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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 most prejudiced classes, and this has been calamitous. And everywhere, of course, police are subject to the factual prejudices of their dangerous craft; poor suspects of any color have never gotten loving care from cops. (It happens that hippies and vocal pacifists are the worst treated of all, but this is an effect of paranoiac prejudice, since these pose an inner threat to the policeman’s manly perfection.) Schoolteachers are a striking example of a kind of factual prejudice produced by narrow craft idiocy: probably most of them start out with fairly innocent attitudes, but when little black children do not learn to read Dick and Jane, the teacher’s annoyance and anxiety, fearful of the supervisor, can come close to hatred.

HISTORICALLY, there has been, and persists, a northern middle-class exclusiveness, provincial and conformist, that could reasonably be called “racist.” But let us look at this, too, accurately, for the remedy depends on the diagnosis. Blacks have always been strange. There were few in the eastern and middle-western country and towns from which many of the whites came. Their mores were not necessarily inferior, ludicrous, or bad, but unknown. When blacks were hired as domestics, for instance by New York Jews, they were not looked down on but treated like articles of furniture. Not in business, they did not belong to clubs. Living in their own neighborhoods, they did not belong to white churches. But to be socially excluded has been the common fate of immigrant poor. Color is not the decisive factor: black Puerto Ricans, even with their culture of poverty, now make an easier adjustment. But Negroes have been continually recruited from an entirely inappropriate slave and depressed-rural background, and their exclusion has been fatally cumulative. Then, with the recent overwhelming influx of new immigrants, and their teeming offspring, the familiar atmosphere of the northern cities has changed drastically; strangeness has become menace; panic flight has ensued.

What picture of the white middle class emerges from this analysis? It is not so much racist as narrow, self-righteous, and busy. But of course. This is the same tribe that, north and south, displaced the Indians, had Negro slaves in the first place, needlessly bombed Hiroshima, and destroys Vietnamese. Whether one calls it brash enterprise or imperialist arrogance, to these people their victims are not quite persons. If the deviants shape up, fine, one does business with them—and even extraordinary efforts are made to help them to shape up. But if they persist in being themselves, they are exterminable. “Essentially,” as the Kerner report puts it, busy self-centered people do not want to be thwarted or bothered. This bleakly explains more than “racism” does.

On the other hand, the Americans have the virtues of their defects, and these are more promising. Being busy, self-interested, independent, and successful, they have also been spectacularly extraverted, pragmatic, and generous. They will pay enormous sums to convert the heathen, wash the unwashed, and teach the mentally retarded to spell. And there has been an absolute contradiction in their racial attitudes. For instance, on the one hand there was the smug silence about the Indians and Negroes in classical New England literature; on the other hand there was the pan-humanism of Cooper and Walt Whitman. The framers of the Declaration of Independence obviously meant it when they said all men were created equal; yet some of the same authors allowed the organic charter, the Constitution, to speak of “three-fifths of a person.” (This was exactly the kind of detail on which Gandhi would have fasted to the death.) The bother with the premise of the Kerner report is that, if it were true, nothing less would avail than psychiatry for epidemic paranoia, probably including shock treatment—and this is, of course, the proposition of the black terrorists. A more prima facie diagnosis allows us to appeal to the outgoingness, the pragmatism, the enlightened self-interest of Americans.

Unfortunately, in modern conditions, we must notice the increasing anxiety and privatism of the middle class. As businesses become more centralized and the standard of living more demanding and complicated, independence and enterprise are severely constricted. And more and more we see that American horsesense and generosity, which have been saving graces, give way to a desperate need to keep things under control. Self-righteousness can then become “efficient,” a cold violence that has no inner check. There is a fanaticism of business as usual, called Preserving Law and Order, manner of Mayor Daley. If citizens fail to social-engineer the deviant into conformity, they quickly resort to mechanical measures, police, tanks, marines, bombers. When the threatened victims respond with desperate countermeasures, it is necessary to up the ante and there can be a massacre. Yet in modern conditions, it is again not necessary to speak of “white racism”; what is evident is a general drive to dispossess, control, and ignore human beings who are useless and bothersome, whether small farmers, displaced coal-miners, the aged, the alienated young, the vastly increasing number of “insane.” And unassimilable racial minorities.

But modern conditions also have advantages. The very centralization and affluence that dehumanize allow also for pragmatic remedies on a grand scale; an 800 billion Gross National Product and the mass media can mount “crash programs.” Second is the remarkable moral development of the young, sophisticated and free of economic pressure. In their own way they are as ignorant and self-righteous as the day is long, but they are not narrow, mechanical, or privatist, and they disregard caste and color. Finally, there is evidence that there is still life in the American democratic process itself, that peculiar mixture of morality, civil liberties, self-interest, and sporadic violence, swelling to make institutional change. Led by the young, the blacks, and the increasingly impatient “new class” of intellectuals, there is a revival of populism. Even the mass media, which have done so much to brainwash us, now seem—sensationally and inaccurately—to be informing us, because the journalists are new intellectuals. It is an odd “System.”


In the nature of the case, blacks in the United States are, by and large, racist, from Uncle Toms to Black Muslims. Whites can disregard blacks, but blacks can hardly disregard the power that owns and runs everything. Whiteness, as Fanon points out, inevitably invades the unconscious. Frustrated and deprived, blacks project onto the whites the putdown and hostility that they themselves feel. It would be too bitter to see truly the indifference that is usually really there.

(It is hardly necessary to discuss racial relations in order to make a catalogue of human sadness. But on the black side, lack of acquaintance, the mutual misunderstanding of manners and signals, must be especially devastating. For instance, willing to be friendly but being suspicious and vulnerable, he may start out with testing, either boring politeness or probing insult. But if the white is a simple person, he will be bored or annoyed, and shrug and sign off, and the world is so much worse than it was. This can quickly spiral downward to general mutual avoidance and fear. Yet, given ghetto conditions, it would be unusual for a black child not to grow up with suspicion, if the only whites he is exposed to are not simple persons, but police, schoolteachers, and bill-collectors.)

The sophisticated ideology of Racism itself has been picked up by intelligent blacks from white paranoids; it is a fairly recent invention of Germans, Boers, and the Ku Klux Klan. (Until the nineteenth century, race was not much used as a projection-screen, though religion, caste, and nationality were vastly overworked. Even anti-Semitism was mainly religious and could usually be alleviated by conversion.) And now we see that the artifact of a “racist society” is picked up from black militants by the Kerner report. Presumably the report’s rhetorical purpose in this is to sting white guilt in order to get action, but, as we shall see, this is a slender reed to lean on.

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    Reported of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders with an Introduction by Tom Wicker, Dutton, 609 pp., $7.95 (paper, Bantam, $1.25)

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