Caribbean radicals and American welfare

Shifting the Color Line - Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia
June 18, 1999

That the use of race as a political and social category is fundamental to an understanding of United States politics was tragically underscored by the recent racist murder of James Byrd, an African-American, in Jasper, Texas. These two excellent books, both by professors at Columbia University, provide valuable scholarly material with which better to study the US's racial divisions.

In Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia , Winston James provides a carefully researched and eloquently argued analysis of the influence of Caribbean immigrants on radical African-American politics in the first three decades of this century. It is a major scholarly achievement. James has alighted upon a key issue - the disproportionately high number of Caribbeans active in radical black politics - and assiduously analysed its sources. Between 1899 and 1937, 150,000 black people immigrated to the US (despite discriminatory restrictions established in the 1920s). Readers need only be reminded that Marcus Garvey - founder of the mass organisation the Universal Negro Improvement Association and whom James correctly describes as the US's most important black nationalist - was a Caribbean to appreciate the importance of this influence.

James's fascinating study begins with a discussion of the distinct communities and traditions in the Caribbean nations, emphasising the prominence of Barbados and Jamaica as sources of activists and thinkers. Many Caribbeans, despite their colonial status, received good educations, which they readily embraced. As a corollary, the number of Caribbeans experiencing bitter racism as wartime volunteers in the British West Indian Regiment cemented an implacable resolve against prejudice that prepared them well for the US. James analyses the activities and politics of Caribbeans in the US, not just the famous such as Marcus Garvey or Cyril Briggs but the neglected, notably Hubert Harrison, a charismatic and forceful intellectual presence.

James correctly underlines the severe racism encountered by blacks in the US, noting, for instance, that President Woodrow Wilson, "who was busy making the world safe for democracy, did nothing" about the killing of African-Americans in East St Louis in July 1917. The poet Claude McKay reflected, in 1918, that "I had heard of prejudice in America but never dreamed of it being so intensely bitter".

This detailed research throws up a number of important conclusions. First, James permits a nuanced appreciation of the continuum of African-American radicalism that ranged from the socialism of A. Philip Randolph (organiser of black railroad workers) to the black nationalism of Garvey. He imputes a common propensity to participants in these debates: a movement from socialism to black nationalism. This trajectory continues to have resonance, rooted in the country's racial specificity.

Second, the book offers the most systematic understanding of the centrality of Caribbeans to African-American politics. As Howard University's Kelly Miller remarked in 19, "a Negro radical is an over-educated West Indian without a job". The influence of Caribbeans in African-American politics far outweighed their actual numbers.

Third, James's study is a major contribution to the accumulating scholarship about African-American communities. Such scholarship, of which James's book is an exemplary instance, permits an understanding of the agency exercised by African-Americans during the long decades of segregation and displaces research that views black Americans simply as objects of oppressive policies. James emphasises how Caribbean immigrants carried a sense of majority consciousness - that is, "they were accustomed to negotiating a world in which they constituted the overwhelming majority of the population" - and this served as an effective instrument with which to respond to racist discrimination in the US in a way that was often unimaginable to African-Americans.

As Robert Lieberman observes in his outstanding book, Shifting the Color Line , "nowhere is racism more divisive and explosive than in the politics of welfare". He provides a detailed and persuasive analysis of the racial configuration of the US welfare system implemented in the 1930s. Lieberman advances existing scholarship through a meticulous analysis of how the major legislation of the 1930s - old-age pensions, aid to dependent children and unemployment insurance - was designed to respect (and often reinforce) racial cleavages. In three highly original chapters, Lieberman documents the formulation and implementation of each of these policies. Instead of establishing welfare programmes that treated all citizens equally, these measures consolidated the second-class position of African-Americans: "African-Americans are disproportionately segregated into the weakest, stingiest and most politically vulnerable parts of the welfare state."

Lieberman argues that racist policies can be deflected through nationally funded and administered programmes. This claim is illustrated in the contrasting fates of old-age pensions (a national, inclusionary programme) and welfare policy (AFDC) which, before its abolition in 1996, was locally controlled and historically exclusionary. These early patterns are tenacious.

Shifting the Color Line is a significant book that develops the best analysis available of how race structured the foundation of the US welfare state. All students of US welfare or race politics will need to consult it.

Desmond King is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State

Author - Robert C. Lieberman
ISBN - 0 674 74562 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £.95
Pages - 306

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