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Aug 16, 2009 10:46 am

Partial Vision

Most of what I know about John Hope Franklin, the American historian who died last week at the age of 94, comes from his autobiography, published in 2005. Mirror to America tells the story of Franklin’s rise to the highest levels of academic fame as he overcame pervasive racial discrimination and segregation. The book is fascinating, but it contains a contradiction that it has taken months for me to understand.

Born in 1915 to educated parents living in an all-black town in Oklahoma, Franklin lived in “dignified, abject poverty.” Only his prudential virtues -- determination, thrift, discipline, attention to detail -- and his natural brilliance enabled him to overcome the racial hostility that was endemic in the South but that also touched him when he attended Harvard.

Through Herculean efforts, he received an outstanding education, and over time he began obtaining the honors due him -- professorial appointments at schools such as the University of Chicago and Duke, the presidency of the American Historical Association, awards such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By his own account, his life was rich and satisfying, professionally and personally. He experienced the reward of a loving marriage of nearly sixty years, and he dedicated his book to students “from whom I have learned more than they will ever know.” He does not seem to have been an unhappy person.

But even with such deep satisfactions, Franklin never set aside the righteous anger that racism engendered in him. This is the contradiction that puzzled me: his life was good, but the memory of racism (and the racial barriers that he perceived even late in life) was unrelenting.

The pain of these barriers pervades his book from the first page: “Born in 1915, I grew up in a racial climate that was stifling to my senses and damaging to my emotional health and social well-being,” he writes. On the second page, he calls racism “a challenge to the strongest adult” but “cruelty” to children. He alludes to a famous incident; when he was 80 years old at a Washington, D.C., club to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a woman gave him her coat check and asked him to get her coat.

Given his constant consciousness of deprivations, slights, and indignities, it is not surprising that Franklin agreed to head President Clinton’s advisory panel on race. But the experience disappointed him because the nation never got the conversation on race that he had hoped to initiate.

Franklin is, of course, absolutely right about the shameful racial divide in this country in the past. And many will consider it admirable that Franklin refused to let go of this past -- why should he, or anyone, make his peace with mistreatment and prejudice?

After much thought, however, I have concluded that his refusal is better understood as a “conflict of visions.”

As readers of Thomas Sowell’s writings know, a person’s ideological and policy views tend to reflect a consistent way of looking at life -- a consistent “vision.” In his book Conflict of Visions, Sowell identified two leading visions. The unconstrained vision sees unlimited possibilities in human nature, anticipating the unfolding of better and better qualities. The constrained vision accepts human nature as flawed; rather than expecting human nature to change, this vision looks to changes in institutions (laws and customs) to spur people to act differently.

Franklin, like many liberals, seems to have had an unconstrained vision. That is, he was an idealist who kept believing that people would someday live up to the nation’s ideals. For example, if people would talk forthrightly about race, they would understand more and thus act more humanely; race might disappear as an issue.

For those who hold the constrained vision, however, such hopes are quixotic. They believe that the elimination of Jim Crow laws reduced racial barriers by changing people’s incentives, not their nature. And market forces, rather than forced persuasion, are more likely to improve racial relations in the future.

An incident from Mirror to America may indirectly corroborate Franklin’s “unconstrained vision.” In his second chapter, Franklin explains that his home town was divided into two factions -- the Baptists and the Methodists. Because his family was Methodist, the Baptist-run school board refused to let his mother take a maternity leave, telling her to resign instead; only the intervention of the white county school superintendent let her keep the job. This factionalism actually got worse -- leading to shots fired at their home -- as Franklin’s father’s independent spirit continued to offend the Baptists.

Initially, I thought that Franklin started his story as he did to make an ironic point. I thought he was going to reveal that flaws in human nature are universal, that racism is one -- one of the ugliest, yes, but still just one -- manifestation of underlying human failings. But he didn’t make that point. The anecdote seems to have simply been a way of explaining the circumstances around his birth (and his family’s eventual departure to Tulsa). His lifelong mission, after all, was to eradicate racism.

But isn’t this factionalism the same kind of petty and inhumane behavior that finds expression in racism?

Franklin’s long and productive life reveals that it is possible to overcome enormous barriers. His devotion to the highest standards of scholarship, his dedication in the face of obstacles, and his personal rapport with his students all make his life exemplary -- more exemplary, in fact, than his philosophy. Guided by the unconstrained vision, his philosophy may have distorted his view of reality and, as it does for many liberals, led to profound disappointment.

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Daniel Aldridge - 4/2/2009

I believe the larger point of Shaw's argument is being lost in the discussion of whether religious factionalism is a good analogy to racism.

Many of us, even great intellectuals like Franklin, find it difficult to transcend our formative expereinces and adjust our deepest ideological beliefs to new realities. Franklin did show a tendency to believe, that underneath it all, contemporary American racial and ethnic divisions were fundamentally the same thing as the Jim Crow racism he experienced for much of his life. This is not to say that "racism no longer exists" but to continue to trace contemporary problems to slavery and to blame white perfidy and bigotry for all the problems we see among many African Americans no longer explains current realities. This, I believe, is why so many people, even if they don't say so, turn off their ears when race is discussed.

Ralph Luker - 4/1/2009

Ms. Shaw, My points, both here and at TPM Cafe, are not small ones at all, though you persist in misunderstanding them. I never claimed that BTW had little influence, but that his schools were both limited in their reach and modest in their aspiration. His influence was, simply put, not always constructive. Your generalizing from a Methodist/Baptist rivalry in a small African American town in Oklahoma to rank it with a pervasive racism that shaped life throughout the South for centuries seems -- well -- just very odd and historically blindsighted.

Jane S. Shaw - 3/31/2009

Dear Dr. Luker: You have chosen a small point to attack, rather than the basic message I expressed. Let me take this opportunity to agree with you on a point you made in TalkingPointsMemo, where you also made a relatively small point. You said that I exaggerated the benefits of Tuskegee for the education of blacks in the South. As you know, my education in history is limited, and I defer to your knowledge on this subject. Thus, you are probably right, although I am then left to figure out why, if Booker T. Washington had so little influence, he was so beloved by the African-American community. Now you have again chosen a comparatively narrow issue. I almost didn't mention the Rentiesville dissension between Baptists and Methodists (I was trying to write an entry, not an essay) because I had already made my general point. But the conflict seemed to illustrate my argument that racial barriers, group conflicts, and dissension of many kinds all stem from fundamental human failings. The fact that John Hope Franklin didn't see that was puzzling to me. I resolved my difficulty by coming to recognize that Dr. Franklin had an unconstrained vision.

Ralph Luker - 3/31/2009

If my parents got a divorce, I wouldn't claim that that necessarily means marriage is a bad institution. You are citing a *minor*, localized situation and claiming that Franklin should reason from that to see race as just another instance of human fallibility. It largely *defined* Southern regional history for several hundred years!

Jane S. Shaw - 3/31/2009

Keep in mind that conversion for the Franklin family (or at least for John Hope Franklin's father) would have meant capitulating to the power structure of that town, so conversion was not a simple matter for a person of strong moral convictions. Furthermore, I'm not trying to equate this factionalism with racial divisions but rather to show that both spring from universal human failings. Human beings have fundamental flaws that reveal themselves in a variety of situations; we will have a better understanding of the reality around us if we accept that.

Jane S. Shaw - 3/31/2009

I'm not speaking about national rivalries. I'm speaking about the split that divided the community of Rentiesville and ultimately forced the Franklins out of town. I'd call that pretty serious in that particular place, and it reflects the difficulty that human beings often have in dealing with one another.

William Marina - 3/31/2009

Shaw: "But isn’t this factionalism [between Baptists & Methodists] the same kind of petty and inhumane behavior that finds expression in racism?"

No, it is not!

I can convert from one religion to another, I cannot convert from being Black to being White!
One is cultural, the other is perceived in nature, and is rather permanent.

Ralph Luker - 3/30/2009

Does Shaw *really* believe that factional rivalries between Methodists and Baptists are serious social issues comparable to race? Has the Baptist/Methodist divide *ever* created legal systems designed to exclude anyone from full civil rights in American society? Get serious, Ms. Shaw.