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Reflections on Racism, Spite, Guilt, and Violence

At present, southern blacks are less racist than northern blacks. Being more acquainted with real white madmen, they themselves have less paranoia and more sense of plain injustice; whereas northern blacks have to cope with bland unconcern or downgrading by neutral rules, at the same time as they are suffering. A case in point is “Law and Order.” A Jim Crow law is mad on the face of it; but to northern middle-class whites, due process is only reasonable, it provides a neutral forum for discussion and legislation. They cannot see that to dispossessed people due process is precisely the usual runaround that they have been getting. Besides, northern blacks are now a more failing class than southern. The excessive urbanization is fiscally and physically unworkable, and is unlivable. Religion and family are shattered. There is more anomie. The great bloc of immigrants and estranged youth may have a little more money but they are much worse off than they were in the rural areas from which they were driven.

A poignant example of the clash of black racism and white lack of empathy was the expulsion of white students from the civil rights and Black Power movements, e.g., from SNCC. Innocently righteous and confident in themselves, the white students took too much initiative and too much for granted. This made it hard for the blacks to run their own show, which was indispensable if they were to regain their own confidence. If the blacks had responded with fraternal, even if angry, competition, it might have cemented a deeper friendship. Instead they responded with jealousy, including sexual jealousy, and expulsion. The possibility of free cooperation has been foreclosed. Yet, since the blacks still need help, for instance funds and facilities and to swell a demonstration, there now develops the ugly situation that sympathetic whites are manipulated, hustled, or lied to; and it must be a further humiliation for blacks to do this.

During the recent fracas at Columbia, the blacks invited their SDS allies out of a joint action because, a leader said, “They were shaky and would vacillate and panic and could not be depended on. With black kids the issue is clear, to fight racism.” (One is struck by the testimonial to Socrates’ definition of courage, to have an idea.) My guess is that the whites had a more complicated idea; but in fact the more structural issue of the action, to fight military infiltration of the university, did get lost in the shuffle, so the blacks were proved correct.

Generally speaking, it has been a mistake, in my opinion, for black militants to try to make “integration” and “black power” absolute and incompatible. The basic theory behind it is nonsense, to lay stress on the color of civilization as the Germans laid stress on its nationhood; and, practically, too much science and wisdom, as well as wealth, resides in the dominant community to try to dissociate from it without being continually phony. It is stupid to regard Galileo or Faraday as “white” rather than as human—and to be saying it into a microphone. And negatively, it would be stupid to have a black and white committee against nuclear fallout or cancer. (By contrast, draft resistance warrants separate committees, since those with and those without student-deferments have different problems.) I doubt that, outside the South, there are many middle-class whites who have any feelings at all about being “white” as such. To the extent that to belong to a racial or national group is indeed a cause of pride—frankly, as a child of the Enlightenment, I think this is thin gruel—the minority group will thrive best in a mixed society where it has influential soul-brothers or Landsmänner. And politically, the majority of blacks and the best of the whites in fact want “integration” and will insist on it.

Nevertheless, illogic has its place. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas. It is now thinkable that there could be a black committee against nuclear fallout, whereas ten years ago it was impossible to mount a protest in Harlem on this issue at all. People have to humanize themselves in their own way. It produces a curious dilemma. For example, at the Conference for New Politics, just the most energetic of the blacks insist on the official recognition of their caucus; whereas just those whites who are most thoughtful and most deeply committed to social justice are embarrassed and do not know what to do with this demand, because in fact the unity of mankind is the truth.


The actual situation, without fancy constructs, is that some are hurting and the others don’t care. Starting from this obvious premise, for the oppressed a primitive method of coping is spite. Spite probably played a part in the expulsion from SNCC—“you aren’t invited”: it is the chief ingredient in the black theater of insult, genre of LeRoi Jones; and I think it has been an important factor in the riots—“burn, baby, burn.” Spite is the vitality of the powerless; it is a way of not being resigned, of keeping a lost fight alive by preventing the dominator from enjoying his domination.

(Needless to say, let me say at once, there are other factors in the riots. In some cities there has been evidence of a political plan for insurrection, part of a plan for world insurrection. The looting speaks for itself as reasonable free appropriation by people who are hopelessly poor. Burning white businesses in the ghetto makes a rational, though desperate, political point. There is a spontaneous explosion of frustration. In any culture of poverty there is a carelessness about one’s own possessions and life, just as the homicide rate is high. On the part of the intelligent and energetic young, who have played a big role, rioting is exactly equivalent to white youth uprisings on campuses and streets around the world, in fascist, corporate liberal, and communist countries: it is an acte gratuit of freedom in the face of irrational authority; the youth component is more important than the racial or ideological component.)

Commentators seem to be unwilling to say the word spite; yet it is not an ugly or useless passion. It is a means of preserving or even of finding identity. Saul Alinsky especially has often tried to use it for community development, e.g., by organizing dispossessed and fragmented people simply to take revenge on shortweight grocers. But the trouble with spite, of course, as Alinsky also knows, is that its victories do not add up, and the letdown can lead to worse despair.

Spite is often self-destructive, “biting off one’s nose to spite one’s face”; one burns down one’s own neighborhood partly because one cannot burn down theirs, but also to make them feel bad. This purpose usually fails; to “natural calamities” the affluent Americans promptly respond with clothing and canned goods, and do not feel bad but good. To hit home, it is necessary to produce an apocalypse as when Malcolm X, during his fanatical period, prayed for an atom bomb to destroy New York, Allah’s revenge. But I have heard, too, of a “political” purpose of self-destruction, to make precisely the unengaged blacks worse off and so swell the Cadres of revolt. This motive, if it exists, is evil.

Somewhat more practical is spite-work as blackmail. It is possible that some riot areas, like Watts or Newark, have received a tangible pay-off, as well as sociology. C. V. Hamilton puts it formally when, in a recent essay, he speaks of a quid pro quo: “Blacks receive economic support and political power; whites receive a chance to live in a healthy, developing, equitable society.” But the results have been meager, and, as a political proposition, shakedown must finally produce a devastating backlash. Nevertheless, the same substance can be put in a theoretical form that is quite acceptable political science, and hopefully workable: “For the commonweal of a pluralistic society, it is necessary for every group to flourish, and every group has the duty to throw its weight around to get justice for itself and the whole.” It is not newsy in American history that this might involve some violence; consider, for instance, the burned barns and derailed trains of 1885 agrarianism, or the defiance of court and police in the labor movement, with many killed. Hamilton has to use the language of blackmail because he cannot speak of commonweal; he seems to need the ideology of race war in order to organize a following.

In my opinion, we would be much further along if Black Power had long ago presented its concrete political program, e.g., local control of police, schools, and other services; the underwriting of local small businesses and cooperative housing. Such things are perfectly plausible and, if fought for, would by now have been won. (I have been plugging them for twenty years, but I have no troops.) If a decade ago, as we urged, the integrationists had asked for the guaranteed income for all Americans instead of welfare we would now have it; liberals get used to anything, once they hear the words. Five years ago, the March on Washington should have highlighted the Vietnam War, as some of us again urged. But moderate black leaders insisted that these things were too far out. And militant black leaders insisted on the spiteful recourse of sulking and putting on the whites the burden of guessing what is needed and coming across to prove their good will. Blacks shouted “Black Power!” and puzzled sympathetic whites asked, “What is Black Power?” A painful example has been James Baldwin’s gambit: he forces the white interlocutor to ask, “But what do you want?” “You know what we want.” “No, I really don’t.” “We want just what you want.” Perhaps Baldwin says this ingenuously, but he is in error; for usually the white man does not think of himself as a “white man,” but just as an individual in his own state of confusion and misery, in which being white does not help at all. Unless he is very empathetic, he does not see the disadvantage of being not white. If Baldwin would say, “We need thus and so to live better. How can you be of use in our getting it?” then the white man will either help according to his abilities or confess that he doesn’t care enough to put himself out. Of course, a psychological use of the spiteful gambit is to avoid the risk of rejection.

But this is water under the bridge. Concrete programs for local control are emerging, there is certainly more acquaintance, and despite spectacular militant tactics there seems to be diminishing backlash. One has the impression that, in the white community, private groups small and large are far ahead of the political officials and Congress. These include, let me say wryly, big business corporations which have a natural self-interest in fire-prevention and will even make an extra buck out of racial harmony—you’ll see.

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