape than the white family. As the black economist Walter Williams wrote: “In 1960, only 28 percent of black females between the ages of 15 and 44 were never married. Today, it’s 56 percent. In 1940, the illegitimacy rate among blacks was 19 percent, in 1960, 22 percent, and today, it’s 70 percent. Some argue that the state of the black family is the result of the legacy of slavery, discrimination and poverty. That has to be nonsense. A study of 1880 family structure in Philadelphia shows that three-quarters of black families were nuclear families, comprised of two parents and children. In New York City in 1925, 85 percent of kin-related black households had two parents. In fact, according to Herbert Gutman in “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom: 1750-1925,” “Five in six children under the age of 6 lived with both parents.” ”

So, yes, in some ways blacks in America were happier and better off under Jim Crow laws than they are today under rap culture. Do I want America to go back to Jim Crow culture? No.

In many ways, Gays were better off under a repressive America than under today’s permissive America. Just look at AIDS. AIDS exploded after it became socially acceptable to publicly identify as gay. Black crime rates exploded after the 1960s Civil Rights legislation. South Africa’s average life expectancy has plunged a decade since the end of apartheid. The average black (and white) in South Africa was better off under apartheid than he is today.

In many ways, Jews in America were better off with a mildly anti-semitic America that did not always allow them into certain hotels and country clubs and limited their admission to Ivy League schools because that segregation promoted group cohesion and discouraged inter-marriage and assimilation.

Freedom and equality of opportunity are not always the greatest values.

John* emails:

There are a couple of very important points about Jim Crow laws that are usually ignored by people who view segregation as unspeakably evil. Under segregation, there was generally a thriving black business class who catered to blacks. Once segregation was lifted, and blacks could shop anywhere, some did and that cut into the black owners’ business but whites did not start patronizing black owned establishments. So integration had the unintended consequence of eviscerating black stores (excepting undertakers, barbers and hair salons.)

The other problem arose with school segregation. Within the black community, teachers, administrators and principals formed a respected middle and upper class. When the schools were desegregated, many of the teachers lost their positions. They may have been graduates of Negro teacher’s colleges, but those schools were thought of as inferior to their white counterparts. Black principals were not put in charge of an integrated or white faculty.

This also had the unintended consequence of undermining discipline in the schools. If a kid acted up, the principal and/or teachers knew the family and would speak with the family about the problems with the child. With white teachers and principals, this didn’t apply. They may have held positions of authority, but they didn’t personally know the family or interact in the community in the same way.

On the anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, I read some interviews with prominent blacks who had received education in the segregated south and then were part of the first wave of desegregation. They said that they felt that the education they received from their segregated teachers surpassed what they received in an integrated environment. Some of this may be due to white racism, but at least part of it, is that they could identify more closely with their black teachers and their black teachers understood them better.

If you want to read more about the impact of the Brown case on education, Raymond Wolters, a history professor at the University of Delaware, has written a couple of books about it.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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