One of the most fervent and well-known opponents of racism in America in the middle decades of the 20th century was the African-American journalist and novelist, George S. Schuyler. Due to his sharp, witty and biting sarcasm, Schuyler was often called the African-American H. L. Mencken.
He was scathing in his criticisms of all presumptions and segregationist policies proclaiming and imposing an inferior status for blacks in America. But he also was a strong advocate of individual liberty, free enterprise, impartial equality before the law, and constitutionally limited and decentralized government. And he was a fierce anti-communist during the Cold War.
His “sin” in the 1950s and 1960s was his insistence that forced integration through some of the Civil Rights Acts of that time were as morally wrong and socially undesirable as the imposed segregation, Jim Crow laws against which he fought through all of his life. As a consequence, he has been practically airbrushed out of the history of anti-racism in America, even though he was one of the most widely read African-American journalists during a good part of his professional life.
The purpose of my article is to renew an awareness and appreciation for this principled and uncompromising enemy of racism and defender of liberty, one result of which was that he was placed under surveillance by the FBI during and after the Second World War as a dangerous subversive for opposing discriminatory policies of the government, including the imprisoning of Japanese-Americans during the war years.
George S. Schuyler, Anti-Racist Champion of Liberty
by Richard Ebeling
One of the most difficult subjects to discuss in America today is race. It is the proverbial “third rail,” which, if talked about outside of the politically correct corridor of “identity politics,” is almost instant death.
If you are “white,” anything you say not consistent with the paradigm of identity politics is condemned as explicit or hidden racist attitudes, beliefs, and malevolent intentions. Indeed, if you are white, you can’t escape it; it’s in your cultural and historical blood.
Another way of saying this is, If you do not agree with the identity-politics warriors you are evil, beyond the pale of moral acceptance, and your voice should be exorcised from any and all social discourse. You are a racist, whether you know it or not; and that modern version of the Scarlet Letter branded into your forehead ends your right to participate in any debate about race in America.
Political-Correctness Critics Down an Orwellian Memory Hole
What if you are not white? Suppose you are an economist like Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams, or a journalist like Jason Riley at the Wall Street Journal, who have African ancestry? You are an Orwellian “non-person,” airbrushed out of contemporary debate on issues of race. It is as if you and your writings do not exist. In Stalin-like fashion, you are erased from public existence.
Such individuals do not fit the appropriate ideological mold. They discount the degree to which racism today, alone, can be blamed for the hardships, difficulties, and hurdles that continue to stand in the way of more rapid improvement in the material and social circumstances of many in the African American community. They see freer and more competitive markets as the better and more effective avenue for the progress of black Americans. Government interventions and redistributive programs have been far more of the problem than the solution in the arena of race relations, they argue; and worse, they back up these conclusions with history and statistical data.
But facts are not supposed to stand in the way of the social presumptions and policy conclusions of political correctness. If any arguments and facts do not fit the identity-political narrative, then they must be ignored or misrepresented.
George Schuyler and His “Crime” of Advocating Liberty
This was the fate, more than 50 years ago, of one prominent African American journalist, novelist, and outspoken critic of all things racist in the United States. His name was George S. Schuyler (1895-1977). What became his “crime”? He believed in the American founding ideals of individual liberty, free enterprise, impartial equality before the law, and constitutionally limited government. Plus, beginning in the 1930s and for the rest of his life, he was an outspoken anticommunist, especially during the Cold War years following the Second World War.
He also declared that forced integration was as morally wrong and socially undesirable as compulsory segregation under the Jim Crow laws in the South. He also criticized prominent members of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s as following some wrong paths. He soon disappeared down George Orwell’s memory hole: one of those non-persons.
Throughout his career as a writer and journalist, which spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s, Schuyler was scathing in his analysis and relentless in his criticisms of white racism in the America of his time. This included public criticisms beginning in 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, of the U.S. government rounding up and imprisoning Japanese Americans in internment camps. This resulted in the FBI keeping him under surveillance as a “subversive” threatening the war effort.
With biting wit, sharp sarcasm, and eloquent turns of phrase, he was frequently referred to as the African American H.L. Mencken, someone who was, in fact, one of Schuyler’s most valued friends and who opened the pages of the American Mercury magazine to some of Schuyler’s best anti-racist articles beginning in the late 1920s.
From the Military to Being Homeless to a Writing Career
George Samuel Schuyler was born on February 25, 1895, in Providence, Rhode Island, and grew up in Syracuse, New York. His early years, for the most part, were spent in a modest African American middle-class environment for that time. At 17 he enlisted in the army. He then rose in the ranks to be a first lieutenant, and was stationed with a black unit in Hawaii. After a racial altercation, he went AWOL, turned himself in, and served nine months of a five-year sentence.
After leaving the military and going to New York City, Schuyler held a variety of odd and menial jobs, and for part of the time was what today would be called a “homeless person.” But he read a lot and, at first, became enamored with socialist ideas through reading across the entire swath of socialist and communist literature.
But he tells us in his autobiography, Black and Conservative (1966), that he came to have his doubts and disagreements with socialism as he met and discussed it with those in various New York socialist circles. He, especially, became critical of communists, who he saw as corrupt and power-lusting stooges serving their masters in Moscow; he considered their use of the race problem in America as merely a manipulative tool to gain control and influence over blacks in America for their own self-serving revolutionary dictatorial games. Socialist tyranny was no long-term alternative to the prevailing segregation and discrimination suffered by black Americans in both the South and the North.
He started to write for a variety of African American publications. Beginning in the late 1920s, Schuyler became a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading and largest-circulation black newspapers in the United States at that time. From the 1930s into the 1960s, he was one of the senior editorial writers for the paper, reaching a huge reading audience of hundreds of thousands on a daily and weekly basis.
He traveled around the country and did exposés on the harsh realities of black life, work, business, and race relations in nearly every state. He was sent on assignment to Liberia, the West African nation founded by American free blacks in the years before the Civil War. The resulting book, Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia (1931), was damning since Schuyler not only detailed the political corruption of the government, but how the decedents of American blacks oppressed and even enslaved members of the indigenous African tribes.
He also published in 1931 his most famous novel, Black No More, in which African Americans flock to a new chemical discovery that can turn black people white; finally, the chance for emancipation from racial bigotry has arrived. But being “white” turns out not to be very far from the social paradise hoped for, and many whites now have anxieties of not knowing who is really “white” and, therefore, who they should feel superior to. In the process, Schuyler ridicules and satirizes both black and white hucksters who use the race issue for their own personal aggrandizement and wealth getting.
Schuyler’s Wife and Daughter
One other biographical matter that is of note is his marriage and his daughter. In 1928, he met and fell in love with, and soon after married, Josephine Cogdell, the daughter of a successful cattleman and banker in Dallas, Texas. And she was white. She recounted her meeting with Schuyler in a 1946 article about their interracial marriage, explaining that each had written for a socialist tabloid in the 1920s, and had read each other’s articles. When they finally met, they realized the many intellectual, artistic, and cultural interests they had in common — besides enjoying going out for a bit of jazz dancing, as well as listening to classical music. In an interview in the 1970s, a few years after her death, Schuyler insisted that his wife was not black or white; she was the warm and wonderful human being he had met and loved. What more was to be said?
Their daughter, Philippa, was born in 1931. By the age of two, she could read and write; by the age of four, she was professionally playing serious music on the piano. At the age of five, she was composing classical music pieces. They had created an amazing musical child protégée who was soon performing on the radio and giving a concert at the 1939 New York World’s Fair at the age of eight. As she got older, in the 1950s, she increasingly performed outside of the United States, where racial prejudices were less restrictive of arranging concerts.
Racial problems and other personal matters resulted in her shifting from music to journalism as a reporter and foreign correspondent for a New England conservative newspaper. In 1967, she was on assignment in South Vietnam. While helping to evacuate some Vietnamese orphans threatened with coming under Vietcong attack, the helicopter she was in crashed into the sea; she survived the crash, but not knowing how to swim she drowned before help could reach her. She was 35 years old. Her mother, Josephine, committed suicide two years later on the anniversary of Philippa’s death.
What White Folks Didn’t Understand
George Schuyler’s break-out of a predominantly black readership came with his first piece in the December 1927 issue of H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury, with the lead article “Our White Folks.” How very often did whites, particularly in the South, presume to know all about their “black folks.” Schuyler explained that while working as servants, maids, and mammies, blacks knew all the ins and outs about white people, and how they lived with all their foibles; whites, on the other hand, knew next to nothing about how blacks really lived and or what they thought. Blacks, after all, had long learned to wear the masks expected of them when in the company of white people.
Most especially, blacks considered absurd and ludicrous all the talk about white purity and the “natural” dislike for any too intimate relationship between members of these two races. After over 300 years of Africans among Europeans in America, he estimated at least 80 percent of all African Americans had “drops” of white blood, due to the natural attractions of men and women to each other across that imaginary racial line. “Indeed, an examination of family trees will reveal that a large number of the whites and blacks are really related,” Schuyler pointed out, “especially in the land of cotton, where most of the hue and cry is raised about Anglo-Saxon purity.” This led him to say that the black American community “is the real melting pot, and a glorious sight it is to see.” Schuyler continued:
To judge an individual solely on the basis of his skin color and hair texture is so obviously nonsensical that he [the black American] cannot help classing the bulk of Nordics with the inmates of an insane asylum. He views with mingled amusement and resentment the stupid reactions of white folks to a black skin. It excites his bitter mirth to observe how his entrance into almost any public place is sufficient to spoil the evening of the majority of the proud Caucasians present, no matter how intelligent they may claim to be. Nor is this insanity restricted alone to Anglo-Saxons, for Jews, Irish, Greeks, Poles, Russians, Italians, and Germans, even those who know little of the American language and less of the national customs, grow quite as apoplectic at the sight of a sable countenance.
Blacks Were Made Hardy and Skilled From Dealing With Whites
Rather than being racially and culturally inferior to white Americans, Schuyler argued that centuries of slavery and segregation had made the African Americans a hardy and most capable people compared to white Americans in many ways. Excluding black Americans from various occupations, professions, and enterprises deprived the nation of talents that could only enhance the betterment of the society as a whole:
Almost every thoughtful Negro believes that the scrapping of the color caste system would not hinder but rather help the country. In their zeal to keep the black brother away from the pie counter, the whites are depriving the nation of thousands of individuals of extraordinary ability. The rigid training and discipline that the Negro has received since his arrival on these sacred shores has left him with a lower percentage of weaklings and incompetents than is shown by any other group.
He has always had to be on the alert, ever the diplomat and skillful tactician, facing more trying situations in a week than the average white citizen faces in a year. This experience has certainly fitted him for a more important position than he now holds in the Republic. He is still imbued with the pioneering spirit that the bulk of the whites have had ironed out of them. He has energy and originality, the very qualities being sought today in business and government. Yet narrow bigotry and prejudice bar his way.
In addition, as far as Schuyler was concerned, black Americans also manifested far fewer of the social, psychological, and cultural neuroses widely seen among white Americans. For many African Americans, this made their plight even more frustrating. Said Schuyler:
The Negro is a sort of black Gulliver chained by white Lilliputians, a prisoner in a jail of color prejudice, a babe in a forest of bigotry.… He has developed more than any other group, even more than the Jews, the capacity to see things as they are rather than as he would have them. He is a close student of the contradictory pretensions and practices of the ofay gentry, and it is this that makes him really intelligent in a republic of morons.
In the eyes of most African Americans, the United States was not a white civilization or a black civilization, but one American civilization that had been forged through the work of both. Schuyler declared that the black American “wants no more than an equal break with everybody else, but he feels that he has much greater contributions to make to our national life than he has so far been allowed to make.”
Black People Gave Whites Someone to Feel Better Than
In another essay, written around the same time, Schuyler wondered about what the black man might see as “Our Greatest Gift to America” (1929). It had become fashionable in African American publications, he said, to highlight how blacks were contributing lawyers, doctors, professional men and women, artistically creative benefactors, as well as suppliers of jazz music and dance to the wider American society.
But this all missed the greatest of all gifts that black Americans had given to their white brethren: having someone to feel superior to, no matter how small, ignorant, or good for nothing any white person might be and feel. You could be a worthless white boob among other white men; but the black man gave you someone to feel shining above. Think of some unskilled, uneducated, honest, or rascally Russian immigrant right off the boat from Europe:
In Russia he was a nobody … the mudsill of society.… Arriving under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, he is still Isadore Shankersoff, the prey of sharpers and cheap grafters, but now he has moved considerably higher in the social scale. While remaining mentally adolescent, he is no longer at the bottom; he is a white man! Overnight he has become a member of the superior race. Ellis Island marked his metamorphose. For the first time in his life he is better than somebody. Without the presence of the blackamoor in these wonderfully United States, he would still know himself for the thick-pated underling that he is, but how can he go on believing that when America is screaming to him on every hand that he is a white man, and as much entitled to certain rights and privileges forbidden to Negro scientists, artists, clergymen, journalists and merchants. One can understand why Isadore walks with firmer tread.
The same was no less true among white women in America. Dorothy Dunce, as Schuyler put it, may be nothing more than an unskilled worker in a spaghetti factory, but she remains nonetheless “a member of that exalted aggregation known as pure white womanhood.” She is confident of her natural superiority because her entire education has assured her “that Negroes are inferior, immoral, diseased, lazy, unprogressive, ugly, odoriferous, and should be firmly kept in their place at the bottom of the social and industrial scale. Quite naturally she swells with race pride, for no matter how low she falls, she will always be a white woman.”
What greater gift could the black person have given to his white fellow countrymen than this psychologically satisfying and supportive sense that even though personally you may be a nobody among other whites, you are always racially a somebody over blacks, said Schuyler, with clear contempt and offense in the ink coming out of his pen.
The Indignities and Humiliations of Jim Crow
It is a long time ago, now, since the Jim Crow segregation laws in the South and various forms of formal and informal discrimination in the North, as experienced by people like George Schuyler. Many of us have no knowledge or even a dim memory of the humiliations, frustrations, slights, and indignities that millions of African Americans had to endure every day.
Even in that earlier time when Schuyler was writing with his sharp pen, most white Americans had little idea of what these laws and practices meant for those on whom they impinged. Whites went about their daily affairs oblivious to what these restrictions meant in the lives of their segregated fellow Americans. Schuyler explained that reality to a predominantly white reading audience in two articles, “Keeping the Negro in His Place” (August 1929) and “Traveling Jim Crow” (August 1930), both of them, again, published in Mencken’s American Mercury.
In everyday life, Americans of African ancestry were excluded from many parts of the wider white society. For instance, blacks were either barred from the movie theaters in cities, great and small, around the country, or were restricted to seats in the back rows of the balcony, far away from the white clientele. Rarely could a black family enjoy a summer afternoon at the beach, if they lived near the seashore, because the beaches were almost invariably restricted to “whites only.”
Blacks had learned that “poets may sing of the sea being blue, but to the Aframerican pining for a dip it looks mighty white,” said Schuyler, and then he explained:
This is true of most American bathing places, whether on the seashore or inland. At almost all such places the blackamoor is persona non grata and the peckerwoods make no bones about “getting him told.” At most of the beaches in the vicinity of New York City, Negroes are barred from going in bathing, not by ordinance but because no one will rent them bathing-suits or a bathhouse locker in which to put them on if they happen to own any. At many such places it is against the law to appear off the beach proper in a bathing suit, hence the Negro who arrives in his automobile ready for a plunge is likely to land in the hoosegow. The beach police are unusually “vigilant” in enforcing the letter of the law when an Aframerican heaves into sight.
Sarcastically, Schuyler added, “Of course, few Negroes would want to go in swimming at Coney Island, even if they were permitted to hire bathing-suits and rent lockers in bathhouses, because of the swarms of white riff-raff that bask everywhere on the beach amidst cans, newspapers and pop bottles.”
Blacks could forget about going out for an evening of entertainment in many places, because here, too, the door was closed to any with a dark complexion. Schuyler explained:
When the weather is not inclement, he likes to go motoring and stop by some roadhouse to dance and dine. But what is his reception? Almost everywhere he is openly refused service or prevented from getting it by some subterfuge.…
Seldom do the police aid in putting them in their place, unless they become too vociferous in demanding their rights — which is very rare. The only time the guardians of the law themselves take a hand in maintaining white supremacy in places of recreation is when a cabaret or dance-hall in the Black Belt is reported to be black-and-tan: i.e., frequented by both blacks and whites. This must never be, of course, if the purity of the polyglot Anglo-Saxons is to be preserved.
Rather than suffer such indignities, most African Americans, Schuyler went on, would stay within their black neighborhoods where they could retain degrees of self-respect from these humiliations at the hands of whites over whose conduct they had no control. But due to the generally poor economic circumstances in such communities, the amenities, conveniences, and entertainments either did not exist or were of a far lower quality.
Racial Barriers on Roads and Trains Across America
Equally constraining and unkind were those instances in which an African American went on vacation by car or needed to travel by train. Schuyler lamented:
Indeed, the troubles of Job seem trivial in comparison with those that bedevil the poor Aframerican who ventures forth to see his country. No matter in what part of it he may reside he knows very well that the hotel and resort advertisements he reads in the newspapers and magazines are not intended for such as he.…
It is all well enough to say that the Negro traveler should go to one of “his own places,” but Aframerican hostelries are not always at hand and when available they are frequently tenth-rate, owing to the small number of well-to-do Negro travelers upon whom they can regularly depend. In spite of the general belief that colored folk are all alike, the fact remains that there are all classes of people in Negro America, from tramps to millionaires, and a hotel or rooming-house quite satisfactory to stevedores, laborers and field hands would hardly be to the taste of a school teacher, a physician or an artist.
Getting a railroad ticket was a perverse “adventure” all of its own for the ordinary black American. We need to remember that before the Second World War and the construction of the interstate highway system the primary means of any longer-distance travel in the United States was by train. An overnight journey was common for all, but rare was the black man or woman who could easily purchase a ticket in one of the Pullman cars used for bed accommodations on a train almost anywhere in America. Instead, they were confined to “black only” cars with hard seats for the trip, and often of a much lower quality or comfort than even a “third class” ticket for a white passenger. Getting a meal in the train dining car was difficult, and often only after all the white travelers had finished their lunch or dinner meals.
Even innocent, little old black ladies were not saved from such treatment. But creative ingenuity could sometimes get around the color bar, said Schuyler:
I know a colored woman who frequently goes from New York to New Orleans and always puts on an apron when she gets below the [Mason-Dixon] line. It is a badge of servility that acts as a protection, since it definitely places her in the servant class. Of course, the most rabid Negrophobe has no objection to riding in a Pullman car or diner with a Negro if that Negro is in a menial capacity. That such a seemingly absurd precaution is frequently wise was well-demonstrated three or four years ago when a Negro woman was dragged out of a Pullman car in Northern Florida by officers of the law and fined $500 for the crime of riding through that progressive Commonwealth in comfort.
Invisible Lines and Occasional Interactions
Schuyler wrote of many instances in which the “invisible line” of the Mason-Dixon line changed attitudes and conduct by whites. He recounted an instance in which a group of black and white school teachers were traveling on the same train from Arkansas to a convention up north. When the train departed the station in Arkansas, the teachers remained in their respective “whites-” and “blacks-only” train cars. However, once the train had crossed the Missouri border, “the whites trooped into the erstwhile Jim Crow car, a Negro school principal produced a quart of corn, and a good time was had by all until the end of the journey.”
But such episodes were few and far between compared to those in which whites refused to share the same dining or club car on a train with African Americans, regardless of whether the ride was in the North or the South, but especially in the old slave states. Schuyler had observed all this, having “traveled close to 20,000 miles in the Coon and Cracker country” of the southern states. But, he pointed out that on trains even in “the liberal North every effort is made to keep black diners away from white diners, though black waiters serve both.”
The stories that Schuyler relates go on and on, from the difficulties of getting a white taxi cab driver to take a black fare to their destination to the problems of a black person finding gas stations where he could fill up his own car to continue on his way in areas not predominately populated by other African Americans.
Insisting on the Same Individual Rights as Everyone Else
Schuyler argued in a 1944 review that he wrote of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma that African Americans were increasingly unwilling to accept forever this culture of indignity and exclusion:
The so-called Negro is sick and tired of being booted about by those whom he does not regard as his betters (although they may think so). Today he wants all the rights and privileges any other American enjoys, and he means to have them. All of his leaders are unanimously agreed on that, and his 200 newspapers chorus it weekly. It would be a mistake, however, for anyone to assume that this militancy of the Negro (who is actually a mixture of European, African and Amerindian) is newly found. Throughout American history runs the fear of Negro uprisings and disorders, and the actual fact of numerous pitched battles resulting from efforts of Negroes to win the dignity of manhood status.
All along the Negroes have been much more clear-visioned than the whites; and in the larger sense they have even been more patriotic because they have persistently fought for the American Creed — the principles which white America has loudly pronounced but grudgingly practiced, if at all.
As Schuyler also emphasized in another article the year before, in 1943, “Since what the Negroes want accords with the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution, they properly feel that right is on their side and they have fought and will continue to fight for it with a fervency approaching religious zeal … because even the most unlettered Negro knows that nothing less will lift him to full manhood status.” As Schuyler went on, “The Negroes demand to live and travel where they choose, seek work where it is available, enjoy the same educational and recreational facilities” in place of “white people [who] regard it as their right to have exclusive racial neighborhoods, lily-white educational and recreational facilities, and special privileges industrially,” made possible by segregation laws and racist behavioral arrogance.
Opposing Internment of Japanese Americans
Schuyler was just as angered about the treatment meted out to another racial minority, the Japanese Americans, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was angered by the fact that so many in the public and the media seemed unconcerned and in fact supportive of a clear abridgement of the most fundamental principles of freedom and the Constitution in gathering up and placing Americans of Japanese descent in concentration camps.
In one of his June 1942 columns in the Pittsburgh Courier, Schuyler warned:
All Americans have a right to be excited by the arrival of concentration camps for American citizens who have admittedly committed no crime. While Negroes and Indians have often been run off their land and penned in virtual concentration camps, this is the first instance in modern American history of enforced mass migration.
If the Government can do this to American citizens of Japanese ancestry, then it can do it to American citizens of ANY ancestry. Therein lies the danger of such arbitrary action which the “Founding Fathers” saw clearly and against which they erected the safeguard of the Bill of Rights and the Civil War Amendments. It is the evil from which the European ancestors of our present patriots fled. If this is to be the New Order here, then the war is already lost, so far as democracy is concerned, and it becomes merely a matter of arguing which slave State is the worst.
Criticizing Racism Under the Watchful Eye of the FBI
Schuyler’s views were considered so “subversive” that on April 22, 1942, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had requested one of his investigative officers to determine whether Schuyler should be “considered for custodial detention,” that is, imprisonment, for expressing his views on U.S. government racial and foreign policy. Several reports were prepared about him.
The FBI file says, “Subject is the most widely read Negro newspaper man in the country and his articles influence the thinking of many Negro leaders. Subject has been one of the most outspoken critics on Army and Navy [segregation] policies relating to Negroes. It is the opinion of this informant that subject is the most dangerous Negro in the country today and that if he is permitted to continue his attacks on the present war efforts, he may agitate a rebellion among Negro soldiers stationed in the South.” And it says that he was a “contributing factor to the low morale” among African American soldiers, in general.
Schuyler delivered a public address in February 1942 in New York, “Propaganda and Its Effect,” which an FBI informant attended. Besides Schuyler’s criticism of government racial policies relative to the war effort, the informant seemed to be also bothered by the fact that Schuyler “pooh-poohs all the ideas of race and claims that there is not only white blood in all Negroes, but also goes further and claims that all whites have some Negro blood.” Clearly, this was shocking and serious “un-American” stuff! The informant concluded that “whether he is in the pay of some foreign government or not, he is a helper of Hitler and Hirohito.”
America’s Race Problem Was a White Problem
He remained a thorn in the side of the government throughout the war years. For instance, in 1944 he published an article titled “The Caucasian Problem.” America did not have a black or Negro problem; it was a problem with the tribal and collectivist thinking, attitudes, and policies of too many among those in the white population in America, who refused to regard and treat those of African descent as contributing Americans deserving and having the same individual rights before the law as all others in the society.
The same year, 1944, he also wrote an article titled “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Negro,” in which he drew attention to the two faces of too many whites in the United States. Oh, they all knew and interacted with individual people in the black community in various menial and household jobs and activities, and social settings. And almost all of them in their Dr. Jekyll personas acted in friendly, polite, and even courteous ways with “their” Negroes. “Why, she is just the nicest and most trust worthy person; I just love my maid, Mable. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
But socially amalgamate all of those individuals of African descent into “the Negroes,” and far too many of those same whites were transformed into the cruel and callous Mr. Hyde, unwilling to view “them” as human, equal, or deserving of the same rights and respect as others that those whites considered to be “their own kind” — and willing to turn a blind eye, or even participate in violence against a black person, for an invariably imaginary offense.
Yes, there was a race problem in America, George Schuyler never desisted from insisting, but it was a white man’s problem by refusing to fully, consistently, and honestly practice those individualist and liberty-based principles they all hailed and gave allegiance to except when it required inclusion of African Americans. It would require not only giving up social and psychological attitudes, but also forgoing the segregation barriers that denied black Americans the economic liberty to freely compete in the arenas of industry, commerce, and employment. Economic liberty was inseparable, in Schuyler’s mind, from real freedom for the black man in America.
Opposing Communism Equally With Racism
In the postwar period, George Schuyler continued to criticize and insist upon the end to all discriminatory legislation and legal barriers to black participation in American society. This was matched by an increasing vehemence in his criticisms against Soviet Russia and the dangers from communist activities around the world that were growing threats to liberty.
He forcefully reminded his African American readers in the Pittsburgh Courier beginning in the 1940s that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian slave society equal to and indeed greater than Nazi Germany and fascist Italy in terms of its tyranny, the mass murders, and number of concentration camp victims throughout the workers’ paradise. In fact, in constructing their own totalitarian regimes, Mussolini and Hitler were “pupils of Lenin, Stalin, et. al.,” Schuyler explained.
And he persistently warned, over and over again, of the attempts by communist agents and “fellow travelers” to spy for Moscow and infiltrate civil rights and labor union organizations for their own purposes. Following the partial and brief opening in the 1990s of the formerly secret archives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the KGB, plus the U.S. government release of the Venona Papers (the deciphered communications between Moscow and its Soviet agent in the United States going back to the war years of the 1940s), it is no longer “red baiting” to point out the degree of successful and attempted Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government and private sector organizations for the purpose of furthering Soviet foreign policy goals. The Soviet Union definitely tried to “influence” domestic American politics!
Freedom and Misguided Political Paternalism
Any careful reading of George Schuyler’s writings from the late 1920s through the rest of his writing career brings out an interesting aspect to his straightforward and uncompromising criticisms of racism in America, particularly against African Americans. He called for the abolition and repeal of all legislative restrictions, barriers, and hindrances standing in the way of the personal, social, and economic liberty of black Americans. He almost never advocated or called for “active” government policies on behalf of any minority group, including black Americans.
He also always called upon the conscience of those in the white community in America to stand in both their words and their deeds to bring justice and legal equality for all. Racism began with people’s attitudes and actions, and the final answer to racism could only come through changes in those attitudes and actions.
This meant that almost from the start, Schuyler’s agenda for bringing justice and equality to those in the black community was different from and in general opposition to the “affirmative” interventionist policies advocated by a growing number of those in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In this context, his most “notorious” stand was against the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.
Changes in and Compliance With the Law Follows Social Attitudes
A leading premise in his opposing federal legislation of this type was his belief that, ultimately, you cannot politically force social change with that very type of legislative act without bringing about backlash resistance that can work contrary to the purposes behind that legislation. For instance, after decades of trying to get people to give up alcoholic drink, the temperance movement succeeded in having passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, the Prohibition Amendment. It was finally repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment. Why? Because it had tried to change people’s desires and actions when far too many in society did not agree with the government telling them what they could drink. It had merely resulted in law breaking, criminal activity, and political corruption.
He argued that the same had been the case with many attempts to pass anti-lynching laws. But they did not get passed and would not have succeeded very much if they had in earlier times. The reason was that passing a piece of legislation could not change people’s perverse racist attitudes and actions that some black man had to “pay” for almost always some imaginary offense against the virtue of some white woman. Explained Schuyler in his article “The Case Against the Civil Rights Bill” (1964):
From 1922 onward various Congressmen introduced anti-lynching bills in almost every session. Not one passed and there is none now, but lynching has become a rarity; whereas when I was a boy there were about two lynchings every week on average, and terrorism was much more common. But times have changed along with public opinion, thanks to the aroused public conscience and the educational activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and numerous white agencies and individuals. Of course, this change was not and could not be wrought overnight. It had to be educative and gradual.
Change Comes From Within, Not by Compulsion
The same was true, in his view, with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. You can pass laws, but you cannot change people’s attitudes, beliefs, or personal responses in opposition to laws that they consider wrong or undesirable. Schuyler was arguing that in the long run, law reflects people’s social values and notions of justice and what’s right. And until that changes one person and one community at a time, little that is positive may result from coercively imposing it on people. It may just harden resistance when you force something on someone who disagrees with what you want him to do. Schuyler argued:
The Civil Rights Laws are another typically American attempt to use the force of law to compel the public to drastically change its attitude toward and treatment of a racial group, the so-called Negro, which the overwhelming majority population does not care to associate itself with.… This has been the majority attitude since the earliest colonial days. It is morally wrong, nonsensical, unfair, un-Christian and cruelly unjust, but it remains the majority attitude.
This attitude has been progressively modified, however, especially with regard to individuals of color with the passage of time and continued intercourse and juxtaposition of the two groups. Anybody who has observed race relations during the past quarter century knows this to be true.…
Changes have been very slow since 1865, but there has been marked change; and civil rights laws, state or federal, have had little to do with it. They have been enforced and accepted only when the dominant majority acquiesced, and have generally lain dormant in the law books. In short, custom has dictated the pace of compliance.
Social pressure, freedom of association, and free market exchange were what George Schuyler considered the better and more sustainable avenues to bring a fuller and more real equality among the races in America. Some criticized him as an “apologist” for American racist policies during the Cold War, by supposedly downplaying the American experience relative to other places in the world.
America and the Conscience of Liberty
But that was exactly Schuyler’s point in a speech delivered in Europe in 1950, “The Negro Question Without Propaganda” and, again, his argument against the 1964 Civil Rights Acts. Only in America, compared to so many other places around the world, and most assuredly anywhere in the communist countries behind the Iron Curtain, had freedom worked both as an idea and an ever-widening policy.
In spite of segregation laws and white racist attitudes, only in America had blacks been able to not only survive, but to find niches of opportunity and prosperity in their own communities and with degrees of overlap with the wider white America, though still behind compared to their white fellow countrymen, of course. But blacks in America had not been rounded up into concentration or labor camps like in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. They were not mass murdered or exiled to remote, unlivable parts of the country as tens of millions had experienced in the Soviet paradise.
The counterweight to that ever happening in America in the aftermath of the end of slavery in the American Civil War was that underlying set of principles upon which the country had been founded — that government serves man, and man does not live to serve and obey government. The reason is that each and every human being has inherent individual rights to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. That idea and ideal, in spite of the bigotry, discrimination, cruelty, and sometimes acts of brutality, remained like an acid eating away drip by drip at the tribal notions of “race” and political compulsion in restricting one group for the benefit of another.
More than 50 years after the passing of those Civil Rights Acts, many, no doubt, would say, “Surely they worked.” Without claiming to be a medium knowing how to speak with people on “the other side,” I think that if George Schuyler were still alive today, he would say, yes and no. Circumstances for those in the black community in America are light years from the attitudes and daily conditions experienced by African Americans 50, 60, or 70 years ago. For those of us old enough to have some memory of the circumstances of the racial tensions and conflicts of half a century ago in the United States, today is like living on a different and far better planet.
I believe that Schuyler, based on what he said in all his writings over the decades of his career, would say that any real and sustainable change in the attitudes of whites in America and therefore in the relationships between the races has been due to the social changes in thinking and conduct, person by person, association by association, separate from and more importantly than any forced integration and compelled interactions. And, in my view, George Schuyler would consider the rise of political correctness and identity politics to be the very collectivist and tribal ideology that he had spent his life opposing, only now it is dressed up in a different garb.
The Cost of Speaking One’s Mind
George Schuyler paid a high personal and professional price for taking the positions that he did in the late 1950s and the 1960s. He was unceremoniously let go from his long-established editorial position at the Pittsburgh Courier. Most of the mainstream publications turned his articles down. He increasingly was confined to the far more conservative publication outlets, unlike in the past. And he was shunned by the civil rights movement, being either condemned or ignored. There were no public memorials or praising dedications recalling his long and determined fight against racism in America following his death on August 31, 1977.
But he never wavered from his own conscience as a conservative, as he understood it. Schuyler remained uncompromisingly dedicated to the principles of individual freedom and decentralized and limited constitutional government in the latter part of his life, and with the same fervor with which he opposed racist and other unjust government policies before and during the Second World War.
For classical liberals dedicated to individualism in all its personal, social, and economic dimensions, George Schuyler stands out as an inspiring voice for liberty in the face of many forms of tribalism and collectivism in the 20th century.
Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Dr. Ebeling is the author of Austrian Economics and Public Policy: Restoring Freedom and Prosperity (2016); Monetary Central Planning and the State (2015) as well as the author of Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (2010) and Austrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom (2003). And the editor of the three-volume, Selected Writing of Ludwig von Mises, published by Liberty Fund.
He is also the co-editor of When We Are Free (Northwood University Press, 2014), an anthology of essays devoted to the moral, political and economic principles of the free society, and co-author of the seven-volume, In Defense of Capitalism (Northwood University Press, 2010-2016).