Opinion | Abortion, Like Prohibition, Has a Clear Racial Dimension

Last week, David Frum wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic comparing our current abortion battle to Prohibition, another contentious issue that bitterly divided the nation. After a long, “titanic” struggle, the temperance movement succeeded in imposing a nationwide ban on alcohol — only to have it decline and collapse 13 years later.

This may happen with abortion bans, but hopefully it won’t take that long.

Frum was writing about the interconnectedness of restrictive impulses — and how one can be a gateway for others. Restrictions, he seemed to imply, can be complicated. Bigotry is a close cousin of prudence.

Prohibition, in particular, had a complicated racial history. Enslavers used alcohol for years as a weapon to subdue the enslaved in this country.

As Frederick Douglass explained in his memoir, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” enslavers often offered the enslaved a week off between Christmas and New Year. During that time, they encouraged those in bondage to engage in sports, dancing and heavy drinking. As Douglass wrote, “Not to be drunk during the holidays, was disgraceful.”

This revelry was not so much to reward the enslaved than it was a device to keep down “the spirit of insurrection,” as Douglass put it. In his estimation, “The slave’s happiness is not the end sought, but, rather, the master’s safety,” by making the enslaved “as glad to return to their work, as they were to leave it.”

The drunkenness was sometimes encouraged through cunning. As Douglass observed, he had known enslavers who resorted to the trickery of making bets on the enslaved to see who could drink the most whiskey, a game that induced “a rivalry among them, for the mastery in this degradation,” rendering “whole multitudes” sometimes “stretched out in brutal drunkenness, at once helpless and disgusting.”

The point was to create within the enslaved population a decidedly negative mental association with what little free time they had — and, as a result, with freedom itself.

Many of the people who crusaded for abolishing slavery later embraced the temperance movement and lobbied for Prohibition, with many Black people supporting restrictions on alcohol because it had long been used to keep them in bondage.

This was part of a pattern. There is a long history of oppressors using alcohol as a means by which to control and conquer. A Villanova professor, Mark Lawrence Schrad, author of “Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition,” described this phenomenon in Politico last year:

Whether encountering Indigenous tribes in North America, Aborigines in Australia, Indians under the British Raj or the entire continent of Africa, European colonizers for decades used alcohol as a means of establishing dominance. They’d introduce industrially distilled liquors to native populations with no history or tolerance for alcohol, recoil in horror at the drunkenness that would ensue, and then point to that same drunkenness as evidence of the natives’ innate inferiority within the racial hierarchy.

Later, in the United States, the media portrayed the Black legislators elected during Reconstruction not only as uncivilized and corrupt, but also as drunkards.

And, as Schrad noted, “The most frequent justification invoked by white lynch mobs in the American South was that Black men were raping white women while drunk.”

So, Black people had one justification for Prohibition — freedom from a white people’s poison — but white people had another, racist one — to protect white communities from “imaginary drunken Black mobs,” as Schrad phrased it.

It is no surprise, then, that when Mississippi convened its 1890 constitutional convention to write white supremacy into the DNA of the state, one of the other orders of business was Prohibition.

At the constitutional convention, delegates read a “memorial” on behalf of Mississippi’s prohibitionists and “Christian women” that included this passage: “There are 75 counties in Mississippi, and 40 of them are dry. These dry counties are in the white section. The 35 wet counties are mostly in the Black belt and are kept wet by the Negro vote.” It continued: “A majority of the white people of Mississippi favor prohibition. What are you here for, if not to maintain white supremacy, especially when a majority of whites stand for a great principle of public morals and public safety?”

Now, abortion is being restricted in much the same way alcohol once was. There are many reasons for what’s happening — some of the most fervent proponents of the abortion bans can claim religious objections, others are merely angling for a political advantage or catering to the basest instincts of the American electorate, hoping to force more white women to have children in order to prevent white people from losing their majority status. The reasons for Prohibition were just as numerous and complicated, a mess of interlocking moral and political allegiances. But there is one key difference between then and now: Black people seem to have quickly increased support for abortion rights.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll released on June 22, 82 percent of Black people support Roe v. Wade, compared to 60 percent of white people and 62 percent of Hispanics. Aggregated Gallup polls from 2001-2007 found that just 24 percent of Black people thought abortion should be legal in all cases. That Gallup number rose to 32 percent for the period 2017-2020. This month’s Quinnipiac poll found that number to be 45 percent.

The road to Prohibition, which had some Black support, even though some of its white support was infected with racism, was decades long, but Prohibition itself only lasted a little over one decade. These abortion bans had a similarly long route to fruition, but most Americans, including Black people, do not approve. How long before this unpopular repression also loses favor and falls into decline?

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