Separate & Unequal: Black Americans and the U.S. Federal Government, Desmond King, Oxford University Press, 1995. $35.00 (hardcover)
Race. The very mention of the word sends various segments of American society scrambling for various areas of retreat or confrontation. There are those who wish the subject would simply go out of style or die. Others see the topic as a perennial subject that is as endemic to America as the U.S. Constitution. Consequently, even the wish for the reality of race to go away is a testament to the fact of its prevalence in American society. Race, we must conclude, is inextricably bound up in America. It is an essential thread in this country’s demographic quilt. This reality is forever documented by the “three-fifths clause” in Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution.
“Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the U.S. Federal Government” takes an unflinching look at a seldom-addressed aspect of the reality of race in America. It has to do with the treatment of Black Americans within the federal government and the government’s role in accommodating African-American oppression. Most studies tend to address this relationship in the context of Black Americans petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. “Separate and Unequal” takes us on a long and winding journey behind the scenes of the system — to see how Black Americans were treated as they petitioned for help.
James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” In essence, King’s book answers Madison with an overwhelming “yes” — particularly in the area of race relations. In extending the metaphorical idea of government as reflection, King has presented a very complicated thesis that paradoxically presents the best arguments both for and against affirmative action; for and against welfare; and also for both integration and nationalist separation.
Desmond King, who is Official Fellow and Tutor in Politics at St. John’s College, Oxford, presents his thesis in two essential arguments. Moreover, his thesis also manifests itself in a third idea. Two points are overtly stated. The third is derived from a logical, if not metaphorical, conclusion. First, King states, “segregation was in origin Southern.” Second, Southern Democrats formed a dominant component of politics and the political coalition upon which the system of discrimination and segregation was based. Consequently, Washington politicians were reluctant to upset the balance. Third, the federal government served as a major conduit for the national and international dissemination of white Southern racial values.
How does King’s book serve as a tool that can be used as an argument for and against integration, welfare and affirmative action? Between 1896 and 1954, the federal government served as a major enforcer of the “separate but equal” racial dispensation. King presents an irrefutable argument that this was evident in federal employment, the military and housing. Consequently, if the government was a major architect of discrimination, how can it be trusted to truly act in the interest of African Americans in the demolition of discriminatory practices? Thus, Blacks should practice a more nationalistic political agenda less reliant on a suspect system.
Conservatives argue that welfare policies have failed and contribute to the lack of Black advancement in society. King argues that initial federal intervention in public housing, for example, was never intended to contribute to Black advancement. To the contrary, according to King, the federal government even incorporated a form of restricted covenants in order to ensure that the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson racial dispensation was followed through in every sector of American life. In essence, the federal government willfully participated in segregation and the laying of the foundation for the inevitable evolution of urban slums. Consequently, the policy did not fail, if one judges it by its original intent. Moreover, King skillfully documents how “quotas” were used to intentionally limit and restrict Black entry into government jobs and military service.
“Separate and Unequal” is a well researched and documented book. Its 32 pages of statistical tables, 68 pages of exhaustive notes and 14-page bibliography depicts a federal government engaged in a reciprocal relationship, primarily with Southern racism and racists, that contributed to the nurturing of an entrenched philosophical legacy of the enslavement of people of African descent in the United States. For example, in addressing the creation of the federal prison system, King uses the term “penal slavery.” This concept is not off the mark when one considers the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The core of King’s book spans a time period from Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) to Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). Subsequently, the aftermath of Brown is assessed up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which King states “was the most important legislation in the field since Reconstruction.”
Quite aware of contemporary racial politics in the United States, particularly in the areas of affirmative action and welfare, King concludes that since the federal government was used “by a constellation of political and electoral forces … to protect and accommodate segregated race relations, it is far from self-evident that a different configuration or coalition of political interests could not deploy federal authority to address the enduring inequalities and disadvantages which remain for Black Americans.”
“Separate and Unequal” should appeal to a broad spectrum of people in various professional disciplines including political science, criminal justice, social work, labor studies, Black studies and public policy. Moreover, it would be a useful information tool for officeholders and their staffs who have not grown weary of the battle to preserve and enhance African-American well-being within the United States of America. In sum, King’s “Separate and Unequal” is a book that should be read with a sense of urgency, lest the abyss of 1896 re-emerges to consume us in 1996.
Dr. Anthony Neal is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, State University of New York College at Buffalo.
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