George S. Schuyler, a black cultural critic, was among the greatest popular writers that twentieth centuryAmerica had produced. A particularly astute observer of political circumstances generally and race relations in particular, a staggering array of the nation’s most well known publications from across the ideological and racial spectrums eagerly sought his services for over five decades.
Yet today, Schuyler is scarcely mentioned at all. Those who either weren’t around from the 1920’s through the 1970’s (when he died) or whose memory span is short wouldn’t even know his name.
While this is a tragedy, it is no mystery.
Schuyler pitted himself against those of his contemporaries, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, who have since achieved iconic status. This, in large measure, is what accounts for the painful fact that the self-appointed guardians of our Politically Correct orthodoxy have sought to erase them from their official histories.
But while Schuyler’s relentless criticism of such famed “racially correct” heroes as King and Malcolm X accounts for the treatment that he has been accorded, it is crucial to grasp that his critiques were informed by his conservatism.
In fact, so unabashed was Schuyler regarding his politics that he entitled his autobiography Black and Conservative.
Schuyler opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The previous year, he penned his case against it. “A proliferation of largely unenforceable legislation has everywhere been characteristic of political immaturity,” Schuyler wrote. Being a relatively “young nation,”America particularly has been disposed toward “enacting laws regulating social conduct,” legislation that is more a function of “politics” than “statesmanship.” Politicians pass laws “without too much attention to consideration of how and at what cost they are to be enforced [.]”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would prove to be but the latest attempt to “make people better by force” (emphasis original). This enterprise, however, “has been the cause of much misery and injustice throughout the ages.”
Schuyler is quick to condemn the attitude of the white majority toward “the so-called Negro” as “morally wrong, nonsensical, unfair, un-Christian and cruelly unjust”; still, he is just as quick to note, the fact of the matter is that this position “remains the majority attitude” (emphasis original).
Schuyler’s condemnation of whites’ view of blacks is not unqualified, though. “Anybody who has observed race relations during the past quarter of a century,” he remarks, “knows” that the white majority’s view of blacks “has been progressively modified [.]” And while “changes have been very slow since 1865,” there can be no denying that they have been “marked [.]” Moreover, “civil rights laws, state or federal, have had little to do with it,” for legislation has “been enforced and accepted only when the dominant majority acquiesced….” Otherwise, it has “generally lain dormant in the law books.”
In short, it is “custom,” most decidedly not law, that “has dictated the pace” of improving race relations.
Unlike his leftist rivals, the Kings and the Malcolms, Schuyler resolutely eschews the ideology of Blackism, an ideology according to which racial “reality” begins and ends with a severely truncated—and politicized—version of American history. Central to Blackism is a meta-narrative of perpetual White Oppression and Black Suffering. Schuyler, recognizing this “history” for the useful political fiction that it is, rejects it in favor of a genuinely historical—and global—perspective.
American whites should not be judged along the lines of some perfectionist—and, thus, wholly unattainable—standard. They should, rather, be judged against the backdrop of other flesh and blood beings. And when they are judged by this standard, they look pretty damn commendable.
“It might be said here parenthetically that nowhere else on earth has the progress of a dissimilar racial minority been so marked in education, housing, health, voting and economic well-being” as that of blacks in whiteAmerica. “Not one of the foreign countries whose spokesmen criticize and excoriate the United States can equal its record in dealing with a minority group,” Schuyler declares.
All of this notwithstanding, in the concluding paragraph of his brief against the Civil Rights bill, Schuyler clarifies that his “principal case against” it is an argument from liberty. The law would be but “another encroachment by the central government on the federalized structure of our society.” He asserts: “Armed with this law enacted to improve the lot of a tenth of the population, the way will be opened to enslave the rest of the populace.”
This is no stretch.
“Under such a law the individual everywhere” will be “told what he must do and what he cannot do, regardless of the laws and ordinances of his state or community” (emphasis added). Yet “this is a blow at the very basis of American society,” a society “founded on state sovereignty and individual liberty and preference.”
Schuyler concludes: “We are fifty separate countries, as it were, joined together for mutual advantage, security, advancement, and protection. It was never intended that we should be bossed by a monarch, elected or born. When this happens, the United States as a free land will cease to exist.”
The rhetoric of other “civil rights ‘leaders’” aside, the honest person, black or white—but especially white—can’t help but suspect that in far too many instances, such activists want to advance the interests of blacks—particularly themselves—at the expense of racial good will.
With Schuyler, such suspicions could never arise. He was not only a great black American, but a great American, a real apostle of liberty.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.
George S. Schuyler was among the most distinguished American writers and pundits of the twentieth century.
He was also a conservative.
And he was black.
Today, it is on the rare occasion indeed that his name is mentioned. Most of the members of our generation, black and white, have never heard of him.
There is a reason for this.
Schuyler, you see, had no patience for what he perceived to be the foolhardiness, opportunism, and utopianism of those of his fellow blacks who have secured for themselves a place in the pantheon of “civil rights” heroes.
For instance, of Malcolm X, Schuyler said: “Malcolm was a bold, outspoken, ignorant man of no occupation after he gave up pimping, gambling, and dope-selling to follow Mr. [Elijah] Muhammad [of the Nation of the Islam].” Blacks who would transform him into “a great Negro leader” invite “a serious indictment” of themselves. Schuyler numbered Malcolm among the “mediocrities, criminals, plotters, and poseurs” who he believed composed “the past generation” of “black ‘leaders’ afflicting the nation [.]”
Schuyler also had little regard for “the peripatetic parson,” Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1964, when King was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Schuyler identified him as but the latest in “a succession of pious frauds” to be awarded the coveted prize “for the purposes of political propaganda [.]” That King didn’t deserve this recognition owed to the fact that “neither directly nor indirectly” did he make a single “contribution to the world (or even domestic) peace.” Schuyler added: “Methinks the Lenin Prize would have been more appropriate for him, since it is no mean feat for one so young to acquire sixty Communist-front citations, according to the U.S. government.”
King’s “principal contribution to world peace has been to roam the country like some sable typhoid-Mary, infecting the mentally disturbed” while “grabbing lecture fees from the shallow-pated.” The unrest for which King was responsible “packed jails with Negroes and some whites, getting them beaten, bitten and firehosed,” an endeavor that consisted in “bankrupting communities” and “raising bail and fines, to the vast enrichment of Southern law and order.”
Upon King’s death, Schuyler was not without some kind words. King was “talented and adroit,” he remarked, and “evidently,” he was “dedicated to the cause of improving race relations.” Yet these compliments Schuyler made within the context of a reasonably lengthy critique entitled, “Dr. King: Nonviolence Always Ends Violently.”
It was Schuyler’s position that King actually exacerbated race relations. “Countless mass demonstrations which started to advance a good cause have ended in clashes with police, looting, vandalism and killing rather than the goodwill and understanding originally intended.” Race-related problems are such that their resolution lies “in moderation and…innumerable compromises”—not “abrasive tactics that produce irritation and ill will rather than understanding and cooperation.”
Schuyler thought that King was “demagogic” and opportunistic. More than once, he “persisted stubbornly” to “the point of irresponsibility” in inserting himself in local situations that he was encouraged to avoid. Black activists from Alabama andFlorida implored King to stay away from Birmingham and St. Augustine, respectively—but King did not listen. As a consequence, his “persistence aided by the atmosphere of mob-mindedness among colored and white led directly to the deplorable events that followed.”
Schuyler notes that while no one can say “what help” any of this “was to race relations,” one thing is for certain: the publicity assured “more speaking engagements for Dr. King.”
King’s ends, Schuyler believed, were noble enough. “It was the methods he used which, considering the high emotionalism which surrounded his goals, were objectionable.” Simply put, “there are too many retardate, half-witted, criminally-inclined people in our population whose expectations have to be kept in check,” for it is they who “provide the fuel for great social conflagrations.”
Schuyler was a great lover of liberty. There is much else that he did for the cause of freedom. But here it is important to understand that it wasn’t primarily his conservatism that accounts for his being made to vanish from our collective memory.
First and foremost, it was his unrelenting criticism of contemporary racial orthodoxy and its heroes that explains this.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.
You simply—and sadly—don’t hear much about George Schuyler these days.
Schuyler was born in Rhode Islandin 1895. From the 1920’s to the 1960’s, he was widely regarded as perhaps the most prominent black columnist in the country. Yet it is probably safer to say that he was among the ablest of writers, black or white, of the twentieth century. This, at any rate, is how his good friend and quasi-mentor, the famed H.L. Mencken, once described him.
Schuyler was one of the editors of The Pittsburg Courier, the second largest “Negro” publication inAmerica, in which he published a weekly column. He also published widely in magazines black and white, right and left. Schuyler was part of that circle of black intellectuals that later became identified with “the Harlem Renaissance.”
So, why do we not hear more about this accomplished figure?
The answer to this question is straightforward enough: over the span of his long and illustrious career, Schuyler evolved into a conservative.
But he wasn’t just any old kind of conservative. Schuyler relished in dragging the mushy minded heads of utopian dreamers to the guillotine of his razor sharp wit. The thing is, the folly on which he most often set his sights is the racially correct orthodoxy of today.
Take, for example, his position on Malcolm X. On more than one occasion, and with the greatest of ease, he took the former minister of the Nation of Islam (NOI)—as well as the Nation of Islam itself—to the proverbial woodshed.
Once, during a radio broadcasted discussion on black American Muslims, Schuyler and Malcolm X were members of a panel along with James Baldwin and some other notable figures of the day. Schuyler wasted no time in trimming Malcolm down to size. The Nation’s worldview is “anti-Christian” and “anti-white,” Schuyler abruptly declared. Worse, among “the many falsehoods upon which this movement is founded” is the fiction that “white Christians were responsible for slavery in the world.” In reality, however, “the Moslems carried on slavery for something like twelve or thirteen hundred years before the white European Christians started it.”
During this same exchange, Schuyler observed the contradiction at the very core of Malcolm’s NOI philosophy. On the one hand, the NOI insists that it is apolitical. On the other hand, it demands a separate territory within the continental United States for itself. Schuyler pointed out to Malcolm the impossibility of reconciling these two claims. Facetiously, the former asserted his desire to “know how any group in the United States is going to separate part of” the country “to live in without having something to do with politics.”
Eight years after Malcolm X’s assassination, a movement was afoot to memorialize him. Schuyler responded by saying that we may as well memorialize Benedict Arnold. He said that Malcolm, like his one time mentor and the man who would eventually be the death of him—Elijah Muhammad—was “an underworld character.” Schuyler admits to having been “astonished” by Malcolm’s “wide ignorance” of history generally and Islamic history in particular. Malcolm had “the all black complex”—at least until Elijah Muhammad and the Nation cut him loose and he spent eleven days traveling toMecca. There, he claimed to have experienced for himself what Schuyler told him years earlier: some of the very same “white devils” who Malcolm became famous for demonizing were also Muslims!
Schuyler is skeptical that Malcolm’s worldview was really revolutionized within less than two weeks. He noted that while “it was good to learn” that Malcolm “now believed whites were human beings,” he also pointed out that Malcolm did not learn that “slavery was widespread in Arabia.” Neither did he learn “about the slave traffic from Africa to Mecca where ‘pilgrims’ are still sold for payment of their passage to the Holy City.” Finally, Malcolm failed to mention to the press that he had met with “radical and black racist groups in Africa [.]”
Before no time, Schuyler remarked, Malcolm’s “five-cent sheet, The Blacklash,” was headlining “the same old racist bilge [.]”
Malcolm had not changed his spots, as far as Schuyler was concerned. “During the past generation,” Schuyler wrote, “the black ‘leaders’ afflicting the nation have been mediocrities, criminals, plotters, and poseurs [.]” Malcolm X, he concluded, was no exception. To the end, he remained “a pixilated criminal [.]”
Malcolm X has assumed a cultural significance of legendary proportions. Schuyler’s withering critique of him is sufficient to account for the state of neglect into which he’s been forced. However, for as large as Malcolm has become, he still hasn’t usurped the privileged place of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the pantheon of politically correct heroes.
In my next article, we will see that Schuyler was no more merciful toward King than he was toward Malcolm.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.
The death penalty is, as we say, “the ultimate penalty.” Both its friends and foes alike acknowledge this.
Traditionally, the debate over capital punishment has involved the notions of deterrence and retribution.
Those proponents of capital punishment who are of a utilitarian bent argue that the ultimate penalty is necessary in order to deter others from committing capital offenses. Their rivals, on the other hand, contend that the death penalty, at least in practice, has failed to fulfill this function.
But by accepting the utilitarian premise that actions are right or wrong depending on their consequences, the death penalty’s opponents have walked into a trap. If the death penalty can be shown to deter, they implicitly concede, then it would be permissible. Yet while the current administration of capital punishment might make it difficult to substantiate the argument from general deterrence, the argument from specific deterrence encounters no such obstacles. In other words, the proponent of the death penalty responds, even if it can’t be proven that the death penalty deters prospective offenders, it is certain that it deters the offenders themselves from repeating their offenses.
The utilitarian enemy of the death penalty does indeed have a response waiting in the dock. Unfortunately for him, though, he can appropriate it only at the expense of abandoning his utilitarianism.
In the final analysis, he can say, the death penalty is not about deterrence. As the great philosopher Immanuel Kant famously said, it is never permissible to use people merely as a means to an end. However, regardless of the circumstances or the issue, this is exactly what a utilitarian sensibility demands.
This line, though, doesn’t promise to be particularly fruitful for the opponent of the death penalty, for it was Kant’s vehement rejection of utilitarianism that provoked him to support capital punishment. Retributive justice, Kant asserted, requires that all murderers die.
Justice is about giving people their just desserts. In putting murderers to death, Kant argued, we affirm their personhood—their moral standing as “ends,” not “mere means”—by giving them what they deserve. Even if the death penalty deterred no one, even if with each execution the murder rate increased, justice would still demand the execution of murderers.
There are, of course, other considerations that have been invoked against the death penalty.
For instance, it may be argued that while ideally Kant is right and murderers do deserve death, in the real world, we should still eliminate capital punishment on the prudential ground that innocents may be mistakenly executed. Though not without some plausibility, DNA testing and a host of legal safeguards against wrongful conviction conspire to render this argument unconvincing.
It has also been said that the death penalty is “racist” because blacks are executed in disproportionately higher numbers than whites. Now, this position is ridiculous for a variety of reasons. At present, we need only consider that, as Ernest van den Haag observed decades ago, the distribution of those being punished (or rewarded) has absolutely no bearing upon the moral worth of the punishment (or reward) itself.
The death penalty is indeed just. That is to say that Kant is correct: it is just because of its retributive function.
There are, however, two points to Kant’s position that I would like to add.
First, while only those specific individuals should be executed who deserve to be executed, we ought to maintain the death penalty because of the critical social function—the utilitarian function—that it serves. Whether capital punishment deters prospective offenders from becoming actual offenders is not at issue here. In fact, I am invoking neither the argument from general deterrence nor the argument from specific deterrence.
Rather, in a society like our own, a society defined by its commitment to the ideal of the rule of law, the ultimate penalty must remain available. Citizens (as opposed to “subjects”), are constituted by, and related in terms of, the law. Infractions against the law, then, must be punished—quickly and decisively.
And the most egregious transgressions of the law must be met with the most exacting of penalties.
This brings me to my second point.
Kant’s position—shared by most of its contemporary proponents—that the death penalty should be reserved only for murderers is inadequate. This reasoning fuels the absurd notion that there should be some physical parity between a crime and its punishment. Its objectors have certainly read it this way. If a person who takes a life deserves to have his life taken in return, they reply, then arsonists deserve to have their property burned, torturers deserve to be tortured, rapists deserve to be raped, etc.
Murderers deserve the ultimate penalty, yes, but not because there is some material equivalence between murder and execution. It is, rather, the moral seriousness, the gravity, of murder that demands the death penalty. But there are other crimes whose gravity is comparable to that of murder. To these crimes, death is a fitting response.
For an association like our own, a civil association held together by law, to dispense with the ultimate penalty is for it to take the first step toward suicide.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.