Weekend Reading: Robert A. Heinlein: Letter for F.M. Busby on Freedom and Race Relations

The Heinlein Foundation appears to have taken down its Virginia Edition Sample.

Here’s the letter to F.M. Busby from it:

EDITOR’S NOTE: This letter may never have been sent, possibly due (in part) to its racial contents, still incandescently incendiary forty-five years later. Heinlein moved the letter bodily to his “Story Notes” desk file, possibly because of its relevance to the underlying background of Farnham’s Freehold. The first page of the letter is missing, so we pick it up in mid- sentence and undated, though Virginia Heinlein noted on an index card stored with the letter that it must, by internal evidence, have been written sometime in 1964 or 1965 and in any event before October 1965 (when the Heinleins moved from Colorado Springs). The letter is printed otherwise complete and as Heinlein wrote it.

It should be noted that this letter was written before the Civil Rights Movement, already well under way, made its biggest public impact and changed the way we speak and think of race relations in this country and so reflects a “hard common sense” approach dating before that cultural watershed. Much of the material it deals with was completely submerged at the time, though some details (i.e., the mechanics of “blockbusting”) became common, public property later. The entire text thus provides context for placing the letter in a historical context. It is also worth noting that most of Heinlein’s arguments are of a sort that would later be identified as “hard core libertarian.” Most of the letter seems to be critiquing a position taken by Busby in a fanzine article, showing that the position was oversimplified in view of the complexities of real life and must be viewed as reductio ad absurdam and organizing, rather than talking out, Heinlein’s own positions on the matters.


[…]proud to associate with most ofays. I have made rather more effort to meet and be friendly with Negroes than with whites, as I am both interested and curious. But the opportunities are slim. I had a Negro boss in the Railway Mail Service years ago. He was a good boss — but he gave me no chance to be friendly. I had a Negro tutor in advanced calculus at UCLA; the closest I ever got to him was to lunch with him a couple of times. I was willing, he was not. Etc. I’ve known a few Negro officers, Fort Carson and elsewhere; I managed to get really friendly with just one, because his wife was a writer and needed some help. Hardly enough data on which to draw a curve.
All I’m trying to say is that if I have any prejudice against Negroes, I am not aware of it.
But I don’t have any prejudice for Negroes, either. I don’t feel any guilt over the fact that slavery existed in this country from 1619 to the Civil War. I didn’t do it. Nor did any of my ancestors to the best of my knowledge (which is pretty complete) own slaves. I had many relatives and one grandfather on the Union side during the Civil War, none that I know of on the Southern side other than one cousin we aren’t proud of — Jefferson Davis. But I’m not accepting any guilt on his behalf, either — I didn’t do it.
Nor do I feel responsible for the generally low state of the Negro — as one Negro friend pointed out to me; the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved. Having traveled quite a bit in Africa, I know what she means. One thing is clear: Whether one speaks of technology or social institutions, “civilization” was invented by us, not by the Negroes. As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them. Except for the culture, both institutions and technology, that they got from us, they would still be in the stone age, along with its slavery, cannibalism, tyranny, and utter lack of the concept we call “justice.”
But it seems to me that the American Negroes (through their leaders, at least) are demanding, not “equality before the law,” but “equality, period” — everything the whites have whether the Negro has earned it either racially or individually. One hears demands that Boeing or Douglas or General Motors employ at once the same percentage (or higher) of Negroes than we find in the population — and at every level. Well, anyone who has ever tried to hire skilled help knows that this cannot be done. (I tried to hire Negro engineers during the war; we managed to hire one out of about three hundred jobs. He was a real peecutter, a genius. I found one other candidate, an M.E., whom I turned down because he wasn’t qualified.)
They are demanding such things as a percentage share of the acting jobs on TV — and demanding along with it that they not be shown in menial jobs. In other words they are demanding that a working dramatist (such as myself) put a very distorted picture of American life on the screen. No, thank you.
Buz, one of the sacrosanct assumptions is that the two races, white and black, really are “equal” save for environmental handicaps the Negro has unjustly suffered. Is this true? I don’t know, not enough data observed by me, not enough reliable data observed by others, so far as I know. Obvi- ously the two races are different physically, not only in color but in hair, bony structure, and in many other ways — blood types, for example. Must we nevertheless assume that, despite obvious and gross physical differences, these two varieties are nevertheless essentially identical in their nervous systems? I don’t know but I do know that in any other field of science such an assumption would be regarded as just plain silly even as a working hypothesis, more so as a conclusive presumption not even to be questioned.
However, this question as to whether the two races are “different” or “equal” or what need never come up if we are concerned only with equal- ity under the law — if each man is free to make of himself whatever he is capable of making of himself. When I hire a mechanical engineer I am not concerned with his skin color but I sure as hell am concerned with his grasp of mathematics, his knowledge of strength of materials, of linkages, of power plants, of instrumentation, etc. — and if he can’t cut the buck, I certainly do not want to be forced to hire him because of his color. Nor does it matter to me (at the time of hiring) that he “never had a chance” to learn these things.
Nor am I certain that society is obligated to spoon-feed to him such a chance — whether he be white or black. The easiest way for a youngster to have the opportunity to have a broad education is to have rich parents — which a few Negroes have and which most whites do not, even though there are clearly more rich whites than rich Negroes. But most of the really well educated of any color do not have wealthy parents, they scrounged it out somehow. Some Negroes do manage to become number-one engineers — or Congressmen, or scientists, or whatever — and some whites wind up on skid row. Still more whites never amount to anything in particular, just get by, as taxi drivers, or bookkeepers, or suck broom salesmen, or such.
But, sez the voice of conscience, since obviously very few Negroes have rich parents and therefore less opportunity, shouldn’t circumstances be equalized by a rich uncle? Uncle Sam?
Buz, I don’t think so. In the first place Uncle ain’t all that rich — and in the second place Uncle Sam doesn’t have any money of his own; all he has is money that he has lifted from you and from me and from others who have earned it. One of the prime inducements to hard, money-making work — perhaps the prime inducement other than hunger — is to pile up money for your kids, primarily for their educations. What happens to that inducement when Uncle Sam acts as the great equalizer, taking the money away from you (and your kids) in order to make things just as good, just as easy, for the kids of that janitor, or bootblack, (or bum, or criminal) across the tracks?
I had better shut up or I’ll never finish this letter — I started out in this vein just intending to make a passing comment on your article. “Equality before the law” — Is it right to force white children to ride buses halfway across Manhattan in order that a kid in Harlem can sit next to a white child in second grade? I don’t think so; I think the white child is being discriminated against because of his color. Should the State of Virginia be required to supply tax-supported, integrated public schools? I don’t think so. Not only am I unable to find anything in the Constitution which requires public education of any sort but also I have grave doubts about the desirability of public schools. In any case, if the state does not supply it to any kids, white or black, then there certainly is no violation of the idea of equality before the law.
I might comment in passing that I have never yet heard of a white man, even a Southern white racist, protest that a Negro should not be allowed to learn calculus; what he objects to is having his kids forced to associate with said Negro while he learns it — and I am not sure but what he has a legitimate point, even though I do not share his feelings in the matter. Association should never be forced by law, it seems to me. Yeah, yeah, I know, association is forced by law in the armed services — but I happen to be opposed to all conscription at any time, including wartime. Do away with conscription and the association is no longer forced.
Housing — (Where we started.) You and I are in agreement that you (and I) and any other private home owner should not be required to sell his house to any but a buyer of his own choice. Okay, we need not argue that point. But… from there you go on and make a distinction between a private-owner, such as yourself, and the owner of many houses or the owner of an apartment house. Now watch carefully because I am about to pull a dirty flanking attack on you —
I suggest that your right to sell or refrain from selling, to rent or refrain from renting is identical with that of the owner of Levittown, or the corporation that is renting those six new giant apartment houses over there on the bluff. I am not yet trying to show what those rights are; I am about to try to show that whatever they are, yours and his are identical in kind.
(Excursus, intended to confuse things: Avram Davidson once said — in Cry, I believe, though it might have been in a letter to me — that he did not drink his brother’s blood nor ride in Volkswagens. Avram’s privilege, certainly. One may guess at his reasons, one may infer from the juxtaposition in his statement that his reasons have to do with Nazis and gas chambers — but it is not necessary at all to inquire into his reasons nor to speculate; Avram has a clearcut, both natural and constitutional, right not to buy a Volksie, for any reason, or for no reason.
(But it seems to me equally clear that the VW company has an equally clearcut right to refuse to sell a VW to Avram — for any reason, or for no reason. Because they don’t like Jews, or because they don’t like Avram, or because they think it spoils their “image” to have their car driven by a man with a beard. The essence of contract — as opposed to slavery or indentured service — is that both parties are free to contract, or to refuse to contract, and no one may require a reason for the exercise of that freedom. Else it ain’t free. ((and this freedom is being eroded away in this country.)))
Let’s assume that you have decided to sell your house; you’re being transferred to Timbuctu and have no further use for it. Along comes a purple people eater with green spots and meets your terms. Fine — except that your bank says, “Sorry, we have found that purple people eaters are poor risks; we won’t discount his paper” or, “This one is a good risk, perhaps, but we don’t want p.p.e.’s in this neighborhood; they run down the values — and we expect to go on doing business here a long time and hold dozens of mortgages here.” So either you have to turn him down, or take the paper to some other financial institution — which may have the same objections (and it’s going to be a bitter cold day when any selectman manages to write an ordnance which will force a banker to discount paper he doesn’t want to discount — nor should it ever happen) — or take the p.p.e.’s mortgage yourself — which doesn’t suit you; what you want is $30,000 right now, so that you can buy a house for cash in Timbuctu, where buying houses on time is not well understood, especially to palefaced gentiles outside the Law.
So what do you do? You turn down the p.p.e. for clearcut financial reasons.
So far, you and the corporate subdivider are on the same terms; you both would refuse to sell for the same clearcut financial reasons, for please bear in mind that most subdividers do not hold their own paper; the purchase is either made through a bank or savings & loan in the first place, or the paper is discounted — for the subdivider almost always needs to keep his capital liquid in order to go on building. It would be utterly unreasonable to ask him to accept a mortgage and hold it, no matter how good the risk — he has got to get his money out, or he stops being a builder.
So the banker is the son of a bitch in the deal — Or is he, now? Bankers never handle their own money to any important extent; they are custodians of other people’s money. If the banker thinks that it is a bad deal in the long run, is it not his solemn duty to his stockholders and his depositors to refuse it? No matter how it offends the “human rights” of purple people eaters? Is he morally justified in hypothecating other people’s money in a deal which he considers risky? — whether the risk be on that one piece of paper, or long-term risk for his whole crazy structure of loans and futures and so forth? I say he is not; he is a steward and must behave as one — not as a social reformer. Are you and I entitled to a backseat veto over his judgment? No, it ain’t our money.
So far, I think, no argument — You, the banker, and the subdivider are each morally entitled to turn down the purple people eater for reasons sufficient to you.
Let that one example stand as typical of all the many straightforward business reasons for refusing a particular customer. Now let’s branch out into the more esoteric reasons which (you say) are and should be sufficient for you to refuse to sell (as a private home owner) but which should not be permitted by law to a subdivider, or such — the commercial seller of any sort.
You mentioned an apple tree in the back corner of your yard. You love that apple tree. You planted it yourself, it was a seedling your mother (now dead) had given to you — and it is a strain developed by your Uncle Luther (Burbank) Busby and carries his name. Many is the pleasant summer evening you have spent in a hammock under it, diddling, or at least thinking about it. Brother, that tree is the one part of that real estate you are really sentimental about. But… it is well known (or at least widely believed) that the young of purple people eaters have, before puberty, this odd vice: They eat the bark of apple trees. Worse, they invariably ringbark so that the tree dies. They then let it stand, gray and sad and hopeless, until it falls.
As Herr P.P.E. is about to sigh the papers, he lets out the fact that while he has no kids (you had checked that point!) his two orphaned nephews, six and four, live with him. Oh migod! just the right age to ringbark an apple tree! So what do you do, Buz? Back out? You say that you have every right to back out. But do you? Look, you’re selling that house; what you need and want is cash — and for this you are prepared to give an utter quitclaim to your ownership in it. Not yours once you sell — none of your business what happens to that tree. Or do you wish to retain some degree of ownership, or rights? And if you are, are you willing to knock $10,000 off the price in order to protect that tree from any hazard? Look, it’s fee simple you are vending; do you really have any moral right to stick a covenant in the deed which will run with the deed, limiting this new owner and any future owner as to the disposition of part of the parcel, namely “one, tree, apple”?
(I say you do. I say that if you are silly enough to limit your market and possibly undergo financial loss, you should be free to refuse to sell anything that is yours to anyone for any reason.)
But how about the subdivider and the house next to yours? This subdivision is known as “Apple Blossom Vista” and used to be an orchard. The subdivider has been most careful to keep the bulldozers away from any tree that could be saved, even going to great trouble in designing the houses and placing them. His big selling point is how A.B.Vista looks, as shown in color photos, with all the apple trees in bloom. How many houses is he going to sell if he lets in just one family of purple people eaters?
This is not as fantastically hypothetical as it sounds. I am not a subdivider — and I shall sell this house, if and when, to a Negro if I bloody well please. In fact I have often thought that I would offer to do so, if and when, because I don’t care whether my neighbors like it or not and I think I could get a better price that way. We live in a very wealthy neighborhood which has no Negroes — but there are prosperous Negroes in this town who would, I think, jump at the chance to buy into Broadmoor.
But down the street from me a subdivider does live. He is a wealthy, selfmade man, an Italian immigrant orphaned quite young, who nevertheless managed to acquire a degree (NYU) in aero engineering, and went from private to chicken colonel as a wartime soldier and peacetime reserve. He writes on the side and is the author of The Wisdom of Epictetus (Philosophical Library) — from which, if you know Epictetus, you know that he is not a racist son of a bitch. And he isn’t. I know him quite well; he is a libertarian — even as you and I.
I have no idea how many houses he has built — many, many. He started out without a dime and has run it up into considerable wealth, somewhere in the millions, by ploughing his profits back in and expanding. He does not build crackerboxes; he builds houses individually styled for the upper income brackets — but he builds them a hundred at a time with methods strongly resembling assembly line. I discussed with him this very point once — whether he would, or could, or should sell one of his houses to a Negro.
John said to me:
“Bob, I had one come to me to buy a house in my (an upper middleclass subdivision he was then building in Pueblo). I turned him down. I said to him, “You pick out any lot you want that you can buy (i.e., in Pueblo this would probably mean a lot on that side of town in which Negroes then lived — R.A.H.) and I will build a house on it exactly like these and sell it to you at exactly the price you would pay here (which would mean a considerable loss to the builder, since he could not use his assembly-line methods on one house — R.A.H.) But I will not sell you one of these houses.””
The deal did not go through. The Negro made it flatly plain that what he wanted was to buy one of the subdivision houses, with white neighbors on each side of him. There was no money problem involved; the Negro had the money — a dentist he was, if I recall correctly — and, anyhow, John would have accepted and held his paper if necessary to make his own word good.
Now — was my friend justified in refusing? Well, here is the rest of the story. John became wealthy by building houses in the postwar boom more efficiently than most contractors, selling them at lower prices, and at a small profit margin — and, as I mentioned above concerning a hypothetical subdivider, his capital is regularly tied up in his current construction. In this case he was building about ninety houses and had his neck stuck out for something over a million dollars.
So what would you have had him do, Buz? Sell to this one perfectly good risk? — then hold a fire sale on the other eighty-nine and go bankrupt?
(“Ah, but he wouldn’t go bankrupt! That’s a myth.”)
For the moment let’s stipulate that it is a myth. The point is that myth or not, John thought that it would be financially disastrous to him (to his wife, his kids) to accept that sale. It was his land, his houses, his money — most of which he owed and would have to recover or go broke. It was not a matter of him not wanting himself to live next door to a Negro; John lives a quarter of a mile down Mesa Avenue, forty miles from this subdviision. Nor was it any lack of sympathy on his part for the desire of a Negro to have decent housing; he offered to cover that aspect at financial loss to himself — but loss of a magnitude he could afford. John’s sole concern was a fixed belief that if he accepted this sale, it would keep him from selling the rest of his houses at prices which would let him get his nut back, plus a reasonable profit. Money, pure and simple.
Are you willing to force him to act in a fashion which in his opinion spells financial disaster?
Now as to the “myth” about depreciated property values — I dunno, I have not had enough direct experience. But I do have one case to cite, that of a friend of mine in Denver, who now finds himself surrounded by “niggertown” and does not like it, for all the usual reasons: no longer safe for his wife to go out alone at night, neighborhood has acquired that rundown, uncared for look, chattels left outdoors no longer safe, etc. I can’t say how much of this is true; the point is, he believes it and he is unhappy and would like to sell.
The neighborhood is not a ghetto or a slum in the accepted meanings at all; it is simply an area in which almost all of the whites have moved out since the Negroes have moved in. All the houses are “new” (built since WW II, I mean); they were built for whites on ample lots of brick or stone construction and priced to sell from $17,000 to $20,000.00.
I asked him why he did not put his house up for sale and move, since he felt that way? I can’t afford to, he answered; I can’t get anything like the amount out of it that we’ve put into it. So I says huh? — I thought that Negroes paid through the nose when they moved into a white neighbor- hood? Ah, he sez, but this is not a white neighborhood any longer. Now the selling price is much less than it cost to build them.
Here is the way he tells me it works: First phase, or block-busting — somebody (Heinlein, maybe, Broadmoor!) gets a fancy price, far above market, for the first house sold to a Negro in an all-white neighborhood. Maybe one or two others go for premium prices, too — then starts the sec- ond phase — panic selling, during which prices go way down and Negroes move in rapidly… but not necessarily at the lowest prices — the speculator who set up the block-busting gets the gravy. Then comes the third phase, with prices stabilized at a level much below the white-neighborhood price — and that is what Earl claims he is now up against. He and his wife like Negroes — or did, and she is still an active member of NAACP — and refused to panic when the first Negroes moved in. Now they don’t like the environment they find themselves in at all but they can’t afford to move.
Well, what do you think, Buz? Are you entitled to refuse to sell your house over an apple tree? — whereas, as you stated in Cry, my subdividing neighbor is not entitled to refuse to sell a house he does not live in… even though he honestly believes it will bankrupt him… and his wife and his kids? Which one of you is being unreasonable? You and your apple tree? Or John and his jeopardized million dollars in capital?
I know what my answer would be: You both are entitled to do exactly as you see fit with your own property — and nobody else has any moral right to tell you that you must do something else. Anything less is not freedom… and if you owned an apartment house or a motel, or a restaurant, or were subdividing land and were wondering how you would meet your payroll, you would damn soon find it out.
(“Ah, but if we had anti-discriminatory laws, the burden would not fall on individuals. It would even out and nobody would be hurt.”)
This is a pleasant thought — but is it true? (It would be nice if pi were exactly 3.0, wouldn’t it?) Remember prohibition?
No government yet has been able to force the population to do anything that they really did not want to do… save by the most brutal of coercion.
Do you really think that a fair-housing act would persuade white customers to come along and pay John’s prices for his subdivision houses if he did let Negro families move in? I don’t. Nor would he sell his houses to Negroes. Fair or not, there are just not enough well-to-do Negroes in Pueblo to buy his houses. Justice or no justice, those houses were built with a certain income level in mind — and that level is almost entirely white.
Sure you can pass a law which permits any Negro to buy any house up for sale — deny the white owners the privilege of choosing, apple tree or no apple tree — but does that same law force the white man to move in alongside the Negro? If not, you are licked on this deal. Why? Consider an ideal case, as in math: three houses, side by side, one empty, two occupied by whites; the white man in the middle puts his house up for sale and along comes a Negro with the cash and the white (under the law) has no option but to sell it. Probably the ordnance doesn’t even get him a block-busting price out of it; if the ordnance is carefully written he has to sell blind, establish his selling price. No, let’s modify it to meet what you say would suit you: The middle house is occupied by a white man but he is not the owner; the owner lives elsewhere, say next door — or does that still give him too much of a sentimental interest to suit you? Put him in the next state. Anyhow he sells and, because of the law, he sells to the Negro.
Whereupon, either because of this or simply from being transferred to Timbuctu, the owner in the owner-occupied house next door decides to sell or is forced to sell. Since it is his own house (we’re using your rules now) he doesn’t hafta sell to a Negro — he simply does, because no white buyers show up. He doesn’t get as good a price for it as the first Negro paid… as the first Negro paid for the privilege of moving in next door to a white family. Ah, but I said that, because of the law, the first Negro does not have to pay a block-busting premium. Makes no difference — he didn’t pay a premium price; he simply paid a white-man’s price — but the second Negro pays a Negro-neighborhood price, lower. Then the third house, the empty one, sells — to a white man? Let’s not be silly; the only whites who initiate a move into a black neighborhood are those on the skids — and can’t even pay what a striving Negro can pay; a Negro buys it at a Negro neighborhood price.
The end result? The first Negro to move in feels cheated; he has had to pay white-man prices to move into what he thought was a white neighborhood — and he winds up living in a 100% black neighborhood, the very thing he was moving away from, the very environment he did not want for his own clean, well-behaved kids. His James-Baldwin syndrome is thereby enhanced. Besides that, we have two white men, the former owners of the two end houses, who have less use for Negroes than they had before (whether they had formerly felt friendly to Negroes before — like my friend in Denver — or are real Ku-Kluxers from the jungles of Alabama) — less liking for Negroes than before because each has lost money in selling his home because a Negro moved in next door. Maybe they shouldn’t feel that way but they do.
I could spend several pages describing how whites can get around fair-housing acts without quite fracturing the law. But I shan’t do so — you can, I am sure, figure out a number of ways. Let it stand that I do not think that undesired association can be forced, save by the most brutal of coercion. You may be able, by law, to force the white man to sell. But you cannot, by any law proposed so far, force the other whites to refrain from moving out. And if the latter ever does become law, it won’t stay law — because, like it or not; the white man is about seven to one in the majority and so coercive a law won’t stay on the books long, nor be enforced while it’s on the books. Remember Prohibition. Here are two theorems — no, two observed facts which require no proof, being subject to direct observation.
(1) Negroes, as they become prosperous, like to move into a neighborhood where they have white neighbors.
(2) Once this happens, most whites move out as fast as they can to neighborhoods where they think, or hope, that Negroes can’t follow — and no new whites move into the “contaminated” neighborhood.
Aren’t both of the above true? I am not discussing what you would do, or what I would do, nor whether it is just or unjust — aren’t those two statements true, within your personal observation?
If they are true, do you see any effective way to change it by law?
As for myself, I don’t give a damn, as any Negro who could afford to move into my neighborhood would probably have his daughters in the Sorbonne, his name in Who’s Who, and bathe oftener than I do. I simply doubt the necessity for laws on the subject (either pro or con — I certainly do not want Apartheid laws, but I am just as strongly against forced-association laws, too) — I doubt both the necessity and the desirability of such laws, do not think they will improve the status of the Negro and do think that they will increase racial friction, which I regard as a bad thing.
“Necessity” — How about the “Negro ghettos” such as Harlem and South Chicago?
Buz, aren’t these pocket-book ghettos, mostly? The Negro, on the average, is poor — and he’ll have to be worth more before he is paid more. Fair-housing laws won’t change this. Oh, perhaps we should all be socialists and give the poor as good housing as the better off have — but I’m not a socialist and I’m pretty sure you aren’t one, either. I had to scratch for what I have (I was born in a house with no plumbing, no nothing, and have supported myself since I was fifteen) and I’m just bloody stingy enough to think that other people, black or white, ought to have to scratch for what they get, too. So — the Negro is poor and poor housing is an age-old aspect of poverty. The house I lived in during high school, a house with plumbing and electric lights, much better than the house I was born in is now occupied by a Negro family — and the whole neighborhood has been declared a slum, eligible for urban renewal. Does it rate it? Hell, no! — save to the extent that it has been allowed to run down by the present occupants. The houses are still sound; one of my aunts was living in one of them a block from where I lived, only two years ago. She moved, not because the house had gone to pieces, but to get away from the new neighbors.
Back to Harlem — Is it a ghetto? Well, it is certainly a Negro neighborhood and it certainly is stinking awful. Of course it used to be a wealthy, uptown neighborhood, but it is no longer. It doesn’t have a wall around it — why don’t the Negroes move out of it?
Nowhere to go!
Really? Buz, there are still a hell of a lot of worn-out farms along the New York, New Haven, & Hartford; what is to keep a group of Negro financiers from buying up some of that worthless farm land and building a brand-new commuters’ paradise solely for Negroes? No Negro financiers rich enough? Then why not white speculators? Hell, I know plenty of white men who would sell their own grandmothers if the price was right. The answer of course is obvious: No financier, white or black, is going to subdivide Connecticut farmland to sell it to Negro commuters now living in Harlem. Surely, the Negro is anxious to get out of Harlem — but there isn’t enough money pressure in his wallet to make such a subdivision in Connecticut pay. Besides, if he can afford such, he doesn’t want to move to a Black garden subdivision; he wants white neighbors.
The Negro does not live in Harlem because he is black, but because he is poor. He clusters in neighborhoods because his poverty — and what goes with it — does indeed depress property values, and that attracts more of his own sort — poor, I mean; being black is only incidental. And I’m damned if you can cure any of these things by putting more coercive law on the books. The only real result will be to make white men dislike Negroes more than ever — a very bad outcome for the Negro since he is so decidely in the minority and, in the long run, depends on the white man’s good will.
There ain’t a durned thing wrong with the American Negro that money can’t cure — provided he earns it himself and does not expect the white man to give it to him. He can get out of Harlem — with money. He can move to Beverly Hills, or Brentwood — with money; there are Negroes living in both areas. He can move to Broadmoor with money. I know he can, because he can buy my house. If somebody phones and mentions my price, I shan’t ask him the color of his skin. My next door neighbor is really anxious to sell; he has knocked $20,000 off his price during the time his house has been on the market — he would happily sell to a purple people eater and my apple trees — only two of them — be damned! (If I could afford it, I would buy him out myself and tear down his house; it hurts my view.)
I don’t think anyone would grouse about such a sale; we already have Chinese and Japanese in Broadmoor. There are no covenants of any sort about race in this neighborhood, nor any unspoken “gentlemen’s agreements” that I’ve ever heard of. However, money talks. The one Chinese is a director of the Bank of Hong Kong and his house occupies one large city block with an eight-foot wall around it. But a Negro would run into one hazard having nothing to do with race. These parcels, all through Broadmoor, do have one restrictive covenant enforceable at law: one lot, one house, one family — and it is a long-observed fact that when Negroes do buy into neighborhoods formerly white, the space is occupied quite frequently by three or four families where one white family formerly lived. Poverty again — they live that way not because they wish to, but because they must. But it is also a major reason why white owners aren’t anxious to be forced to sell or rent to Negroes; such doubling and tripling up ruins the hell out of property values — that is what happened to Harlem. Poverty is not cured by coercive legislation.
Buz, I cannot see in this new legislation, either local or national, intended to force property owners to sell to Negroes, or hotel or motel or restaurant owners to serve them, anything but coercive restriction of an owner’s freedom to do as he wishes with his own — for reasons of money or of whim. (Forgot to mention — the world-famous Broadmoor Hotel, the only inn in this community, is not restricted against Negroes. Anyone with forty dollars a day for room rent and similar prices for food is welcome, regardless of color — purple people eaters may select apple bark either from the table d’hote, or a la carte, or they’ll send out for it.)
Ah, but what about the Negro’s rights? the Negro’s freedoms? his right to travel freely in his own country? his right to find a clean bed and decent meals at the end of a long and wearisome day? This is the nub of the matter, his legitimate complaint if he has a legitimate complaint. Well, how would I feel if my skin were dark brown and I came breezing into Colorado Springs about ten p.m. and pulled into a motel with a “vacancy” sign, my car loaded with tired pickaninnies — and a smug, white fat man said blandly, “No vacancy! Oh, the sign? Forgot to turn it off.” How would I feel? Hell, let’s make it worse. I’m a stubborn bastard, so I park across the street and watch — and see him take in three loads of whites after turning me away. Let’s even suppose, that by some means I can prove that the three loads of whites did not have reservations.
I would feel sore as hell, that’s how I would feel. I would be greatly tempted to set fire to the dump. I might even be tempted enough actually to take a poke at the fat white liar. But should I have recourse at law?
In some states an innkeeper is like a common carrier or a public utility. In one state — Vermont, I think it is — he must not only take in the wayfarer but also must be prepared to accommodate his horse, so many head of cattle, so many head of sheep, etc. — and the Broadmoor, by the way, is quite accustomed to accommodating horses and is equipped to accommodate any live stock, including gila monsters. But even a dog is a strain on most motels along our highway. (Could it have been the dog in the back seat he turned me away for, rather than my black skin? If so, where do I stand legally? And what if he tells the court that he simply wasn’t prepared for a family with four kids, regardless of color? However we are not now concerned with the difficulty of enforcing the law, but with the abstract matter of justice: Whether such a law should be on the books at all.)
Buz, I honestly do not think that any such law should be on the books. Certainly the citizen, pink, purple, or green, has a legal right to travel the public highway… but does he have a natural right and should he have an enforceable legal privilege to demand and receive goods and services from private entrepreneurs wherever he chooses to travel?
I do not think so. If I am that Negro (or white — or purple people eater) and you are that motel keeper, while it conceivably might be my “freedom” or “right” to demand that you serve me, it is utterly certain that if the law forces you to serve me — in your motel that you own — your right to own property and to enjoy it as you see fit has been seriously abridged. You are being forced, willy nilly, to take me in… and it happens that your wife who lives right there with you under the same roof has a morbid fear of men of my color (pink or purple or whatever), you are being forced, either with your own hands or those of your hired employees, to clean the pot after I have used it, to handle my dirty sheets, wash my dirty glasses? Certainly you are for hire but even a whore has the privilege of changing her mind at the last moment. Must you risk jail, or a heavy fine, or even be driven out of the business you have invested so much money and heartbreak in simply because you can’t prove that it wasn’t my magenta skin you rejected but rather the fact that you didn’t care for my body odor, or possibly the dandruff on my shiny blue serge, or even the snot on the baby’s upper lip? This is bound to be, by its very nature, one of those guilty- until-proved-innocent sort of laws, where the punishment turns on intent and the accused can never possibly prove that he was not prejudiced by race. Do you really want to put that sort of a law on the books?
For that matter why should not a private owner refuse to trade for reasons of sheer whim? (For example, because of a promise he made to a favorite apple tree out in his patio — a solemn promise that he would never let no goddam nigguhs get close to it.) The Black Muslims run restaurants — licensed, inspected “public” restaurants — in which they turn away all white trade. Do I have a “right” to insist on service in a Black Muslim restaurant? I don’t think so — yet it is clearly discrimination on account to my skin color.
I readily admit that it is pretty tough to be traveling and not be able to find a place to sleep — I know for I have had it happen to me, for two reasons, each of which left me with a dull anger at the whole world and nothing I could do about it. One reason was lack of money, the other was lack of a reservation and the joint (the whole city, it was Washington) was jam packed. Had it happen in Alaska, too, when I did have a reservation. It is bloody annoying, especially when you are dog tired.
Buz, if you are going to decide, by law, that a private owner may not follow his whim or prejudice with that which he owns, where do you stop? Or do you? Food and lodging? Or do we go on to all the things necessary to the health, comfort, and convenience of a traveler? Are any and all licensed doctors on call at all times to any traveller? (Conceded that most of them are, if you can catch them?) How about a bar? Must it serve all comers regardless of color or whatever? (Suppose the color happens to be red? — he’s an American Indian — pretty stiff laws some places if you do serve him?) Okay, let’s stipulate that liquor is not a necessity but suppose it is the very common restaurant-bar combo: Is the proprietor permitted to refuse to serve a drink to a Negro while he is required by law to serve him food, while simultaneously he serves both food and drink to the white man seated four inches away from him at the same counter? (I don’t care which way you answer that one; you wind up in a bind. Coercion has its unavoidable paradoxes.)
Is clothing a necessity to a traveler? Hell, yes; they’ll jail you if you don’t have it — and clothing can be stolen. Do we deduce from that that any and all clothing stores must sell to anyone — or run a risk of jail for discrimination? If so, I know of more than one woman of one color who will not buy clothes from shops in which women of another color are permitted to try on clothes — for reasons sufficient to them.
Buz, if you are going to treat house and apartment owners, restaurant owners, and innkeepers as if they were monopolistic public utilities (which they demonstrably are not) where do you stop? Is a church a public utility? Some Negroes apparently think so; there have been more than one case of Negro demonstrators attempting to attend services in all-white churches. Is a dining room in a boarding house, one of the sort which has a little sign “Meals” in the window such as you see driving through the small towns of New England — is that a public utility? If not, just where do you draw the line between that small private enterprise and “Maw’s Cafe” one block off the highway?
Is a clothing store required to serve Negroes but a custom tailor right next door, made to order clothes only, permitted to choose his (her) clientele despite the public sign?
Most large hotels have a standard business practice of hiding away three or four rooms and at least one suite for reciprocity, complimentary, and good will purposes; when they say “full up,” they do not mean that these accommodations are full. Is a customer who presents himself (never mind color, this should work for whites, too, if it is to work at all!) — is a man turned away by such a hotel entitled to haul the management into court?
Oh, hell, Buz, if you start abridging the owner’s rights in order to give “rights” to a customer the owner does not happen to want to serve, there is no place where you can logically stop… and you wind up creating a new class of slaves, the entrepreneur… who receives nothing in return, for he certainly is not guaranteed Negro trade, nor is he entitled to damages for any white trade he may lose through complying with this coercive law.
If there is a “natural right” to service on the part of the traveling public, black, white, or polka-dotted, has it always existed? If not, when did it, or does it, come into existence? I think I am prepared to show that it did not always exist, i.e., it does not exist in a state of nature. When you leave Fairbanks, headed north, the next restaurant is at Point Barrow, five hundred miles away. Where’s that “natural right” of the traveler? Okay, then this “natural right,” if it exists at all, comes into existence after an area is settled. (Please note that the legal right to travel exists between Fairbanks and [Point Barrow]; you have a choice between walking, or going by air — and the right to walk it existed before the air line. Whether it is a “natural right” need only be disputed with a few wolves, bears, and rather friendly eskimos.)
Does settlement alone produce this “natural right?” Not so you could notice it. There is a stretch just north of us, nearly thirty miles long, where I have often felt hungry and thirsty on the drive to Denver. There ain’t nuthin’ but prairie dogs, however — so I usually carry a little something in the car. (And I must point out that this is always a way open to a traveler who is not sure of exercising his “natural right” to buy food and drink, and one which I have often exercised, not only in far corners of the earth, but also right here in Colorado, both from necessity and choice.) I am forced to conclude that this “natural right” if it exists, comes into existence only when you, F.M. Busby, hang out a sign reading “EATS” — at that moment comes into existence my natural right to force you to sit me down at a table and let me eat, no matter how my feet smell, how noisy I may be when I eat soup, or what — on pain of being hauled into court on a charge that you refused me because of my deep sunburn, or my Japanese grandmother.
Buz, I don’t think I have any such natural right. On the contrary I think you have a natural right to refuse any trade you don’t want, whether you hang up such a sign or not, and without giving any reason for it… and certainly without being interrogated in court as to your reasons or your whims. Hell, Buz, it might be that your M.D. brother had told you very privately that I was Wasserman four-plus[1] — and in order to state your (legitimate — esthetically, at least) reason for turning me away, it would be necessary to tell the court and thereby give away the fact that your brother had fractured the Hippocratic oath in order to protect you from me — you and your daughter, that is, whom I had been trying to date up for later while sopping up your wife’s homemade cherry pie.
The point to me, Buz, is that you do not surrender your natural rights to freedom and free choice simply because you sell food. I sell words, an area so free that it is protected by a special amendment to the constitution — yet the wide-open “freedom of the press” in this country is not so free but what I may refuse to sell any words to any publisher at any time for any reason, or no reason at all, nor may I be questioned by any one for my reasons for refusing.
But if you civil rights boys manage to put over this abridgment of the freedom of private owners to choose their customers as freely as the customer chooses them, the day may yet come when I won’t dare offer a stick of copy to any white publisher without offering it to Sepia[2] first, lest I be accused of discriminating against the Negro press — abridging its “freedom” to enjoy just as wide a choice of copy as the white publishers.
However, I’ll quit the writing business before I’ll be coerced. And I would quit the hotel business, the real estate business (I was once in it), the restaurant business (I did once run a soft drink stand), or any other business in which busybodies come along and tell me I must deal with any particular person. Hell, I might not like his blue eyes and his bicycle — I simply can’t stand these racing bikes with the low slung handlebars; they remind me of the curved horns of an African Buffalo. I got chased by an A.B. once, in the bush veldt — scared the hell out of me and I’m nervous every time I’m reminded of it. Likely to spill the soup. So when you come riding up on your bicycle and I have to serve you, because of the law, don’t order soup. It’s dangerous. It’s not your white skin I mind — it’s those awful handlebars.
(P.S. — really did happen. We were in a Henry J. [Ford], which turned out to be quite a good car in a pinch; we got away. But I didn’t get nervous about handle bars until just now when I thought of that ploy. Wonder if I could make it stand up in court? If your skin was black? And I deliberately spilled soup on you? There is more than one way of killing a cat than by smothering it with kisses — which is why I say, natural right or no natural right — and there ain’t any sich — a truly unpopular law can’t be enforced. Honest to God, Buz, the only thing the Negro can do, in the long run, about the fact that the white man in many cases, perhaps the majority of cases, doesn’t want to eat with him, live next door to him, sit beside him, etc., is to accept the truth and try by his behavior to be more acceptable. I don’t think he is going to do this, though. I think we are in for severe race trouble — which the poor brown bastard is certain to lose simply because we outnumber him seven to one.
(However, I do not recommend patience to the Negro of South Africa. He outnumbers his white neighbors about four to one, or more. His proper solution is to arise some dark night and cut the throats of his white oppressor — which they richly deserve. But I don’t intend to help him with the job; it is his job. Freedom is never bestowed; it is earned.
(Which — and not “incidentally” — is the reason the American Negro is not yet free: He hasn’t earned it yet. The simple route of throatcutting is not open to him. But he won’t get it by shoving the white man around in any fashion; he’ll just get us sore at him — and we outnumber him something dreadful. He must either do it the hard way, by commanding our respect — which he doesn’t have yet — or emigrate to Liberia.)
Next morning — I went to bed last night (3.15 a.m.) disgusted with myself for having written a long essay rather than letters which urgently need to be written, and with the humane resolution not to trouble you with it but instead to start a new page two and finish off on about page three. However I have now read it and have decided to send it, as you yourself are quite used to writing essays rather than letters and are not daunted by long discussions by mail. But I must add: This item is not intended to persuade you, convince you, nor anything; it has been primarily a means of letting me get my own thoughts verbalized and in order on a subject which has been troubling me a great deal.
To a man of humane instincts there is a great temptation to be uncritically all-out on the Negroes’ side, to support him in anything he asks for. We are aware that the poor bastard starts out with two strikes against him; we feel a strong inclination to want to give him a break. Such have been my feelings — and are my feelings — and such, I gather the impression, are your feelings, too.
But, damn it, more harm is done by uncritical do-goodism than by almost anything else. I find myself opposed to most of the current civil rights drive on several different levels — while painfully aware that to be opposed is to invite identification with the faceless murderers who bombed that church and killed those little girls.[3] It is tempting to be publicly pro everything the Negro wants just to be sure that one is not mistaken for a KuKluxer.
But I am still opposed to most of what they are demanding. On one level, it is no favor at all to the Negro to invite him to think that he can become the equal of the white man in money, in social prestige, in education, or in anything else where he is clearly not equal, simply by passing a law or laws. The result is bound to disappoint him and leave him still more bitter. (For the depth of that bitterness and the hopelessness of it, on both sides, try James Baldwin’s Another Country — Baldwin hates us as intently as any Black Muslim.)
On another level, I am distressed always at the naive American belief that Utopia can always be achieved by (a) passing a law, or (b) giving money. Both acts are almost always futile, and we as a people are addicted to both. On still another level, I am always distressed by the mythology that has grown up about “rights” and “freedoms” and the intellectual confusion which has resulted. We now hear of endless “rights” — “the right to strike,” “the right to work,” “the right to a good education,” “freedom from fear,” “freedom from want,” “the right to decent housing,” “the right to happiness,” etc., endlessly — you fill out the list. I ran into a brand new one the other day: I had told a young man, a guest in my home, who was sounding off authoritatively on a subject — I told him rather bluntly that he had not been there, did not know what he was talking about, and that if he would shut up and listen he might learn about the matter from someone who had been there. (He was a European, not well traveled here, who nevertheless was certain he knew all there was to know about the United States.) He looked at me and said indignantly, “How about a young person’s right to theorize?”
Chums, that stumped me. Here was a “right” I had never heard of, yet he seemed to think that it was sacred and unarguable. I had not known that youth had a special right in this connection, nor that ignorance was more laudable than knowledge. It may be needless to say that we got nowhere. Most of the innumerable “rights” one hears of today are of the same high quality. If one could treat them simply as silly guff, perhaps they would not matter. But many or most of them people seriously try to legislate — and almost all of them, if enacted into law, severely abridge some freedom now enjoyed by others. A negative freedom usually, as most of the freedoms we used to enjoy under our constitution and customs were negative in nature; they usually guaranteed us nothing positive but were simply limited to guaranteeing individuals freedom from interference in certain areas. In addition to these negative freedoms there has been (until lately) a notion that runs all through our system, the idea that any laws we do have should be equal in application for everyone — and it has been on this last point that the Negro has had (and sometimes still has) an honest-to-God legitimate beef, especially in the South.
But to understand these pseudo-rights and to see how they conflict with our traditional freedoms it is necessary to examine the abstract ideas of “right” and “freedom.”
The most basic concept, and a verifiable truth (not a theory), is this:
There are no natural “rights.” Rephrased, it is a little easier to see: There are no “rights” in nature. Most seem to think otherwise; most people use the term “natural right” without seeing any built-in self contradiction. Really all I can say to such people is: Go out and rassle a bear on a mountainside, and see for yourself what your “natural rights” amount to. I could say it in many thousands of words, but I will not so inflict you.
A prime corollary of the above observable fact is this:
“Rights” have no existence other than in the society in which they are found. They exist in the societal structure, as law or custom or belief (frequently all three); they are constructs of a particular society, rules inside the group for the behavior of individuals toward each other; they are agreed-on procedures only and have no existence other than in the minds of men who practice them.
Being such, they vary endlessly, as societies vary. In the USSR a man does have a “right” to employment, he does not have a “right” to free speech. The “Divine right of kings” was taken with dead seriousness only a short time ago — I speak of the Kaiser, not just of James V — and is still taken seriously by many. Obviously, wherever this “right” exists, a lot of notions we regard as “rights” cannot exist. The “right” to “freedom of religion” was anathema to almost all “right-thinking” people a very short time ago — and freedom of religion does not exist today in much of the world, probably more than half. Am I saying that there is not such thing as “rights”? Not at all. No society can exist without “rights.”
“Rights” are simply the rules of a given society, and it is impossible for a society to exist without clearly understood rules. (We are getting all bollixed up at the present time because we are going through a revolution in which the old rules have been weakened or eroded and there is grave disagreement as to what rules, new or old, we shall follow. Let me state my own position by saying that I favor the old rules, in general, and wish to return to them — save that I am opposed to slavery and all of its derivatives.) I know what “rights” I want this society to follow but I am not able to claim any such high-falutin term as “natural rights” in pushing for my point of view. What I want are clearly expressed negative rules which guarantee each citizen a maximum of personal freedom and a minimum of interference, while clearly accepting that such rules must also constrain me from interfering with the same freedoms of others. I want to do what suits me; I don’t want to be shoved around — and I agree that I must not shove other people around. And I concede that I haven’t the slightest idea what “God” thinks about this; I claim no higher source for my wants than my own taste, my own desires. I can’t stand on a soap box and shout: “We have a God-given right!”
The very most I can honestly say is: “Well, friends, this is how I would like things to be run.” However, I can add: “Although this is merely my personal preference and not accessible to argument, nevertheless my feelings are so strong in the matter that, if things aren’t run pretty much this way, I will fight you and if possible kill you in order to have things run more my way.”
This is exactly what the signers of the Declaration of Independence were saying, but in more flowery language: “We hold these truths be to be self evident — ” (In other words, we ain’t a-gonna argue it, Bud. Like it or lump it.)
And —
“ — our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.” (We are dead seri- ous about this, Jocko; we are in it to the limit and all of us together — and if you don’t agree, either you or we will shortly cease breathing.)
Since I can’t claim any divine authority or “natural right” in the rules I favor, it behooves me at least to make clear what it is that I favor — since I cannot possibly get the rules I want without your help and that of many millions of others. My chances of shoving my rules down the throats of the populace unassisted are even poorer than those of Negroes in attempting to press on the white majority rules they don’t want. Nil.
I want that negative and relatively free condition defined by the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and most of the other amendments. (I have grave doubts about the income tax amendment and think it should be drastically limited if not repealed outright; as phrased it is a grant of absolute power.) I think, by my tastes, that the founding fathers were far off base in countenancing chattel slavery and I want all aspects of it weeded out of the rules.
I want no rules that do not follow from this idea of negative freedom.
Footnote:[4] Income Tax — I don’t mind income tax per se; I myself am eating high on the hog, I ain’t hurtin’. What I object to is high taxation for any purpose and by any means. Money is power and I don’t want government to have all that power. I would like to see government restricted to police, judiciary, and military and I would get rid of those three functions if I could figure out a way to run a society without them. As yet, I have not been able to conceive of a society which did not require the use of force, internally and externally, to maintain itself. I’m still searching, but the political philosophers I have been able to find, whether anarchist, libertarian, or what, who seem to think it can be done all seem to me so far out on cloud nine as to have no connection with the real world of human, fallible people.
If you will examine the various negative freedoms set forth in the Constitution and consider the general rule (of my personal taste) set forth above the boxed footnote, you will see many, many things that I don’t like, including why I don’t want special rules requiring private owners to sell to anyone against their wills. Such a listing will not bring us into agreement but it will clarify what it is that I want as “rights”:
I don’t like zoning laws and planning commissions, not any of them. I am not impressed by the argument that I “wouldn’t want someone to open a piggery next door to my home.” Nobody makes a success of a piggery other than on land so cheap that it isn’t much as residential land. Far better a free market.
I am opposed to any and all laws regulating sexual behavior in itself. (Rape is a form of violence, clearly an invasion of another person’s equal freedom.) Sex should be no goddam business of the government (the neighbors, collectively). I am opposed to all laws for censorship, including even the most outrageous of pornography. In general I am opposed to all which attempt to regulate the non-violent behavior of people “for their own good.” (Libel invades another person’s equal freedom, so does driving while drunk — but the free expression of words as such and the free drinking of alcohol as such — using marijuana, heroin, etc., should not be against the rules. So also, all laws re gambling, Sunday closing, etc. — all the do-goodery.)
I do not think the “general welfare” clause justifies social security. Even if it does, from a lawyer’s standpoint, I want to see such laws repealed…

Originally published at www.bradford-delong.com.