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Reflections on Racism, Spite, Guilt, and Violence

But to account for the slow emergence of concrete demands, we must bear in mind, too, that dispossessed and dependent people are disoriented and do not themselves know what they want. If something positive is given, it is suspected as second-rate or a trap or a token never adequate to need. If something is taken or achieved by one’s own effort, it thereby becomes degraded, or is a cause of envy among one’s fellows and proves that one has been “co-opted.” This is the neurosis of the victimized that Robert Jay Lifton has been studying.

Sensitive minds, like James Baldwin again, understand perfectly that just to get into the middle-class American mainstream is not humanly good enough; but then it is hard for him to explain to poor people what, these days, would be humanly good enough. Consider the current social imputation of many jobs as “menial.” When I was young, driving a bus or trailer-truck was manly, difficult, and responsible; now when there are many black drivers, it is ordinary. Construction work used to be skilled; but a black or Spanish bricklayer or mason tends to be considered unskilled. White road-workers in Vermont have a decent job; black road-workers with the same equipment have a menial job. Postman, a job requiring unusual tact and judgment, has always been a dignified occupation; now that, like other Federal employment, it is open to many blacks, my guess is that it will be considered drab. A German or Jewish waiter is a mentor or kibitzer; a black waiter has a servile job. This social imputation of worth is made, of course, by both whites and blacks. Whites, however, usually do not give it a second thought, as their young move into other jobs. The question is why the blacks go along with the same imputation. The dismaying thing is that objective criteria like the kind of work, the worth of the product or service, and often even the wages count for very little. In this frame of mind, it is impossible to be free and independent.

But this subjective evaluation by the standards of public relations is endemic in American society. Nothing is regarded as itself, on its own merits. Thus, in the present essay which ought to be on politics and ends and means, I find myself discussing emotions and unconscious emotions, like racism, spite, revenge, and guilt. I find this pretty sickening. Perhaps the chief hope in the young, with their flesh-and-blood interests, simplifications of the standard of living, casteless friendships, and direct action, is that they will bring us back to objective reality, however crude.


A chief use of spite is to make the others feel guilty; this not only prevents their enjoying their domination but may result in tangible “amends.” It is clear that with many middle-class whites, this ruse has disastrously succeeded. Disastrously, because no good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties.

Psychoanalytically, guilt is repressed resentment and this is latent dynamite. For a time the guilty may forbear retaliation for annoyance or insult and may pay token amends, but soon they turn a deaf ear and then resentfully get even.

The dilemma is that blacks are indeed victims, of a system of property relations and policing, but the present-day northern whites, as persons, are not consciously nor importantly victimizers. There is exploitation of black people in their own neighborhoods, which can be helped by phasing out of their neighborhoods; but such exploitation is trivial in the Gross National Product and is overwhelmingly outweighed by the general tax-cost in black social services, special services, special policing, etc. Since they are not economically necessary, blacks cannot get redress by striking and bargaining. Since most whites are not exploiting them, they cannot give them redress by stopping their exploitation. When there is disorder and the cops crack down, the whites feel that they were aggressed on, and this is technically true. The black demand “Just get off our backs” makes sense in asking whites to stop running the ghettos through the school bureaucracy, the welfare bureaucracy, the police, and slumlords; but it is a poor slogan since, in the inflationary urbanism and high technology, blacks simply must have white subsidy, professional help, and jobs in the only economy that there is.

ALMOST ALL WHITES now agree blacks ought to get preferential treatment and there are stirrings in this direction. But this cannot come to much if it is done by guilt, to make amends; it must be done for political motives, self-interest, decency, commonweal, and justice. Unhappily, the Americans, who neglect other public goods, whose rivers stink, whose towns are hideous, whose countryside is despoiled, and whose children are mis-educated, neglect this public good too. My guess is that, just beneath the surface, it is they who have the slogan, “Get off our backs.”

Really to remedy our domestic colonialism (and our foreign colonialism) requires profound institutional changes and structural changes in the economy. We would have to divert the military technology to useful production; control the inflation that makes poor people poorer; reverse the policy of rural enclosures that swells the cities; manage the advertising, design, and pricing of consumer goods so that people can live decently without being in the rat race; get rid of the irrelevant mandarin diplomas for licensing and hiring. To stop being exclusive, American society would have to be about human beings rather than the Gross National Product, and the privatist competition for a cut. It would have to give up its delusion of social-engineering everybody, and tailor its help to local needs and local social organization. But all this amounts to a religious conversion and seems hopeless. It is possible that we cannot have such a conversion without convulsions; unfortunately I do not hear of any convulsions that would lead to the relevant conversion. The violent champions of Che or Lenin rarely say anything relevant to the real problems of a country like ours. It is understandable that blacks are hung up on their gut issues of being hemmed in and pushed around, but it is distressing that the Peace and Freedom Party or Students for a Democratic Society cannot get beyond get issues. Radical liberals, like Harrington, Keyserling, or Rustin, propose New Dealish remedies like more public housing, schooling, and transit, that would recreate the same problems bigger and worse. Liberals feel guilty. “Conservatives” arm the police.


Meantime, we must live with the immediate problem: what to do when some are hurting and others, who have power, don’t care? How to make narrow, busy, and self-righteous people understand that other people exist?

It was exactly for this problem that Gandhi, A. J. Muste, and Martin Luther King devised and experimented the strategy of active massive non-violent confrontation, both non-violent resistance and aggressive non-violence. In my opinion, this is the only strategy that addresses all aspects of the situation. It challenges unconcern. It attacks institutions and confronts people as well. It personalizes the conflict so that habitual and mechanical responses are not easy. It diminishes strangeness. It opens possibilities for the narrow to grow and come across, instead of shutting them out. It interrupts the downward spiral of the oppressed into despair, fanaticism, and brutality. Most important, it is the only realistic strategy, for it leads to, rather than prevents, the achievement of a future community among the combatants. We will have to live together in some community or other. How? In what community? We really do not know, but non-violent conflict is the way to discover and invent it.

Non-violence is aggressive. Since the injustices in society reside mainly in the institutional system, though the personal agents may be innocent or even quite sympathetic, it is necessary to prevent the unjust institutions from grinding on as usual. It is necessary not to shun conflict but to seek it out. So Gandhi, Muste, and King were continually inventing campaigns to foment apparent disorder where things apparently had been orderly.

Naturally, aggressive massive non-violence is not safe. (Gandhi lost thousands). If only mathematically, when there is a big crowd, some will be hurt—sometimes because of one’s own young hotheads, more usually because the police panic and try to enforce impossible Byzantine restrictions, Law and Order. On the other hand, actions of this kind are far less likely to lead to a shambles. In the present climate of cold violence armed with a lethal technology, this is a major consideration.

I do not think that non-violence is incompatible with fringes of violence or flare-ups of violence, so long as its own course is steadily political, appealing to justice, self-interest, and commonweal, and if the political object of the campaign speaks for itself. Gandhi, of course, was a purist about avoiding violence, though he said that it was better to be violent against injustice than to do nothing; both Muste and King were willing to cooperate with violent groups, if they did not try to take over. Psychologically, indeed, it is probably an advantage for a non-violent movement to have a group like the Black Panthers in the wings, committed to violent self-defense, for this quiets down the more rabid opposition and makes a calmer zone for real political and economic confrontation. (Sometimes it doesn’t work out so smoothly.)

Non-violence, and King’s own campaigns, do not necessarily pre-judge the issue between “integration” and “black power.” Separatism is ruled out, however, since the point of confrontation is to come to mutual recognition and commonweal. It is not necessary to “love” one’s enemies, but there must be a belief that common humanity is more basic than racial difference; and this belief must be bona fide or non-violence becomes a mere tactic and has no energy. Certainly King’s followers took his universalist Christian rhetoric at face value. (So did I.) As I have said, it is the only realistic position; it is the tendency of history. In the world, we cannot continue to have “peaceful” co-existence, which is really cold war; we will come to community or perish. In this country, it is not the case that there could be two societies, as the Kerner report threatens. Either the dominant group will hem in the blacks in apartheid reservations, which is unthinkably abhorrent, or there will be a democratic pluralism or general miscegenation, each of which has attractions.

In the northern cities, however—and this is a grim complication—there are two distinct problems which somehow have to be solved at the same time. The first is the one we have been discussing, how to get whites to pay attention to blacks as existing, and for this, aggressive non-violence makes the most sense. But the second problem is that we have allowed, in the ghettos, the formation of what Oscar Lewis calls a Culture of Poverty, insulated, ingrown, dependent; and how can such a culture become free and independent? I don’t know; but it is possible that rioting, burning, hurling insults, apparently stupid militancy, and an extravagant black racist ideology are indeed means of regaining confidence at this level of dispiritment. King, as he came to deal with northern problems, had begun to take this factor into account, though it clearly pained his heart and mind. And it is encouraging that whites, and white officials like Lindsay, may be finding the compassion that is here the only relevant thing we have to give.

The violent who are interested in insurrection and “revolutionary” overturn inevitably consider non-violence as “reformist.” According to their theory, since it is piecemeal and does not aim to demolish the System and replace it (with what?), it cannot change anything. In my view, especially in complicated and highly organized societies, it is only by opening areas of freedom piecemeal that we will transform our lives. “Seizing power” in such societies is precisely counter-revolution and stops the social revolution short. But the human contact of aggressive non-violence is exquisitely relevant to the deepest danger of modern times, the mechanical violence of 1984. Because of it and the new spirit of the young, we will not have 1984.

Finally, it is said that non-violence might suit the Hindus but it is contrary to American spirit and tradition. Quite the contrary. It seems to me to be simply an extension of traditional American populism, the democratic process as conceived by Jefferson, that has always revived in times of great crisis: acting “illegally” and “petitioning,” rousing the general will, protected by the Bill of Rights, with fringes of violence, and ending up with important institutional change. In every major country in the world, power is terribly deeply entrenched; but America is the most likely place for a non-violent movement toward freedom to succeed.

Since I have this occasion, let me say a word about the death of Martin King. He was a stubborn, reasonable man, and political without being a fink. I do not know any other national leader for whose death I would have wept.

In my opinion, the extraordinary general grief of the Americans was not, as has been charged, hypocritical or empty. The grief for death and sympathy for survivors is one of the few emotions that bring all people, even divided families, together. I think that whites now recognize blacks a little more as persons than they did before, and this should have consequences.

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