Jim Crow for Anyone

Monday, February 13, 2012

Some time back, I encountered an article about a particularly odious figure, Walter Ashby Plecker, whose feverish work to expand the reach of Jim Crow laws must not be forgotten. This is particularly true today, when so much progress has been made towards eradicating racial bigotry that it can be easy to forget that there is still work to be done. On that last score, I once considered the idea that perhaps reminding certain kinds of people about Plecker's evil work could be helpful.

From 1912 to 1946, Plecker served as the first registrar of Virginia's newly-created Bureau of Vital Statistics. An avowed white supremacist  and advocate of  eugenics, Plecker believed that the state's Native Americans had been "mongrelized" with its African American population.  The General Assembly's 1924 "Racial Integrity Act" recognized only two races, "white" and "colored."

Because Plecker believed that "colored" people were attempting to pass  as "Indian" he ordered state agencies to reclassify most citizens' [sic] claiming Indian identity as "colored." Specifically, he ordered them to reclassify certain families whom he identified by surname, as trying to pass and evade segregation.
To anyone who has one ounce of nostalgia for those days -- and I have bumped into/discovered a few over the years -- I imagined I would ask something like: "Could you prove to the satisfaction of a government official that the 'one drop ruledoesn't apply to you?" "What if the person demanding proof got to decide what counted as proof?" "What if your basis of proof were under the care of the person demanding proof?" "What if that person had something against you?"

While the above questions do not explicitly raise the real issue -- "By what right does someone coerce someone else based on a mere accident of birth?" -- I wondered whether perhaps, except for the most obdurate, they would illustrate on some level the fact that unleashing arbitrary government power over some individuals leaves all individuals vulnerable by precedent. Perhaps, after seeing that Jim Crow could, in principle, easily be unleashed against themselves, they might, lacking empathy, at least realize that their own hides would be at stake.

However, the more I thought about such a strategy, the less sanguine I became about it. As Ayn Rand once put it so well:
Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned. It is a quest for automatic knowledge -- for an automatic evaluation of men's characters that bypasses the responsibility of exercising rational or moral judgment -- and, above all, a quest for an automatic self-esteem (or pseudo-self-esteem).
Even the scheme I concocted above is likely asking for too much effort and imagination on the part of someone so inimical to difficult thought. Why do I say this? Plecker was white. The fools who put him in charge were white. The part of the public that could do anything about this was white. Plecker was, to these people, "one of us", and exempt from the kinds of questions I would ask. Indeed, I am sure that such questions would have been considered rude, and would have perhaps been dangerous to raise in some contexts.

Walter Plecker is better remembered, by the good people who oppose tyranny, as the kind of monster that can arise when evil goes unchallenged among the public for too long: A monster in human form who will openly, and with the approval of others, destroy freedom.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

We're reading "Explaining Postmodernism" by Dr. Stephen R.C. Hicks. In it, he makes the point that all collectivism eventually degenerates to the perceptual level. For instance, the idea of an international working class fighting against an international bourgeois is a fairly high level, if false concept. But the Left, over time, has lost their capacity to perpetuate that dogma so the postmodern Left now champions bits and pieces of groups that are easier to distinguish perceptually. Besides, when you've spent half a century denigrating reason, what use does one have for over-arching concepts anyway?

Jim Crow racism is different because it never bothered to rise above the perceptual level. I find it interesting, though, that some in the self-described racialist community try to give it a new lease on life by "scientizing" the question of race.

Whatever the approach, however, the basis that collectivists of all stripes have to endorse is that the group is the metaphysical unit of reckoning, not the individual. I expect this from the Left, given their philosophical roots. What is truly amusing is watching the self-described Right flirt with this while maintaining that they're doing it to preserve liberty in America.

Gus Van Horn said...

I think that what explains your last phenomenon is precisely the fact that some people with a fuzzy, good feelings about America are too perceptual-level to realize that collectivism is dangerous to it. Indeed, they see America (or some part of its public) AS a collective.

Jim May said...

The "fuzzy feeling" that Americans have in regard to collectivism is due to the fact that they perceive "collectivism versus individualism" as boiling down to "people working together" versus "people alone". Examine the usual misrepresentations of Objectivist/libertarian positions, and you'll find that all their arguments operate on *that* as the basic alternative (e.g. Elizabeth Warren's recent comments). "No man is an island" etc. and I'm sure you've already run across the term "atomistic" somewhere.

So long as that is the alternative, it should be no wonder that collectivism doesn't trigger the reaction it should.

We are operating on a very different alternative. For us, the issue isn't about whether people work together or alone -- it's about upon whose terms people work. If the individuals set the terms for themselves, they can work alone, or they can organize into groups according to terms they all accept. That's individualism/capitalism, based on the individualist moral premise that the individual is morally sovereign, and metaphysically primary. That is, individuals have metaphysical primacy -- they exist and possess identity on their own. The group, on the other hand, only possesses derivative "existence" so long as individuals choose to form it, and it derives its identity from that choice. To put that last point another way, the identity of a group is a function of its community -- of the common interests and values that are the reason the individuals formed that group in the first place.

But if the group sets terms and the individual is not free to reject them, you have collectivism. Here, the *group* is morally sovereign, and the underlying metaphysical premise is that the group has metaphysical primacy -- i.e. that the group exists, and the individual is the derivative (or "product") of that group.

So, when asking whether any particular social phenomenon is individualist or collectivist, do not look for teams versus lone wolves; find out if the individuals involved volunteered, or were drafted. That will tell you all you need to know.

Gus Van Horn said...

Good points, and they remind me of the fuzzy feeling that Americans have regarding altruism, caused by the common confusion of its demands for self-sacrifice with genuine good will.