If you are in the habit of reading publications dealing with historical research, you have likely come across the following line of reasoning many times: something – an idea, perhaps a practice, or a policy – is a holdover from oppression. It has its roots in either racism or sexism. It is marked by an original sin. So we should get rid of it, although, admittedly, there is nothing inherently evil about it. Such a step is necessary on our way to a more just society.
This form of argument – to “problematize” a thing in science – is almost ubiquitous. It’s not new, but in recent years it has become the most popular way of arguing for social or political improvement. This is no accident: lineage arguments are a necessary theoretical backbone of the claim that the United States and all of its institutions are pervaded by oppression – in other words, “systemic”.
Some recent examples, big and small: The Senate filibuster has been called a “monument to white supremacy”, a “direct legacy of segregation” even though it was “not explicitly designed as a tool for white supremacists” because it was “not” designed became ‘at all. “In order to eradicate white supremacy, we must abolish the filibuster.
The American police have “racist roots” because the police in southern slave states had “roots in slave patrols”. To eradicate the Confederacy’s legacy, we must get rid of the police.
Most recently, The New Jim Crow attorney and writer Michelle Alexander argued in a New York Times that the practice of tipping – more specifically, enables restaurant workers to officially be paid less than the minimum wage, the difference being in the Consists of customer advice – is a “legacy of slavery”. For reasons of racial and gender equality, we must abolish tips.
These claims vary in their historical accuracy from indisputable to highly controversial. But even if, for the sake of practice, we accept the historical arguments as true, this logic – which is central to claims of systemic oppression – is applied unevenly, unfairly, and most importantly, ineffectual for social progress.
One more determination: there are certainly arguments for all of the above that do not activate historical arguments about origins and claims about “systems”. Many proponents of radical abolitionist movements use such arguments. Failure to limit arguments to considerations of current implications and preferences for the future speaks volumes. Arguments of historical construction clearly pinpoint a particular purchase as they lead to a meta-claim that America is inherently oppressive.
So what’s the problem with arguments by origin?
The first problem is the most obvious: just because something has been used for bad purposes, or even invented to do bad, doesn’t mean that the thing is inherently bad. Think of this as the “swords to plowshares” principle. Chapter 2 of Isaiah speaks of weapons of war being repurposed for peaceful instruments in agriculture and trade. Likewise, weapons of submission and domination can become tools of construction and coexistence.
The police are not forever destined to fulfill the legacy of slave patrols. (You may believe that this is still the case in practice. Again, this is a separate argument.) Because of their institutional legitimacy and legal recognition, the reformed police force may find it easier to be “plowshares” – protection of the vulnerable, protection of public peace – whatever they could replace if they were abolished. However, the logic of permanently polluted institutions does not allow for reform – only abolition and replacement.
While these arguments most often come from the political left, the right can make this mistake too. Some right-wing conservatives adhere to the logic of judicial restraint – judges should avoid “bank legislation” at all costs – in large part because judicial activism produces undesirable outcomes, such as the prohibition of state abortion restrictions in Roe v. Calf. There are many good reasons to subscribe to the philosophy of restraint of the judiciary, but these should be based on arguments about the proper role of judges in our constitutional order, rather than on the results of such activism in the past.
That some Conservatives, aware of the current Supreme Court equilibrium, have changed attitudes towards reluctance to engage in activism only further clarifies this point. Trust in historical applications of a practice and not in fundamental considerations about the priorities contained therein must distance us from consistency. Which side of the debate between restraint and engagement is preferable is a question that can best be answered with a view to normative questions of constitutionalism and political and legal theories – taking into account the application of both theories in the past – rather than in retrospect who first began to fixate a method and for what purpose.
Even the filibuster should not be dismissed as the fruit of the poisoned tree. For one, it can force lawmakers to compromise until they get a majority stake. It was certainly not a white supremacist weapon when the Senate Democrats used it to prevent Senator Tim Scott – a black Republican – from passing his police reform bill until last June.
That brings us to the second main problem with arguments from the source: it is shamelessly selective in application. Almost anything that isn’t brand new can be undermined by finding a disruptive way in which it was once used or something undesirable about its original proponents.
Institutions cannot change if they are always defined by their origins. The only way to do better is to start over, with an origin story that will surely be condemned by a future generation for moral failings that are still unforeseen.
A glaring example of the selective application of this logic is the minimum wage. No less than Michelle Alexander, in her column on tips, advocates not only continuing the minimum wage, but also raising it as a form of racial justice. The minimum wage, however, has its origins in a strongly xenophobic and eugenic policy. Progressive economist EA Ross supported the minimum wage because it would effectively put Asian immigrants out of work, noting that “the coolie, although it cannot outperform the American, can outlive it”. A minimum wage would make such “under-living” impossible and thus discourage Asian immigrants from accepting the work of white workers. FW Taussig, the Harvard economist and advocate of the forced sterilization of “inferior” races, wrote in his Principles of Economics that the “compulsory minimum wage” would create a class of the “unemployed … who are unable to earn the minimum” .
“It would be impossible to force employers to pay the minimum to those whose services were not worth it,” he wrote. “But it is a fair question whether it is not a merit of the proposal, but a defect.” Those who were unable to find employment at the minimum wage because of “innate weaknesses of body and character”, euphemisms of race and ethnicity, should simply be exterminated. We haven’t reached the stage where we can treat them with chloroform once and for all. But at least they can be separated, locked up in shelters and asylums, and prevented from spreading their species. “
But Alexander, and undoubtedly many who share their obligations, want to strengthen the minimum wage, not abolish it. This shows both the redundancy of arguments from origin – she could argue that tipping is bad without invoking its origin, without encountering this glaring hypocrisy – and its cynical use as a partisan club and not a deeply rooted belief the nature of politics and institutions.
The third and most abstract problem with this way of thinking is that it is inherently all or nothing. The totalitarianism of a focus on origins is that something once tainted with beginnings that do not fit well with our modern sensibilities is indelibly tainted. No matter what kind of de-escalation training and anti-implicit bias education you offer the police, they will always be the ugly child of slave patrols. Reform is necessarily insufficient, if not impossible.
Seriously, even when applied unevenly, arguments about fruits of the poisoned tree undermine the legitimacy of anything that arose before our current moral sensibilities emerged – that is, almost anything that currently exists. Everything that has been ascertained in the past contains assumptions and value judgments made by individuals who could not have shared our exact moral beliefs (at least in part because the language required to represent such beliefs is new and constantly changing ).
In theory, nothing is immune. “Love thy neighbor as thyself”? Instructions from oppressors for oppressors. “Life, Freedom and the Pursuit of Happiness”? A slave owner’s trick to consolidate white supremacy. This, of course, is why such a logic must be used selectively: the argument against all poisonous fruits is itself a product of the same systemic forces – one must always use “the tools of the master” to “dismantle one’s house” in order to take out a loan Theorem from the theory of liberation.
In addition, this type of reasoning reflects a broader social trend that views people and institutions as static rather than dynamic. Institutions cannot change if they are always defined by their origins. The only way to do better is to start over, with an origin story that will surely be condemned by a future generation for moral failings that are still unforeseen.
In this worldview there is no place for forgiveness, introspection and gradual progress, or reform without revolution. It is deeply totalitarian in its comprehensive condemnation of the failures of ideas and institutions – and the people who propagate them – without allowing for the possibility of change. For this it is above all a line of argument that is diametrically opposed to social progress.