Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal
The Dispossessed: America’s Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present
In 1854 a perceptive Scottish bookseller, publisher, and promoter of public knowledge named William Chambers addressed the following question: did the United States “contain within itself the germs of dissolution?” Chambers was not thinking of a civil war between slaveholding and nonslaveholding states. Recording his impressions after a tour of the country in a book entitled Things As They Are in America, Chambers pointed to the “rigorous separation of the white and black races” in the North as well as the South, and noted that every white person with whom he conversed on this subject “tended to the opinion that the negro was in many respects an inferior being, and his existence in America an anomaly.”
Chambers concluded that “we see, in effect, two nations—one white and another black—growing up together within the same political circle, but never mingling on a principle of equality.” After surveying the depth and extent of racial discrimination and white hypocrisy, and observing that blacks were “condemned to infamy from birth,” Chambers would hardly have been surprised to learn that in 1992 a distinguished political scientist would conclude, in a book entitled Two Nations, that “[e]ven today, America imposes a stigma on every black child at birth.” For Chambers, who knew that the fate of America would profoundly affect “the whole civilized world,” the longrange question was whether the blacks, once the great majority were liberated from slavery, would “grow up a powerful alien people within the commonwealth, dangerous in their numbers, but doubly dangerous in their consciousness of wrongs, and in the passions which may incite them to acts of vengeance?”
Both a consciousness of wrongs and acts of vengeance were painfully evident in Los Angeles and other cities following the announcement on April 29 of the jury’s verdict in suburban Simi Valley. The columns of smoke, the unrestrained looting, perhaps above all the view from a helicopter of blacks savagely beating and apparently trying to kill Reginald Denny, the hapless white truck driver, seemed to confirm Chamber’s grim prophecy, which echoed earlier prophecies of racial warfare made by Jefferson, Tocqueville, and countless white leaders in the pre Civil War era, particularly those, like Jefferson, Madison, John Marshall, Henry Clay, and Lincoln, who favored plans for gradually “colonizing” the black population in Africa, the Caribbean, or Central America.
Although Andrew Hacker never mentions Chambers and provides little historical background for his discussion of contemporary racial inequality, he quotes Tocqueville’s prediction that sooner or later black Americans would “revolt at being deprived of almost all their civil rights,” as well as Tocqueville’s observation that “[t]he danger of a conflict between the white and the black inhabitants perpetually haunts the imagination of the Americans, like a painful dream.” Hacker suggests that the fundamental issues have changed little since Tocqueville’s time. Nor is Hacker more optimistic in 1992 than Tocqueville was in 1835. According to Hacker, “there are few signs that the coming century will see [the racial …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.