Race and racism are in the news and on our minds. In response, many thoughtful commentaries have referred to W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, both of whom, in their day, wrote about the “Negro problem.” In 1884, The Atlantic published “The Negro Problem,” by N.S. Shaler. One conclusion from reading Shaler is that the “problem” was what to do with people who were brought here involuntarily, enslaved and then set free. Americans wondered if they were ready for freedom. For what work were they best suited? In what ways were they prepared to participate in community affairs?
In an earlier decade, commentators talked about a “Chinese problem.” Chinese left poverty in China to seek riches in the California Gold Rush. When it ended, they needed work and were hired as cheap labor for the Intercontinental Railroad. But local white men complained that the Chinese were taking jobs and starting businesses that competed with them. They became a “problem.”
In the early 20th century, other Americans spoke of a “Jewish problem,” as they had earlier of a “Woman problem.”
Reading about these “problems,” I recalled talking with a guide in South Africa. Corruption in government was a major topic in the news, as were the rolling blackouts caused by an inadequate power grid. Homes and businesses went without power for hours a day. It was not only bad for frozen food, but also a threat to health and safety as well as a hindrance to starting new businesses and recruiting businesses to the country.
When I asked about the problems, the guide blamed the African National Congress and the elected Black leaders. “They were not ready to govern the country,” she said. So I asked the obvious questions: Why not? Where did they live? What opportunities had been denied to them? Who had controlled the schools and universities that would have prepared them for citizenship and governing? What were the consequences of decades of Apartheid and forced poverty? There was an awkward silence. I think I had made my point.
Perhaps the “problems” lay not with the “Negro,” the Chinese, the Jew or the woman. Perhaps the problem was with those in authority who made use of people when it was beneficial but had no plan for them when conditions changed. Black people were imported to be enslaved and build the economy. Chinese were hired at low wages to build a railroad, and then excluded because, it was claimed, they took jobs from white men. Jews were subject to virulent anti-Semitism and accusations of plans to control the world. Women, who were thought to be unsuited for work outside the home, weren’t a problem when they staffed munitions and aircraft factories while men were at war, but after the war, what to do with them?
What are we to make of this summary? If the “problem” doesn’t lie with those identified, then perhaps we have a different problem. The common element in each of those claims is that they were made by white men.
As long as we have a system of patriarchy, i.e., a system of power in which men are paramount, we will have a “woman problem.” And if we have a legacy of structural racism targeting nonwhite people, as seen in the actions against Native Americans as well as Africans, then we will have a “problem” with people of color. And as long as people blame scapegoats for economic difficulties that may actually be the result of government policies, society will suffer anti-Semitism and other prejudices.
We should argue against these attitudes and behaviors on moral and ethical grounds, since the legal grounds don’t seem to be sufficient. We can also argue against them on economic grounds. For example, these “problem” groups account for more than half of the U.S. population. Why would any rational thinker intentionally exclude more than 50 percent of those who are potential workers, consumers and societal assets? I would say that any policy-makers who argue for their exclusion because they are “problems” are themselves the problem, and our democracy can’t afford to abide them.
The moral, ethical and economic reasons I cite are the basis for initiatives promoting respect for diversity, equity and inclusion as advocated by citizen groups and adopted by corporations and nonprofits alike. These initiatives are not anti-American; they support the American ideals of equality and equitable participation in governing. They are not anti-capitalist; they favor the idea of capitalism devoid of cronyism and insider information.
We need to know our history, the lowest moments as well as the highest, in order to continue pursuing the American experiment we have pledged to achieve through successive improvements. Wouldn’t it be better if people of all backgrounds were respectful of one another and seen as individuals with ideas, imagination and capabilities that together can create a world that is safe and secure for all?
Robert A. Scott is president emeritus and University President emeritus of Adelphi University and the author of How University Boards Work (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018; Eric Hoffer Book Prize Awardee, 2019).