Here are five books on the race crisis in the United States. None of these books will make a man turn over and sink his head into the pilow. Crisis in Black and White, by Charles E. Silberman, a trained social scientist and an editor of Fortune Magazine, and The New Equality, by Nat Hentoff, an expert on jazz and a staff writer for The New Yorker, are remarkably good books, deeply thought and deeply felt, informed, wideranging, candid, sometimes witty, written with flair. Both books have the rare virtue of detachment, but neither writer would see detachment as an antithesis, logical or emotional, of commitment. Both would hold that integration is, in Silberman’s phrase, “the greatest moral imperative of our time.” Both books are careful studies of the meaning of the Negro Revolution, and as such may serve as a natural backdrop for the more specialized books which are appearing almost daily.
Both Silberman and Hentoff usually focus on the same questions, but there are important differences in temperament and method. Though providing much pungent documentation, Silberman works primarily at a theoretical level. He undertakes, very gracefully, to give a historical, psychological, social, and economic context for each main topic, to place it on a series of charts. Hentoff is much more anecdotal and inductive. He is concerned with the feel of things, the attempt to grasp, by imagination, what it is like to be in the other fellow’s skin. His concern with the immediacy of things, implies, too, a more immediate concern with action.
Silberman, with no reservation, is committed to action, but he sees action as effective only when based on thoroughgoing analysis. He understands that integration involves real changes in social attitudes and will cost money, a lot of money, but I detect no sign that he envisages the radical reordering of society that Hentoff takes to be the inevitable result of the Negro Revolution. Hentoff quotes Whitney Young, of the Urban League: “The Negro is in revolt today, not to change the fabric of our society or to seek a special place in it, but to enter into partnership in that society.” But Hentoff quotes this merely to challenge it: “What is inexorably happening, even among the majority who want to ‘enter into partnership’ rather than ‘change the fabric of our society,’ is a recognition that partnership cannot be achieved without also altering the fabric.” I suppose that Hentoff sees here another instance of the old principle that in fundamental social change the inner nature of the change is not divulged until well along in the process. If that is true, we may look back on the Negro Revolution as a mere stage in another, broader, and more complex revolution in which the “Movement” was preliminary street trouble, and the first fumbling formulation of a philosophy.
Though both Silberman and Hentoff very early come to the question of the Negro’s new image of himself, and see this as important, there is a difference. Here the very method of treatment means a difference in findings. Hentoff seems to feel that this problem of identity—for that is what it amounts to—is now on the road to solution and is no longer of central importance. Or rather, he sees that importance absorbed into the more inclusive socio-economic problem. Though Silberman holds that white discrimination and exploitation are basic to the “Negro problem,” and though in many ways the Negro problem is the “white man’s problem” (including, I presume, the complex need of the white man to have a “nigger”), there is, he maintains, a real “Negro problem” for the Negro. “The relative lack of Negro progress.” he says, “must be explained and understood if it is to be reversed.” The Negro has an acute problem of identity; he is warped by hatred and, more significantly, by self-hatred; and the result is apathy.
This line is exactly that taken by the Black Muslims, but when a white man says the same thing it sounds different; and, as Silberman has already had occasion to discover, is apt to provoke angry resistances. Some people take such an analysis to imply Negro inferiority; some take it to be an endorsement of Booker T. Washington’s old (or John Fischer’s new) doctrine of “self-improvement”; and some, confusing the question of civil rights with that of integration, take it to be an argument for withholding civil rights until Negroes are “prepared”—that is, forever.
Silberman, as a matter of fact, makes a sharp distinction between a de facto, and accidental, inferiority and an inherent inferiority. He is talking about the former, and analyzes that in historical and psychological terms. Following the argument of Stanley Elkins (in Slavery1 ) on the creation of “Sambo” by the slave system of North America, as distinguished from systems elsewhere, he sees the modern Negro as the end-of-the-line product, with the mark of blackness on him to guarantee that the inferiority is taken to be inherent. Silberman would certainly realize that, even under slavery, many thousands of Negroes achieved “identity,” and in the face of the brilliant achievements by Negroes, he does not idiotically maintain that all Negroes suffer equally from this heritage of slavery, but he does insist that “the problem of Negro personality and behavior be faced squarely,” as it has not been, if white prejudice and Negro apathy are to be overcome.
In one sense, it can be said that Silberman, in contrast with Hentoff, takes this as the key to the whole matter. The white man who argues from Negro inferiority must be made to see that whatever degree of inferiority may exist is not inherent, but is a creation of white men in history, and of himself now; and seeing that the inferiority, of which blackness is the badge, is a social creation, he must undertake, by social action, to undo the damage. The Negro, on the other hand, must come to recognize that the problem is real, and recognize that, though he has been the victim of history, he himself must be involved in the action to redeem the consequences of history.
Silberman uses this notion in a number of ways. For one thing, it is used to disabuse us of the comforting theory, associated with the names of Philip H. Hauser of the University of Chicago, and of Oscar Handlin of Harvard, that the Negro problem is merely one of “acculturation,” and that given a little more time the Negro will adjust to the American way of life in the great cities just as the earlier waves of immigrants adjusted. But Silberman argues that we have passed through the stage of the “ethnic group” and have entered the stage of “race,” and therefore we cannot trust the process of acculturation; color makes its mystic difference, and self-hatred and apathy cut the Negro off. In other words, integration, in any except the most superficial sense, would involve serious changes in both the white and Negro communities, though something less, I presume, than Hentoff’s revolutionary re-ordering.
Silberman’s notion leads him to the view (held also by Hentoff but arrived at, I think, in a somewhat different way) that only by the acquisition of power can the Negro cure his spiritual sickness, and that, as a corollary, the white society must, in all ways possible, encourage the process. The white man must understand that the demonstrations which sometimes seem meaningless to him may help the Negro discover his identity through action, and in action discover a sense of power. Silberman remarks on the growing disenchantment with “the entire welfare-social service worker-settlement house approach” because it “does for” the Negro rather than allowing the Negro to “do for” himself; and in discussing the Woodlawn Organization in South Chicago in its fight against the expansion program of the University of Chicago, Silberman sees a method of solving problems by actually involving the Negro in the making of his own fate: “We’ve lost our fear of standing up and expressing ourselves.” Hentoff certainly sees organized action, action ordered for attack on the small, day-to-day problems as well as for attacks on great abuses, to be essential. That is, power finds meaning in human experience only in the practice of power, and in the realization that power entails responsibility. Both Silberman and Hentoff would agree that the white man can postpone but he cannot avoid coming to terms with the Negro’s thrust for power, and for power in various dimensions, moral, political, economic. And both would realize that, for both Negroes and whites, one aspect of the problem is to understand the nature and scope of the power involved, and to understand that power, in such matters, short of the blood bath, is relative and must be used with tact.
Silberman’s notion means, too, that any proposed solution must be scrutinized to be certain that it is not dealing with symptoms rather than with causes. In the whole controversy about integrated schools, for instance, there is a tendency to assume that the mechanical fact of racial balance will accomplish something. But Silberman argues that racial balance per se can accomplish little or nothing to lift the burden of the Negro pupil from a bad environment, and may even accentuate his sense of inferiority and alienation. Both Silberman and Hentoff are at their best level in dealing with education. Hentoff pungently anecdotal, Silberman analytical. Both agree that the problem is in the environment, and that to deal with this, the whole concept of primary education is in need of a drastic overhaul, with an effective development of compensatory education on a scale beyond anything ever discussed to date.
Silberman, like Hentoff, definitely wants integration. He is aware of the tactical use of the demand for immediate integration to force bigger appropriations and better teaching, and is certainly sympathetic to such aims; but he has little patience with Negro leaders or white liberals who “have become prisoners of their own rhetoric, denouncing as inadequate any measure that falls short of full desegregation,” and who, we might add, have become prisoners of the concept of mechanical mixing. He endorses the views of Dr. Kenneth Clark and the Harlem Youth Opportunities report:
…children cannot be sacrificed on the altar of…semantic rigidities…Heroics and dramatic words and gestures, over-simplified either/or thinking and devil hunting might provide a platform for temporary crowd pleasing, ego satisfactions, or world-be “leaders” but they cannot solve the fundamental problem…Meaningful desegregation of the public schools in New York City can occur only if all of the schools in the system are raised to the highest standards, and when the quality of education is uniformly high…
And he might have added that, as things in New York are now, with Negro and Puerto Rican pupils at 76.5 per cent in the elementary schools, and 71.6 per cent in junior high, there simply aren’t enough white children to go around. And both Silberman and Hentoff would see the comedy in the proposal that I have encountered about Washington—that white pupils be corralled in Virginia and brought in to gain racial balance.
But on the school question, because of the pressing need for integration, because of the symbolic significance of the Supreme Court decision of 1954, and because of the fundamental importance of education, Negro leaders who are willing to take a scientific view of the problem, or even a common sense view of the brute possibilities, are peculiarly vulnerable to being outbid by more militant leaders. We have seen this clearly enough in the school boycotts—but this raises the old and vexed question whether, without the “semantic rigidities” and the “devil hunting” of the “would-be leaders” referred to in the Harlem Youth Opportunities report, the authorities would be willing to attack the issue at a significant level.2 As, one is tempted to guess, they have not yet really done. The educational question cannot, however, be separated from the whole context—even though small things may be all that, in a day-to-day way, can be done—those small things must be done in a vision of the large.
As for the over-all context, Richard Wright, twenty years ago, wrote that both whites and blacks “possess deep-seated resistance against ‘the Negro problem’ being presented, even verbally, in all its hideous fullness, in all the totality of its meaning.” Presumably the resistance springs from what Silberman takes as his key point: the white man has not had the moral courage to face the full meaning of what he has done to the Negro, and the responsibility for action which that entails; and the Negro has not had the courage to face the full meaning of what has been done to him, and the responsibility which that entails. Wright goes on to say that the problem had been blurred “by foggy moral and sentimental notions.” It still is; and that fog is what both Silberman and Hentoff, for all their differences and with whatever limitations their books may have, are making a powerful effort to burn off the landscape. But the resistance is still with us, and is still deep-seated.
Books of the range of Crisis in Black and White and The New Equality, touching, as they do, on so many problems, are bound to be a target for specialized scholars. And they are bound to be attacked by advocates of special interest in the Movement itself. They will be attacked also by some inside and some outside the Movement because they modestly decline to join the Club of Chowder, Rhetoric, and Eschatology. They will be attacked, perhaps most savagely, because they don’t make anything seem easy: The psychological factors which Silberman treats are not to be banished by any easy hocus-pocus, and the reordering of society which Hentoff calls for is a whopping big order. They both would agree with Samuel Lubell when, toward the end of his astute polling of opinion on the race question across the country, he writes: “A totally unrealistic, night-marish concept has been built up by both Negroes and whites about what can be accomplished through desegregation. White parents have talked about school desegregation as if they expected it to lead to revolutionary social upheavals; to Negroes desegregation had become almost an end-all, cure-all symbol.” This situation exists in regard to many questions besides education and creates, too often, false questions that demand false answers. Both Silberman and Hentoff are bent on finding real answers to real questions.
But there is one question that neither, somehow, heads into: the question of race. Silberman does express disagreement with the historian Kenneth Stampp, who says that Negroes are only “white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less,” and Hentoff does deal at some length with Negro culture; but both seem to think that they have disposed of the problem by discussing race in relation to the problem of identity or culture. Even if race is only a “superstitition,” as Jacques Barzun and others have maintained, it is a superstition held by uncountable millions of people in the world today, and most of them aren’t even in the United States. And a superstition is one of the hardest things in the world to get rid of; it is firmer than rock and thinner than air. Silberman and Hentoff simply dodge it or walk through it unwitting. And reading their books is, now and then, a little bit like eating an apple pie with no apple in it.
Why We Can’t Wait, a very important utterance by Martin Luther King, supports Silberman’s emphasis on the Negro’s Negro problem. Though King does insist that the Negro has never been “really patient” and has developed the germ of nonviolent resistance under slavery, he remarks on the “almost scientific precision” of the slave system “for keeping the Negro defenseless, emotionally and physically.” The use of the word emotionally here is short-hand for the thesis of Elkins adopted by Silberman, and by implication, it would sometimes seem, by Hentoff. Further, when King comes to the present, he says that the “Revolution of the Negro not only attacked the external cause of his misery, but revealed him to himself. He was somebody. He had a sense of somebodiness.” In other words, the Revolution involves a discovery of identity, even for those who do not participate: “The courage and discipline with which Negro thousands accepted nonviolence healed the internal wounds of Negro millions who did not themselves march…” And elsewhere King has commented on the significance of demonstrations as a device for the Negro to act on his own; he has pointed out, in fact, that the demonstration, by giving the Negro a sense of self-generated action, has bled off the frustrations that would, otherwise, lead eventually to random violence.
The sense of being able to act is, of course, an aspect of the question of power. King, who had refused to endorse Kennedy officially in 1960 (because no President “except perhaps Lincoln had ever sufficiently given that degree of support…to justify our confidence”) says that now, in 1964, he would do so. The change in policy is based simply on a new sense of of power, of participation in the political community: the civil rights movement “is now strong enough to form alliances, to make commitments in exchange for pledges, and if the pledges are unredeemed, it remains powerful enough to walk out without being shattered or weakened.”
There are several sections of the book of considerable interest that must be passed over—the reason why a Negro-poor white alliance in the South is not now possible; an account of Birmingham and its effects; the favorable analysis of Lyndon Johnson, with the corollary that “an undifferentiated approach to white southerners would be a grave error, all too easy for Negro leaders.”
What does demand some discussion is a new emphasis in King’s thinking. King recognizes that, with the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, and with the spreading disturbances in the North, the Movement enters a new phase. Here King appears in strong support of Whitney Young’s Marshall Plan for Negroes, which he would develop into a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged—a program which would adapt, for both black and white, “almost every concession given to the returning soldier.”
King, quite naturally, emphasizes the situation of the Negro. His first argument, which I take to be valid, refers not only to the special needs of the Negro poor but maintains that “it is safe to predict that, when a people is ready for change as the Negro has shown himself ready today,3 the response is bound to be rapid and constructive.” But there is a second argument, for the “moral justification” of his program in so far as it refers to Negroes; this is the “debt theory,” the notion that the white man owes “back wages” for slavery.
Before I remark on this theory I want to say that I am totally convinced that, to avoid the creation of a blankly alienated black lumpen proletariat, some such program as that proposed by King and Young is essential. But I think that the logic behind the “debt” theory is spurious, and that the notion itself is fraught with mischief.
The whole notion of untangling the “debt” of history smacks of fantasy. Would the descendant of an Athenian helot of the fifth century B.C., assuming that such a relationship could be established, have a claim on the Greek government? And with or without accrued interest? Would the descendent of a mill girl of Lowell, Massachusetts, who died of lint-lungs in 1855, have a claim on Washington in 1964? Or would it be on Boston? And suppose the issue of the girl had, as was often the case in that class, been born out of wedlock—would that prejudice the claim? Is slavery the only form of exploitation for which back pay can be due? Or is skin color the decisive factor? And if we assume that the U.S. government does owe Negro citizens, and only Negro citizens, back pay, how do we calculate it? And in equity what do we do about taxes collected from citizens whose ancestors came over after the Emancipation Proclamation? Or does the communal guilt theory take care of that? And what about Indians, who don’t get mentioned? Didn’t they suffer enough? Or aren’t they dark enough?
While we are on the subject let us try to calculate how many explosion-prone trade guns, ankers of rum, and iron bars, the present regime of Nigeria owes the 20 million Negro American citizens—those things being the common currency the ancestors of the present Nigerians demanded in payment for the ancestors of the said Negro American citizens whom the ancestors of the said Nigerians had bagged in the bush and put up for sale. The whole thing is a grisly farce. It smacks not of fantasy, it smacks of Bedlam.
As for the matter of mischief, the notion of the “debt” denies the very premise on which such a program as that proposed by Dr. King should be instituted. That premise is that the Negro’s status as a citizen justifies the program. Even in 1865, if the Federal government, busy with the game of business and party politics, had not tragically defaulted on its obligations, the justification would not have been in terms of back wages: it would have been in terms of the status as citizen or citizen-to-be. Now a hundred years later, the notion of the debt is not, as King would have it, a “moral justification”; it is an immoral justification and leads straight to the happy thought in some hoodlum’s head that back wages are sitting there in the form of a new TV set and all he has to do is kick in the show window and collect his pay.
The point is that such a program is not pay for work done; it is a preparation for work to be done. The Negro’s rights as a citizen, are not special. He should fare equally with other citizens. What is special—and desperately special—is the fact that because of his situation he cannot fare equally. He has the same claim as others, but because here race and class intersect in a long history of mutual aggravation, there is a special difficulty in fulfilling the claim. To make King’s notion of “moral justification” apply only to Negroes, when the program is supposed to apply to all “disadvantaged,” puts the whites and Puerto Ricans, for example, in a very embarrassing position—logically and emotionally. There is nothing special about the Negro’s claim. What is special is the kind of tailoring required to fit special difficulties.
Anything else would be condescension. It would put the Negro on a reservation, like the Indian—even if a gilded reservation full of child psychologists, remedial reading experts, electronic training laboratories, and computers to feed data into the office of the director.
Where King, toward the end of his book, declares for the program for the disadvantaged, the whole of Whitney Young’s To Be Equal is devoted to the question. Young, who is President of the Urban League, grounds his argument on justice—but not the justice of a “debt” from the past, on justice thought of in terms of the inherent demands and dangers of the immediate situation. The core of the argument is that the Negro, as a citizen, has the right to equality of opportunity, and under the present circumstances that equality is not available to him. Further, assuming that the Negro might, in the long haul, improve his prospects, society cannot afford to wait; the stakes are too high, the situation too dangerous. The facts adduced by Young are appalling, but the most appalling fact is that, under the present technology, the lag of the masses of Negroes becomes greater almost daily, and the psychological disability becomes more tragically marked. To make matters worse, the very success of the educated Negroes means a greater alienation of the masses. The Negro is “educationally and economically malnourished and anemic. It is not ‘preferential treatment’ but simple decency to provide him with special vitamins, additions food, and blood transfusions.” But Young insists that he is not speaking of quotas—“an idea shunned,” he says, “by responsible Negro organization and leaders”; but in the face of tokenism, the Negro, he does say, is forced “during the transitional stages, to discuss numbers and categories.”
Young, like King—but more logically because he does not fall into the trap of the “debt” theory—holds that all disadvantaged citizens should have the same “special effort,” but not “special privileges.” Certainly, Young would agree with Tom Kahn4 that preferential treatment for Negroes would not be a panacea, and though it might be used “functionally” in dealing with certain employers and unions, it would not take care of the Negro in a contracting labor market, and would, if made central to policy, be fatally divisive of whites and blacks. The end of Young’s program, I think, would be to make the Negro, and the disadvantaged white, into producers—and consumers and in so far as this is achieved such a program, in lightening the burden of welfare payments, sickness, and crime would more than pay for itself. So justice, humanitarian sentiment, and sound business join hands.
There are three other subjects treated by Young that are of importance First, without sentimentality or rhetoric, he heads straight into the Negro’s Negro problem: “The Negro, if he fails to recognize his deprivation or acts a though it doesn’t exist, is guilty of stupid chauvinism. And the white person who ignores this reality or acts as though it doesn’t exist is guilty of dishonesty.”
Second, with equal tough-mindedness Young tackles the question of integration—a subject on which tough-mindedness has rarely been called into play In fact, rancor and rhetoric, breast beating and Bible-pounding, mixed with a pseudo-Pentacostal babble, have been the usual order of business. Young is one of the few people, black or white, who has put his mind soberly and systematically to the question What he comes up with is going to disappoint the host who have a vested interest in, or an emotional need for the Doctrine of the Great Day. “This matter,” he says, “of seeing integration as an overwhelmingly complex delicate, or revolutionary kind of thing must be overcome. In reality, integration is concerned most properly and urgently with the simple, elementary fundamentals of everyday life.” In other words, he does not look forward to the Great Day when trumpets blare hosannas sound, and we all rush forth to embrace one another in transports of redemptive joy; he imagines, rather some morning just like any other morning, when on the bus, on your way to the job, you think, “My goodness, I guess I’m integrated.” Then turn to the morning paper. All very disappointing.
But To Be Equal is not. It is mandatory reading for anybody who want to know some facts; and wants to know what a very acute and very sober mind thinks they mean. This book is not, certainly, the only perspective on the Negro problem. It is merely an indispensable one.
October 8, 1964
Universal Library (1963); Grosset, paperback, $1.65. ↩
Dr. Kenneth Clark has said that the danger lies “in confusing the methods effective from dramatizing the ills with the methods that would be necessary for the long term resolution of the problem.” But he also says that for ten years he was on a committee that turned in reports on the education in Harlem and the reports were merely filed away until real agitations and boycotts began. ↩
If King points out that the Negro has shown himself ready “today,” what does he mean to imply about “yesterday”? Or what does he imply without meaning to? The whole question of readiness has been a touchy one for a hundred years. ↩
Dissent, Winter, 1964 ↩