In 1921, the black dominated Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma was one of the wealthiest in the city. The presence of nice hotels, jewelry shops, and so forth earned it the nickname: “Black Wall Street”. By the end of the year, members of the city’s white community came in, destroyed, vandalized, and even bombed the neighborhood. Why?
When I was young in liberal Manhattan and Maryland, I was taught that white people hated black people. I was never told why, something about certain kinds of white people being “bad”. When I was older, I was given the standard line which liberal academia upholds as the reason: black skin creates an easy way to identify and isolate a community of people so that you can exploit them economically, knowing that you’re safe from ever having to be so identified and exploited.
I think that the academic explanation features two elements which are separately true. Being able to easily identify a difference between your group and another forms a convenient basis for group-based political action. Also, if economic exploitation is to occur, having a marginalized group available will likely lead to that group being the target of the exploitation. I don’t think the two elements automatically go together, and that racism is more complex than this.
One thing about the story of the Tulsa riots that has bothered me is the need to punish black people for success. I can mentally understand why people might have wanted segregation. It’s an inconvenient fact (for leftist academia) that 19th century (and most of 20th century) black culture differed dramatically from white culture. It’s that matter of Puritanism versus not being a puritan. Not-being-puritan culture was legitimately a threat to puritan culture. I can mentally understand why puritanical anglo whites, who failed to convince blacks to become puritans, might decide upon segregation. Do I have to mention that puritanism is insane, especially when elements of it are built into law?
Some people on the right, including among libertarian circles, have advanced the cringe-worthy argument that segregation was good for blacks. Well, actually the libertarian circle arguments I’ve read moreso argue that government imposed integration harmed the for-better-or-worse black businesses which had risen to service segregated black consumers. Which, I suppose, put black business owners out of business, and increased class distinctions between black and white. Okay, whatever, fine.
The point is this: when and if segregation “worked”, why did whites have a problem with it? If blacks were off in their own social, cultural, and economic world, why did whites in Tulsa have to GO BOMB IT!??
Really, this question has thrown me for a loop for a long time. Recently, I think I have an answer.
There are two answers, in my opinion. First, American capitalism is a rent-seeking nightmare that will literally kill to seek new consumer markets. Second, America’s “classless” society has a dark side, which is a hyper-realized level of class insecurity and class resentment.
Segregation may have created a black consumer market, and therefore black businesses to serve it. Well, hell, if you’re a white business owner, wouldn’t you want a piece of that pie? Can’t let a whole market of buyers go to waste just because they live on the other side of the tracks! Never mind that the law wants the two worlds separate. That’s just at the sidewalk level. Cash has only one color.
The fact is this: American capitalism doesn’t “work”. Okay, got it, it works way a hella lot better than all the other and dumb left-wing systems we’ve ever seen. Yes, that’s mostly true. Except, sometimes it’s not. Seriously! Think about this: European government medicine is a nightmare, but couldn’t we argue that in a few ways it does actually work better than the current American system. I get it! I do! I’m a libertarian!
American medicine is not free market, and it’s worse than many socialized systems for certain reasons. Despite its costs and flaws, in many ways American medicine still does things more effectively than European medicine, and it develops many of the technologies that nationalized systems use. BUT. America’s “society” is exactly what produced the current not-free-market system. Explain to me the alternative version of American society, where everything isn’t a completely shit-show.
I would argue that more or less the American political economy had to be what it is. These even “non-free-market” outcomes that we see are necessary parts of the American system. This is a conundrum for libertarians in the sense that by appearances America seems to be the most libertarian of world nations. Our political culture is based on skepticism of government power. However, I think that the situation is more complicated than that. There are little nuances that make the case for America-as-a-free-nation not so clear cut. Let me give some historical counter examples to explain.
Modernity and urbanism require coordinated action and investment in infrastructure. Period. There are countless libertarian kosher paths to having this infrastructure. Maybe urbanism could have been diffuse, with dozens of small cities connected by rail through farmland where rail rights are cheap to buy. Thus urban life matches the decentralized “order” of the market, or is on scale with it. Or, large cities could be entirely privately owned. This is a sort of neo-feudalism and lines up loosely with Hoppean ideas concerning micro states, a libertarian “leaning” outcome since the micro states are both small and numerous, and subject to competitive pressures that large states can overcome or ignore. Or, urbanism could be managed through advanced financial technology. Blockchain could be used to manage infrastructure costs at scale, while maintaining decentralized decision making. That is, your daily commute is “tolled” foot by foot into a blockchain, where you pay exactly for which streets, byways, sidestreets, and bridges you use. An “ecological” approach to infrastructure development.
America’s history gave us an almost worst-of-all-world approach to cities. America’s actual political organization was an “Empire of Liberty”. A highly centralized, enforced, and continental-wide spread of the “Yeoman Property Owner” concept.
So in cities you have these mega skyscrapers which are privately owned, but then these beautiful creations are broken up staccato by shitty, crowded, under-maintained, ugly, blocky city streets which are owned by “the public”. People pee, defecate, and sleep on these streets. They aren’t supposed to, but as non-Yeomans, the Yeoman system preserves their right to be there against rights of Yeomans. So, the government doesn’t have to build roads and sidewalks, I suppose, but it sort of does if it wants to enforce allotments, and give the poor a place to shit. The allotments in turn form the basis for land speculation, which combined with taxes and national debt serve as the basis for a system of wealth which funds the “imperial” nature of the Yeoman system, allowing it as a system to extend from forest, to hill, to desert, to mountain, to sea to sea.
The Yeoman Property Owner must have the absolute right to their little allotment, but no property owner may have the whole lot. Again, this system is enforced centrally, on a continental scale. Even the banks were designed to segregate wealth by region or community. Such a system can work as the basis for a broad “republic”, but only with fertile farmland, only when there’s still land to homestead, only when urban centers are small and exist as stinking bastions of scoundrels who service a few basic commercial needs for the vast legions of gentlemen Yankee farmers.
Except, oops, this system is also an empire. It can’t coexist with other systems, so it necessarily drives out French and Indian alike. The farmers aren’t financiers, nor does the system allow them to be. So, the only room for finance is in the context of the “whole” and the preservation of the “whole” against non-Yeoman threats. That is, the United States federal power is limited theoretically to enumerated powers, but also by the same theory it is to use these powers to preserve the basic fundamental system as widely and deeply as possible. No set of Yeomen benefit over any other set in the realm of finance, but there is a wealth class which serves the interests of the the whole Yeoman system itself. Which is an incentive for more interventionism beyond the borders of the system.
In other words, America was always an empire. It was an empire of a very basic system of landed property ownership. The incentives and prerogatives of empire converted this basic system into a vast commercial, military, and financial power. As technology developed, the commercial centers became industrial centers. These exploited the imperial nature of the American system (regular and broad markets, concentrated financial wealth), then BOOM. You have a messy urban industrial society that is completely unequipped to exist as such.
In an industrial system there are theoretical feedback loops which people can invoke to make life a little bit better. They can switch currencies if wealth is too concentrated over a single currency. They can organize and collectively bargain. They can even – I’m being a bit heretical – organize and maintain subtly different opinions about the nature of property. In European systems, they can appeal to the Crown – that is, rely on state authority to deal with infrastructural needs.
America had the least availability of any of these, and I would argue that our cities are and have been the least livable in the developed world. Thank god we fought that war, took over the world’s markets, and can leech off of everyone else’s wealth and labor to fund our wasteful but comfy suburbs.
I’m arguing that all of libertarianism, monarchism, European nationalism, socialism, socialist nationalism (not national socialism, but yeah, that too), etc. have answers to the questions of social organization and infrastructure management in urban industrial economies. America’s yeoman farmer system doesn’t.
So we had the Irish mob create the first city government. Today our big cities are mismanaged and hopelessly corrupt.
Anyway, America’s system is “set-up” to favor monopolistic commercial practices. You had the basic farming rights system, based in Jefferson’s spin on the English Enlightenment. Then, you add an entirely British system of almost mercantilism on top of it. America doesn’t allow monopolies on goods or trade, the Jeffersonian elements prevent that. Instead, you have mercantilism in finance, the markets-hungry military, and the sciences. In media. All things that didn’t quite fully exist in Jefferson’s frame of reference. Except, Americans are politically disempowered from fighting against this neo-mercantilism because our rights are held hostage inside the yeoman system which is the foundation of the “Empire of Liberty”.
To improve America’s cities, and change our financial system, we’d pull the rug out from under the land/wealth (bonds, cash)/political infrastructure (courts, cops) which is the only thing protecting what little economic freedoms we have. It’s sick.
In any event, here’s how America works: you either have no army, or you have an army which fights for the interests of big finance. You either have no cops, or you have cops that burn down Black Wall Street.
Do you get my point? The Empire of Liberty is a GD scam, and of course black people were never going to prosper under it.
The second flaw with American society is intense class insecurity. In most societies there are strict class roles. I think we can say that a nice thing about America is that you don’t have to be born being defined by a class role. Although, this fact freaks a lot of people out.
Without a pre-determined class role, it means that there’s social mobility. That means either up, or down. The desperation to go up – I believe built into the human psyche and related to basic sexual competition – is almost as intense as the fear of going down. Without class boundaries set externally, people go crazy. This is expressed in places like obsessive status-signaling consumerism, to nasty wicked racism.
I think what we see in Tulsa is a simple motive: class resentment. Well to do blacks.
My childhood rubber stamp liberalism said that “bad” whites just wanted to put blacks down. I suppose, because they were just mean-spirited people. My adult mind questions what the big deal is.
Sure, you want to pull out the racist arguments about black behavior, IQ, yadda yadda? So, when a community of black people manage businesses responsibly, that’s bad? If you were a racist, wouldn’t you want to tokenize the wealthy blacks, like give them a bunch of medals or something? What is the need to punish them? Again, just ’cause you’re a “hater”?
There’s a certain kind of Jewish Marxist intellectual who likes to explain Naziism in terms of the German people just being nasty, messed up, sick hearted weirdos. There’s a term: psychohistory (not the Hari Seldon variety). The idea is that German moms sexually abuse their boys or something, which turned the German nation into psychopaths. This is my example of just calling people “haters” and ignoring what actually causes people to act one way or another.
I can’t just accept that whites were just “haters” because that doesn’t tell me anything at all about how to fight racism, other than “kill all white people”. This is, of course, something that some people say. Kudos to them for drawing the correct conclusion from a crappy premise.
Why did the people of Tulsa hate their black neighbors so much?
Well, it’s obviously class resentment. Why should the blacks have all the money? Okay, but blacks aren’t the only people who had money, obviously. So what’s to gain from punishing just the blacks?
Since black people were marginalized, poor whites could “get away with” hating on rich blacks in a way that the system wouldn’t tolerate if they hated on rich whites. That’s true. But still, what’s accomplished by destroying the neighborhood? What do you gain? Being able to do a thing doesn’t mean you should.
The answer is that the destruction of Greenwood was irrational. There was no good reason to do it. The whites were experience symptoms of mania. They were confused, and believed they were gaining, but maybe didn’t think through why. Still, despite the irrationality of it, they were still motivated and desperate enough to go through with it. Why?
Obviously, this was a problem the whites faced, it was something inside of themselves causing the problem. Something inside them, having nothing to do with the blacks, was causing them to feel desperate to the point of irrationality. An insecurity. That’s class insecurity.
No, Tulsa’s whites didn’t gain social or economic status by punishing its blacks. They didn’t gain a damn thing. However, they probably felt that if they did nothing, then horrible things would happen. This is the essence of class insecurity.
Imagine a system where a community of 200 people of interrelated families possess certain permanent financial obligations to each other. They share medical expenses, responsibilities for the elderly or infirm among them. Educational expenses, unemployment or retraining burdens. These obligations are formal, and understood by all with absolute clarity. You can’t just ignore them. As an individual in this system, you have wide ranging ability to do what you want career-wise. You can even engage in a process to leave the community, and others have a process to join. The community itself interacts freely with the rest of society.
These communities would negotiate and bargain, as needed, to fight what might be extreme unfair circumstances. If a bridge is being built to serve the needs of hundreds of such communities, but it will ruin the home of one, maybe those other communities can contribute to a relocation. You get the idea.
Human society can be organized in ways which provide clear social relationships, and more security. Even in a libertarian context. America’s anglo-saxon yeoman farmer paradigm actually inhibits the formation of these kinds of social relationships, for better or worse. It’s all: nuclear families, land property, universal absolute central enforcement.
A voluntary community would have to be agorist. If it had too many of its own rules, members could sue and the courts would let them wiggle out of them. If a community had too much of its own legal systems, the cops would come break it up as a competitor with the state’s laws.
If a group of twelve US states want to establish a joint medical system, someone could sue and claim maybe a 14th amendment, unequal under the law (yeomanism) complaint. We can’t get away with anything alternative.
Imagine if we take the idea of redistribution of land or wealth so that everyone has an equal share, but then we just apply that same concept to a very narrow “40 acres and mule” notion of individual success? The relationships we’re allowed to have with each other are very narrow. If our position in a social environment, or our role in the division of labor varies wildly person to person, the system doesn’t allow for any difference. However, those who are above or beyond the system get away with murder.
In the Bay Area you have places like Berkeley which complain to high heaven about living expenses, but then riot when developers come to build properties with greater urban density. America’s system preserves NIMBY to the end, unless big government needs its imminent domain claim for some big business. It’s the worst of all worlds.
Of course the rich liberals shouldn’t have to give up their second homes. They do their part, they recycle and drive Teslas and buy organic, okay? Don’t blame them. It’s the unwashed, and especially the Christians, who need to be reined in.
And the Republicans? Scoff. They build value in the community, dontcha know, with their magnificent set of little franchise locations and land speculation. So what if they underpay people? You gotta earn your dues. No one said life was easy. Buy an RV. Those people in that part of town? Well, that’s their problem. But they do buy a lot of hamburgers, god bless ’em for that.
America can’t go on like this. The Empire of Liberty is dying. It was always a bad idea, and a novel idea. Britain had it’s own version of empire, and the USA arose as a competitor. The revolutionary Virginia gentlemen never envisioned this, Jefferson and Madison aside. The New England intellectuals didn’t conceive of it, they were mostly concerned with their brand of navel-gazing. The Yankee traders didn’t require it, the seas were free enough, they had the ability to go to wherever the business was. The New York financiers and paper shufflers? Ah, well, it was always their baby.
Why was Black Wall Street burned? Same reason for the bombs over Baghdad. This is part of the cost of preserving this system. And I’m not sure it’s exactly “liberty” that we’re preserving.