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Understanding White Racists

When he sat down to write up his experiences, Agee had a hard time commenting upon the darker, less generous side of the Alabama tenant farmers he grew to love so much. (In 1941 liberal intellectuals could only be moved to compassion by Agee’s words and those honest and powerful photographs of Walker Evans; yet I know from my own work in Alabama how “racist” such people can be—and no doubt in 1965 the road between Selma and Montgomery was lined by people not unlike Agee’s friends.) When George Orwell wrote about England’s coal miners he also shifted back and forth; at one moment they are fine and decent and honorable, but at other times he realizes that the grim and uncertain lives they live affect their temperaments and the way they react to others, especially strangers. Likewise Simone Weil goes back and forth, now stressing the dignity she would see expressed in the course of her work in factories near Paris and among the peasants of Bourges, now emphasizing the “workman’s woes” she encountered, and the effect they had on the spirit of the people she tried so hard to be with and feel close to.

If all three of those extraordinary social observers tried to reconcile for themselves and their readers what seemed almost irreconcilable in the people they went out of their way to meet, there is something else each of them couldn’t seem to stop doing when they wrote: scold the intellectuals. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, The Road to Wigan Pier, and The Need for Roots one can detect the following sequence: sympathy and concern for people hurt, cheated, brutalized; outrage at the society that permits and sanctions such a state of affairs—accompanied by expressions of disapproval, disrespect, or outright contempt directed at the intellectuals, toward whom Orwell can become almost violent, Agee sarcastic, and Simone Weil impatient. (In The Need for Roots she says: “A condition of any working-class culture is the mingling of what are called intellectuals—an awful name, but at present they scarcely deserve a better one—with the workers. It is difficult to make something real out of such a mingling.”)

Often I wonder whether those three somewhat tormented souls have not unwittingly used their annoyance with intellectuals as a means of acknowledging the impossibility of the task they as observers and writers have set out for themselves. True, plenty of intellectuals can be smug, condescending, narrow-minded, arrogant, cruel, noisy, self-serving, full of empty-headed postures and prejudices. But intellectuals are also an exceedingly convenient target, especially for their own kind. Maybe they are easier to take after and ridicule than those bankers and board chairmen and municipal bond lawyers turned public officials who keep their mouths shut, put very little down on paper, but pull strings to their own enormous satisfaction and profit.

The closer Agee, Orwell, and Simone Weil came to the people they wanted to understand, the more confused and outraged each of those three rather sensitive intellectuals must have felt. In no time confusion and outrage can turn to hate; and hate directed at people who are familiar or highly visible is easier than hate turned upon a whole social and economic system, and those who benefit handsomely from it. So the worker I quoted above shouts loudest at blacks when he is most angry at those “vested interests” he keeps on mentioning—and not necessarily because his “personality” is rigid or “authoritarian.” I suspect that for Agee or Orwell or Mlle. Weil a similar process took place, with the intellectuals filling in for the factory worker’s blacks—the more so because a good number of intellectuals, in contrast to the vulnerable poor of our ghettos or rural areas, actually do make up an influential and parochial and by no means impoverished “vested interest.”

In any event, I believe the fourth person I mentioned, C. Vann Woodward, once went through a bit of what the other three did; but perhaps because he was not out there in what anthropologists call “the field,” but rather at work on a political biography, the experience was less tortured and easier to put in perspective. Even so, Professor Woodward worried that he would be accused of being too sympathetic with so notorious a racist as Tom Watson turned out to be. Nor could he resist saying this: “When a liberal journal fastens upon Watson the responsibility for the sinister forces of intolerance, superstition, prejudice, religious jingoism, and mobism, it is indulging in half-truths as surely as does the veriest demagogue it denounces.”

Woodward’s Tom Watson concretely and quietly offers a shrewd and subtle examination of what we now call “white racism.” As a young man Watson demonstrated his decency, generosity, kindness; a poor and honest idealist, he struggled for years against Georgia’s railroad companies, utilities, and growing corporations, as well as their dependable allies the newspapers. He was repeatedly tricked, abused, slandered, made to realize the futility of his efforts—and eventually he certainly did give up and in despair and rage and hate turn on just about everyone. The analogy between his predicament and that of millions of ordinary working-class men and women is by no means a farfetched one. He and they might have come to be different, might at any point in their lives have changed, found new loyalties, sympathies, affiliations—if the economic and political system had asked them in a significant way to do so.

In 1960 I watched white mobs harass black children as they tried to enter previously all-white schools in New Orleans. The anger I heard, the obscenities and threats, sounded crazier than anything I’d heard when I worked in mental hospitals. When I went to psychiatric meetings I was constantly asked why, in God’s name, people do and say such things. Were they all psychotic? Did they need psychiatric “help,” perhaps some exposure to “sensitivity groups”? Yet, in 1961 Atlanta had no mobs, no violence, when the schools there desegregated—not because that city’s population has a higher degree of “mental health” (whatever that is) but because a city, a state, and the federal government had in effect decided that school desegregation had to begin—quietly and without interruption.

Historical change was taking place, and in millions of minds, in ids and egos and superegos all over the South, that development was noticed and had its effect. In 1960 I heard this from a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Louisiana branch: “Let them try putting those nigger kids in our schools. We’ll boycott them. If necessary, we’ll sacrifice our lives to defend our schools, keep them white.” In 1961 I heard this from a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Georgia branch: “It’s a bad thing, this school desegregation, but it’ll never amount to much, even if it spreads. The main work we have is to keep the white people proud of their race, and let the niggers know that some of us aren’t going to sell out to them for their votes. We are teachers, the Klan is, that’s right.” Even on the extreme borders of fanaticism and racism assumptions change, and rather more quickly than some of “us” (richer, more powerful) might grant or, for that matter, find it in ourselves to manage.

Even when such progress does take place, maybe most of us continue to be, in Dr. Kovel’s term, “metaracists”—people who, he says, “acquiesce in the larger cultural order which continues the work of racism.” A definition like that possesses a staggering inclusiveness which one takes for granted from certain evangelical ministers, but not from a physician concerned with the complexities of the human mind. There is a showy kind of pessimism that psychoanalytic social critics have always had, mingled with a strain of moralistic self-righteousness and arrogance that sets off a small “us” from millions and millions of “them.”

One wonders, anyway, whether both Dr. Kovel and Professor Marcuse don’t in countless respects join the rest of us (breadwinners and home owners) who “acquiesce in the larger cultural order,” as do twenty million blacks, six million of whom—a good deal more than belong to the NAACP, let alone the Black Panthers—are glad and proud to say that they belong to the Baptist Church. Day after day I have heard from ordinary blacks or Chicanos what they, like America’s working-class white people, have in mind: work, more money, a higher standard of living for themselves and their children.

We want in, we want to live like other Americans, we want the good things of life for our children. Let the hippies laugh at money and good clothes. Let college students say America is no good, and our schools are no good, and we should go live in communes. I want to finish high school and be an electrician, and I’d like to live in my own house and have good furniture in it and a new car and all the rest.”

Black, poor, a serious student, the youth who practically shouted those words at me, or the white youths I know who speak in a similar vein and work in steel mills or automobile factories, deserve to be described with a vocabulary that does not dismiss them all as brainwashed dupes, but takes into consideration their ability to look into their minds analytically and examine their own society critically, even as our intellectuals claim to be able to do.

Here is the black youth just quoted doing precisely that:

I think a lot of white people are prejudiced; but the same goes for black people. We’ll call each other racist names, and we call white people a lot of names, too. But my uncle just got a job, a construction job, and he says he’s had some good talks with the honky-whites. He says you can’t just write them off; you can’t write anyone off, not if you’re on the bottom side of the world, and you want it to change. You have to keep pushing, and it’s like my grandmother says: she’s lived to see so many changes in this country, changes she never believed would happen. The rich people, the well-off white people, they can wring their hands; it doesn’t cost them any money to do so. I can’t afford to think that way. The way I see it, there’s a lot wrong with the country, but there’s a lot right with it, and I’d like to be nice and comfortable, with a good job and plenty in the bank, then I could sit back and do my criticizing—maybe I could go to college and get paid for doing it.”

A particular element of class consciousness is to be found in much of what I hear from such youths, black or white: while they must work hard for relatively little, and keep their mouths shut, and hope to get more of what they need, others live well, call themselves “liberals” or “radicals” or whatever, come up with one idea after another, have the freedom to do so, and the time, too—even get paid for doing so. And some of those ideas, those elaborate if not overwrought theories, have about them, as they filter down to “them,” the impersonal objects of description and formulation, an air of unreality if not comic absurdity.

For instance, a former factory worker now become a union official says this:

Look, I’m not perfect, and the men in our union aren’t. Who said we were, anyway? I’ve heard some of these radicals talk—they say the worker would be so wonderful, if it wasn’t for the capitalist system, or the kids would be so wonderful, if it wasn’t for bad parents and bad teachers, and the black people, they would be so wonderful, if it wasn’t for all the white racists. Who can swallow that stuff? People are good and bad, all of them. That’s no news, but I’ll tell you there are some people who won’t stop until they make life so complicated that it’s a miracle we’re still around and kicking, us plain, dumb, ordinary people who keep everything running while the professors write about us and call us everything—God knows what, and I wonder sometimes if He could understand some of the talk you hear these days.

I went to a meeting last week; they called it a ‘workshop,’ and we were told that it’s ‘white racism,’ that’s the cause of all the trouble in our cities, and unless we change these ‘white racial attitudes,’ we’re going to explode, this country. They were all wringing their hands, and confessing that it’s true, it’s true, we’re no good, all of us, we’re white racists. Well, I didn’t say anything. I thought to myself: go ahead, do your confessing; go ahead, meet every week and look inside yourselves, they said they were doing.

Sure, the Kerner Commission Report they read to us from was right; sure there’s been racism in this country since it was founded. But the slaves weren’t brought over here because white racists wanted them nearby to shout at, and the colored weren’t kept on those plantations for that reason, and they’re not sweeping floors and working in kitchens or any other place for that reason. They were labor, labor when they were brought over here, and they are labor now—a pool of cheap labor, and that’s what the big boys who own plantations or corporations (or a big house they need kept clean) have always wanted: plenty of people desperate enough to do mean, tough, unpleasant work for cheap wages, or no wages at all.

The more I hear people shout at me and my men, and call us “white racists,’ the more I realize that the people who shout the loudest know us the least—but you can be sure of this, they get paid plenty for writing, and telling the Kerner people our ‘racial attitudes’ are the ‘basic cause.’ The people who call me a ‘white racist’ are bragging, they’re saying that they’re the best people, they’ve looked into their souls, and changed their personalities, and got rid of their ‘white racism,’ and they’re no longer bigots and all that, and taken in by the ‘false values,’ they call them, of this country. Of course these professors come here from all over the world to live; you bet they do—where else can they sound off as much as they want, and say all they do, and get a lot of money for doing it, and have a flock of those half-witted, gullible students rushing after them, one after the other, and calling them God?

I’d sure as hell like to let off steam about a lot of things, and so would my men; but people like us are keeping the electric company going, and the gas company, and the telephone company, and the production lines—we’re too busy trying to earn enough not to go broke, so we just have to live with our ‘racism’ and all the rest. But you go look for yourself: you’ll see my men, black and white, doing their job. I wonder how much time these people that write all these things about us spend with black people—or with anyone except themselves. We’re supposed to say yes to what they say about us—but just let us say a word or two about them, and we’re called ignorant and pigs and racists and all the rest.”

I suppose some of his anger and resentment is bound to rub off—another reason perhaps for the “defensiveness” or “anti-intellectualism” in the writings of Agee and Orwell. On the other hand, we have a right to expect from the well-to-do intellectuals who write about subjects like “the authoritarian personality” and “white racism” (for the government, foundations, or editors) a measure of concreteness and common sense, not to mention some evidence that what is handed down as virtual law has somehow been tried out in the world “out there”—tested against the social, political, and economic realities and, yes, the psychological ones, too, which the overwhelming majority of people live out rather than try to fit into theories or prophesies.

I have no wish to say that many of the factory workers I have come to know these recent years are not (in varying degrees and at particular moments) “white racists,” and many other “bad” things, too. I suppose I have enough firsthand data to justify utter despair—the conviction that we are headed for the rubbish heap of history. Still, there are about us the examples of Cesar Chavez and Andrew Young, John Lewis and Ralph Nader, Dorothy Day and Saul Alinsky, and dozens of white and black political organizers I have been privileged to know this past decade—I think of Bob Zellner, once of SNCC and now in Louisiana and Mississippi trying to be of service to poor and working-class whites, and of Jim Branscome fighting the strip miners and big coal and oil interests through Save Our Kentucky, or of Charles Sherrod among rural Georgia’s blacks.

A while back Julian Bond refused to be satisfied with a label like “white racist” even when applied to an obvious one, Lester Maddox. Mr. Bond took pains to emphasize that Maddox’s struggles as a youth with bitter poverty require us to look at the Georgia Power Company, at the owners of textile mills, at the way the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia are run—by whom, for whom, at whose over-all expense. Quaint, those American populists—and infinitely shrewd about politics, economics, and, just as well, matters of the mind and heart.

None of the people I have just mentioned as sources of hope and promise has any new or ingenious answers for us; some of them are proud to say that they have never written a word, let alone constructed a theory or written a book, and some have written tentatively, yet also with a tough insistence, that there are all sorts of things that can be done and that they themselves are every day trying to do. And they know that they are exceptional, often isolated, figures, up against more cynical and powerful leaders who long ago were willing to manipulate and sell out the working people who counted on them.

It may be that never in our lifetime or in anybody’s lifetime will Americans rid themselves of “white racism” or “metaracism,” stop being “one dimensional” and instead become two or three dimensional, shed themselves of the “authoritarianism” (and God knows what else) that lurks in their dreams and fantasies. But perhaps we can, many of us, black and white, intellectuals and workers, fight hard and politically so that children are well fed, so that their parents can find work and get good pay for that work—and most important, in the words a young welder once directed at me, so that “the working people of this country have more and more say about what goes on in this country.” A Southerner, the man’s father belonged to the Klan:

Once my daddy when he was old, and just before he died, told me this: he said that if our country had been a better one, he’d have had a good job and lived a better life, and not been pushed around all the time and had the money from his crops go to big landowners and the banks, and then he’d have been a better person.

The poor, depressed, benighted, selfpitying, white racist old father could have done worse as a psychiatrist, a political scientist, or a social theorist.


Psychohistory March 9, 1972

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