The Lost Gospel:
Plotholes in Carnegie’s philosophy 
as evidenced by the African American experience
History of American Capitalism | May 2021
Examining Andrew Carnegie’s "Gospel of Wealth" (1889) in light of personal testimonies and historical analyses reveals the systemic barriers that checker American capitalism for racial minorities, specifically African Americans. Carnegie’s philosophy on wealth and its distribution reflects Darwinian thought and presupposes equitable economic competition. However, several literary works explored in this course complicate and challenge Carnegie’s notions of competition, economic mobility, individual worthiness, and the accessibility of wealth for all Americans. Insights from Katherine Turk’s “A Fair Chance To Do My Part of Work” (2012), George Ellis’ "The Negro in the New Democracy" (1916), Aaron Douglas’ "Aspiration" (1936), and Jay McInerney’s "Brightness Falls" (1992) coalesce to reveal Carnegie’s pragmatic inconsistencies in his theories on wealth. The inequitable access to education, employment, and civic participation that prevented the accumulation of wealth as described by Ellis and Turk are brought into sharp relief by Douglas’ artwork and McInerney’s novel. Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth is fictitious at worst, and idealist at best because it universalizes economic mobility, when in fact, economic mobility was primarily relative to racial status. 
Carnegie’s ideologies in "The Gospel of Wealth" embrace social darwinism and economic evolutionism. At a time when the economy was dominated by white male capitalists, race and capaciousness for wealth were spuriously correlated. He habitually references ‘the race’ throughout the text, ostensibly gesturing towards white supremacy. Carnegie begins unfolding this Darwinian approach by defending the law of competition, “...And while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial, and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race” (Carnegie 528). Consolidating the wealth in the hands of the few appeared to be a justified outcome of competition. But, as the future texts reveal, this economic contest was hardly a contest at all because the rules were fixed against minorities. Access to education and workplace discimination were two rules that created an uneven economic topography. 
Carnegie tethers the success of the wealthy to their competence, “It will be understood that fortunes are here spoken of, not moderate sums saved by many years of effort, the returns from which are required for the comfortable maintenance and education of families. His is no wealth, but only competence, which it should be the aim of all to acquire” (Carnegie 530). Carnegie clearly believes in the value of education and the family. But class discussions on the prevalence of segregation in higher education, especially Princeton University, demonstrate the systemic barriers that impeded educational access for African Americans. In the early twentieth century, George Ellis advocated for greater educational access in Chicago because he, too, understood its gravity.
George Ellis describes the role of African Americans within the context of Chicago in his article “The Negro in the New Democracy” in 1916. He is keenly aware one of the foundations for civic participation and socioeconomic liberty is proper education, and that this foundation is incredibly unequal. Essentially, lack of access to an adequate education further disenfranchised the African American community in Chicago, “...The true exercise of freedom is vouchsafed only to the cultured classes. They know too that there can be no true democracy without universal and the highest education...The citizens of Chicago believe not only in liberty and democracy for all men and races, but in universal education as the safest and surest foundation for the highest possible civic and social achievements” (Ellis 76). He precedes this by also emphasizing the importance of employment, “The liberty to labor, to possess, to enjoy, to grow and to contribute one's best toward social uplift and progres” (Ellis 75). Three decades later, Turk points out that the freedom to work was complicated by racist practices.
Returning to Carnegie’s philosophy, he also presumes perfect competition and equal opportunity for mobility across the economic terrain. While Carnegie anchors his Gospel of Wealth to Christian doctrine, he is surprisingly uncompassionate. He denounces charitable acts towards the so-called ‘unworthy’: “Neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms-giving. Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do, except in cases of accident or sudden change” (Carnegie 536). This begs questions of who is considered worthy of aid and what is considered assistance. If Carnegie’s definition of ‘unworthy’ encompasses those excluded from opportunities because of their race and his definition of ‘assistance’ includes any form of private or public help, then racial minorities were facing a narrowing window of economic hope. 
Even finding work in blue-collar factory jobs was challenging due to racial discrimination. Katie Turk discusses the covert and overt discriminatory practices that actively kept African American women out of the workplace during WWII using the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant in Indiana as an example. At this time, employment became more symbolic, and war jobs were to African Americans “a means to demonstrate their patriotism and to participate in the ongoing struggle for racial justice that had been reinvigorated by the pressures of war” (Turk 212). In addition to displaying patriotism, African American women were intent on working in these jobs to become breadwinners for their family. However, African American women quickly found themselves in a predicament when state-sponsored segregation and racist employers combined to spurn their earnest attempts to work. 
After being denied an opportunity to work at Kingsbury due to alleged high-blood pressure, Mamie Johnson came to believe the rumors she had heard surrounding hiring practices at the plant. Employers simply didn’t want to hire African Americans, and “‘they will tell them anything to get rid of them’” (Turk 210). The difficulty in proving racial discimination was supposed to be mitigated by the Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC), but Mamie Johnson’s case contradicts this. In her experience, “She was convinced that the government could and should do something to help her secure employment at Kingsbury. To prove that point, Johnson’s letter referenced her status as a motivated worker, a dedicated citizen, and a disadvantaged woman alike…” (Turk 210). The FEPC cited previous examples of African American employment at the plant and the legitimacy of a physician’s diagnosis as grounds against racial discimination. Turk points out “The sizeable gap between Ms. Johnson’s aspirations and her respondent’s answer reflected their different conceptions of fairness in employment practices and of the government’s role in ensuring it” (210). Like Carnegie, these organizations defined ‘fairness’ in a Darwinian manner. 
By most standards, Mamie Johnson was a worthy candidate, yet she still required assistance in securing employment. Furthermore, these manufacturing jobs weren’t glamorous, and “catastrophic accidents were so common” (Turk 213). If hardworking and patriotic African Americans were prevented from occupying even the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder through blue-collar labor, Carnegie’s ‘survival of the fittest’ logic and disbelief in assistance is nonstarting. Discimination fueled power dynamics and solidified the socioeconomic hierarchy that created a vicious cycle further entrenching African Americans in economic immobility. 
Furthermore, Aaron Douglas captures both Ellis’ and Turk’s sentiments by visualizing the distance that the African American community must travel to reach economic heights in his 1936 painting Aspiration. The painting depicts African Americans gazing towards a promontory lined with skyscrapers and factories. Illuminated by a North Star, the subjects escape the darkness of bondage and aspire towards this new sought-after land led by three figures holding tools symbolic of education. Douglas harbors the idea of success to employment and education, but in doing so, he brings the racial disparities of the early-to-mid twentieth century into relief. These communities were, and still are, haunted by the legacy of slavery. In the painting, shackled hands stretch towards the raised platform holding the three educated figures. Education was an elevator out of the dark past into the promising future. The chains represent the physical chains of slavery but also the new chains of state-sponsored segregation, workplace discrimination, and residential ghettoization. Symbolic bondage fuels Ellis’ argument that “Liberty is among the dearest possessions of the soul” (Ellis 75). Turk’s notions of fair chances and Douglas’ artwork combine to show how the economic marginalization of the African American community was at no fault of their own. These oppressive historical, political, and social forces continue to operate today. 
Readers can catch a better glimpse at modern manifestations of these forces in Brightness Falls. Jay McInerney captures the complexities of being African American in a white-collar workplace with white-collar friends through the character Washington Lee. Though fictional, Lee represents the real histories and politics injected into everyday life for African Americans. Hard working and well-educated, the audience senses that Washington Lee is exceptional by his job and juxtaposition against the other African American characters. Lee, a publishing agent, was “one of only two black adult trade book editors in New York'' (McInerney 26).  It appears socioeconomic mobility was possible for Washington because he attended a prestigious university: “Being the only senior editor who fully qualified as a member of a minority group, and fluent in several important languages, Washington was virtually fearless… A Harvard scholarship man like Harold, he’d grown up in Harlem, like almost on one else in the publishing industry, and the few people who had the power to fire him felt just terrible about it” (29). Washington shows how being a racial minority in a white-collar profession situates him in a liminal space where his identity is all at once helpful and hurtful. 
The other racial minority characters are a homeless man who robs the Calloways and a rejected author who goes on a rampage against Lee. Overall, Brightness Falls demonstrates the variance of the African American experience in the late twentieth century and exceptionalizes the success story of an Ivy League educated, white-collar worker. By all accounts, however, this fictional narrative orbits closest to Carnegie’s philosophies of economic competition. 
Summarily, wealth accumulation was a complicated calculus of social, political, and historical forces, many of which are still active today. Carnegie’s belief in the survival of the fittest contributed to the cyclic exclusion of racial minorities from the elite rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. His ideas of universal progress and fair competition are uncorroborated by the testimonies of African Americans well into the late twentieth century, and even the African American experience of the twenty-first. In conclusion, this essay encapsulates one of the integral themes of American capitalism: the prospect of wealth is falsely democratized because it is embedded in the broader matrix of society and culture. 
     Works Cited
Aaron Douglas, "Aspiration", 1936
Andrew Carnegie, “The Gospel of Wealth,” North American Review  (1889) 
George W. Ellis, “The Negro in the New Democracy,” The Journal of Race Development, pp. 74 – 82 (1916) 
Jay McInerney, first excerpt from Brightness Falls  (1992)
Katherine Turk, excerpt from “‘A Fair Chance To Do My Part of Work’: Black Women, War Work, and Rights Claims at the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant,” Indiana Magazine of History, pp. 209 – 221 (2012) 
“The New Slavery in the South—An Autobiography,” written by a “Georgia Negro Peon,” Independent (1904)
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