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Libertarian women’s history month: Anne Wortham

22 Mar
Anne Wortham, a prolific academic who has opposed a was born on November 26th 1941 in Jackson, Tennessee, the first of five children, she was raised in the segregated South where her parents instilled in her religious beliefs and the importance of education, self-reliance and self-improvement. As a youngster Wortham took piano lessons and developed a life-long interest in classical music and opera as a result of listening to radio broadcasts of performances of the Metropolitan Opera.  Her mother died when she was ten years old, and Wortham adopted the homemaker role and cared for her family while attending school and graduating high school as an honor student. 

In 1959 Wortham began studying at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) with the goal of becoming a secondary school teacher.  The civil-rights black-consciousness movement was just taking form. Martin Luther King was emerging as a leader, and all around Wortham there was the view that international humanism would solve all the world’s problems and that because blacks were victims, they were morally superior to whites. While in college she participated in Operations Crossroads Africa in Ethiopia during summer 1962.  Following graduation, from 1963-1965, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania.  “I had culture shock encountering the extraordinary human misery,” she says, “the almost disorienting openness of poverty and disease-it was like going back in time.” The next year, she went as a Peace Corps teacher to Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania), partly to help in her planned graduate study. “Things began to change for me then,” she says.

Seeing the lack of economic development in Africa, Wortham began to question the rhetoric of the U.S. civil rights movement and forged her own ideas about freedom. Wortham was beginning to have a problem with the incipient civil-rights movement, centered around its anti-white sentiment-its indictment of the white race and its embracing of all blacks. “I was also catching on to white liberals and their paternalistic world view,” she recalls.  She also began to learn about Third World politics. Western intellectuals proclaimed that the Third World was morally superior to the West. Wortham says, “I was supposed to be an authority on being repressed, but I didn’t know what to tell white liberals who treated me as a black instead of as Anne Wortham. It was complicated even further, because I needed their approval to make it. That’s when I realized these guys really wanted me to do the jig.”

In 1964, some friends handed Wortham a copy of a Playboy interview with novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. She was not much impressed, but a few months later, while shopping for curios in Kampala, Uganda, she ran across Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged and bought it. Again, she was not overwhelmed, but she was interested in Rand’s individualist philosophy. A few months later, she read another of Rand’s major novels, The Fountainhead. The experience changed her. “I finally could justify my misgivings about the demands and expectations coming from civil-rights and peace-movement colleagues. I knew my responses were not idiosyncratic-it wasn’t just that Anne was weird. I got to Africa and met myself, in an objective sense.”
She began a study of individualist philosophers and economists. Her father shipped her some basic works on capitalism, and she pored over them. Her relationships with Peace Corps friends turned bad, and she asked to be sent home.
In 1965, she returned to the United States, ready to write her position on the civil-rights movement. She tried to get a job at the Ayn Rand-allied Nathaniel Branden Institute. When that didn’t come through, she went to Esquire as an editorial researcher, the first black to work at the magazine. While there, she wrote for the liberty-minded Freeman and became a vocal critic of the civil-rights movement.

In 1967, Wortham went to work at NBC as a research assistant for Chet Huntley. She had decided not to go to graduate school in international relations, because she “wasn’t ready to run around apologizing for America.” She also wanted to put it on record that not all blacks think alike. But her experience at NBC convinced her that she “didn’t have a chance in hell” of writing from her perspective at such a place.

In 1977 she returned to academia to pursue a PhD. in sociology at Boston College. A year before earning the degree in 1982, Wortham published The Other Side of Racism: A Philosophical Study of Black Race Consciousness which explored how race consciousness is transformed into political strategies and issues, though intent on empowerment, undermine intellectual independence, individual rights, and economic and political freedom.  The result is continued racial tension and  African-Americans feeling disconnected from the society in which they live and function as citizens. 

Through her exploration of the writings of philosopher Ayn Rand and economist Ludwig von Mises Wortham grappled with the alienation she felt from those around her who wished to see any black person as an embodiment of the race, without considering the possibility of diverse backgrounds and views among blacks.  Wortham even famously had a debate in the 70s with another African American libertarian, Susan Love Brown, on black political movements.

In a review of the book John Chamberlain (who had been one of Edith Efron’s teachers) summed up part of her argument: “The freedom movement in Anne Wortham’s opinion took a wrong turn when it deserted the individual to focus on the demand for special treatment for ethnic groups. People who feel compelled to merge their identities in collectivities can never in her estimation achieve self-es teem. Martin Luther King did not go wrong in asking people to love one another, but it is in the nature of love that it cannot be imposed at group behest. The post-King history of the freedom movement has been filled in all too many instances with attempts to correct the wrongs of racism with still more racism. “Affirmative action,” which leads to quotas, is simply discrimination in reverse. Preferential hiring is still preferential hiring when it is based on color instead of on one’s kinship to the boss or on one’s age category, sex or religious affiliation.

“In her analysis of the post-King movement Anne Wortham identities five different types who have led blacks away from the idea of achieving a self-esteem that is “beyond racism.” There is the conventional integrationist who simply wants to conform. There is the power-seeking nationalist who believes in a group-imposed separatism. There is the spiritual separatist with the “black is beautiful” mentality that denies the possibility that whites will ever understand true spiritual superiority. There is the independent militant who says “if you can’t lick them, destroy their world.” And there is the ambivalent appeaser who says to himself, “if you can’t join either group, don’t let them know it.”
“In describing her five types Anne Wortham cuts loose with some beautifully direct writing that lifts her book and propels the whole argument forward. Sociological lingo is forgotten. We see clearly the wrongs that are being done in the name of Affirmative Action. Anne Wortham quotes an illustration offered by Thomas Sowell of a young black woman with an IQ of 142 and grades to match who was told that she would have been eligible for financial aid in law school if only her test scores had been lower.”

After writing the book, Wortham decided that she didn’t want to keep saying the same things, “screaming and yelling from the outside”-that is, as someone without the “proper” credentials. So she decided to pay the dues to gain legitimacy and finally went to graduate school, at Boston College, where she received her doctorate in sociology in 1982.

Her work caught the attention of Democratic Party campaign manager turned PBS talking head Bill Moyers, who interviewed her for his show (video above).  Of the encounter Wortham told The Freeman:  After the two-hour session with Moyers, he said to me: ‘You know, you are dangerous.”’I think he was facetiously referring to the fact that views like mine jeopardized the wish of black leaders to have the public believe that the black community was of one mind regarding their political and economic interests and their view of black history and race relations.

“Throughout the twentieth century blacks have had the opportunity to present their demand for civil rights in a way that would move Americans and their government toward a greater appreciation for individual rights. However, in every instance, black and white civil rights advocates have reinterpreted the Constitution as protecting group rights to justify and expand the welfare state. Rather than liberating blacks from their dependency on the state that began with the New Deal, and respecting them by insisting that they take responsibility for their freedom, civil rights leaders, politicians, and the American people proceeded to expand New Deal policies with Great Society policies that have cultivated the American people’s expectation that the costs of an individual’s risky behavior will be borne not by the individual but by a pool of people—by taxpayers in general, by “the rich” in particular, by society at large.

“Blacks are now a mature one-party interest group, led by a civil rights industry with its own Congressional caucus that uses the victimization of blacks in the past as justification for preferential treatment of blacks in the present. The black establishment’s racialization of politics has been so successful that a black person who criticizes President Obama is condemned as a traitor and a white critic is vilified as a racist. While the motives and character of whites are openly questioned, and their mobility is seen as the privilege of being white, explaining the plight of disadvantaged blacks in terms of attitudes, values, and resulting behavior is construed as “blaming the victim.” Thus, racial dialogue relies on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools, and bad housing. As sociologist Orlando Patterson argues, academics who are “allergic to cultural explanations” are unable to explain why so many young unemployed black men have children whom they cannot support, or why they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths. Neither can they explain how “good kids” emerge from bad neighborhoods.”

Wortham has published a huge volume of work and taught at Wellesley College and Washington and Lee University in the 1980s. In 1985-1986 she was the John M. Olin Foundation Faculty Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of  Government and she was a Hoover Institution Visiting Fellow at Stanford University from 1986 to 1988. Since 1991, Wortham has been Associate Professor of Sociology at Illinois State University. 

Of the libertarians, Wortham has said, often place unrealistic demands on black libertarians. “They want us to take the beachhead, for us to be called the Toms and the sell-outs,” she says. “They hope that the movement will gain some ground-but who will take the abuse? You are controversial as a black individualist-a walking ‘no’ sign. There is a daily battering by blacks who disagree with your visibility. By most standards, I’m not supposed to exist. I don’t know what the toll is, but I do know that you tend to guard your privacy-so you go home and listen to music. You know you’ll catch enough hell when you release your next bombshell.”

On the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, Wortham released the following open letter:

Fellow Americans,

Please know: I am black; I grew up in the segregated South. I did not vote for Barack Obama; I wrote in Ron Paul’s name as my choice for president. Most importantly, I am not race conscious. I do not require a black president to know that I am a person of worth, and that life is worth living. I do not require a black president to love the ideal of America.
I cannot join you in your celebration. I feel no elation. There is no smile on my face. I am not jumping with joy. 

There are no tears of triumph in my eyes. For such emotions and behavior to come from me, I would have to deny all that I know about the requirements of human flourishing and survival – all that I know about the history of the United States of America, all that I know about American race relations, and all that I know about Barack Obama as a politician. I would have to deny the nature of the “change” that Obama asserts has come to America. Most importantly, I would have to abnegate my certain understanding that you have chosen to sprint down the road to serfdom that we have been on for over a century. 

I would have to pretend that individual liberty has no value for the success of a human life. I would have to evade your rejection of the slender reed of capitalism on which your success and mine depend. I would have to think it somehow rational that 94 percent of the 12 million blacks in this country voted for a man because he looks like them (that blacks are permitted to play the race card), and that they were joined by self-declared “progressive” whites who voted for him because he doesn’t look like them. I would have to be wipe my mind clean of all that I know about the kind of people who have advised and taught Barack Obama and will fill posts in his administration – political intellectuals like my former colleagues at the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

I would have to believe that “fairness” is equivalent of justice. I would have to believe that man who asks me to “go forward in a new spirit of service, in a new service of sacrifice” is speaking in my interest. I would have to accept the premise of a man that economic prosperity comes from the “bottom up,” and who arrogantly believes that he can will it into existence by the use of government force. I would have to admire a man who thinks the standard of living of the masses can be improved by destroying the most productive and the generators of wealth.

Finally, Americans, I would have to erase from my consciousness the scene of 125,000 screaming, crying, cheering people in Grant Park, Chicago irrationally chanting “Yes We Can!” Finally, I would have to wipe all memory of all the times I have heard politicians, pundits, journalists, editorialists, bloggers and intellectuals declare that capitalism is dead – and no one, including especially Alan Greenspan, objected to their assumption that the particular version of the anti-capitalistic mentality that they want to replace with their own version of anti-capitalism is anything remotely equivalent to capitalism.

So you have made history, Americans. You and your children have elected a black man to the office of the president of the United States, the wounded giant of the world. The battle between John Wayne and Jane Fonda is over – and that Fonda won. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern must be very happy men. Jimmie Carter, too. And the Kennedys have at last gotten their Kennedy look-a-like. The self-righteous welfare statists in the suburbs can feel warm moments of satisfaction for having elected a black person. So, toast yourselves: 60s countercultural radicals, 80s yuppies and 90s bourgeois bohemians. 

Toast yourselves, Black America. Shout your glee Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Duke, Stanford, and Berkeley. You have elected not an individual who is qualified to be president, but a black man who, like the pragmatist Franklin Roosevelt, promises to – Do Something! You now have someone who has picked up the baton of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. But you have also foolishly traded your freedom and mine – what little there is left – for the chance to feel good. There is nothing in me that can share your happy obliviousness.

November 6, 2008