Jim Crow and the Progressives



Historians often speak glowingly about the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Typically they write off the racist statements made by many of its leaders—Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and others—as minor “blind spots” unrelated to Progressivism. But perhaps the apologist historians also have trouble seeing clearly.

Writing in the summer issue of The Independent Review, Frostburg State University economists William L. Anderson and David Kiriazis argue that the Progressive “reforms” often enabled statutes aimed at restricting economic opportunities for African Americans. Progressivism, in other words, helped give birth to Jim Crow.

“These two sets of laws complemented each other as the regulatory regimes created economic rents that whites could exploit, and Jim Crow laws helped ensure that whites would not have as much competition for those rents,” Anderson and Kiriazis write.

One especially pernicious example, the economists explain, involved medical licensing. In 1910, seven medical schools were geared toward training African Americans. But after Progressive reformers pushed for standards favored by the (whites-only) American Medical Association only two remained. The school closures led to fewer black physicians available to serve their communities. And by restricting competition for medical services, the closures also boosted the incomes of white doctors.

Similar patterns and outcomes afflicted other professions. “From attempts to block out migration of labor to laws favoring labor unions, and from professional licensing to the Davis-Bacon Act and minimum-wage laws, Progressives enacted rules and legislation that paralleled Jim Crow laws in their effects,” Anderson and Kiriazis conclude.

See “Rents and Race: Legacies of Progressive Policies,” by William L. Anderson and David Kiriazis (The Independent Review, Summer 2013)

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