When Equality Requires Big Government

Frum comes away with a new view of the postwar-South after reading The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration:

Many of us on the right would like to tell a story of the post-Civil War South that indicts segregation as a product of government regulation only. Wilkerson’s quashes that illusion.

The oppressive actions of the Southern state presupposed the oppressive organization of Southern society and the Southern economy. It was no act of government that imposed the rule that a black customer in a shop must wait until all the white customers had been served. Store owners did not worry that mistreating black customers would cost them business, because the post-1865 settlement had failed to compensate ex-slaves in any way for their unpaid labor, meaning that even in freedom they remained nearly as landless and poor as ever. The stark divide between economic wealth and political power that matters so much to libertarian theory does not describe reality in the South of 1915.

In the North, the migrants encountered discrimination. No matter how much wealth they accumulated – and some accumulated a great deal – they could not gain the highest degree of status. But in the South, the utter lack of status had prevented black Southerners from accumulating wealth in the first place. To transform the South into something more like a market economy, open to all participants, would require the forceful application of federal government power in the years after World War II.