Scott Nearing and Black America

by John Saltmarsh – July 2020

As our country once again confronts the racism so deeply embedded in American culture, perhaps this is a good time to revisit Scott Nearing’s writings on Black Americans and racism in the United States. What, if anything, do his writings lend to our understanding of Scott Nearing and of racial discrimination today? Scott wrote the book Black America based on research and his experiences as part of his work campaigning for the Communist Party in the election of 1928. He traveled west across the northern part of the country, then along the Pacific coast to southern California, and then east though the southwest and the Deep South.

One thing that we know about Nearing, which is reinforced by this book, is that he was someone who, when faced with the facts and with awareness of a social situation, could change his views in productive ways. I am reminded of listening to his son, Bob, offer the example of his father’s view on guns. Scott was raised in a endemic gun culture, so much so that he did what his father and grandfather had done, and passed along a rifle to his sons. But he changed his views as he evolved into a pacifist and practiced non-violence. He determined that there was no place for guns. Regarding race consciousness, Nearing’s beliefs also changed over time. Black America was not the first time Nearing had focused his attention on race. He had addressed what he called “the race question” in his 1908 textbook, Economics. At that time he applauded the approach taken by Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute in advancing purposeful education for Black Americans as the means to advancing economically and socially. Later, when Nearing went to the Deep South for the first time in 1913, that experience led him to abandon his support of Washington’s approach and adopt, instead, the position of W.E.B. Du Bois, who critiqued Washington’s position as a policy of submission and accommodation that would not lead to the advancement of Black people in America.

Nearing saw the oppression of Black people as the result of economics and class as much as it was related to race. This aligned with the position of the Socialist Party and Nearing’s politics during and after WWI. By 1917, he was contributing to the Messenger, which called itself “the only radical Negro magazine in America.” In 1919, Nearing wrote the editors to praise them, claiming “the work you are doing is vital…We are all native born Americans. If there is progress to be made, particularly in the great South-land, by the Socialist movement, it must be made by and through colored people.” The editors would return the admiration, and praise his book, The American Empire (1921), which, they said, “gives more truth about the Negro, the treatment of Haiti and American Negro slavery, than you would find during years in most Negro publications.”

Black America was published in 1929 by Vanguard Press (and was reissued forty years later, during the Civil Rights movement in 1969, by Schocken Press). It is very much a study of the economic situation of Black Americans in the context of slavery, reconstruction, and the Jim Crow South. It is also notable for the photographs included. Nearing wrote in his autobiography that he took hundreds of pictures as part of his study for Black America, and 159 such photos appear in the book. The ones published are mostly his own, while some, particularly of lynchings, were reproduced from photos that had appeared in the Crisis and other publications. These documentary images offer evidence to supplement the economic, social, and historical analysis presented.

Nearing methodically examines labor, land ownership, wages and income, living conditions, and the migration of Black people to cities and industrial labor. There are chapters on “economic discrimination,” “economic penalties of Blackness,” “the color line,” “race superiority,” and “consciousness of Blackness.” Scott Nearing understood the condition of Black people as the result of deeply ingrained racism on the part of white people. It is perhaps worth noting that, as a white man from an upper-class background, someone with gender, racial, and economic privilege, Scott Nearing had developed a consciousness of anti-Black racism and white supremacy.“Little need be said about the social position of the Southern Negro,” he wrote, “He is a field hand. He is a servant. Even when he has become a skilled mechanic, businessman or professional man, he is treated as though he is still doing menial work. The Negro, in the South, is a member of a subject, exploited race, universally denied equality with whites. Negro children grow up with the fact of their inferiority constantly thrown in their faces.” What he witnessed was that Black people were “surrounded by an atmosphere of racial antagonism, hatred, and threatened conflict,” and met “economic, political and social discrimination…at every turn.” Black people were “the object of ridicule, attack, assault, and murder,” living “in a position of constant racial inferiority…whites are the exploiters; the Blacks are the exploited. The line between the two is the color line.”

The history of the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma has recently been in the news, as a reminder of the wider history of state sanctioned violence towards Black people, and unequal treatment of people of color by law enforcement and the criminal justice system in the United States. Nearing wrote about lynching and what he calls “race riots or race wars” – not only the Tulsa massacre in 1921, but attacks by white people in seven cities in 1919, in three cities in 1920, and others that followed. He observed that “these organized lawless mob attacks by whites…usually go unpunished. Law enforcement in the United States is an exclusive function of the dominant white race, and thus far” white people have “not hesitated to break the law when any need arose for keeping Negros in their place.”

In what he called “the farce of political democracy,” he found that Black “emancipation through the franchise and political action has proved a delusion…The franchise and political action are not means of emancipation for an exploited class but are tools employed by the ruling classes in the exercise of class power. … Devotion to politics as a means of race emancipation,” he concluded, “are merely dissipating energy and helping to rivet the shackles more firmly.” But, if not a political solution aimed at equity in a diverse democracy, then what?

The book ends with what Nearing saw as the potential and hope of the experience of Black Americans in WW I, which he said gave them “a crucial opportunity.” The war period,” Nearing wrote, “with its expanding occupational opportunity, its advancing economic standards, and its multiplication of Negro organizations, was an era of enlarged Negro race consciousness.” Even as he had just recalled the horrors of anti-Black racism of the 1920s following the war, here he embraced the Party position of labor solidarity to dismantle the capitalist system. Dogma erodes clear thinking and analysis. Thus, “the white ruling class of the United States is engaged in building a system of exploitation for profit and power.” Scott asserted that Black people needed to enact their emancipation by aligning with white people in a class struggle – “working-class solidarity across race lines” – even as he recognized that “white workers have not yet waked up to the situation. They still believe ruling class propaganda about ‘racial inferiority.’ They still exclude Negroes from many of their working -class organizations.” How was it that Black people were going to join with white people when white people were not going to become anti-racist? The solution was that the “Negro workers must join working-class organizations. They must help build trade unions, cooperatives, a political party that represents working-class interests. Along no other path can the Negro masses hope for emancipation.” This “solution” did not align with Scott’s own analysis, and while it may have served the party line, it did little for offering a path to racial equity.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Black America is that it names the persistent reality of economic discrimination and its impact on every part of the lives of Black people. Economically, Black people, Nearing claimed, “must constantly pay the penalty of their blackness. They are exploited as a race. No matter what their individual abilities, professional or technical training, their success or achievements, their position in the field of economic endeavor is always less favorable than that of whites having the same qualifications.” They are “victims of economic discrimination…because they are black. This discrimination was practiced before the Civil War when Negroes were slaves; it is practiced today when Negroes are ‘free.’ It is part of the technique employed by exploiting whites to keep exploited blacks in a position where they can neither resist nor escape exploitation.” Black people in the United States, North or South, are “swept ruthlessly into the category of ‘racial inferiority’ and are held there with all of the power of the superior, exploiting, white race.” Economists such as William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, in their book From Here to Equality (2020), examine the racial wealth gap in the United States and propose an economic solution of “restitution for African Americans [that] would eliminate racial disparities in wealth, income, education, health, sentencing and incarceration, political participation, and subsequent opportunities to engage in American political and social life.”

As an economist, Nearing might have focused attention on an economic solution. He had already done the analysis of how Black Americans had the wealth of their labor stolen as slaves, and how they had been prevented from earning the income they deserved during the reconstruction of white supremacy in the South after the Civil War. He documents in Black America the economic inequality accrued through segregation and the impact on wealth for Black people through inferior housing, education, healthcare and employment opportunities. Nearing had accumulated all the evidence needed to understand what economists today call the racial wealth gap, where in the U.S., the median net worth for Black households is 1/10th the net worth of white households. In many ways, Nearing had amassed all the data needed to be able to understand what Darity and Mullen explain as a long history of “both income and wealth mobility processes [that]contribute directly to the maintenance of high levels of racial economic inequality across generations.” They write that “the weight of American racism…is manifest in labor market discrimination, grossly attenuated wealth, confinement to neighborhoods with lower levels of amenities and safety, disproportionate exposure to inferior schooling, significantly greater danger in encounters with the police and the criminal justice system writ large, and a general social disdain for the value of black people’s lives.”

One solution to this vast disparity in generational wealth caused by persistent and pervasive racial discrimination is that of restitution through reparations. As I write this, the City of Asheville, North Carolina, has just passed a resolution that apologizes for the local government’s historic role in slavery and for participating in racist and discriminatory policies that have led to the continued oppression of Black Americans. It directs the City Manager to develop methods for creating “generational wealth and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the [Black] community.” The city has committed to reparations that will require financial investment in a number of public programs to address racial equity in education, public transportation, and home ownership, with an explicit aim of developing generational wealth and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community.

Black America, while it gathered economic data to support a process of reparations, did not address restitution for racial injustice. But the groundwork had been laid. The Good Life Center could advance the work Nearing started just over ninety years ago by publicly supporting the congressional bill called H.R. 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. This bill would establish a commission to examine slavery and discrimination from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.

The Good Life Center, as an organization, can work to help create the political conditions that can lead to passage of H.R. 40. It can provide education about the history of racial injustice that underlies the need for passage of H.R. 40, and it can advocate for passage of H.R. 40 and push other organizations to join in the effort to secure congressional approval of H.R. 40. It can issue a public statement in support of H.R. 40. In the forward to the 1969 edition of Black America, Nearing wrote that the underlying issues raised by the movement for Black equality had to be confronted by Black people and white people in the United States. “Unresolved,” he wrote, “they constitute a threat to the peace and happiness of America.” They remain unresolved today. The GLC could draw on Nearing’s study of Black America to help work towards a resolution.