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The American Dilemma

Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal

by Andrew Hacker
Scribner’s, 257 pp., $24.95

The Dispossessed: America’s Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present

by Jacqueline Jones
Basic Books, 399 pp., $25.00

1.

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 chasm] closed.” Even aside from the unwillingness of most white Americans to invest in redistributive programs, racial tensions, Hacker affirms, “serve too many important purposes to be easily ameliorated, let alone eliminated or replaced.”

By coincidence, Two Nations was published six weeks before the great Los Angeles riot. Advertised as “the first book since Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 classic An American Dilemma to offer an up-to-date and profound analysis of the conditions that keep blacks and whites dangerously far apart in their ability to participate fully in the American Dream,” this short book has become a kind of guide or almanac for understanding the crisis of the inner city.1 Hacker is highly skilled in presenting statistics in an interesting and readable way. His clear discussion of measurable differences, supplemented by statistical tables, has provided reporters and commentators with a wealth of information on the structure of black families and the disadvantages suffered by blacks in employment, housing, and schooling, and the high incidence of black crime, among other subjects. He has also been harshly attacked, particularly by the sociologists Orlando Patterson and Chris Winship, for confusing race with class, for ignoring some of the impressive gains that blacks have made, and for misusing statistical averages in ways that identify all African Americans with a stereotyped underclass.2

Significantly, Hacker borrowed his title not from Chambers but from Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations, which was concerned with the appalling division between social classes in early Victorian Britain. 3 Hacker even quotes Disraeli on his opening page, equating the difference between Britain’s rich and poor with the gulf that still divides America’s whites and blacks: “Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thought, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Although Hacker says very little about social class, he does at one point acknowledge the existence of a “white underclass” and recalls that sociology textbooks used to dilate “at length about families like the Jukes and the Kallikaks, who remained mired in squalor from generation to generation.” Emphasis on race, Hacker suggests, has something to do with the diversion of public attention from poverty-stricken whites. By concentrating attention on a black underclass, he writes, we make white poverty seem “atypical or accidental…. At times, it almost appears as if white poverty must be covered up, lest it blemish the reputation of the dominant race.”

Unfortunately Hacker does not say much more about this crucial point. The use of racial animosity as an antidote to, and substitute for, class divisions has a long history which provides an important background to his subject. During the colonial period, when black slaves worked alongside white indentured servants in Virginia’s tobacco fields, lawmakers countered the threat of biracial rebellion by fostering a sense of white solidarity. White servants were increasingly accorded privileges and protections denied to slaves, including, upon the termination of their services, the promise of land, money, a musket, and a respectable suit of clothes. As Edmund S. Morgan has pointed out, aristocratic planters succeeded in persuading Virginia’s small farmers that “both were equal in not being slaves.” 4

The presence of millions of black slaves in the pre-Civil War decades helped sustain the illusion of equality for American whites and immigrants—the “equality of condition” that so captivated Tocqueville and other European visitors. The actual inequalities between social classes were also blurred by the visibility in most cities of a separate caste of “free” blacks, who were deprived of civil rights, excluded from white schools, and confined to menial employments. Beginning in the so-called Age of Jackson, white Americans of diverse backgrounds have anxiously tried to cast off any characteristics identifying them as members of a “lower” class, that is a class lower than the one with which they identify, precisely because they have believed in America as a land of opportunity—a land in which no fixed barriers prevent one from acquiring the skills, tastes, and demeanor, as shown in one’s behavior as a consumer, that denote success. Andrew Hacker bases much of his moral argument on the unacknowledged privileges and benefits that most Americans derive from having white skin. This point would have been reinforced if he had related it to the dialectical and historical connections between American slavery and American freedom, between the belief in an inferior, servile race and the vision of classless opportunity.

The use of race as a substitute for class has further implications that have seldom been explored. The very notion of America’s exceptionalism—the “American Dream” of a land of promise where, as Hacker affirms, there is “a greater obligation” than in other nations “to achieve amity and equity in relations between the races”—was originally made possible by the availability of cheap, coerced labor to clear and cultivate the most fertile lands and to produce export crops for which there was seemingly an unlimited demand. From the early West India trade of the northeastern colonies to the cotton exports that helped pay for northern railroads and industrialization, America’s economy depended largely on slave labor.

Yet by the time of the American Revolution, this material circumstance appeared to contradict everything the emerging nation stood for. For most of the Founding Fathers, as for numerous clergymen and journalists, slavery became the fatal defect in an otherwise boundless and perfectable social order. In 1786 petitioners to the Virginia legislature repeated the familiar argument.

That the Glorious and ever memorable Revolution can be Justified on no other Principles but what doth plead with greater Force for the emancipation of our Slaves in proportion as the oppression exercised over them exceeds the oppression formerly exercised by Great Britain over these States.

As Jefferson confessed to an audience of French rationalists, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

If slavery was seen by some as the primal curse, the only obstacle preventing Americans from fulfilling the nation’s high destiny, the prevailing ideology affirmed that it was the African Americans’ incapacity for freedom and responsible citizenship, not their indispensable role in the economy as productive field hands, that stood as the major roadblock to slave emancipation. In a remarkable example of displacement of moral responsibility, the sin, corruption, and brutality of slavery spilled over to infect the victims themselves, who were mired, according to a popular phrase, in “irremediable degradation.” Even ardent critics of slavery became attached to the image of stunted minds and withered souls, of human beings rendered incapable of moral choice or benevolent feeling. Of course the doctrine of black inferiority had many sources, including the widespread belief that Africans were the descendants of Cain or Ham, who had been condemned to perpetual servitude, according to twisted biblical interpretation, by Noah’s curse of Canaan. But paradoxically, the view of slavery as America’s original sin also contributed to the image of helpless Negroes as the embodiment of sin, in the sense that they were ruled by animal passions and deprived of the capacity for moral and intellectual improvement in a civilized society.

Hacker briefly summarizes James Baldwin’s theory that white people “need the nigger” because “the nigger” signifies the precise traits—“lust and laziness, stupidity and squalor”—that whites cannot tolerate within themselves:

By creating such a creature, whites are able to say that because only members of the black race can carry that taint, it follows that none of its attributes will be found in white people.

One should add that most abolitionists, who were acutely attuned to the sins of white people, struggled to end their own complicity with evil by demanding the emancipation and uplift of all blacks. Still, the abolitionists faced a dilemma that has continued to perplex other reformers: the more they highlighted the injurious effects of oppression, the more dehumanized and incapable the victims appeared to be.

  1. 1

    It does not detract from the usefulness of Hacker’s study to call attention to a more detailed, balanced, and scholarly volume published by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, edited by Gerald David Jaynes and Robin M. Williams, Jr. (National Academy Press, 1989), which Hacker reviewed in this journal, along with seven other books, on October 12, 1989.

  2. 2

    White Poor, Black Poor,” The New York Times, May 3, 1992, Section 4, p. 17.

  3. 3

    Hacker’s subtitle, “Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” echoes the conclusion of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1968.

  4. 4

    American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (Norton, 1975), p. 381.

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