Authors Rachel S. Ferguson and Marcus M. Witcher discuss how education, property ownership, family, and religion allowed a segment of the black community to rise above systemic racism and achieve true progress during times of extreme injustice and oppression.
Throughout the book, Ferguson and Witcher take the unique approach of applying lessons from classical liberalism as they walk through America’s history in painstaking detail, deliberately exposing the coordinated societal effort to impede black progress while also revealing the power of the free market to uplift the black community. The authors offer this explanation:
Government—at all levels—failed to protect Blacks’ rights to life, liberty, property, freedom of contract, right to trial by jury, and more. The market didn’t fail Black people. Indeed, Blacks prospered as entrepreneurs, professionals, and laborers within the free enterprise system. It was America’s political institutions that failed them.
Classical liberalism—an ideology often forgotten in today’s polarizing environment—“captures America’s dedication to four distinct institutions [through the free market]: property rights, freedom of contract, equal protection under the law, and a cultural affirmation of trade and entrepreneurship.” Specific historical examples demonstrate how these market-based rights greatly increased black social and human capital. During the Reconstruction era, the shift from rural to urban dwelling in the South doubled the proportion of blacks living in cities, allowing the black economy to outpace the white economy, which spurred investment in “churches, lodges, travel, amusement, and savings.” The establishment of the Hampton Institute in 1867 shaped the black literacy movement, resulting in a literate majority by 1910. And overwhelming participation in the black church allowed blacks to “create and sustain thick social institutions” in all aspects of civil society.
Herein lies a core component of the book: While no one should forget the atrocities committed against the black community throughout our history, true upward mobility comes from a focus on black material progress. This was Booker T. Washington’s vision of black empowerment, ideas of “uplift” and “self-help” that “refer to the pooling of resources … for the shared goal of Black economic empowerment.”
Washington was heavily criticized for these views (and is often overlooked in K–12 education when teaching about black activists), but as Ferguson and Witcher tell in great detail, he understood that an eventual campaign for civil rights would only be successful if a culture of “networking, mentorship, and institution building” was already central to the black way of life.
In the early 1900s, struck by the inferior educational opportunities for black children through the Jim Crow South, Washington envisioned building a network of high-quality schools. He partnered with Sears Roebuck CEO Julius Rosenwald, and together they created nearly 5,000 schools, educating more than 700,000 black children in 14 southern states.
With the aid of industrial education, mutual aid societies, and self-help organizations, Washington led the battle for black advancement. And he succeeded. From emancipation in 1865 to the death of Washington in 1915, blacks had tripled their per capita income. By 1955, blacks had built a strong foundation over the preceding seven decades to fight, and ultimately win, the battle for civil rights.
Unfortunately, this productive, resilient way of thinking has escaped the minds of many of today’s progressive elite who champion black dependency on government redistribution as both payback for past transgressions and guarantor of black prosperity. During America’s racial reckoning in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones penned an opinion piece in the New York Times Magazine called “What Is Owed.” She proclaimed, “None of the actions we are told black people must take if they want to ‘lift themselves’ out of poverty and gain financial stability—not marrying, not getting educated, not saving more, not owning a home—can mitigate 400 years of racialized plundering.” For Hannah-Jones, the only solution to closing racial disparities is massive government intervention, typically estimated to be between $10 trillion and $14 trillion in reparations to black Americans.