Harris, Abram L., Jr.
Harris, Abram L., Jr. 1899-1963
Abram Lincoln Harris Jr., an African American scholar and activist, was born in 1899 in Richmond, Virginia, and finished his undergraduate work in 1922 at Virginia State University, a historically black college in Petersburg, Virginia, near his hometown. He completed an MA in economics at the University of Pittsburgh in 1924, and received his PhD in political economy at Columbia University in 1930. Harris served as a faculty member and chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University, the capstone of black higher education, in Washington, D.C., from 1927 to 1945 and subsequently served on the faculty of the University of Chicago until his death in 1963.
Harris was the first African American PhD in economics who pursued a rigorous academic career, publishing fifty works, including two seminal books and important essays in leading economics journals, such as the Journal of Political Economy and the American Economic Review. He also wrote extensively for public intellectual and activist journals, including Opportunity, the Crisis, the Nation, and the New Republic. His early scholarly books and articles focused on the economic conditions of African Americans and the best strategy to ameliorate these conditions. These studies reflected a decidedly activist and Marxian inclination. His later work retreated from concrete strategies of social reform and focused instead on the doctrines of economic reform in the writings of Karl Marx (1818–1883), Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873).
During his early professional years in the 1930s, Harris played a pivotal role in the critical and contentious debate over the best strategy for black progress in the United States. He decried the strategy of “black capitalism” as unrealistic (Harris 1936) and advocated instead the formation of a national multiracial working-class party to bring about social reform (Spero and Harris 1931). Leading the “Young Turks” of the Second Amenia Conference in 1933, and with W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) looking on with general favor, he proposed that the U.S. African American leadership change course from its focus on civil rights (i.e., legal and political reform organized around individual cases) and undertake instead a more radical, class-based, mass approach to social reform. The following year, at the request of the NAACP’s board chair Joel Spingarn (1875–1939), Harris assembled the Committee on the Future Plan and Program of the NAACP, which proposed a breathtaking reform of the organization that, if implemented, would have transformed it into a politically active workers’ university with local chapters serving as branch campuses. This reform would have immersed the NAACP in labor advocacy and education, laying the intellectual basis for black-white labor action on immediate issues, including pensions, unemployment insurance, child and female labor, lynching, public discrimination, and Jim Crow (Holloway 2002, pp. 93–100).
The radical Abram Harris of the 1930s rejected interracial conciliation of the Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) variety, the civil libertarianism of Walter White (1893–1955), and the militant race-consciousness of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940). He opposed the more nuanced version of race consciousness advanced by Du Bois, who argued (Du Bois 1940, chap. 7) for a period of self-segregation by African Americans, during which time they would form consumer and producer collectives to create a strong social foundation that would allow them to ultimately unify with white workers (currently blinded by racial prejudice) in establishing a socialist United States. Du Bois advocated this position as early as May 1933 in his address to the Conference on the Economic Status of the Negro sponsored by the Rosenwald Fund (Lewis 2000, p. 311). Harris rejected this strategy while fully recognizing the extraordinary challenge of bridging the racial chasm in the labor movement (Spero and Harris 1931).
Harris left Howard University and joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1945, a transition that marked (but did not initiate) a dramatic change in his worldview and intellectual focus. Leaving behind both his sympathy for Marx and his focus on social reform to achieve black progress, he adopted the moderate socialism of John Stuart Mill. Mill’s philosophy accepts the individualist assumptions about human nature and society, assumptions that Harris had earlier skewered in defending the class perspective of Marx (Harris 1935). His rejection of Marxian tenets (Harris 1950) coincided with his withdrawal from engagement in the struggle for black progress. Enhancing human capital through better education and a stronger home life, he came to believe, would allow his black brethren to succeed in the marketplace. This point of view largely accepts the false promise that the market will, in a competitive process, reward firms that recognize talent regardless of race; the problem of racial inequity thus has a labor supply-side solution (Harris 1964). The solution to the race problem lay in improving black character and skills, a familiar theme sounded by today’s conservatives who oppose positive legal and economic action that might compensate for the legacy of slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws and practices, and contemporary racial discrimination.
At Chicago, Harris remained close to his lifelong friend Frank Knight (1885–1972), the renowned conservative economist, and even found common ground with archconservative Milton Friedman (1912–2006) (Broder 2006; Darity 1989). Students at the University of Chicago considered Harris one of their best teachers, and he won the Quantrell Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1961. Chicago posthumously honored Harris’s contributions to undergraduate education by naming a series of scholarship awards in his honor in 1976. Harris’s work remains seminal in the debate on the strategic way forward for black progress, ironically occupying important positions on dramatically opposite sides of the debate.
SEE ALSO Capitalism; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Human Capital; Inequality, Racial; Marxism; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Politics, Black; Socialism
Harris, Abram L. 1936. The Negro as Capitalist: A Study of Banking and Business among American Negroes. Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Harris, Abram L. 1950. Utopian Elements in Marx’s Thought. Ethics 60 (2): 79–99. Reprinted in Harris 1989, 302–329.
Harris, Abram L. 1964. Education and the Economic Status of Negroes. In 100 Years of Emancipation, ed. Robert A. Goldwin, 129–157. Chicago: Rand McNally. Reprinted in Harris 1989, 100–123.
Harris, Abram L. 1989. Race, Radicalism, and Reform: Selected Papers. Ed. William Darity Jr. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Spero, Sterling D., and Abram L. Harris. 1931. The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.
Broder, David S. 2006. Free Thinking to the End. Washington Post, November 23.
Darity, William, Jr. 1989. Introduction: The Odyssey of Abram Harris from Howard to Chicago. In Race, Radicalism, and Reform: Selected Papers, by Abram L. Harris, ed. William Darity Jr., 1–34. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1940. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. New York: Harcourt.
Holloway, Jonathan S. 2002. Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919–1941. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Lewis, David Levering. 2000. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963. New York: Holt.
Rodney D. Green