Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Let’s Teach About Slavery, But Let’s Get It Right
On both the Left and the Right we have seen irresponsible partisan rhetoric about how the history of slavery is taught in our schools. Some on the Left refer to slavery as America’s “original sin.” The authors of The New York Times 1619 Project argue that the American Revolution was fought in large measure to maintain slavery. This is clearly untrue, since the advocates of revolution were strongest in New England, where opposition to slavery was also strongest.
Some on the Right seek to downplay the evils of slavery. Florida’s new standards on the teaching of black history include a statement that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The idea that slavery somehow benefited its victims has come under widespread criticism. Another of the new Florida “guidelines” includes one that cites examples of “violence perpetrated against and by African Americans after the Civil War,” arguably suggesting an equivalency despite the overwhelming prevalence of lynchings, terror, and mob violence against black Americans in those years.
It was not so long ago that segregation was the law in large parts of the country. When I was in law school, interracial marriage was illegal throughout the South. I lived in Virginia, where segregation was strictly enforced. I wrote a law review article about Virginia’s law against interracial marriage, a law which was favorably cited by Hitler when the Nuremburg laws were being written. It was not until 1967, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, that the Supreme Court unanimously found laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional.
Those who downplay the evils of racism in our history do the teaching of our history a disservice. Consider the experience of singer Tony Bennett, who recently died at the age of 96. It was Thanksgiving Day 1945 in Mannheim, Germany, when Bennett was part of an occupation force in a conquered city that had been leveled by Allied bombing during World War II. Bennett unexpectedly met a fellow student and old friend with whom he had sung together a few years earlier in a music group at their high school in New York City. They spent the day together and attended a church service. They then planned to have a turkey dinner together with other U.S. troops. The problem was that Bennett’s old high school friend was black.
A U.S. Army officer blasted the two soldiers with a hate-filled rant for being together in public. In the segregated military of the day, the two men were not allowed to socialize. The punishment for black and white soldiers associating with one another was more severe than for fraternizing with civilians in occupied Germany. In his 1998 autobiography, The Good Life, Bennett wrote:
“I couldn’t get over the fact that they condemned us for just being friends, and especially while we served our country in wartime. There we were, just two kids happy to see each other, trying to forget for the moment the horror of the war, but for the brass it just came down to the color of our skin.”
Later, Tony Bennett would march with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama.
We misunderstand the evil of slavery if we view it as America’s “original sin,” as so many now proclaim. Sadly, it has been the way of the world until the 19th century. When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal throughout the world, and had been throughout history. The Greco-Roman world, the Old Testament, the teachings of the Apostle Paul, and the Theology of the Patristic Fathers all supported the idea of slavery — and called it a just institution.
Our teaching of history, sadly, is so limited that those who proclaim that slavery is, somehow, a uniquely American evil are rarely challenged. But even a brief look at history shows that this is not the case.
Slavery played an important part in almost all ancient civilizations. Most people of the ancient world regarded slavery as the natural condition of life, one which could befall anyone at any time. It had no racial component. It has existed almost universally through history among peoples of every level of material culture — it existed among the nomadic pastoralists of Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Vikings. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium B.C.
Aristotle, in Politics (Book 1, Chapter 5) writes: “The lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them, as for all inferiors, that they should be under the rule of a master.” None of the Greek schools of philosophy called for the emancipation of slaves. The respected British historian of classical slavery, Moses I. Findlay, writes that, “The cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression — most obviously Athens — were cities in which slavery flourished.” At the time of its cultural peak, Athens may have had 115,000 slaves to 43,000 citizens. The same is true of Ancient Rome. Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 167 B.C., 150,000 slaves were sold in a single market.
Race was not necessarily an element in slavery, even when different peoples were involved. The Romans enslaved other Caucasian peoples, and some black Africans enslaved other black peoples. Racial differences became closely connected with slavery only when European colonial powers were expanding into world areas whose inhabitants were of different racial groups.
Both the Old and New Testaments endorse slavery. In Leviticus (XXV: 39-55) God instructs the Children of Israel to “enslave the heathen and their progeny forever.” In the New Testament, St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without equivocation. He wrote, “Slaves, give entire obedience to your earthly masters.” St. Peter orders slaves to obey even unjust orders of their masters:
“What credit is there in fortitude when you have done wrong and are beaten for it? But when you have behaved well and suffer for it, your fortitude is a fine thing in the sight of God.”
If we taught history properly, it would be understood that slavery was a continuous reality in Western life throughout the entire history which preceded the American Revolution. In England, 10 percent of the persons enumerated in the Domesday Book (A.D. 1086) were slaves, and these could be put to death by their owners with impunity. During the Viking age, Norse merchant sailors sold Russian slaves in Constantinople. Venice grew to prosperity and power partly as a slave-trading republic, which took its human cargo from the Byzantine Empire and sold some of the females for harems of the Moslem world. The Italians organized joint stock companies and a highly organized slave trade. In the colony of Cyprus, they established plantations; by year 1300 there were black slaves engaged in working them. By the middle of the 16th century, Lisbon, Portugal, had more black slaves than whites people.
The complex history of slavery seems not to have interested the authors of The New York Times 1619 Project, and seems to be of little interest to those designing our school curriculums, as in Florida. Slavery was not an American creation, even in colonial America. From the 1500s to the 1800s, Europeans — from France, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands — shipped 10 million slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere.
Slavery was an extraordinary evil, as were the years of segregation which followed. Let’s teach all of our history, the negative as well as the positive. But let’s get it right!
Moving Toward a Genuinely Color-Blind Society
The U.S. Supreme Court held in June that race-conscious affirmative action admission programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.
The decision, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, declared that:
“The student must be treated based on his or her experience as an individual — not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
Roberts noted that the rules called for by the Court’s decision are already the norm in the majority of American universities:
“Three out of every five American universities do not consider race in their admissions decisions. And several states, including some of the most populous (California, Florida and Michigan) have prohibited race-based admissions outright.”
Beyond this, Roberts wrote that:
“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, or otherwise.”
As a member of President Ronald Reagan’s transition team at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1980-81, which was headed by my good friend and longtime colleague, J. A. Parker, one of the earliest black conservatives, I believe that the Supreme Court has moved us in the direction of a genuinely colorblind society. This is what the civil rights movement always endorsed. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that men and women should be judged on the “content of their character,” not “the color of their skin.”
If minority students are lagging behind academically, we must improve the quality of the elementary and high school education they receive, not lower the academic standards of our colleges and universities. In our report about the future of the EEOC, our transition team, which included Clarence Thomas, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court, advocated an end to race-based programs. Civil rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall always advocated for a genuinely colorblind society. Now, let us hope that our society will move in this direction.
What is not well known to many Americans is that there has always been a significant group of respected black opponents to race-based affirmative action programs. Clarence Pendleton, Jr., for example, was chairman of the Civil Rights Commission under President Reagan. He called affirmative action “divisive, unpopular, and immoral,” and opposed federal set-aside contracts for minority-owned businesses. He argued that all Americans, white and black, must succeed on the merits of their own abilities, without any special preference. It was, he believed, the height of racism to think that an individual’s political philosophy should be based on the color of his skin rather than his study of history, his concept of right and wrong, and his notion of what constituted a just society.
Legalized quotas on the job market, Pendleton argued, form a crutch on which minorities must not lean.
“Would Hank Aaron be the home run king if they had moved the fences in 10 feet every time he came to bat? Would Walter Payton have all those 100-yard games if they changed the rules when he carried the ball? . . . I don’t want my progress demeaned any more. Let me be free . . . free to achieve.”
In 1978, my old friend Anne Wortham, a leading black academic at Illinois State University, wrote an important article in The Freeman discussing a Supreme Court decision at that time upholding the California Supreme Court ruling that Allan P. Bakke, who was white, should be admitted to medical school at the University of California, Davis, on the basis that ethnic and racial quotas are unconstitutional according to the 14th Amendment.
Wortham, author of the widely praised book The Other Side of Racism, noted that:
“It seems that the Justices hold the widespread opinion that one is demeaned or insulted only when he is discriminated against because of race; but there are those of us who are insulted, if not demeaned, when we are discriminated in favor of because of race or other equally irrelevant classifications. As a member of both the racial and gender groups so favored, I reject the opinion that preferential treatment of racial minorities should be allowed if it serves a social good. There is nothing humanitarian in a policy that uses racial classifications to ‘further a compelling government purpose,’ as the Justices put it. Any government purpose which must be served in such a manner may be suspect as having sinister motives.”
In the view of black economist Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University:
“What affirmative action has done is destroy the legitimacy of what had already been achieved, by making all black achievements look like questionable accomplishments, or even outright gifts.”
Anne Wortham recalls seeing her father work long hours, sacrificing to provide for the education of his children, determined:
“. . . that he would do so despite Jim Crow and without outside assistance. I hear this self-educated man telling us that our education was his investment in the future. . . . The society he was preparing me for was one in which merit was the basis of achievement. It was also one in which racial discrimination was prevalent. But in addressing this issue, black fathers like mine taught their children a rule of thumb taken from the words of Booker T. Washington: ‘Any individual who learns to do something better than anybody else — learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner — has solved his problem, regardless of the color of his skin.’”
Some years ago, the widely read black journalist Juan Williams wrote a book entitled, Enough, with the subtitle, The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America — And What We Can Do About It. Those who proclaim themselves leaders in the black community, Williams argues, refuse to articulate established truths about what it takes to get ahead: strong families, education, and hard work.
“Where is strong black leadership to speak hard truth to those looking for direction. . . . The strong focus on self-determination has faded, at a moment when its impact could have been the most powerful. In its place is a tired rant by civil rights leaders about the power of white people — what white people have done wrong, what white people didn’t do, and what white people should do. This rant puts black people in the role of hapless victims waiting for only one thing — white guilt to bail them out. The roots of this blacks-as-beggars approach from black leaders are planted in an old debate that is now too often distorted.”
The most prominent voice for black liberation after the Civil War, Williams points out, belonged to Frederick Douglass, a former slave who secretly taught himself to read, then became a skilled worker in Baltimore’s shipyards before escaping to freedom in the North:
“It was Douglass who first called on black people to do for themselves when he wrote an editorial titled ‘Learn Trades or Starve.’ By the end of the 19th century, as the government’s many promises to help former slaves turned out to be mostly empty words, a new black leader emerged. Booker T. Washington picked up on Douglass’ legacy by proposing defiant black self-determination as the best strategy for black advancement. . . . His idea was that black people should capitalize on the skills and knowledge they had gained as slaves. People who had worked the land for others now had the chance to own that land and take the profits of their work for themselves.”
Black success in the future, Williams argues, does not lie in government race-based programs but, he states, in young people finishing high school and college, taking a job and holding it, marrying after finishing school and while holding a job, and having children only after you are 21 and married.
The Institute for American Values issued a report showing that in the past 50 years, after segregation came to an end, “the percentage of black families headed by married couples declined from 78 per cent to 34 percent.” In the 30 years from 1950 to 1980, households headed by black women who never married jumped from 3.8 per thousand to 69.7 per thousand. In 1940, 75 percent of black children lived with both parents. By 1990, only 33 percent of black children lived with a mother or father.
The path to a better life is to be found not in race-based affirmative action programs which, as the Supreme Court declared, violate our Constitutional rights, but in the lessons learned by such thoughtful black Americans as J. A. Parker, Clarence Pendleton, Thomas Sowell, Anne Wortham, Juan Williams, and so many more. Martin Luther King’s goal of a genuinely colorblind society is one toward which Americans of all races should work.
Can We Restore the Old Idea of Free Speech for a Variety of Ideas?
There was a time in living memory when Americans of all points of view believed in free speech — not only for ideas with which they agreed, but for those with which they disagreed, even strongly, as well.
When I was a student at the College of William and Mary, I was a member of the school’s debate team. We traveled around the country engaging in debates on a given subject. My memory is failing me when it comes to the subject college debate teams were debating in my freshman year, but what I remember very well is that we all had to be prepared to argue either side of the question. You never knew when a debate began which side you would be asked to defend.
A bit later, when I was teaching at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Alexandria, Virginia, I served as debate coach. Just as when I was in college, students had to prepare themselves to debate either side of the question. You never knew which side you would be asked to defend until the debate began. This gave students an understanding that many public issues were complex, and the right and wrong answer was not always clear. Most important questions are usually not so easily resolved.
Later, when I worked in the U.S. Senate during the Vietnam War, I engaged in many debates about the war. I was in support of the war, and my opponents were opposed to it. After our debates, we often went out for a drink and continued the discussion. In retrospect, I think many of the points my opponents made had a lot of validity. Many important issues are complicated. There is often a bit of truth on both sides. For a democracy to thrive, respect for divergent viewpoints is a necessity. Consider the debates at the Constitutional Convention. If the delegates did not have respect for the men and ideas with which they disagreed, and a willingness to compromise, our country would never have been established.
At the present time, sadly, there is growing intolerance of divergent viewpoints, particularly at some of our institutions of higher learning. A Princeton University alumni group in favor of free speech polled current students and found that 76 percent thought it was acceptable to shout at a speaker, and 16 percent supported the use of violence to stop a talk by an unpopular speaker. More than three-quarters of the Princeton students said it was sometimes acceptable to stop a campus speaker by shouting over them. Some 83 percent said it was acceptable to block other students from attending talks they deemed disturbing.
Princetonians For Free Speech was founded by Princeton alumnus, journalist, and lawyer Stuart Taylor, Jr., in 2020 “with the mission of promoting free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity.” In the 2022 College Free Speech Rankings, by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Princeton was the lowest-ranked school in the country.
In March, Stanford Law School made headlines after students berated Kyle Duncan, a federal appeals court judge, who had come to give a talk. Tirien Steinbach, the school’s Dean of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity, intervened, ostensibly to instill calm, before launching into an impassioned six-minute speech, which she had written down, condemning the judge’s life work. She was accused of ambushing Judge Duncan, and put on leave.
Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez issued a 16-page open letter explaining why she and Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne rose above what many viewed as the judge’s own reaction, including profanity aimed at students. The letter went beyond university policy and the First Amendment to articulate values which underlay them, specifically, the relationship between reasoned discourse, on the one hand, and learning, civility, “and the special role of lawyers in our system of Justice,” on the other. She argued that there is no contradiction between free expression and diversity, equity, and inclusion. And she notified students that the school is planning a mandatory half-day training session to reinforce these concepts.
Dean Martinez wrote:
“There is a temptation in a system, in which people holding views perceived by some as harmful or offensive are not allowed to speak, but history teaches us that this is a temptation to be avoided.”
Throughout the country, we see efforts to stifle speech with which some disagree. After the campus newspaper at Wesleyan University published an article critical of Black Lives Matter, students tried to defund the newspaper for failing to create “safe places.” At Yale, 42 percent of students and 71 percent of conservatives say they feel uncomfortable giving their opinions on politics, race, religion, and gender. Self-censorship becomes more common as students progress through the university: 61 percent of freshmen feel comfortable speaking about their views, but the same is true of just 56 percent of sophomores, 49 percent of juniors and 30 percent of seniors.
According to The Economist:
“University administrators, whose job it is to promote harmony and diversity on campus, often find the easiest way to do so is to placate the intolerant. . . . The two groups form an odd alliance. Contentious campus politics have been a constant feature in American life for more than fifty years. But during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, students at Berkeley demonstrated to win the right to determine who could say what from administrators. Now the opposite is true. Student activists are demanding that administrators interfere with teaching, asking for mandatory ethnic-studies classes, the hiring non-white or gay faculty, and the ability to lodge complaints against professors for biased conduct in the classroom. This hands more power to administrators.”
At different times in our history, different groups have done their best to stifle free speech. When I was a college student, I was an officer in a campus group, the Political Science Club. In the years of segregation in the South — this was in 1958 — we decided to invite the first black speaker to the College of William and Mary. The president of the college called me into his office. At that time, I wrote a column in the campus newspaper, which took a generally conservative position. The president asked me, “You are a conservative, why are you doing this?” I responded that, “Racism is not one of the things I want to conserve.”
The speaker we invited was Alonzo Moron, the president of the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), who would later become president of the American Red Cross and Governor of the Virgin Islands. His talk proceeded with no difficulty — but our group was then thrown off campus. I asked the ministers of the various churches in Williamsburg if we could meet in their facilities. All expressed support for what we had done, but said their congregations would oppose such a move. Only one minister opened his doors to us. He was the minister of the United Methodist Church, a recent refugee from the Hungarian Revolution. I had promised the president of the college that our next speaker would be an advocate of segregation. He was James J. Kilpatrick, then editor of The Richmond News Leader. Even he later turned against segregation.
Given my own experience with free speech, it is sad to see its serious decline at the present time. Liberals and conservatives should join together to make sure that we continue to have a free marketplace of ideas, something which seems to be diminishing. And the political life in which I remember working in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives was one in which Republicans and Democrats did not view one another as “enemies” but as fellow Americans engaged in the common enterprise of government. Our free society cannot endure without it. *