U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nancy MacLean, and the Politics of Race and Class

Earlier this week, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a long essay in the Atlantic that has been generating a lot of discussion online, including among historians.  Entitled “The First White President,” Coates’s piece is the latest entry in a long series of pieces by public intellectuals that seek to understand the relationship between race and class in American politics, in general, and Donald Trump’s election, in particular.  I think Coates’s essay, like nearly everything he writes, is insightful and worthy of all the attention it’s been getting. But today I want to use it as a stepping off point for a brief exploration of this genre more generally.

Although Coates is making an argument for the extraordinary salience of race – and especially of ideas of whiteness – to Donald Trump’s success, like all the best essays in this genre, “The First White President” acknowledges the importance of class, as well. This seems pretty obvious: both race and class have always played critical roles in American politics, as has gender, of course (there’s a reason for the canonicity of that analytic trinity).  And yet the discussion of race, class, gender, and Trump among the (broad) left often seems to degenerate into two sides: one arguing for the absolute primacy of class (often while decrying the other side’s “identity politics” and suggesting that it is running interference for neoliberalism), the other for the primary of race and/or gender (often denouncing the other side for its white privilege and implicit racism and sexism, and even suggesting that the class-first crowd may be closet conservatives).  Even more frequently than making reductive arguments themselves, people on both sides seem prone to accuse their opponents of reductively arguing for the importance of one of these factors to the exclusion of others.

The really interesting questions, however, involve the ways that race, class, and gender interact.  And the best punditry on both the “class” and “identity” sides of the argument, like Coates’s essay itself, are actual attempts to describe those interactions.

Of course, many political, social, intellectual, and cultural historians also work on the interactions of these things in the American past. And though we argue about them at great length, I think it’s fair to say that most of us would say that the relationships between race, class, and gender in American political life are constantly shifting and vary in time and place, though there are of course patterns to be found and deep histories to explore.

Warren Nutter and James Buchanan’s Intervention in Virginia’s Attempt to Resist School Desegregation (source: http://civilrights.woodson.virginia.edu/items/show/1225)

All of which brings me briefly back to Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, which has been the topic of a roundtable and a number of other posts on this blog. One of the real virtues of that book, it seems to me, is that it illuminates the ways in which discourses of race and class interacted in the history of an important strain of the libertarian right. Though MacLean occasionally, and in my opinion unfortunately, sounds as if she is trying to reveal the secret to the entire history of American conservatism, this is in fact not what the book is up to and, on most occasions, she is actually pretty clear about that.  As defenders of the book have exhaustively pointed out, MacLean is not particularly interested in the personal racial attitudes of the men who are at the heart of her story, James Buchanan and Charles Koch. What she is interested in, among other things, is the ways in which the politics of race and the policies pursued by out-and-out white supremacists like Harry Byrd created intellectual and political opportunities for men like Buchanan and Koch. Her story is very detailed and actually very local – in time, space, and ideology. It’s not by any means a universal tale of the relationship between race and class in American politics, though it rhymes with a lot of other episodes in that complicated relationship, as her discussion of John C. Calhoun suggests. And, in its complexity, concreteness, as well as its locality, it is a fine example of the particular kind of intervention that intellectual historians might add to the broader public discussion of which Coates’s essay is an important part.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. And as critics of MacLean’s book have also exhaustively pointed out, her attempt to situate Buchanan’s thoughts in the context of Harry Flood Byrd, James Kilpatrick, and other segregationists suffers from a severe want of evidence.

    This occurs in two ways.

    1. She frequently makes claims about the relationship between the 1959 voucher paper and “massive resistance” that her own cited sources don’t actually support. Some of these claims don’t even have proper citations at all and consist only of her own innuendo layered on top of secondary lit about Byrd et al that doesn’t even mention Buchanan. Others involve twisting, distorting, and selectively excerpting archival records such as the 1959 paper in ways that exaggerate its relationship to race beyond what the text itself supports. (Note that MacLean’s misuse of quotations in this manner also appears to be a systemic pattern in her book that appears in other places unrelated to race, such as her egregious editing of the Tyler Cowen quote in a later chapter)

    2. She omits extensive pertinent evidence that runs counter to her thesis of a supportive and sometimes-collaborative relationship between Buchanan and the Byrd machine. This includes other contemporary writings by Buchanan in which he expresses sympathy for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it includes Buchanan’s sponsorship of W.H. Hutt’s explicitly anti-segregationist scholarly research and lectures as a visiting faculty member in his department working directly in the public choice tradition. Although she might not have been aware of them, she also needs to update her thesis to reflect the 1984 letters he wrote to Arthur Seldon on school vouchers in which he expressed a direct concern for the abuses of segregation against racial minorities.

    A few commentators here and elsewhere have tried to brush aside MacLean’s omissions on the grounds that they refer to material in the mid 1960s as opposed to 1959, which strikes me as a deeply dishonest line of argument. No serious historian believes that segregation was no longer a problem after 1965 – including MacLean herself. In fact, on p. 101 MacLean claims outright (again without any sources to support it) that Buchanan’s research center at UVA collapsed because the new university administration was irritated at him for allegedly siding with the segregationists. That refers to events in 1968 – three years *after* Hutt’s arrival and in the wake of Hutt’s explicitly anti-segregationist work for Buchanan’s center.

    You note in your comment above that “MacLean is not particularly interested in the personal racial attitudes” of Buchanan and reiterate that others have pointed this out. Allow me to suggest it is more complicated. At times MacLean does in fact disclaim concern with identifying the personal racial attitudes of Buchanan. At others though, she wavers and peddles innuendo against him that strongly suggests a strain of racial animosity in his beliefs. This is an old argumentation fallacy known as poisoning the well. She does not need to accuse him of racism outright, because she has so thoroughly painted his career as a contextual derivative of other racists – of Byrd, Kilpatrick, the Agrarian poets, and even John C. Calhoun – that it is not even necessary to extend the accusation to him personally. And as evidence that this “strategy” has worked at least among MacLean’s more credulous supporters, I’d point you to favorable reviews by George Monbiot, Bethany Moreton, Marshall Steinbaum, and William S. Darity that do in fact interpret MacLean as having “proven” the very same racial animosities that you and others on this blog adamantly insist was never her intent. And while we cannot hold an author accountable for the occasional misinterpretation of her work by other readers, the fact that *so many* of her most sympathetic readers have made this point one of their main takeaways is its own evidence that MacLean’s book is deeply susceptible to this interpretation – perhaps by design.

    To briefly recap though, for all the hand-wringing you and other writers on this blog have devoted to defending MacLean’s intentions and motives, there’s an alarming – indeed reckless – lack of concern around here for the many problems that have been pointed out with her use of historical sources. She has been show in multiple instances to have violated the most basic standards and practices of the historian’s trade when it comes to using and interpreting evidence. She grossly distorts the slim amount of evidence she has to prop up claims that it does not in fact support, AND she sidesteps a large amount of directly pertinent counter-evidence that complicates her thesis. Both of those practices speak to a series of deep ethical problems with her conduct as a historian.

    • If MacLean’s occasionally apocalyptic language is one of the reasons that the conversation between critics and defenders of Democracy in Chains never seems to go anywhere, so is the critics’ insistence that the things that they accuse MacLean of constitute “deep ethical problems.”

      Having read the 1959 paper that I link above, I find MacLean’s analysis of it convincing. I invite others to follow the link and read it as well. No, it doesn’t say much about race explicitly…other than noting in the introduction the authors’ “ethical” belief that both forced segregation and forced desegregation are wrong. But Nutter and Buchanan put aside (or at least claim to put aside) such ethical intuitions and frame their argument as purely economic. Given what they mean in this context by economics, the rest of the piece says nothing about race and very little about the actual situation in Virginia at the time. But the Nutter and Buchanan paper is explicitly intended as in intervention in Virginia’s educational debate, which was entirely driven by questions of race. And the way Nutter and Buchanan’s paper positions itself relative to that debate is crucial. First, it states as axiomatic that substantive education decisions should rest entirely with state and local governments. This, in effect, assumes the illegitimacy of Brown. Just as crucially, it presents as the attractive “middle option” between the wholly public and wholly private extremes “the plan associated in Virginia with Mr. Leon Dure.” Dure, a prominent journalist, was the creator and chief advocate of “freedom of choice of association” as a way that the South could successfully resist federal demands to integrate schools. (Those interested can find more about Dure here.) So, in short, despite not discussing race (much) directly, Nutter and Buchanan’s paper is an argument for what was, in 1959, the cutting-edge segregationist position in Virginia state educational debates.

      Now the fact that I find MacLean convincing on this doesn’t mean that she or I are necessarily right. But being wrong does not constitute an ethical problem in history or any other academic discipline. Historians and other scholars are wrong all the time. History, like any other humanistic or social scientific discipline, involves interpreting complicated evidence. We are all fallible. We make mistakes. When we do, we get corrected by other scholars, and the field moves on. I think you’d find that we might all be more willing to discuss the particular problems of interpretation and use of evidence that you and other critics claim to find in MacLean’s book if you did not insist on treating them as signs of “deep ethical problems.” Disagreeing with historians is something we do all the time; it’s kind of our job. Trying to drum a scholar out of the profession, on the other hand, is extraordinarily unusual behavior. And it raises a whole lot of red flags for many of us.

      • Do you honestly see no ethical problem with a historian editing a quotation to alter its meaning and make the subject matter look significantly worse in the eyes of the reader? If not that, would you at least agree that it’s unethical to refuse to respond to salient criticisms of shortcomings in your work, including in neutral venues with an open invitation? Is it unethical to answer your critics instead by making inflammatory and unsupported allegations against them that allege conspiracies and that suggest an insane plot is afoot to tank her Amazon and Google rankings? MacLean did all of these things, and yet an unsettling number of people who agree with her for ideological reasons appear to be entirely okay with that.

        The particulars of the 1959 paper are certainly interesting and certainly open to criticism. For example, I suspect it is more a case of naivety with what Dure was up to, or more broadly a case of underestimating the depth of the problem with the segregationists, than the more malicious motives depicted by MacLean. But that’s why surrounding contextual details matter. And in this case I still get the sense that your reading of the 1959 paper is occurring *entirely* within the interpretive framework that MacLean has constructed around it. That includes unquestioning acceptance of all of her claims about Byrd, about Kilpatrick, about the timing of the paper, about Buchanan and Nutter’s respective positions on state/federal relations, and about the purposes and objectives and workings of the Thomas Jefferson Center. That’s a deeply problematic position to start from for the reason I noted in my last comment though: MacLean’s evidence on all of these points falls far short of supporting the interpretive framework she has constructed.

        To illustrate the point, let’s consider an alternative interpretation of what was going on in the 1959 paper: Nutter and Buchanan saw the desegregation issue was coming up again before the legislature and knew it had taken an ugly turn the last time around under Byrd’s guidance before the state and federal courts simultaneously struck down his attempt to maintain segregation. Although neither man was particularly interested or involved in legislative politicking, they did “intervene” in a way that academics often do: they wrote an abstract analytical paper on the economics of education that intentionally steered clear of the legislative mess, but that also sought to elevate the level of the legislative debate – whatever its outcome – by introducing it to the tools of their field of expertise. There was nothing particularly “cutting-edge” about what they wrote. It simply repeated Friedman’s voucher proposal, using economic arguments that trace all the way back to John Stuart Mill a century prior to when they were writing. But they hoped – naively perhaps – that somebody somewhere in the legislature would read it, and perhaps a slightly less awful policy would emerge as a result. Furthermore as is often the case with such things when academics write papers to try to elevate the political debate, they were almost entirely ignored by policymakers in Richmond or in any of Virginia’s counties. Because even though MacLean presents Buchanan and Nutter as having written some important and influential blueprint to service a backdoor attempt at preserving segregation, she offers no evidence that anyone in power – state or county – even read the thing, let alone built the Prince Edward school closure or other similar schemes from its instructions.

        So what evidence might support this alternative interpretation vis-a-vis MacLean? For one, we know that contrary to her telling, the segregation fight was not a central feature of any of Buchanan’s other work or academic interests at that time – which is why he left so few materials on the subject for her to work from. We also know from Buchanan’s other writings that he wasn’t fond of the segregationists. They are also slim, but they do exist including remarks in 1965 where he praised the Civil Rights Act and a handful of other comments that show he actually *wasn’t* at odds with the outcome of the various court decisions of that era that struck down segregation. We also know quite a bit more than what MacLean reveals about the context of the moment. For example, the evidence of the relationship she posits between Buchanan and Kilpatrick isn’t really there at all. They had no specific correspondence with each other on the 1959 paper or any related matters thereafter (yes, I have checked the pertinent archives), and their only encounters of substance appear to have been a few short letters in the late 60s over routine journalism stuff (e.g. Buchanan sent out copies of a book to the major newspaper editors in the state hoping to get it reviewed in their publications). We also know that Buchanan sponsored research through his center that was explicitly anti-segregationist in nature (e.g. Hutt’s work) at a time when segregation was still a raging issue in Virginia and at a time when MacLean incorrectly paints him as having a kinship with the Byrd operation. And we know that one of Buchanan’s few recorded reflections on the 1959 paper, although written many years later in 1984, expressed a direct concern with designing any voucher scheme to prevent its use for segregationist purposes (Perhaps this was a lesson learned, or perhaps it was his belief all along – either way though, it’s a position that MacLean’s interpretation provides no room to even consider). Finally, we know that Buchanan was actually *not* the radical partisan of school privatization that MacLean presents him to be – both from passages in the 1959 that declared the support for universal education through public mechanisms (MacLean omitted these from her depiction) and from earlier writings by Buchanan (including predating Brown) where he affirms his belief in a public education system (MacLean apparently did not research or consider these when forming her conclusion).

        You’re right that those are interpretive differences, and I’d suggest that they reveal some pretty glaring holes in MacLean’s thesis that need to be discussed and evaluated at length. The problem is that we cannot have that conversation when (a) MacLean is conducting herself in a way that brushes aside all salient criticisms by calling them a conspiracy and then refusing multiple opportunities in neutral venues to explain or defend her more questionable choices, when (b) MacLean’s supporters credulously repeat her case as if it were a proven fact despite the noted problems with her evidence, and when (c) MacLean’s supporters are unwilling to consider the possibility that she was less-than-forthright about her presentation of that same evidence, brushing aside such ethical concerns as if they don’t matter for evaluating the credibility of her narrative – including its weaker and unsourced claims.

      • The fact that Nutter and Buchanan do NOT mention race in their paper strengthens, not weakens, MacLean’ point which is that libertarians generally, and Buchanan specifically supported segregation with “race neutral” arguments. The timing of the 1959 paper, and its publication in the newspaper, cannot be ignored (as Magness repeatedly does). They pushed their privatization plans for education, which segregationists had been shouting for since 1954, right as the legislature was going to take up the issue.

      • Hi John – The timing of the paper is a fascinating question, isn’t it? And yet your memory must be fading seeing as we’ve been over this territory many times already. The simple answer is that in January 1959 a series of court rulings against the Byrd machine’s segregationist operations pushed education to the forefront of the General Assembly and created a couple of fissures in its ranks – including members who were now willing to entertain the notion of gradual integration.

        Buchanan and Nutter responded by drafting the paper, intended for nothing more than to offer academic expertise that might elevate a debate that had descended far into the gutters of elevated politics. Academics occasionally do such things against all hope, after all, whether it was in 1959 or today where we see any number of similar efforts to inject sound economic principles into the current insanity that is Trump, or the Congresses and presidents that preceded him. When they drafted the paper they intentionally abstained from wading into the political turmoil. Nutter even privately wrote that the legislature was a “ticklish situation” and sought council from Milton Friedman – no friend of the segregationists, your own juvenile reading of his works notwithstanding – on how it might best be released. They ultimately settled on the Times-Dispatch, whose editor Virginius Dabney had a reputation as being friendly to the cause of desegregation, as distinct from Kilpatrick’s News-Leader.

        A sensible person would review that evidence and conclude that Nutter was probably aware of Byrd’s intent to press ahead on segregation and concerned about its implications. MacLean instead weaves together a segregation-supporting conspiracy theory that misrepresents the purpose of the paper, elevates its importance as if it were some sort of lasting centerpiece of the Thomas Jefferson Center’s mission, and omits dozens of pieces of other pertinent evidence that complicate her narrative.

        The other interesting matter of the timing that goes unmentioned from MacLean is how Buchanan and Nutter never really pursued anything with the 1959 paper beyond publishing it with Dabney. They were both working on other things that clearly had the bulk of their attention both before and after the 1959 court rulings, and even as the school issue raged onward neither had much else to say about it…save for Buchanan’s private remarks to Seldon two decades later, which also complicate MacLean’s interpretation. And why would we expect anything different though? The 1959 paper was completely ignored by policymakers, as most academic commentaries tend to be. Meanwhile Buchanan was busy with other things. He had a series of lecture events to manage that very same week in 1959 in connection with a visit he arranged by the noted political theorist Robert Dahl. He was busy planning seminars for the impending arrival of another visiting scholar, the trade theorist Bertil Ohlin, and drafting up manuscripts for a series of books and academic articles on constitutionalism.

        As someone else pointed out to you in another of these interminable threads, John, you have personally expended more time defending MacLean’s deeply problematic interpretation of the 1959 paper than Buchanan himself spent on its subject in the entire civil rights era. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised given your credulity for claims that elevate peripheral matters to the center of discussions. Or turn them into “intellectual lodestars” with a misreading of evidence and a wave of the hand.

  2. The comment by Phillip Magness posted ostensibly as a reply to Alpers’ short piece is redundant with his prior outpouring of garbage in his attack on “Democracy in Chains” and wrong on the facts. Take his point #2. Ostensibly, he is challenging the idea that Buchanan supported the closing of Virginia public schools in the late 1950s; but does Magness really imagine that comments Buchanan made in the 1980s disprove his decades earlier association with the Byrd machine and segregationist goals? No, I think Magness is too intelligent to believe this, but he is arguing by obfuscation. Piling up accusations against Nancy MacLean is not convincing, but they are, in total, tiresome to wade through. Thus distracting from MacLean’s findings and her evidence. Magness writes to uphold his a priori ideological convictions, and to discredit all analyzes that are less than laudatory. He objects to serious historical scholarship, and does not, significantly, publish his screeds in peer reviewed publications.

    • I never claimed, Mark, that comments made in the 1980s “disprove” something about the 1950s-60s. I am however stating that MacLean never proved her own original claim about the 1950s-60s in the first place, which you now summarize as Buchanan’s alleged “decades earlier association with the Byrd machine and segregationist goals.”

      Quite simply put, MacLean’s own sources do not support the claim that Buchanan was (a) associated with the Byrd machine or (b) involved in segregationist goals. She strung together a couple of flimsy and misrepresented pieces of evidence (e.g. the 1959 paper, the content of which she grossly distorts) and wove it into a secondary literature on Byrd that neither mentions Buchanan nor presents any evidence of a connection.

      You may also want to check your dates on the Prince Edward County school closure. It lasted from 1959-64, which absolutely makes it contemporary to the Civil Rights Act. But of equal significance, Buchanan spent 1961-62 as a visiting professor at Cambridge. So he wasn’t even in the country for a large portion of the period that MacLean claims he was taking cues from Harry Byrd. Just the same, he spent 1954-56 on a Fulbright residency in Italy and was not even in the country during the years that MacLean claims that Brown v. Board supposedly jumpstarted his research interests.

      It’s also highly amusing that you’d choose to attack my comment on account of it not being “peer reviewed” when it is offered as nothing more than an informal response to (a) a blog post that was not peer reviewed about (b) a book that was not peer reviewed and instead appeared on a trade press. Physician, heal thyself.

  3. Further, Magness asserts that Buchanan wrote in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Maybe he did, I don’t know. But 1964 is NOT the same as when the Virginia schools were closed — so Magness is wrong in calling this “contemporary” with the state’s school closing. MacLean seems persuasive, and not seriously challenged by Magness, on the closing of VA public schools was formative for the school vouchers plank of the libertarian program.

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