Briefly Reviewed: May 2023
Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America
By Rachel S. Ferguson and Marcus M. Witcher
Publisher: Emancipation Books
Review Author: Preston R. Simpson
The title Black Liberation Through the Marketplace catches one’s attention because it offers a politically conservative solution to a contentious social issue. Whether the book accomplishes this is not easily answered. A more accurate though cumbersome title might be Black Poverty Alleviation Through the Marketplace and Civil Society. The book is wide-ranging and covers more than merely market approaches to racial conflicts. In some ways it tries to cover too much and, as a consequence, only skims some issues. Authors Rachel Ferguson and Marcus Witcher clearly have a libertarian bent, and their conclusion that many modern liberal interventions have been counterproductive will not please those on the Left who think only their expertise and management can solve social problems.
A considerable portion of the book is taken up by historical reviews of black oppression in America, from antebellum times through Jim Crow and into the mid-20th century. Included is a good discussion of the black church, its origins, and its role in society from slavery onward. It briefly looks at the lives of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. DuBois, with Washington and Douglass appearing as more inclined to what might be called a free-market approach to black advancement. They are portrayed as holding the view that if blacks are given equal opportunity, they are perfectly capable of building satisfactory lives and careers. “Give the Negro fair play and leave him alone,” Douglass said, and “The trouble never was in the Constitution, but in the administration of the Constitution.” Such sentiments would be grounds for cancelation today. Washington, with views similar to Douglass’s, has been maligned in recent years as insufficiently militant. In fact, this was true during his lifetime. DuBois told lies about him, showing that activists haven’t changed in the past century or so.
Along the way, Ferguson and Witcher offer a cogent critique of the dishonest and historically inaccurate 1619 Project. As background support for their free-market philosophy, they point out that when criticisms of “capitalism” are closely examined, what is being criticized is often not truly free-market capitalism. An economic system that includes slavery, cronyism, and government interventions of various sorts is not true, or pure, capitalism.
A recurring theme in the book is that many of the problems facing black people are more generally those of poor people. Such problems are often seen as black problems simply because blacks are over-represented among the poor. In discussing the time after Jim Crow, the authors cordon off an emerging and “growing Black middle and upper class” that is thriving. “While still dealing with the legacy of racism,” Ferguson and Witcher write, “these economically successful Black Americans are not really the subject of these next two chapters.” This exclusion comes across as odd. Where did these economically successful black people come from? What makes them different from other American blacks? Why can’t the rest of the black population adopt whatever practices they used and also become successful?
Another conspicuous omission is the virtual absence of any discussion of immigrants, particularly from South Asia and East Asia. These new Americans often come here impoverished, look different from whites, often speak accented English, and have been the object of hate crimes. Yet they seem able to thrive, often academically outperforming whites, particularly in the second generation.
Another recurring theme, one that has been noted by conservatives for years, is that many government interventions intended to help poor people have made things worse. Ferguson and Witcher contend that many New Deal programs in particular were harmful to blacks, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not.
In the first part of the 20th century, the employment rate for blacks was similar to that for whites, but it began to worsen between 1930 and 1950. The authors put most of the blame on five government programs that drove blacks out of work by driving up wages: The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, state legislation of “little Davis-Bacon laws,” the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. They contend that Davis-Bacon was a racist law. Quoting George Will, they write, “It was enacted as domestic protectionism, largely to protect organized labor from competition by African Americans who often were excluded from union membership but who were successfully competing for jobs by being willing to work for lower wages.” The other laws were also intended to keep wages artificially high, and this hurt people of low skill.
A similar problem exists today in the form of unrealistically high minimum wages in some jurisdictions. Further, social security and unemployment insurance increased costs for employers, making it more difficult to keep low-skill workers.
In addition to barriers to employment, the difficulties of black Americans cannot be fully discussed without consideration of social and family issues. Since the Great Society, there has been debate about whether welfare programs have contributed to the breakdown of the black family. Even black leaders such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan have affixed blame there.
A fact that supports this idea is that in the early 20th century the percentages of blacks and whites who were married were equal. Though this does not prove that later social programs caused damage, it does seem to refute the idea that the subsequent breakdown of the black family is a vestige of slavery.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) comes in for criticism — something I’ve not encountered before. Two contentions of critics are that in its insistence on integration of schools as its sole goal, Brown implied (even in the text of the decision) that black children could not learn unless they sat next to whites, and that forcing young blacks to enter white schools in the South, where they were threatened and ostracized, gave rise to a pervasive black disdain for the value of education, associating it with whiteness. Whether the latter contention has validity is open to question.
Other changes in modern society likely played a role in family breakdown. The advent of the Pill and widespread tolerance for abortion contributed to a decrease in marriage and, paradoxically, an increase in the number of unwed mothers. The interaction of these developments with government policies that disincentivized marriage and rewarded irresponsible fatherhood and unemployment is difficult to sort out. And though these social problems were first noticed as prominent in the black community, they have become increasingly prevalent among poor and working-class whites.
A short review cannot treat the numerous other issues covered in this wide-ranging analysis. Suffice it to say that the authors offer some intriguing ideas for consideration, along with some non-sequiturs and some wildly impractical schemes. I cannot fail to mention that they are resolutely in favor of doing away with cash bail. Some cities have tried this in the year or so since the book’s publication, and the results are not looking good. One wonders if the authors will stick with that stance in light of real-world developments.
In their final paragraphs, Ferguson and Witcher offer this observation about the leftists they critique: “Atheists like John McWhorter, many centrist liberals, and conservative Christians have all noticed the strangely religious, even fundamentalist, attitudes of the radical left. Rather than laughing at this tendency, perhaps we ought to see it as the expression of profound spiritual hunger, arising from a genuine sense that something is deeply missing from our life together as Americans.” Needless to say, Christians know exactly what is missing. Therefore, the approach to all social problems reaches beyond the marketplace.
Romek & Wanda: The Greatest Political, Faith & Love Story of the 20th Century
By Romuald Spasowski
Publisher: Sacred Story Press
Review Author: Clara Sarrocco
In 1981 Romuald (Romek) Spasowski, a Polish official, defected to the West. He was, at the time, the highest-ranking communist official to do so. Six years later, he published his autobiography, The Liberation of One (English translation by Richard Lourie). In the winter of 1995, Jakub Grygiel, a graduate student at Georgetown University, approached Fr. William Watson, S.J., and asked if he would offer a Mass at the home of a dying friend. Fr. Watson agreed, and thus began his lasting friendship with the Spasowskis. Watson facilitated the reprinting of Romek’s autobiography, with the title Romek & Wanda: The Greatest Political, Faith & Love Story of the 20th Century.
The book’s first section (of three) recounts Romek’s early childhood experiences in a nominally Methodist but practically atheistic home. He was an only child, and his parents separated early in his life. His father, Wladyslaw, was a well-known Polish intellectual who sincerely believed that communism would save the world, especially Poland. He authored The Liberation of Man, an important communist declaration. Romek became a student at the University of Warsaw and was active in communist youth groups. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, both he and his father were arrested several times by the Gestapo and questioned about their underground work. Romek helped build safe hiding places at his mother’s home for Jews and others.
To avoid further interrogation, Romek and Wladyslaw planned to flee; they believed that if they could reach Russia they would be protected by the communist government. Their experience crossing a river in a small boat, in the dead of night, at the beginning of winter, reads like a nightmare. Caught in the river currents and in the dark, their boat capsized, and they landed on a sandbar in the middle of raging waters. Their only hope of survival was to swim back to the shore from which they had come and seek shelter from Nazi Stormtroopers. This experience left Wladyslaw physically spent, emotionally exhausted, disillusioned, and despairing because the Russians did not come to their aid.
Wladyslaw decided he could no longer continue and preferred to die rather than be captured by the Germans. He very calmly decided to take his own life and did so after leaving a note for his son. His last written words were “I love you,” signed, “Your father.” In an envelope, Romek found another note that read, “Farewell world. Farewell my son. Moriturus te salutat! My decision is unchangeable. Enough of this life! I am a citizen of the world (civis universitatis) and do not wish to be any other sort of citizen.” Also in the envelope were letters Wladyslaw had written to the Russian embassy in Berlin requesting asylum. None were answered.
Amid this tragedy, Romek had met and fallen in love with Wanda Sikorska, a devout Catholic. Their paths had first crossed when Wanda was young, but this time the encounter led to marriage. Wanda’s father, also a devout Catholic, did not object to the marriage because he recognized Romek’s basic goodness and decency. His and Wanda’s only request was that the marriage take place before a priest.
Book Two tells of Romek’s career as a Polish diplomat. Romek joined the Polish Army and began working for the Polish communist government. He rose quickly in the ranks, serving in diplomatic posts in various parts of the world. Although a devoted communist and an avowed atheist, his love was always for Poland. He sincerely believed, as did his father before him, that communism would bring freedom and peace to Poland.
Romek represented the Polish government on the Polish War Crimes Mission in Nuremberg, Germany. As a diplomat, he was posted to London, Argentina, the United States (twice), and India. He served on a commission in Vietnam to oversee the peace process. His family accompanied him at his diplomatic posts for most of the 25 years of his foreign-service career.
Romek was now a handsome man of the world, and he painfully recounts a liaison that came close to destroying his marriage. He became infatuated with a young, sophisticated woman with whom he began an affair. When she pressured him to marry her, he began divorce proceedings to end his marriage to Wanda. Because of his atheistic beliefs, he had no religious scruples, but Wanda quietly bore the turmoil and prayed for the soul of her beloved husband. It was her practice, when returning to Poland from various foreign lands, to request a stop in Italy. This was one way of camouflaging her visits to Roman churches and to Assisi. Romek admitted that his visits to Assisi left him with a sense of peace that he rarely experienced anywhere else in his travels. Although he found it difficult, he finally left his lover and returned contrite to his family.
While on assignment in India, Romek and Wanda experienced the greatest tragedy of their lives. Their son Wladyslaw, nicknamed Katus, a sensitive, thoughtful young man and an avid anti-communist, committed suicide. They discovered that the Russian government had been trailing Katus, threatening him, and asking him to spy on his father. The perfidy was too difficult a burden for Katus, and he chose the only escape he thought was open to him. Devastated, the parents buried their son with his grandfather after whom he had been named and left for their final posting in the United States. Wanda always loved this post best because she could practice her religion without fear of retaliation.
In Book Three, covering 1970 to 1981, circumstances began to change in Poland — and in Romek’s soul. The Polish people were struggling not only from a lack of freedom but from a lack of food, while their communist leaders lived extravagant lives. Party Secretary Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in order to suppress growing unrest. Romek realized that the Polish embassy was, in reality, a branch of the KGB. The hopes of the Polish people were renewed with the Solidarity movement under Lech Walesa. As Romek’s faith in communism began to waiver, his faith in God gained strength. This was bolstered by the election of Pope John Paul II, a Polish patriot. Romek and Wanda traveled to Rome to meet with him, and Romek confessed to the Pope his doubts about Polish communism. Romek once said that Soviet tyranny thrived not because of its strength but because “the free world had no solidarity of its own to combat it.”
Romek’s conversion proceeded rapidly. His daughter, now married, had come to the United States with her husband. Romek searched his soul and decided to defect to the United States and enter the Catholic Church. He was baptized by John Cardinal Kroll, archbishop of Philadelphia, and took the name Francis. He wrote, “I asked myself whether I deserved the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation with Him who liberated man’s greatest hope. In joining myself to Christ, I hope to at last be one with Poland’s martyred people.”
Romuald Spasowski died of bone cancer on August 9, 1995 — a day he shares in death with St. Edith Stein.
Romek & Wanda is not a book to be taken lightly. As its publisher’s imprint proclaims, it is indeed a “sacred story.” We can be grateful to Fr. Watson for sharing with us his friendship with this remarkable couple and for overseeing the reprint of Romek’s original memoir. To the book’s end Watson has appended the homilies he preached after offering the Mass of Resurrection for both of them. Wanda died in 2014; her story is yet to be written.
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