The Progressives: Racism and Public Law

American Progressivism initiated the beginning of the end of American scientific racism. Its critics have been vocal, however. Progressives have been charged with promotion of eugenics, and thus with mainstreaming practices such as compulsory housing segregation, sterilization of those deemed unfit, and exclusion of immigrants on racial grounds. But if the Progressives were such racists, why is it that since the 1930s Afro-Americans and other people of color have consistently supported self-proclaimed progressive political candidates, and typically by very wide margins?

When examining the Progressives on race, it is critical to distinguish the views that they inherited from those that they developed. The rise of Progressivism coincided with the death of scientific racism, which had been taught in American universities since the early nineteenth century and featured prominently in the scientific debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution. Eugenics, which attempted to use genetics and mathematics to validate many racist claims, was its last gasp. The most notable thing about the Progressives is that they were responsible for bringing scientific racism to an end.

One of the most powerful characteristics of the progressive state was its attentiveness to science—a characteristic that it retains to this day. When the Progressive Era was forming, however, genetic racism was the scientific model of the day, cutting across a wide range of disciplines and reaching people of all political persuasions, even into the most elite of American research institutions. By and large, non-Progressives were just as racist as Progressives and some significantly more so. Further, the Progressive period lay entirely within the southern era of Jim Crow legislated segregation, often making it impossible to identify particular racial attitudes in the New South as Progressive or simply as inherited features of long held southern racial ideas. The all-important question for the historian is, which racial ideas did the Progressives inherit from their predecessors, and which did they develop on their own?