The Golden Age.

At PostBourgie, G.D. attacks the view that a free market would have eventually sorted out Jim Crow:

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 renter was gauging him, 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.

On Twitter, G.D. illustrated the point with anecdotes drawn from Isabelle Wilkinson's book "The Warmth of Other Suns," which narrates the mass migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to urban centers across the country. Not to take away from that, but this reminds me of a point I try to make every so often: Segregation was more than separate water fountains and terrible bus seats, and it was enforced -- frequently -- by horrible violence.

Which is why I can't help but me miffed by things like Mark Steyn's essay on the gradual "erosion" of liberty into the United States. In this narrative -- held mostly, but not exclusively, by conservatives -- the United States was once a place of great freedom and choice, strangled by big government and the welfare state. Newsflash. For at least a tenth of the population, "freedom" was anything but. From the 1880s until the middle of the 20th century, African Americans lived in a virtual police state.

Want to start your own farm? The county won't sell you land. Want to escape sharecropping and peonage? Good luck finding the white landowner who won't cheat you out of your earnings every year. Don't have your employer-issued work papers? The sheriff can arrest you for unlawfully leaving a job. Walking alone without permission from a white man? The sheriff can arrest you for vagrancy. Can't pay your inflated court fees? Well, this nice man from the coal mines/cotton fields/turpentine farms has offered to pay your $15 fine, provided you work 14 months of hard labor. And so on, and so on.

Which is to say, if there is anything that infuriates me about conservative rhetoric, it's this refusal to acknowledge the profound illiberty that existed in the United States for most of its history. OK, so you don't like universal health insurance and you don't want the government to give your money to the lazy or "less deserving." Fine, that's fair. But let's not pretend like today is somehow less free than the past. For blacks, and virtually everyone but white men of privilege, the golden age of freedom is now.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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