The bigots on Capital Hill

Separate and Unequal
June 7, 1996

Naturally enough, the approaching end of the 20th century is being used as a reason to take stock of where our civilisation stands, and what its prospects are. Few aspects matter more than race relations, perhaps especially race relations in the United States. Desmond King has produced a book on the subject which must be welcomed almost, but not quite, without reserve.

A legend to which all of us, I suppose, give unthinking assent from time to time has it that once upon a time the brutishly misguided white people of the American South systematically oppressed their black fellow-citizens, until the federal government, starting with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, came to the rescue, and with a mixture of administrative measures and enlightened legislation put an end to apartheid in America forever. King, with immaculate scholarship, shows how very far this version of history is from what actually occurred. His central point is that from 1913 until, at soonest, the 1950s, the federal government was one of the most potent and consistent propagators of racial segregation. He illustrates this contention by a painstaking survey of the record in such matters as employment, housing and education, and in such areas as the armed services and the prison system. Much of what he has to say, for example about the federal housing programmes, is familiar, though it is invariably based on his own original research; but nobody else, to my knowledge, has brought all the evidence together to form one big devastating picture. He makes, more lightly, a second point, quite as important: that the failure of the federal government to live up to its principles carried the structures of white supremacy into parts of the US where it had not before been systematised; that it encouraged the odious folkways of the South; and that, in short, it was a dangerously bad influence. It was a definite obstacle to reform, as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People found in its heroic, but for long unsuccessful lobbying of evasive and complacent federal bureaucrats.

How could this have happened? Again, the answer is familiar but has never before been spelt out in such comprehensive detail. In a word, Congress, dominated by southern bigots almost continuously between 1913 and 1962, saw to it that neither the executive nor the judiciary could come effectively to the rescue of black Americans; the process of political blackmail about which President Clinton now complains has a long history. But King also rams home the point that segregation (the policy of "separate but equal") was introduced to federal offices in Washington and throughout the country with the enthusiastic backing of that great prophet of liberalism, Woodrow Wilson. Insofar as blame may be heaped on any individual for what occurred, Wilson must receive a large share, as a wilfully stupid hypocrite.

It is a shameful story, though redeemed at last by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the general housecleaning that followed the Supreme Court's Brown v Board of Education decision ten years previously. It is also a particularly important one at this moment when, as King remarks on his last page, the view is now nearly predominant that intervention by government in social matters is on the whole ineffective and counterproductive. King reminds us that where civil rights were concerned, intervention was neither, for good and ill alike. He also makes the point, and should have made it more strongly, that his story demonstrates both the necessity of affirmative action and the feeble selfishness of the case against it.

This, then, is a valuable book. But I wish it was more readable. For the topic clamours for passion and eloquence, and the author's findings are too important to be buried in a monograph forever. Perhaps a journalist will now think it worthwhile to take King's work and blow the trumpet of prophecy as he has not.

Hugh Brogan is professor of history, University of Essex.

Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government

Author - Desmond King
ISBN - 0 19828016 5
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 352

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