Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Racism of John R. Commons--And What It Says about Columbus Day

Two guys on Facebook , Jeremy Horpedahl of the University of Central Arkansas and Phillip W. Magness of Berry College, sent me material that documents the racism of John R. Commons. Commons was the chief founder of institutional economics in the United States.

Commons can be fairly called the creator or conceptualizer of the current American industrial relations system and the innovator of much of the New Deal.

Hence, if we are to tear down statutes of Columbus, Jefferson, and Lee because they were racists, so should be consider tearing down the New Deal, which also was the product of racists, conceptualized by racists, and put into place by racists.  Commons, for instance, designed the first workmen's compensation law, in Wisconsin, and discussed social insurance reforms and unionization.

Just how racist was John R. Commons? 

In his "Racial Composition of the American People: The Negro" Commons writes of the western coast of Africa:

The torrid heat and the excessive humidity...produce a race indolent, improvident, and contented...Sexual purity is unknown...Formerly cannibalism prevailed, but it has now been largely stamped out by European governments...The people are unstable, indifferent to suffering, and  easily aroused to ferocity by the sight of blood or under great fear...They exhibit in Africa certain qualities  which are associated with their descendants in this country, namely, aversion to silence and solitude, love of rhythm, excitability, and lack of reserve.  All travelers speak of their impulsiveness, strong sexual passion, and lack of will power.

Donald Trump is fairly criticized for calling African countries "crappy," but what are we to make of an American New Deal, social insurance and welfare system designed by people who made similar remarks?

Commons adds:

slavery tended to transform the savage by eliminating those those who were self-willed, ambitious, and possessed of individual initiative...Other races of immigrants, by contact with our institutions, have been civilized--the Negro has been only domesticated...The very qualities of intelligence and manliness which are essential for citizenship in a democracy were systematically expunged from the Negro race through two hundred years of slavery.

Commons goes on to call "the war of emancipation" one of "dogmatism" and "partizanship" [sic] because equality and inalienable rights took the place of education and slow evolution of moral character. 

He adds: "Self-government means intelligence, self-control, and capacity for cooperation.  If these are lacking, the ballot only makes way for the 'boss,' the corruptionist, and the oligarchy under the cloak of democracy."

In discussing how African Americans can be educated in order to be "prepared" for "citizenship" Commons claims that African Americans lack the ability to be trained to use steam cleaners or to paint ceilings.

He says that the majority of African American mechanics are "careless, slovenly, and ill trained." As well, he adds:

the improvidence of the Negro is notorious. His neglect of his horse, his mule, his machinery, his eagerness to spend his earnings on finery, his reckless purchase of watermelons...these and other incidents of improvidence expalin the constant dependence of the Negro upon his employer and his creditot.

When African Americans did become wealthy due to property ownership, Commons attributes this to "unearned increment" rather than intelligent investing.  He adds, "Negro bosses and foremen are more despotic than white bosses." As well, "the Negro trade unionist has not as yet shown the organizing capacity of other races,"  and "when the Negro demands the same wages as white men, his industrial inferiority leads the employer to take white men in his place."

In response to the list of ways that African Americans were supposedly inferior to whites, Commons proposes "an honest educational test" for voting "enforced on both whites and blacks."

In a closing fit of racism, Commons attributes higher death rates among African Americans to moral rather than environmental and social causes.

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio and his left-wing supporters  have proposed to tear down statues of Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt. Why shouldn't the New Deal, a legal system designed by a racist, should be treated the same way?

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