The Halcyon Days of Jim Crow, Cont’d.

Daniel J. Flynn of the conservative magazine Human Events thinks that American racism could have been whittled away by the power of the free market.

Businessmen motivated by racial solidarity rather than profits won’t stay in business. Landlords limiting tenants by race, storekeepers limiting customers by race, foremen limiting workers by race limit themselves just as they limit those they discriminate against. In a competitive system, this is called a competitive disadvantage. Other landlords, storekeepers, and foremen not hamstrung by bigotry will benefit by widening their pool of tenants, customers, and workers.

This is not an abstract proposition. The Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott is one of many examples of money trumping bigotry during the civil rights movement. In the free market, it’s not about black or white or yellow. It’s about green.

It actually is a pretty abstract proposition, since this is never the way American life, and the crushing racism of the Jim Crow South in particular, actually worked. Flynn’s example assumes a past in which Negroes had economic leverage with whites and their institutions, that some white business owner would have graciously accepted black patronage because, well, money is money. But even the most mundane transactions between blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South were proscribed by custom and law, and backed up by the prospect of bloodshed. So who was going to complain that the white renterlandlord was gauging him on the rent, or that the white foreman cheated him out of a day’s work? And to whom would that person appeal? Which white business owners were willing to risk the loss of their white clientele (or a melee) for suggesting that they dine or watch movies next to Negroes? In this world, the competitive advantage actually lay with the people who never paid their sharecroppers a cent for their labor, who didn’t sully their store’s reputations by selling to niggers.

Indeed, the Montgomery bus boycott succeeded because the city’s bus system was the rare service used by whites that also required black folks’ money to effectively function. Black folks couldn’t have actively boycotted their way into better housing or schools — because, you know, their exclusion from the marketplace for these things was the whole point of segregation — nor were they afforded the means to build wealth independently to create their own comparable institutions. (When folks did carve out pockets of economic independence, they were short-lived and their ends were often very bloody.) Flynn’s free-market answer to American racism only works in a world where a straightforward economic decision — like choosing to send your daughter to the better elementary school closer to your home — didn’t require a National Guard escort to keep her from being killed when she got there. That world was not ours.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Leigh

    Great post.

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  • Well-played.

    When we live in a world in which people act in rational self-interest independent of every other motivation, that will be great. Until then, I live in the United States, where you can always add some racism to your greed and come out on top.

  • Good post pointing out a completely ridiculous argument.

    Some more gristle for your mill:
    – racial covenants: an absolutely massive, nation-wide free-market system of segregation. Far from losing money, realtors realized that racism could actually turn a profit, because whites would be willing to pay a “segregation premium” to live in an all-white neighborhood and because blacks trapped inside segregated markets had no choice but to pay economic rents to the de-facto monopolists.
    – the White Citizen’s Councils: economic power can also be used to enforce political Jim Crow. Local elites used their position to fire, evict, boycott, foreclose on anyone who participated in civil rights activity and wouldn’t pay a price because of their effective local monopolies.
    – vigilante violence: lynchings, the Klan, etc. were completely private forms of oppression that get written out of the story. No amount of bans on discrimination in law were going to change that part of the picture – indeed, one could argue that the fall of Reconstruction through a “free market” in violence in the face of government’s inability/unwillingness to restrict the freedom to murder is prima facie evidence that abolishing Jim Crow statutes would have been insufficient.
    – Debt peonage: sharecropping/crop lien/etc. arguably was the ultimate foundation of free market Jim Crow. When the Reconstruction regulations on agricultural labor relations were dismantled (for example, changing the regulations so that creditors rather than tenants had first claim on a landlord’s assets in the event of foreclosure, or redefining sharecroppers as laborers instead of tenants) and new landlord-friendly regulations were established (forbidding anyone who owed money to their employer from leaving their place of employment, for example), the workings of the free market in agriculture were a key mechanism for restricting physical freedom. (Goluboff’s The Lost Promise of Civil Rights absolutely blew my mind in laying out how debt was used to essentially re-establish slavery in places well into the 1930s)

    For more on this train of thought:

  • So who was going to complain that the white renter was gauging him

    I think you mean “landlord”, the renter is the one who pays the rent, not the one who receives it. Aside from this minor quibble, I think you’re completely right.

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