Race as a Variable: The Progressive Era

The Progressives of the late 19th century and early 20th century paved the way for expanded government and socialistic policies. But when looking back at these the ideas and views of the economists, sociologists, and other experts at that time there is an overwhelming cloud of prejudice behind their ideologies. They sought to change the way of thinking about society as whole and how to better it, but this led them to see “inferior” individuals as negatively affecting society. Of course, it is important to remember that this was a different era, dating back before the civil rights movements of the mid-19th century. But it doesn’t hurt to examine the justifications for some of the progressive policies in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The Progressives of this era wanted to change the general meaning of liberalism from that of advocating for free-market economy to supporting more socialistic policies, such as welfare and minimum wage. The term “classical liberalism” is used to describe the belief in the protection of individual rights that was strongly expressed during the early 19th century. The Progressive movement changed liberalism to represent a belief in the betterment of society. Many Progressive economists, such as Henry Carter Adams and Richard T. Ely, saw society as an organism, sometimes even more than simply individuals. This view was a key component in the ideology of the Progressive movement. Supporters of the movement were focused on the well-being of Americans, more specifically native-born Americans. Any other type of “entities” in society were seen as harmful to that organism.

One example of these racial justifications for Progressive era policies was the reasoning behind excluding Chinese immigrants from the workforce in the 19th century. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese workers. Woodrow Wilson commented on this topic in his book, A History of American People published in 1901. He claimed low-standard races were undercutting American wages and that white citizens could not compete with the Chinese immigrants, because they could “live upon a handful of rice for a pittance.” Progressive leaders criticized the Chinese immigrants on the grounds that they were too hard-working, resourceful, and frugal. Many of these traits are seen as valuable today, probably were back then as well. This example shows the way in which these new liberal scholars used their knowledge (or perceived knowledge) to make cases against individuals that were inherently different from themselves.

This example seems even more relevant in today’s world as well. After Donald Trump was elected as America’s new president a little more than a month ago, many Americans fear similar racial justifications for certain policies. This is not saying that Trump is a racist 19th century Progressive, but it is important to note that race is still serves as a prominent variable used in political and economic conversation. Obviously, this variable is incredibly important and tells us much about economic transactions. But, as seen through President Wilson’s comments, race as a variable can misguide intelligent individuals to harmful conclusions, simply because of inherited prejudices. So I pose the question: Where or when is the point at which race isn’t a factor in the economic model?

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