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Race in Muckrakers & Reformers

Pseudo-Science and the Progressive Politics of Race

After the Civil War, the Darwinian theory of evolution gained currency as the cutting-edge scientific discovery of the age. Popular interest in evolution extended into the topic of hereditary traits and the concept of evolution within the human species. Many racial theorists mobilized pseudo-scientific methods to "prove" that evolution not only took place across the centuries, but that the Anglo-Saxon race was the most evolved of all human races; African-Americans, they concluded, were the least evolved. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe also suffered from this distortion of Darwinism, as many white Protestants of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic descent considered them less evolved and therefore susceptible to laziness, drunkenness, violence, and poverty. As an overwhelmingly white, middle- and upper-class movement, Progressivism emerged in this climate of pseudo-science and racial prejudice. Although not all Progressives discriminated against blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, very few favored true racial equality or recognized much value in the immigrants' cultural heritage. The histories of Progressivism, Social Darwinism, and Jim Crow were inextricably entangled. Although most Progressives never could have realized how profoundly prevailing attitudes about race would change over the course of the twentieth century, their legacy as social reformers would ultimately be tarnished by the multiple inequalities embedded in their movement.

The Melting Pot

Some whites were willing to accept the presence of immigrants in American society if the newcomers would just conform to traditional notions of "American" culture. Usually this meant shedding most or all vestiges of their preexisting cultural and national identity. To this end, the nation's leading industrialist, automaker Henry Ford, opened a special school to train his foreign-born workers in Americanism. From its opening in 1913, the Ford English School for immigrant automobile workers put its "graduates" through a highly symbolic ceremony in which workers clad in outlandish versions of their home countries' traditional garb descended into a giant papiér-mâché melting pot, only to climb out the other side wearing modern business suits and waving tiny American flags while singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Such ceremonies of assimilation were designed to encourage worker efficiency by transcending potential language barriers. But they also enforced a specific definition of American identity, one anchored to a traditional white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant perspective. The very notion of cultural pluralism—that America as a nation might benefit from its variety of distinctive but intermixing ethnicities—was not even a recognized concept until writer Randolph Bourne introduced it in a 1916 essay. Even after Bourne broached the idea, it never won popular consensus, and definitions of "Americanism" remain a matter of contentious debate to this day. In Henry Ford's day, employees who proved unable or unwilling to completely conform to a new "American" identity, even in their home lives, could be fired from their jobs. Ford actually maintained a "sociological department" of private investigators who worked to determine whether employees were adhering to his standards; workers at the Ford Motor Company had to open their homes to close inspections that evaluated the employees' décor, clothing, and cooking. Clearly, outreach to immigrants could sometimes morph into a coercive form of Americanization.

"A Mess, A Quagmire"

Progressive-era notions of Social Darwinism and race did not only promote cultural imperialism; they provided a justification for real imperialism, helping to pave the way to the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. In 1898, the United States began its military involvement in the Philippines by aiding independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo in his already two-year-old struggle for freedom from Spanish colonial rule. But after the Spanish were defeated, President McKinley argued that Americans must retain control over the island nation because its non-white people were "unfit for government" and Americans must "educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."41 But the Philippines had been an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation since the fifteenth century, and many American Catholics (and other war critics) were put off by McKinley's concept of "Christianizing" an already Christian people. Of course, the Philippines also occupied a vital strategic location in the Pacific Ocean that was very attractive to a burgeoning military power like the United States, and the islands possessed valuable raw materials and a surplus market for America's expanding industrial economy. The primary case for American occupation of the Philippines was strategic. But given America's anti-imperialist historical tradition, the McKinley administration could not invoke simple military and economic interests to justify the occupation and conquest of the Philippines; instead, McKinley framed his war in the islands as a thoroughly Progressive endeavor, aimed at uplifting the long-suffering Filipino people. (Unfortunately the Filipinos didn't see things that way.)

McKinley's Social Darwinist rationale for intervening in the Philippines shared many common assumptions with the European imperalist projects of the late nineteenth century. In the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling spoke of a "white man's burden" to civilize non-European peoples in far-off lands. The French invoked a mission civilisatrice, a civilizing mission, to justify their conquest of Africa. McKinley tapped a similar cultural vein in America. For many Progressives, the military campaign in the Philippines was a well-intentioned effort to spread American principles of stable government, economic development and opportunity, and technological advancement to a disadvantaged people. Tragically, the McKinley administration and its supporters were ignoring the popular will of the Filipino people, who were actually struggling for another cherished American principle: the right to self-determination.

Historians do not usually consider McKinley himself to have been a particularly Progressive leader, but rather a traditional nineteenth-century conservative. Yet his administration succeeded in its designs on the Philippines by drawing on both conservative and at least some Progressive support. And the conflict lasted longer than McKinley did; the president was assassinated by a crazed anarchist in 1901, but the Philippine-American War stretched on another two years into the administration of McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, who became the president most closely associated with the Progressive movement. In the end, American troops fought a brutal, four-year-long war of counterinsurgency against determined Filipino resistance, even resorting to acts of torture like waterboarding against Filipino prisoners of war.42 Hundreds of thousands of people died in the conflict. Some figures who came to be identified as Progressives (like Jane Addams) opposed the war, but others (like Theodore Roosevelt) avidly supported it. Roosevelt acknowledged that "when they [the Filipinos] are fit to walk alone they should walk alone, but I would not pledge myself to a definite date for giving them independence." He was instead sure that the United States was starting the Philippines "on a road" which would "inevitably" lead to their independence. Though Roosevelt maintained that "our people do not desire to hold foreign dependencies and do believe in self-government for them," he and many other Progressives were convinced that America was doing the best thing for the island nation, since they believed the Filipinos were "people living in barbarism."43

The December 1898 annexation of the Philippines was the most controversial provision in the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War, but the argument for "civilizing" the Filipinos lay at the heart of the McKinley administration's successful justification for it. The ensuing Philippine-American War lasted until 1903, and cost the lives of 4,200 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. The beloved American writer Mark Twain, one of the country's most prominent anti-imperialists at the time, described the protracted conflict as "a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficult of extrication immensely greater."44 Brutal lesons of counterinsurgent warfare learned in the Philippines would later be applied to American military interventions in places like Vietnam and Iraq. The Philippines would not gain independence until 1946.

The Color Line

Back at home, Progressivism largely failed to reach across the color line. The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth should be remembered not only as the Progressive Era but also as the worst period of race relations in American history. The Jim Crow system of legal segregation, which relegated blacks to a status of social, political, and economic subservience, was enforced through the violence of lynching; more than 3,000 African-Americans were lynched between the 1880s and 1940s, and millions more lived in constant terror of the noose. Yet even in this moment of crisis for the African-American community, most Progressive reformers—including many who devoted their lives to the upliftment of poor European immigrants—saw little point in working to improve the lot of American blacks. Anti-black prejudices with deep roots in American history and culture permeated the Progressive movement; on the question of race, most Progressives weren't progressive at all.

Black hopes for support from Progressive heroes often ended in disillusionment. W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most prominent African-American leader of his age, supported the candidacy of Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912, calling Wilson a "cultivated scholar" who would apply the noble goals of reform to all races with "foresighted fairness" and would not seek "further means of 'jim crow' insult."45 But Du Bois was terribly mistaken. Wilson, who lived in New Jersey but was the proud son of an old southern family, proved to be no great friend of the black man.

In 1914, a delegation of black civil rights leaders scheduled a meeting with the president to protest his policy of segregation in federal employment. To their amazement, Wilson defended segregation as "the best thought" in management of racial tension, and even suggested that the Jim Crow system was "not humiliating but a benefit and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen."46 When black leader William M. Trotter disputed the president's viewpoint, Wilson apparently thought that Trotter was calling him a liar. He furiously demanded that "If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me, it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me." Trotter defended himself and asked how he had offended the president; Wilson said, "Your tone, with its background of passion." Trotter retorted, "But I have no passion in me, Mr. President, you are entirely mistaken; you misinterpret earnestness for passion."47 The two men continued to interrupt each other for another 45 minutes, until Wilson bluntly instructed Trotter that he was the only one who could interrupt.

Needless to say, the delegation left the White House thoroughly disappointed in their hopes for federal backing in their quest for opportunity and equality. In fact, their failed meeting with Wilson might have made things worse, since the national press inflamed race prejudice by portraying the incident as a case of impudent blacks acting above their station. As one Texas newspaper reported, "The Trotter darkey who tried to 'sass' the President is not a Booker T. Washington type of colored man. He is merely a nigger."48

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