Reflections on Racism, Spite, Guilt, and Violence


The premise of the Kerner report on civil disorders* is, “Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively…. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” Both parts of this are not true. Since the end of World War II it was a rapacious policy of rural enclosure and, in Puerto Rico, a rapacious mercantilism that drove unprepared colored peoples north in unassimilable quantities, whether their reception would be racist or not; and add the whites disemployed out of Appalachia. To account for the explosive mixture, one does not need fancy new concepts like white racism; the old story of criminal neglect of social costs for private gain is more to the point. Further, historically, with notable exceptions, the northern whites have not been racially prejudiced—though they have been something else, perhaps more disastrous. It is best to get rid of these cliches and call each thing by its right name.

In classical psychology, race prejudice is a projection onto others of one’s own unacceptable traits. It is a species of paranoia, the repressed traits returning as floating threats. It is characteristic of the authoritarian personality, brought up with severe inhibition of the child’s initiative and animal nature; and the paranoia is excited by economic or other insecurity that makes the adult ego labile. Typically, a failing petty bourgeoisie with puritanic upbringing will have racial prejudices. The Germans were classically racist, with a full-blown ideology of Aryan supremacy that made them feel grand, whereas the Jews poisoned the bloodstream and were responsible for the Versailles treaty. Degraded by the Civil War, Southern whites developed the fullblown racism of the Ku Klux Klan; they had to be better than somebody, and niggers were inferior, apelike, a threat to Southern womanhood.

In this classical sense, the northern white middle class has hardly been racist at all. Their upbringing, though not free, has been unrestrictive by European standards. They certainly have not failed economically. Where there is more authoritarianism and insecurity, as among newly prosperous blue-collar workers—e.g., Poles, Italians, Irish, or Appalachians in Chicago—there is more racial prejudice; the same holds for retired rentiers like the Californians, threatened by inflation. (In England, prejudice is loosed at the more bitter level of job-competition among the poor.) But the usual majority objections to blacks that have caused the suburban flight have not been “prejudices” but a Gradgrind kind of facts, narrowly realistic. Blacks do downgrade the schools and make it hard for junior to compete for MIT; they make streets unsafe; they swell taxes by being on relief and not pulling their oar; they are not prepared for better jobs that have (irrelevant) mandarin requirements. By contrast, in the important area of discrimination in unionized semi-skilled jobs, there have been strong prejudices by blue-collar workers; and the most vehement opposition to open housing has come in rentier neighborhoods.

In many cities the police are recruited from just the…

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