David Horowitz: Why I Am Not Celebrating John Hope Franklin's Birthday

Roundup: Talking About History

David Horowitz, in a communication to HNN (1-25-05):

I will be one of those not celebrating John Hope Franklin's 90th birthday. Four years ago this spring I attempted to place an ad challenging the proposal to pay reparations 135 years after the fact to black Americans who had never been slaves. A massive effort to suppress this ad was mounted by the anti-intellectual left on campuses across the country. The ad was censored in 40 college papers. At Duke University where John Hope Franklin is the most honored professor emeritus on campus, the editors of the Duke Chronicle and I were denounced as "racists" and demands were made to destroy the paper for having the temerity to print the ad. Franklin supported these despicable attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of the press and intellectual discourse. He even provided an historically illiterate attack on my ad which was printed in the Chronicle and posted on the website of the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke. I wrote up this incident in my book Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations For Slavery, Encounter Books 2001:

An even more troubling source of the hyper-sensitivity over race comes from the ideological message pervading the university curriculum in several varieties of racial Marxism including “critical race studies” and other post-modern fields. Through these prisms, the American past and present can look very grim and menacing to undergraduates innocent of the historical record. The powerful influence of this intellectual perspective at Duke was made clear by the first published “rebuttal” of my ad, which appeared in the March 29th Chronicle as a “letter to the editor.” The author was one of the university’s most celebrated academic figures – the former head of President Clinton’s Commission on Race, the author of a classic text, From Slavery To Freedom, the only faculty member to have an academic Center at Duke named after him, and the most honored and generally revered African American historian of slavery alive -- John Hope Franklin. One of the ironies of the events surrounding the placement of my ad, in fact, was the Duke Administration responded to the protests it inspired, by increasing the university’s financial support for the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.[1]

The 500-word statement written by the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus’ was circulated via the Internet, and its ideas appeared in published and posted responses to my ad on campuses across the country:

Horowitz's Diatribe Contains Historical Inaccuracies

By John Hope Franklin

Here are a few things to bear in mind when reading the diatribe on slavery and reparations that appeared in the Chronicle a few days ago.

All whites and no slaves benefited from American slavery. All blacks had no rights that they could claim as their own. All whites, including the vast majority who had no slaves, were not only encouraged but authorized to exercise dominion over all slaves, thereby adding strength to the system of control.

If David Horowitz had read James D. DeBow's The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-slaveholder, he would not have blundered into the fantasy of claiming that no single group benefited from slavery. Planters did, of course. New York merchants did, of course. Even poor whites benefited from the legal advantage they enjoyed over all blacks as well as from the psychological advantage of having a group beneath them. Meanwhile, laws enacted by states forbade the teaching of blacks any means of acquiring knowledge -- including the alphabet -- which is the legacy of disadvantage of educational privitization and discrimination experienced by African Americans in 2001.

Most living Americans do have a connection with slavery. They have inherited the preferential advantage, if they are white, or the loathsome disadvantage, if they are black; and those positions are virtually as alive today as they were in the 19th century. The pattern of housing, the discrimination in employment, the resistance to equal opportunity in education, the racial profiling, the inequities in the administration of justice, the low expectation of blacks in the discharge of duties assigned to them, the widespread belief that blacks have physical prowess but little intellectual capacities and the widespread opposition to affirmative action, as if that had not been enjoyed by whites for three centuries, all indicate that the vestiges of slavery are still with us.

And as long as there are pro-slavery protagonists among us, hiding behind such absurdities as "we are all in this together" or "it hurts me as much as it hurts you" or "slavery benefited you as much as it benefited me," we will suffer from the inability to confront the tragic legacies of slavery and deal with them in a forthright and constructive manner.

Most important, we must never fall victim to some scheme designed to create a controversy among potential allies in order to divide them and, at the same time, exploit them for its own special purpose.

John Hope Franklin

James B. Duke Professor Emeritus,

John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies

When I first read this statement, I felt embarrassed for the author, and did not respond. But when its ideas kept cropping up in other contexts, in letters to the editor and in statements attacking the ad, I decided it could not be ignored any longer.

The statement that “all whites and no slaves benefited from American slavery,” is the claim of a racial ideologue rather than an historian. It is, moreover, irrelevant to the dispute at hand, since neither I, nor the ad ever claimed that any slaves benefited from slavery. The first question my ad raised was that if all whites benefited economically from slavery (and a responsible historian would certainly want to keep an open mind on this question) could one also maintain that free blacks did not? More importantly, the question was: if all whites alive today were beneficiaries of the wealth that slavery produced, how could one say that blacks alive today were not?

Franklin’s second statement that “all blacks had no rights that they could claim as their own” is historically false. Even the African slaves of the Amistad, who were not American citizens, had rights that were recognized by the United States Supreme Court, which resulted in their freedom. Free blacks in America had citizen rights, including the right to vote and to own slaves, as more than three thousand did. Some free blacks like Frederick Douglass, were respected statesmen in their own right. Even chattel slaves in the Deep South had rights as human beings that the law bound their masters to respect. In fact, as a historian like Franklin should know (and acknowledge), the American Revolution changed the law of British slavery specifically to recognize the humanity and natural rights of African slaves:

In North Carolina, in 1774, the punishment for killing a slave “willfully and maliciously” was a year’s imprisonment; and the murderer was required to pay the owner the value of the slave. In 1791, the state’s legislature denounced this law as “disgraceful to humanity and degrading in the highest degree to the laws and principles of a free, Christian, and enlightened country” because it drew a “distinction of criminality between the murder of a white person and of one who is equally an human creature, but merely of a different complexion.” Thereupon, by law, it was murder to kill a slave willfully and maliciously. (emphasis added)[2]

Franklin’s third statement, -- “all whites, including the vast majority who had no slaves, were not only encouraged but authorized to exercise dominion over all slaves, thereby adding strength to the system of control” is meaningless, since whites who were so encouraged, took the opposite course of resistance to, subversion of, and finally war against slavery in enough numbers to put an end to the system. It is the denial of this reality by reparations supporters that is the heart of the dispute between us.

Franklin’s fourth claim is also irrelevant since the statement in the ad was not that no whites benefited from slavery, but that free blacks and the free descendants of blacks did. Franklin does not even attempt to refute this argument.

Franklin’s fifth claim that “most living Americans do have a connection with slavery” is really two claims: that slavery and racism are identical – which is a problematic thesis -- and that racism in American society has remained virtually unchanged since the 19th Century, which is maliciously false.

There is, finally, something almost pathological in Franklin’s statement that all blacks inherit “the loathsome disadvantage” of being black. This from a man who has been honored all his adult life, and above all his white colleagues at Duke. John Hope Franklin is the most celebrated figure in a southern institution named after James B. Duke, the benefactor of Franklin’s own professorship, and a man whose fortune was built on tobacco wealth, one of the chief crops of the very system that had brought Franklin’s ancestors to this continent in chains. Franklin’s inability to appreciate these ironies is a disconcerting failure of historical imagination.

Franklin’s sixth claim is the ludicrous insinuation that I (and by extension anyone who disagrees with his views on reparations) is a “pro-slavery antagonist.” It requires no comment.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this bitter and graceless document is reserved for last. Franklin advises black students to avoid “controversy” among themselves, stamp out the diversity of viewpoints, and essentially to embrace a totalitarian unity instead. It is a summary statement of the subtext of all the attacks on the ad, and on the editors who braved the attacks to give it a hearing.

[1] “Keohane Issues Report On Racial Issues At Duke,” op cit

[2] Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History, NY 1993, pp. 90-91. Cited in Thomas G. West, Vindicating The Founders, NY 1997 p. 13

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Darren Herbst - 9/18/2005

Let me get this right: if one black historian rises to the top of his profession, that proves slavery creates no disadvantage for current-day blacks? Have you thought through this idea for 10 minutes? It's the same logic as saying that because one person with developmental delay ("retarded" for you non-PC types) gets a job at McDonalds, there isn't a system in place that restricts employment opportunities for people with DD (justifiably or not). Taking your statement only one step further in absurdity, you might want to argue that Ann Frank's publishing success proves that Jews didn't have it so bad in the Holocaust. One black historian (or 1000) finding success doesn't mean that blacks aren't at a disadvantage. There's no logical connection between those assertions.

Here is a rational defense of the idea that blacks are at a disadvantage because of the legacy of slavery. ("Loathsome," is, indeed, a distinction of degree that's open to debate.) Every other racial minority group in America besides Native Americans came here of their own volition. From Mexicans to Poles to Haitians to Canadians, all other non-African American immigrants chose to be here of their own accord (refugee status complicates this of course). These elected immigrants thus came to America with their sense of history intact--where they came from, why they came to America--and had support systems in place (even the poorest migrant farmer has ties back to family in their country of origin). Psychologically, voluntary immigration carries much different baggage than forced immigration--you grant that much, no?

Ask for definitive proof of where a descendent of slavery came from in Africa, what his or her family's customs were there. You will not get an answer informed by actual history (unless they've invested in some Alex Haley type investigations). You will only get conjecture.

Ask any other immigrant the same question, and you may not get a definitive answer, but these people will at least have a means for tracing it back.

Having a sense of history is essential for confidence and sense of direction in the present. You and your conservative meritocrat pundits may like to think this is just sniveling on the part of blacks, just malingering to be affected by the massive disconnect with their place of emigration THAT YOU DON'T HAVE, but any serious student of history will not.

Slavery affects the current conditions of blacks like Communism affects the current inhabitants of the Ukraine as the Revolutionary War affects the current inhabitants of this country.

I propose a modest thought experiment for you to try out: Imagine you had no clear sense of where your people came from and why they came here. Imagine that your parents didn't either, and their parents. Might your situation in this country might be different? Is it at least possible?

david horowitz - 1/31/2005

Oh this is a very intelligent discussion. Franklin is clearly wrong on all the facts, but hey he's black and he has an academic title so I guess that resolves all the important issues, doesn't it guys?

Brent J. Aucoin - 1/31/2005

David Horowitz commented that he was embarrassed for John Hope Franklin after having read his rejoinder to Horowitz's arguments against reparations. I now know how he feels, as I am embarrassed for the two individuals who have take the time to respond to Horowitz's article. After Horowitz reprinted Franklin's statment in full and then went through it practically sentence by sentence and rebutted each of Franklin's points, Mr. Green thinks he can dismiss Horowitz by saying he should read other books on slavery. Mr Wade simply dismisses Horowitz's article as a "fumbling effort and then says Horowitz is out of his league. Where are the specifics? Where are the details and the arguments? If anyone is out of their league when it comes to debate I fear it is the respondents. Why didn't they go through Horowitz's piece like he did Franklin's, instead of just dismissing him and his arguments? Horowitz showed specifically how each of Franklin's claims were either historically inaccurate, irrelevant or just completely wrong-headed. Mr Green and Mr Wade say Horowitz has not done the reading. I assume they have. So, let's have it. Please show us that blacks had no rights in antebellum America. Please rebut Horowitz point by point. In doing so, I suggest that you use facts and abide by the rules of argumentation and logic, rather than ad hominen attacks.

Finally, I would like some rational defense of the idea that blacks are at a loathsome disadvantage because of the legacy of slavery. Apparently that legacy did not prevent Mr. Franklin from reaching the top of his profession. Does the legacy chain everyone else in his race down but him?

I don't expect everyone to agree with Horowitz, but if you are going to criticize him then at least do it on the basis of what he said and make sure there is some substance to what you are saying.

Michael Glen Wade - 1/30/2005

Mr. Green is right about Horowitz's failure, doubly so since Horowitz is no historian. While John Hope Franklin is both a historian and a human being of great distinction, Horowitz is still trying to come to grips with what he believes was his youthful wrongheadedness. Why should one assume that he has now got it right, especially given the convert's propensity for overzealousness. Zealousness, in fact, would seem to be the defining feature of Horowitz's offerings, whether in the 60s, 80s, or now. Unfortunately, excessive zeal is not a substitute for knowledge, as Horowitz's fumbling effort to dissect Professor Franklin's rejoinder indicates. He's trying to play in a league he is not qualified for because he has not done the reading and reflection. It is his right to try, just as it is his right to be irritating in the name of profit --- another theme in his career. But it is amazingly arrogant for him to believe that any fair-minded American cares whether he celebrates Dr. Franklin's birthday or not, irrespective of whether they support reparations for descendants of slaves. Of course, there's always preaching to the choir....and the analyst.

Michael Green - 1/29/2005

Methinks, as usual, Mr. Horowitz doth protest too much. But if anyone knows "a disconcerting failure of historical imagination," it is Mr. Horowitz. Perhaps he should ponder why Mr. Franklin would feel sensitive on the subject. Maybe it would help if he read some histories of slavery that don't fit his already existing point of view.