Let’s say I wrote a book that had the following thesis: (a) Governments tend to favor those with political power; (b) before World War II, Jews in Poland had little political power; and (c) therefore, various labor regulations enacted in Poland between 1920 and 1938, tended at best not to take the interests of Jews into account, and at worst was intentionally aimed at excluding them from the workforce. Judicial decisions invalidating labor regulations, by contrast, tended to help Jewish workers. Let’s say the book provided specific examples that backed up this thesis.
I think that it’s unlikely that anyone would bat an eye–while readers may or may not think I had dealt appropriately with various nuances, the main thesis would seem intuitively obvious, and the examples would be seen as basically what one would have expected.
Okay, now substitute “African Americans” for “Jews,” and “the United States” for “Poland,” and begin the time period in the 1880s instead of 1920 [Poland, of course, having been part of the Russian Empire before WWI]. This is the thesis of my 2001 book, Only One Place of Redress: African Americans, Labor Regulations and the Courts from Reconstruction to the New Deal. It attracted, and still occasionally attracts (as when I briefly mentioned it on this blog yesterday), some controversy (along, of course, with some plaudits). In part the controversy arises because the thesis is contrary to a certain mythos that American “progressive” forces–labor unions, racial minorities, and political elites and intellectuals who favor vigorous government regulation of the economy–are in natural harmony. In part, some critics seem to implicitly and uncharitably believe that while “our” academic work is neutral social science, “they” must have an underlying presentist political and ideological agenda.
If, however, one can separate the book’s thesis from its rather tenuous relationship to various modern controversies, it’s really no more remarkable, nor any more ideologically charged, that the Poland/Jews example provided above.