The Negro American
Some truths are too terrible to be uttered. They lead nowhere but to despair. They subvert hope, the ultimate pillar of the social order. We prefer to cast about for assuaging myths. One such truth, which goes back to Heraclitus, the founder of the dialectic, is that conflict is the essence of life, that “war”—in his own dark phrase—is “the father of all things.” It is not a maxim on which to found a society for eternal peace. Another such truth casts its shadow over the civil rights movement. All kinds of insights, concepts, and hypotheses are trotted out and tested in the 750 pages of the huge symposium, The Negro American, except the one which seems to me the most fundamental of all. The confusion, frustration, and despair of the civil rights movement become comprehensible if one looks at the American Negro (a less hopeful but more accurate description) simply as a people without a country.
The Negro is the second oldest imported stock in our country. Only the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant predates him, and that only by a few years. The distinguished Negro historian, John Hope Franklin, in his contribution to this symposium, reminds us that the first Negro indentured servants were brought here in 1619. That was a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. After three-and-a-half centuries of living in America, the Negro is still a race apart. Ours is the world’s oldest and most successful experiment in apartheid. The South Carolina code of 1712 set up special laws for Negroes to “restrain the disorders, rapines and inhumanity to which they are naturally prone and inclined.” This is still the white stereotype of the Negro. In 1964 it was heartbreakingly possible for the White Citizens Council to place in newspaper advertising a declaration of Negro inequality made one hundred years earlier at Peoria by Lincoln, his reluctant Emancipator. “In a fundamental sense,” Philip M. Hauser writes in this same symposium, “the Negro really did not enter white American society until World War I.” And even after World War I Negro soldiers returning from their segregated regiments were lynched, sometimes in their military uniforms, while the renascent Klan warned them to respect the rights of the white race “in whose country they are permitted to reside.” Even now, in our enlightened time, Congress is queasy about passing a civil rights bill with an “open housing” provision because most whites don’t want to have Negroes as neighbors. After three-and-a-half-centuries in residence, the Negro still does not feel at home.
ALL THESE PROBLEMS of open housing, educational standards, and different ways of life, would disappear, of course, if the American Negro, like other Negroes, had a territorial base in which he was the irrepressible majority instead of an unwanted minority. The American Negro may not yet be ready to compete on equal terms with the white man, but he is far more advanced than most of the darker peoples who have won their independence since World War II, and taken seats, in all their exotic splendor, in the United Nations. Neither in Africa nor in the Caribbean nor in Latin America is there any group of Negroes so prepared for self-government as our 20 million American Negroes. No other Negro group has so high a level of literacy, so wide an educated stratum, so large an elite, so much experience with politics, as the American Negro. But he alone of all these Negro or mulatto nations has no territory of his own.
Such cries as “Freedom Now” or “Black Power” reflect the repressed recognition of this bitter anomaly. As slogans or political programs they may make little sense in a country where he is little more than a tenth of the population, and where he is fenced off by taboo as racially untouchable in marriage. What does “Freedom Now” mean? Freedom from what? It really means freedom from the white man’s presence, just as “Black Power” really means the end of white man’s power. If America’s 20 million Negroes were concentrated in an African territory under white rule, or even concentrated in a Black Belt here, these cries clearly would make political sense. They would mean the end of white rule and the beginning of black rule. It might be less competent, and even more corrupt, but it would restore racial self-respect, as the end of white domination has done in Africa. This is the deep string these phrases pluck in black American hearts. This is what they cannot achieve in a white man’s country and this is why you have leaders floundering around in despair, one day fighting segregation and the next day fighting integration. The basic emotion is hatred of “Whitey” and this is why Black Nationalism of one variety or another strikes so deeply into the apathetic, disillusioned, and despairing black masses. Of the conventional leaders only Martin Luther King sways them, and he does so for reasons that have little to do with the creed he preaches. They see him as a Moses, but they have no Promised Land.
THE NEGRO AMERICAN is the most comprehensive survey of its kind since Myrdal’s An American Dilemma was published twenty-two years ago. There is hardly one of its thirty essays which does not provide some fresh insight. But its viewpoints are limited to the establishment, as was to be expected from a work under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Of the Negro leadership, only Whitney M. Young, Jr., of the National Urban League, appears in these pages; his organization might best be described as lily-black. His essay with John B. Turner is the least rewarding in the whole volume, though it does have one illuminating sentence, “At least until now the Negro has not been so much trying to change the American system as attempting to become a part of it.” None of the newer organizations, CORE or SNCC or Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which seek to change the system as well as join it, are represented among the contributors; even the NAACP and Martin Luther King are absent. No Negro Nationalist, no radical Marxist, or moderate Socialist analysis is included, though there is a free enterprise approach in a vigorous essay by James Tobin which calls for changes in attitude and policy hardly less drastic. Tobin, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale, sees the maintenance of full employment as “the single most important step” the nation could take to help the Negro. He is for a guaranteed basic income in the form of “a negative income tax” which would provide basic family allowances for the poor in a form which avoids the demeaning and degrading characteristics of the welfare system. He would revolutionize agricultural policy “to give income support to people rather than price support to crops and to take people off the land rather than to take land out of cultivation.” He believes we are “paying much too high a social price for avoiding creeping inflation and for protecting our gold stock and “the dollar’.” He sees the interests of “the unemployed, the poor and the Negroes” under-represented in “the comfortable consensus” behind policies which stress monetary stability more than full employment. He urges organizations of the poor and the Negro to study the relation between their plight and fiscal policy.
The nearest approach to a radical evaluation of the civil rights movement itself is Kenneth B. Clark’s essay on it. His criticism of Martin Luther King’s Gandhian philosophy anticipates the reaction against non-violence which has broken out in the civil rights movement since this symposium was written. “In Hitler’s Germany,” Dr. Clark writes, “the Jews suffered non-violently without stirring Nazi repentance; the early Christians who were eaten by lions seem to have stimulated not guilt but greed in the watching multitudes.” The non-violent oppressed cannot twinge the conscience of the oppressor unless he has one. In addition the whole approach becomes irrelevant where the Negro is up against not cruelty, as in the South, but an impersonal system masked by benign attitudes as in the North. “What do you do,” Dr. Clark asks, “in a situation in which you have laws on your side, where whites smile and say to you that they are your friends, but where your white ‘friends’ move to the suburbs… How can you demonstrate a philosophy of love in response to this?… One can be hailed justifiably as a Nobel Prize hero by the Mayor of New York, but this will not in itself change a single aspect of the total pattern of pathology which dominates the lives of the prisoners of the ghettoes of New York.”
THE MOST STRIKING GAP in the area covered is the absence of any essay on the political leadership developed in the Negro community; perhaps no respectable writer could be found sufficiently intrepid to take on the phenomena of Adam Clayton Powell and William L. Dawson. We only have the sobering observation in an astringent essay by Oscar Handlin,
Nor is it to be expected that these people [i.e., the Negroes] will be more enlightened in the use of power than their predecessors. Politics is not the cure-all that some naive observers consider it to be.
There is still an eighteenth-century naiveté under the surface of radical agitation about the Negro; he is unconsciously regarded by many Leftists as the Noble Savage who will rejuvenate our politics, and give white radicalism a chance to reenter with him the mainstream of American politics from which it has so long been shut off. In the socalled New Politics, these lost causes are to be the Black Man’s Burden. We have found ourselves an American proletariat.
But ours is an age in which, in a manner late Victorian liberal and Marxist optimists had thought obsolete, the ancient divisive forces of nationalism and tribalism have demonstrated a furious vitality. It would be a mistake to dismiss their recurrence among American Negroes as a passing aberration. In an age of decolonization, it may be fruitful to regard the problem of the American Negro as a unique case of colonialism, an instance of internal imperialism, an underdeveloped people in our very midst. A clue is afforded by the demographic characteristics of the American Negro, which turn out to be like those of other underdeveloped peoples in our time. “The Negro,” Hauser writes in the discussion of demographic factors he contributed to this volume,
like the inhabitant of the developing regions in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, in his exposure to the amenities of twentieth century living, is experiencing rapidly declining mortality while fertility rates either remain high or, as in urban areas, actually increase.
The high birth rate and the youthful age structure which mark the Negro community are characteristic of the underdeveloped world today. Unlike external colonies, however, the Negro community has not been a source of cheap raw materials; all it could offer was cheap labor, and the need for cheap labor has been declining on the farm, where most Negroes used to live, and in the cities to which he has moved. The American Negro is condemned to live in Egypt, but it is an Egypt which has already built its Pyramids and no longer needs slaves. Mechanization on the farm and automation in industry have at last set him free, but now freedom turns out to be joblessness.
The most important Negro revolution of our time may be his transformation from a rural to an urban dweller, and to an increasing extent a dweller in idleness. In less than half a century the predominantly rural Negro has become more urban even than the white man. In 1960 the Negro was already 73 per cent urban as compared with 70 per cent for whites. At the same time, as Daniel P. Moynihan observes in his essay on “Employment, Income and the Ordeal of the Negro Family,” the rate of Negro unemployment, “from being rather less than that of whites, has steadily moved to the point where it is now regularly more than twice as great.” It is no wonder the Negro feels unwanted.
THIS IS ONLY TRUE, however, of the Negro masses. The success of the civil rights movement has deepened the gap between the Negro elite and the Negro mass. “Anyone with eyes to see,” Moynihan writes, “can observe the emergence of a Negro middle class that is on the whole doing very well. This group has, if anything, a preferred position in the job market. A nation catching up with centuries of discrimination has rather sharply raised the demand for a group on short supply. One would be hard put to describe a person with better job opportunities than a newly minted Negro Ph. D.…At the same time there would also seem to be no question that opportunities for a large mass of Negro workers in the lower ranges of training and education have not been improving, that in many ways the circumstances of these workers relative to the white work force have grown worse.” The anarchist, Max Nomad, helped to popularize the theory that revolutions, national or social, are made by déclassé intellectuals seeking their place in the sun or, to switch metaphors, at the public trough. Our Negro Revolution, too, has so far primarily benefitted the Negro elite. The masses have a long wait ahead for “Black Power” but the trained minority is snapped up by government agencies and business firms anxious to acquire their own token Negroes.
A footnote to the Moynihan article points out that in 1964 “the number of corporation personnel representatives visiting the campus of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania was twice that of the graduating class.” No one is more revolutionary than idle intellectuals; the Negroes are, in effect, being bought off.
As educational standards and technological requirements rise, it may become harder rather than easier for the Negro to join the ranks of the happy few. Rashi Fein in his essay, “An Economic and Social Profile of the Negro American,” quotes from a 1962 Census Bureau report which said:
It thus appears that not only is the nonwhite population more poorly educated than the white population, but the net gain of nonwhites at higher levels of education, as calculated from the educational differences in the fathers’ and sons’ generations, has not been as great as for whites.
Fein’s analysis shows that while the Negro like the white shows improvement in education, health, and welfare, white progress has been so much swifter than Negro that the differential between them is greater than a generation ago. Fein turns up some fascinating statistics:
In 1940, for example, the absolute difference between the white and nonwhite infant mortality rate was 31 per 1,000 live births, while in 1962 the difference had declined to 19 per 1,000. Yet in 1940 nonwhite infant mortality was 70% greater than that of whites and in 1962 it was 90% greater.
The lag in rate of progress feeds Negro discontent.
Some of Fein’s statistics starkly light up the background of that situation which gave us the “Black Panther” party.
Even as late as 1952 [Fein writes] the chances were barely 50-50 that a Negro baby born in Mississippi was born in a hospital, but the chances were 99 to 100 for white Mississippi-born babies. And for Negro residents of Dallas County and Lowndes County, Alabama, the rates in 1962 were 27 and 9 per 1,000 (while rates for white residents were 99 and 96 respectively).
This disparity of nine Negro babies per hundred and ninety-six white babies per hundred born in hospitals in Lowndes County may help us to understand the context from which the cry of Black Power originated. The discrimination against the overwhelming black majority in counties like Lowndes is almost genocidal.
THE PICTURE WHICH EMERGES from this symposium, however, has its more hopeful aspects. Lee Rainwater, in his essay on “The Crucible of Identity,” throws doubt on the view that slavery by destroying the Negro family has created characteristics which make it difficult for the Negro to shake off “nigger-ness.” Rainwater points out that “in the hundred years since Emancipation, Negroes in rural areas have been able to maintain full nuclear families almost as well as similarly situated whites.” The slum and the decline in the need for unskilled labor have more to do with the psychically crippling family conditions of the Negro than the heritage of slavery. Given half a chance, the Negro can respond as quickly as the white to the means for his own improvement. Adelaide Cromwell and Frederick S. Jaffe in their study of “Negro Fertility and Family Size Preferences” show how responsive Negroes are to the birth control which is an essential step to the climb out of main birth-control clinics available to low-income families in the U.S.; among the 282,000 patients served in their clinics in 1964, the largest single clinic group—47 per cent—was Negro.” A wider availability of contraceptive knowledge for mothers and jobs for fathers would transform the Negro in a generation.
But there is no reason why this transformation must change the Negro merely into a darker version of the white man. The new emphasis on “blackness” in the civil rights movement reflects a healthy instinct. The Negro has two basic needs. One is more jobs and the other is the restoration of self-respect. But how is self-respect to be restored if he rejects himself as Negro and aspires to be something else? Assimilation may come some day to the Negro, as it has to other ethnic groups in our American melting pot; the forces making for homogeneity may prove irresistible for him too. But on the way the Negro can only wipe out the self-contempt imposed upon him by three centuries of white supremacy by accepting and affirming and intensifying his negritude. A man must absorb, face, and not reject his past in order to stand fully erect, and that past includes the past of the people to which he belongs. To abandon part of one’s self is by implication to accept that part’s inferiority. The current revulsion against integration is made more understandable by Erik H. Erikson’s essay on “The Concept of Identity.”
DR. ERIKSON, who is lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard, shows us that the Negro is often asked to accept “an ensure outer integration” at the cost of giving up that “inner integration” in which he had learned to accept himself as a Negro. He quotes a young Negro woman student as exclaiming, “What am I supposed to be integrated out of? I laugh like my grandmother—and I would rather die than not laugh like that.” Dr. Erikson remarks: “Desegregation, compensation, balance, reconciliation—do they all sometimes seem to save the Negro at the cost of an absorption which he is not sure will leave much of himself behind?”
This has implications for the Negro collectively as well as individually. Oscar Handlin’s essay on “The Goals of Integration” is not so far from the sharp new turn in the civil rights movement signaled by Stokely Carmichael.
It is the ultimate illogic of integration [Handlin writes] to deny the separateness of the Negro and therefore to inhibit him from creating the communal institutions which can help him cope with his problem… To confuse segregation, the function of which is to establish Negro inferiority, with the awareness of separate identity, the function of which is to generate the power for voluntary action, hopelessly confuses the struggle for equality.
Handlin restates calmly what the Negro radicals cry out in their anguish:
As long as common memories, experience and interests make the Negroes a group, they will find it advantageous to organize and act as such. And the society will better be able to accommodate them as equals on those terms than it could under the pretense that integration could wipe out the past.
This is the logic of “black power,” though devoid of those semantic, psychological, and mystical overtones that have spread it so swiftly through the Negro community, as if it were an incantation to the forgotten tribal gods long torn away from them.
The Negro requires and deserves the fullest measure of patience and understanding in his agony, for this is the agony of his rebirth. His racism, answering ours, is a necessary step toward our ultimate reconciliation. The riots—and they will become worse—have a logic of their own: Can we deny that only the fear of race war can force us finally to gird for Negro rehabilitation and reconstruction as we gird for war abroad, on a giant scale and with a generous hand? Of all I read in The Negro American what I liked best is a remark Robert Coles records from an unnamed Negro in Mississippi. “Negroes don’t have it so bad,” he said, “they can recover mighty fast, if we only get a chance.” There lies the hope for him and for us and for what must become, in the fullest sense, our common country.