Harris, Abram Lincoln, Jr.

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Harris, Abram Lincoln, Jr.

January 17, 1899
November 16, 1963

The economist Abram Harris was born in Richmond, Virginia. He left his mark on developments in the areas of economic anthropology, black studies, institutional economics, and the history of economic thought.

A 1922 graduate of Virginia Union University in Richmond, Harris completed his M.A. in economics at the University of Pittsburgh in 1924, and he received his Ph.D. in economics in 1930 from Columbia University. After teaching briefly at West Virginia State University (19241925) and working at the Minneapolis Urban League (19251926), where he served as research director coordinating a report on the status of black working people in Minnesota's Twin Cities, Harris taught at Howard University from 1927 through 1945. He then went to the University of Chicago, where he taught for the rest of his life. Although his appointment was in the undergraduate college and he never taught graduate courses, any appointment at Chicago was a rarity for a black scholar in the 1940s.

In his early years at Howard, Harris and his colleagues Ralph Bunche (19041971) and E. Franklin Frazier (18941962) were the leading figures among the young intellectuals who attacked the traditional tactics and outlooks of the older generation of "race men." In 1931 Harris published, in collaboration with the Jewish political scientist Sterling Spero, his most famous work, The Black Worker, which examined race relations in the American labor movement. In 1935, following preliminary discussions at the the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Amenia Conference of 1933, he was the main author of the so-called Harris Report, which urged the NAACP to adopt a more activist protest strategy and a class-based rather than a race-based approach to social change. While the report was not enacted, Harris continued to advocate a multiracial working-class movement as the only real solution to race problems in the United States.

In 1935, Harris and Bunche sponsored a conference at Howard University on the condition of blacks during the Great Depression, out of which came a special issue of the Journal of Negro Education (1935). The issue contained an article inspired by Harris, developed further the next year in his publication The Negro as Capitalist (1936) in which he argued that black businessmen and blackowned financial institutions were as harmful to the black masses as white capitalists. He claimed that black-owned banks, in particular, subjected the black working class to usurious interest rates, high rates of mortgage loan foreclosures, and an extremely high risk of outright bank failure. He urged the black working class to rely instead upon financial cooperatives of their own making. Futhermore, in light of negligible black ownership of the nation's industrial sector, he viewed notions of the development of "black capitalism" as sheer fantasy. Finally, Harris declared that civil rights efforts by existing black organizations were doomed to inadequacy in light of the fundamental economic disparities between the races.

Into the 1940s, Harris was the intellectual leader of the left-leaning Social Science Division at Howard, which he helped found in 1937. His influence on Bunche was especially pronounced, reflected in numerous papers in which Bunche virtually echoed positions that Harris had taken earlier. Harris's vision of the history of capitalist development and the role of slavery and the slave trade also had a profound effect on Eric Williams's analysis of the origins of the British Industrial Revolution in his classic study Capitalism and Slavery (1944).

In 1945 Harris left Howard to accept an appointment at the University of Chicago, where he appeared to undergo an intellectual conversion to anti-Marxism. He had never been naive about his earlier endorsement of radical change, and he had expressed deep concerns about the totalitarian direction of the Soviet Revolution as early as 1925, when he wrote "Black Communists in Dixie" for the Urban League's magazine Opportunity.

During Harris's years at Chicago, he became largely silent on the race question. His published research efforts concentrated on the history of economic theory, notably in essays such as "The Social Philosophy of Karl Marx" (1948) and in the volume Economics and Social Reform (1958), an exploration of John Stuart Mill's moderate liberalism. Harris also wrote on Mill's views of mid-nineteenth-century British colonial policy, chiefly with regard to India. He had begun to write a reinterpretation of The Black Worker, to be called The Economics and Politics of the American Race Problem, when he died. In keeping with his later views, his thesis in this work was that blacks had to improve their own skills and "human capital" in order for integration efforts to succeed. He had moved wholly away from a focus on working-class political movements.

Harris had a marked influence on both black radical and neoconservative thought, and his works display one of the most discerning critical voices of the twentieth century.

See also Black Studies; Bunche, Ralph; Howard University; Intellectual Life; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)


Darity, William, Jr. "Soundings and Silences on Race and Social Change: Abram Harris Jr. in the Great Depression." In A Different Vision, vol. 1, African American Economic Thought, edited by Thomas D. Boston. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Darity, William, Jr. "Harris, Abram Lincoln, Jr." In Encyclopedia of African American Business History, edited by Juliet E. K. Walker. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Darity, William, Jr., and Julian Ellison "Abram Harris Jr.: The Economics of Race and Social Reform." History of Political Economy 22, no.4 (1990): 611627.

Harris, Abram L., Jr. The Negro As Capitalist: A Study of Banking and Business among American Negroes. Philadelphia, Pa.: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1936.

Harris, Abram L., Jr. Race, Radicalism, and Reform: Selected Papers, edited by William Darity Jr. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989.

Spero, Sterling, and Abram L. Harris Jr. The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.

william a. darity jr. (1996)
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