If you are in the habit of reading publications that dabble in historical inquiry, you have likely encountered the following mode of argument many times: Something—an idea, perhaps, a practice, or a policy—is a vestige of oppression. It has its roots in racism or sexism. It is marked by an original sin. Therefore, though admittedly there may be nothing inherently evil about the thing, we should abolish it. Such a step is necessary on our path towards a more just society.
This form of argument—“problematizing” a thing, in academese—is near omnipresent. It is not new, but in recent years it has become the most vogue method of argumentation for social or political improvement. This is no coincidence: Argument from origins is a necessary theoretical backbone of the claim that the United States and all its institutions are baked through with oppression—in other words, “systemically” so.
Some recent examples, large and small: The Senate filibuster has been labeled a “monument to white supremacy,” the “direct legacy of segregation” though it “was not explicitly designed as a tool for white supremacists” because it “was not ‘designed’ at all.” For the sake of eradicating white supremacy, we must abolish the filibuster.
American policing has “racist roots,” because policing in southern slave-holding states had “roots in slave patrols.” For the sake of extirpating the legacy of the Confederacy, we must abolish the police.
Most recently, attorney and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander argued in a New York Times op-ed that the practice of tipping—more precisely, allowing restaurant workers to be officially salaried at less than minimum wage with the difference made up in customer tips—is a “legacy of slavery.” For the sake of racial and gender equity, we must abolish tipping.
These claims vary in historical accuracy from the undeniable to the highly contested, to be sure. But even if we accept the historical arguments as true for the sake of exercise, this logic—so central to claims of systemic oppression—is unevenly applied, unfair, and most importantly, unhelpful to social progress.
One more stipulation: there are surely arguments for all the above that do not turn on historical arguments about origins and claims about “systems.” Many advocates of radical abolitionist movements make such arguments. Failure to restrict arguments to considerations of current effects and preferences for the future, though, speaks volumes. Historical-construction arguments clearly hold a particular purchase, because they add up to a meta-claim that America is inherently oppressive.
So, what’s the problem with argument from origin?
The first problem is the most obvious one: Just because something was used for bad purposes, or even that it was invented to do evil, does not mean the thing is inherently bad. Think of this as the “swords-to-plowshares” principle. Chapter 2 of Isaiah speaks of weapons of war being repurposed for peaceful instruments of agriculture and commerce; so too can weapons of subjugation and supremacy become tools of construction and coexistence.
Police are not forever destined to fulfill the legacy of slave patrols. (You may believe that in practice, they still do; that, again, is a separate argument.) With their institutional legitimacy and legal recognition, reformed police may have an easier time being “plowshares”—protecting the vulnerable, keeping the public peace—than whatever might replace them were they abolished. The logic of permanently tainted institutions does not allow for reform, though—only abolition and replacement.
Though these arguments most frequently come from the political left, the right can make this mistake as well. Some legal conservatives adhere to the logic of judicial restraint—that judges should avoid at all cost “legislating from the bench”—in large part because judicial activism is seen as leading to undesired outcomes, such as the prohibition announced against state restrictions on abortion in Roe v. Wade. There are plenty of good reasons to embrace the philosophy of judicial restraint, but those should be grounded in arguments about the proper role of judges in our constitutional order rather than on the outcomes such activism led to in the past.
That some conservatives, cognizant of the current balance of the Supreme Court, have changed their tune on judicial restraint versus activism only further illustrates the point. Reliance on historical applications of a practice rather than principled considerations of the priorities contained within it is bound to distance us from consistency. Which side of the restraint-versus-engagement debate is preferable is a question best answered with an eye towards normative questions of constitutionalism and political and legal theories—accounting for past applications of both theories, to be sure—rather than hindsight fixated on who first began using a method and for what purpose.
The filibuster, too, should not be dismissed as fruit of the poisoned tree. For one, it can force legislatures to make compromises until they receive super-majority support. It certainly was not acting as a white supremacist weapon when Senate Democrats wielded it to block Sen. Tim Scott—a black Republican—from passing his police reform bill just this past June.
Which brings us to the second major problem with argument from origin: It is subject to shamelessly selective application. Nearly everything that is not brand-new can be undermined by finding some upsetting way it was once deployed, or something undesirable about its original proponents.
Institutions cannot change if they are always defined by their origin. The only way to do better is to start over, with an origin story that will surely be condemned by a future generation for moral failings yet unforeseen.
One glaring example of selective deployment of this logic is the minimum wage. No less than Michelle Alexander, in her column on tipping, advocates not just continuing but raising the minimum wage as a form of racial justice. Yet the minimum wage has its origins in severely xenophobic and eugenic policy. Progressive economist E.A. Ross famously supported the minimum wage because it would make Asian immigrants effectively unemployable, noting that “the coolie, though he cannot outdo the American, can underlive him.” A minimum wage would make such “underliving” impossible, and thereby keep Asian immigrants from taking white workers’ jobs. F.W. Taussig, the Harvard economist and advocate of forced sterilization of “inferior” races, wrote in his Principles of Economics that “compulsory minimum wage” would create a class of the “unemployable…not capable of earning the minimum.”
“It would be impossible to compel employers to pay the minimum to those whose services were not worth it,” he wrote. “But it is a fair question whether it is not a merit in the proposal, rather than a defect.” Those who could not find employment at minimum wage due to “congenital feebleness of body and character,” euphemisms for race and ethnicity, “should be simply stamped out… We have not reached the stage where we can proceed to chloroform them once for all; but at least they can be segregated, shut up in refuges and asylums, and prevented from propagating their kind.”
Yet Alexander, and doubtless many who share her commitments, wants to strengthen the minimum wage, not abolish it. This demonstrates both the superfluity of argument from origin—she could argue that tipping is bad without appealing to its origins without running into this glaring hypocrisy—and its cynical deployment as a partisan cudgel, rather than a deeply-held belief about the nature of policies and institutions.
The third and most abstract problem with this type of thinking is that it is inherently all-or-nothing. The totalitarianism of a focus on origins is that once a thing is tainted with beginnings that do not sit well with our modern sensibilities, it is indelibly stained. No matter what kinds of de-escalation training and anti-implicit bias education you provide police, for instance, they will always be the ugly child of slave patrols. Reform is necessarily insufficient if not impossible.
Taken seriously, even if applied unevenly, arguments about fruit from the poisoned tree undermine the legitimacy of everything that came into existence before our current moral sensibilities crystallized—that is, just about everything that currently exists. Everything established in the past contains assumptions and value judgments made by individuals who could not have shared our precise moral convictions (at least in part because the language necessary to hold such convictions is new and constantly in flux).
Nothing, in theory, is immune. “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Instructions from oppressors, for oppressors. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”? A slaveholder’s ploy to entrench white supremacy. Of course, this is why such logic must be deployed selectively: The argument against all the poison fruit is itself a product of the same systemic forces—one will always have to use “the master’s tools” to “dismantle his house,” to borrow a phrase from liberation theory.
Moreover, this kind of argument is reflective of a broader social trend that considers people and institutions static, rather than dynamic. Institutions cannot change if they are always defined by their origin. The only way to do better is to start over, with an origin story that will surely be condemned by a future generation for moral failings yet unforeseen.
There is no place in this worldview for forgiveness, for introspection and incremental progress, or for reform without revolution. It is profoundly totalitarian in its all-encompassing condemnation of the failures of ideas and institutions—and the people who propagate them—without affording the possibility of change. For that, more than anything, it is a line of argument diametrically opposed to social progress.