Monday, January 30, 2012

Was L.H. Bailey a Racist?

    In a recent January post on Thornapple CSA's blog, Paul B. Thompson, the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, made the striking claim that Liberty Hyde Bailey was a racist: "But although Bailey is clearly a food ethics icon, he’s also problematic. He was a racist, for one thing, and his writings include occasional sentences and paragraphs that are shocking to modern readers." Despite not giving any specific support to his charge, let us take Professor Thompson's charge seriously. Unfortunately, comments to Professor Thompson's blog post are currently closed so I'll respond here.

To clear the playing field, let's list two important ideas that everyone should know about race:
  • Race has no genetic basis.
  • Race isn't biological, but racism is still real.
    With this in mind, here is what Bailey had to say in his background book, What is Democracy? published in 1918 after the wake of the Great War; "Racial independence and separateness is a doubtful apprenticeship to democracy. It tends to solidify the racial clan, making it a class enterprise in the world. Racial jealousies and hatreds have always stood in the way of democracy, and the modern process has been to break down these barriers...One reason why democracy has thriven in North America is because the population is not a race but a brotherhood."
    It is evident, that Bailey could not discard the idea and workings of racism. This doesn't make him a racist, however. In great contrast to a racist ideology, Bailey found the ideas of race antithetical to democracy. If he can be accused of anything is perhaps overt optimism that North America consisted as a brotherhood, while we still struggle with the inequalities of racism today.
    In his follow-up writing, Universal Service, the Hope for Humanity, Bailey viewed World War I as a "great collapse" in society where people of every race found it necessary to be prepared, "to destroy the citizen of any other race or people in order to protect itself." He further asserted, "If we make no fundamental change of direction in these moving forces at the conclusion of the present Lapse, then we must conclude that society does not have within its body the power of self-correction." Again, Bailey articulates the destructive properties in our belief in race.
    In all fairness, perhaps Professor Thompson quick accusation was directed at other aspects of Bailey, namely his science. But as for the man himself and his personal beliefs, we find a very articulate person, hoping for a better future, with a larger belief in humanity. That alone should give one enough restraint in connecting Liberty Hyde Bailey with the ugly stain of racism.


  1. I strongly endorse this reply. To make a well stated argument, one must provide more than a
    general statement.
    Anne Long

  2. I endorse this rebuttal. To say Dr. Bailey is racist and provide no evidence is simply a slur.

  3. My discussion of Bailey in the original blog post as well as in my book The Agrarian Vision (2010) was intended to highlight his importance as a thinker whose ideas on agriculture and sustainability deserve more attention than they typically receive. I regard him as more than historically significant. A reinvigoration and rehabilitation of his ideas would be immensely valuable to us today. I admire Bailey and the above reference does not accurately reflect the larger point or thrust of my blog.

    In the quotations cited, Bailey appears to think that race is a reality to be overcome, surpassed or in some manner gotten beyond, perhaps through the alternative ideal of brotherhood, in order to realize our democracy. Within its historical context, it was a progressive, possibly even courageous, thing to say. It nevertheless reflects and reinforces a view that we should recognize as racist, even when it emerges from within the black community (as it did, for example, among advocates of “racial uplift”). It is ironic that other readers think that this is a "rebuttal" to my own comments.

    My scholarly work—more typically focused on Jefferson than Bailey—argues that those of us who would align ourselves with place-based and land-focused agrarian philosophy must be especially mindful of the way that themes of racial and gender exclusion have been subtly interwoven with such ideas in the past. We should not assume that we are “beyond” that today, and we should work harder to understand how even progressive ideas can rest on unexamined assumptions. Thanks to the Bailey Museum for helping us ponder how tangled and interwoven our ideas on race, place and polity can become.