Economics 101 & Public Square

How Government Hampered Fulfillment for Black Americans

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Our three big ideas at IFWE—the concepts we want every reader to be familiar with—are freedom, fulfillment, and flourishing. The one that probably gets talked about the least is fulfillment, perhaps because it seems like the easiest concept of the three to agree upon.

Hugh Whelchel has described fulfillment saying, “You want the work you do during the day to be affirmed, to be directed towards a meaningful end, and to have an impact on the lives of those around you.” That desire is in all of our hearts, but not everyone is able to experience fulfillment in their work, and sometimes that’s because of systemic problems and bad policy that are working against them. That has been especially the case for Black Americans.

I recently interviewed Dr. Rachel Ferguson, co-author of the new book, Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America. Part one of our conversation focused on how Black Americans’ freedoms have been violated throughout history. Part two discussed how limiting freedoms of people impact their flourishing. Today in the third and final part of our discussion, Dr. Ferguson shares surprising ways that Black Americans have been unjustly prevented from experiencing fulfillment in their work.

What are some examples from history that might be surprising, particularly for Christians and people on the Right, that you talk about in the book?

Dr. Ferguson: One of the biggest surprises—even for me—was to learn about the convict leasing program, which ran from the end of Reconstruction into the early twentieth century. Basically, crimes were invented or exaggerated in order to arrest Black men, who were then charged various court fees and sent to work in labor camps to pay off the fees. Under slavery, a slave owner might not care about their slave’s well-being, but at least they had to feed the person and keep them alive. But the convict leasing program had a constant stream of these workers. So if you wanted to feed them next to nothing, keep them in the dark all day long, and allow sickness to run through the camp and kill forty percent of the people, you could.

It’s so shocking to study this now. It lasted for a very long time, killed tens of thousands of men, and unjustly imprisoned hundreds of thousands more. Everyone once in a while you have to stop and say, “This is no joke,” when people are talking about some of this painful history. It shocked me when I was doing the research because neither my colleagues on the Left nor on the Right knew much about it. We chose to highlight this true story in our book because more people need to know.

We tend to think of academia as the stewards of remembering our history. Are there other things they have forgotten about?

Dr. Ferguson: Certainly. There is the terrible, terrible history of eugenics in the United States. It almost feels like an academic cover-up—after World War II and fighting the Nazis, no one wants to go back and admit, “You know, we all really loved eugenics there for about fifty years.” It was very popular in all areas of social sciences. We had presidents, presidential cabinets, university presidents, and economists like John Maynard Keynes who were all on the boards of eugenics organizations. It just goes to show that you can have very popular movements in academia that are totally destructive. In nature, they can be wrong down to their core. 

And of course who stood up against it? Catholics, for one. Also, other religious people with well-thought-out philosophical and ethical systems stood up to it. 

There were terrible things that were done in the name of eugenics, including the sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans, particularly Native Americans, Black Americans, people with epilepsy, and people with other various disabilities. This is part of the history of the Progressive movement that people should be aware of—eugenics is totally a Progressive view. 

There are a lot of policies and government programs that came about during the Progressive Era and were influenced by eugenics. What are some that we may not be familiar with?

Dr. Ferguson: The Progressive Era developed the idea that modern life is so complicated that we need experts to manage it. It’s a philosophy of social engineering. A major policy that came out of this was the invention of the minimum wage. Originally, the minimum wage was a way to exclude Blacks, immigrants, and women from the marketplace by making wages so high that the only people who would be hired would be—as they [Progressives] put it in their own words—“the descendants of the colonialists.” 

This same language was also common among unions, who would say, “We need to support white male heads of households.” The original unions consistently shut out Black workers, who ironically often found their greatest friend to be the employers, who were happy to hire them. Oftentimes, whites were trying to push up their own wages by excluding Black workers. Today, union labor and minimum wage continue to be two of the major planks of the Progressive platform, but their supporters probably aren’t aware of this history.

In the book, you talk a lot about the actions of the federal government impacting Black Americans. What are some examples?

Dr. Ferguson: In the twentieth century, the federal government used the Federal Housing Administration to redline Black and integrated neighborhoods. This affected a lot of white people too, by the way, because integrated neighborhoods were also shut out. 

The government used the federal highway system to build highways right through the Black economic centers in every major city in the United States. This was a massive abuse of eminent domain.

It also used a program called Urban Renewal, which was supposed to be a kind of slum clearance, but it was done in such a way as to basically blow apart Black neighborhoods and send these residents to the four winds. Not only was this a violation of economic rights— because you’re taking people’s property for no good reason except that you just want a different-looking neighborhood there—but it’s also tragic. Up until the 1960s, Black Americans were building amazing cultural networks,  economic centers, and educational efforts and making huge leaps forward in literacy, a lot of which was done through the Black church. 

And then those things were geographically attacked by the federal government and blown apart. You can’t reconstitute that so easily in a new place. It tore down so many of the wonderful efforts that were happening, and it set us up for the lack of growth we saw in the 1970s for Black America—and all of America.

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