The struggle between whites and nonwhites, an expatriate South African informs us on the opening page of The Race War, “is the major preoccupation of mankind.” The title alone is the clue to the book. The world is perilously split between the rich, smug, mostly white exploiters of the temperate lands, and the impoverished, miserable, mostly non-white peoples of the Third World. The West—which is the villain of this morality tale—lives off the blood of the dark-skinned masses, exploiting all off-white shades for its economic advantage and political power. But the game is nearly up. The non-whites are seething, and “the sense of outrage rouses all regions of the population, driving even many of those cajoled by privilege into revolt.” The real war is not between communism and capitalism, nor one against poverty and injustice, between ethnic groups within a single nation (as one might suspect from the recent blood bath in Indonesia), nor between political factions as in China and Vietnam, but only between whites and non-whites. This is a war that cannot be halted, for “violence must surely spread till the rich and the poor, the dominant and the dominated, are alike, in the final accommodation of an equal humanity or an equal annihilation.”
A pessimistic forecast, and one designed to scare all complacent palefaces out of their skins. In this category are not only whites, but all those who share the acquisitive values of the West, including the venal leaders of the new nations, and also Japan, which, according to Segal, “is viewed in practice as no more than a satrap of the white world.” That it may also be viewed as an example less fortunate nations emulate is not apparent to the author. The condemnation of the white world is near total, and even the Russians are not spared Segal’s bitterness for their reluctance to sacrifice their creature comforts to the spread of their ideology. There is no use shedding tears for the white world, which is doomed to bring about its own destruction from an excess of greed and complacency. If it refuses to change its ways by opening its heart and its coffers to its non-white (or more properly its impoverished) brothers, “then its destruction is a questionable loss.”
In the coming race war there is apparently no use in choosing sides, since Nature has taken care of that for us, Whites are what they are—colonialists, imperialists, exploiters—and non-whites are virtuous victims of white rapacity. The fact that non-whites can no more be lumped together than can non-yellows, non-blacks, or equally non-definable groups—or that they may be as beastly to one another as they are to whites—does not greatly interest this indignant polemicist. What counts is that the “wretched of the earth,” to use Fanon’s phrase, are mostly non-white, and are no longer willing to suffer oppression at the hands of the white world. As they become aware of their condition, “the communal racism of colored peoples must appear increasingly irrelevant to them in their passion to escape their poverty.” Unfortunately, Segal offers little evidence to show that this is so, and in fact gingerly slides over such recent examples of non-white racism as Arab-Negro conflict in Sudan and Zanzibar, tribal warfare in Nigeria, and the struggle between Indians and Negroes in Guyana. These do not fit comfortably into Segal’s black-and-white world, where good is all on one side, evil on the other, and gray tones nonexistent.
To buttress his apocalyptic vision of a race between whites and non-whites, Segal tries to show that black is the color of poverty while white (or yellow in the case of Japan) is the color of (ill-gotten) wealth. The white world, in order to maximize its profits and assure its political dominance, enslaves the underdeveloped nations and prevents a liberating “socialist revolution.” But the revolution is bound to come anyway, for the poor have now been aroused by the inspiring example of Maoist China.
Their mounting despair at ever being able to alter their condition by present endeavor must drive them, sooner or later, to the classic recourse of the desperate throughout history, revolution, and the division of the rich and poor along color lines must add immeasurably to the passion of the conflict.
But the fact that racial differences may add “passion” to the conflict between rich and poor, or that such conflict is in any way inevitable, is not the same as demonstrating that the conflict is basically racial.
Segal’s obsession with race—which is understandable in the context of his struggles against the racist policies of the South African government and his enforced exile in London—leads him to twist every other reality to suit the mold. Since the poorer nations tend to be inhabited mostly by people of darker skin, clearly a conspiracy is underfoot to keep the non-whites in a state of subjection. Because poverty and misery are becoming increasingly intolerable to peoples who have become aware that something better is possible, the non-whites must rise in racial rebellion against the whites. But why must the conflict of the poor against the rich be expressed in basically racial terms? “Their rebellion must be racial,” he writes of Indians and Negroes in the more repressive oligarchies of Latin America, “because they are colored and their masters (whether indigenous or North Americans) are white.” Yet is there really a clear correlation between color and class? Are not most Latin American revolutionaries white-skinned members of the middle-class intelligentsia? Was Castro’s revolution, however much it improved the condition of Cuban blacks, a reaction against racism? Is it primarily color that keeps Indians and Negroes near the bottom of the social heap, or is it the heritage of slavery, the greed inherent in ruling classes (whatever their color), and stagnant economies which do not provide for economic advancement?
Segal’s charges that the major powers of the West try to control the affairs of the ex-colonial states has a good deal of truth in it. Neo-colonialism is not just a figment of left-wing imaginations, for most of black Africa is economically controlled today from London, Paris, and Brussels just as surely as it was during the palmiest days of colonialism. But can this be ascribed to racism? The British, after all, have controlled the economy of Rhodesia, just as they controlled the economy of post-colonial United States until America became a major power in its own right. This is the economics of capitalism (and socialism), not the politics of race. The misfortune of small and weak countries, whatever the color of their inhabitants, is that they must live in the shadow of great powers until they can marshal the strength to stand up on their own.
What is true for economics holds for politics as well. As Segal himself points out, “it is not neutralism or socialism that the West distrusts, as much as independence.” So long as a state does not threaten what the Western powers conceive to be their interests, it can follow whatever internal policies it chooses. It can proclaim socialism and nationalize everything in sight, as the Algerians did shortly after independence, or it can engage in genocide, as the Indonesians did against the Chinese following the generals’ coup. Non-whites cannot, of course, indiscriminately murder whites, as in the Congo, for this releases unpleasant racial reactions among the white powers. But this does not prevent underdeveloped states from having the “socialist revolution” which Segal conceives as a panacea for their woes.
THE WHITE WEST may dislike independent-minded regimes and even overthrow them, as it did Lumumba’s in the Congo—and as the Russians crushed the anti-Soviet rebellion in Hungary. But the white powers are perfectly happy to support friendly governments, even incompetent ones, regardless of their race, creed, or color. Thus there is no reason for non-whites to declare war on whites simply to have a social revolution, since there is nothing taboo about revolution so long as it is combined with cold war neutrality. The Algerians and the Yugoslavs know this quite well. Perhaps the Cubans would be better off if they discovered it as well.
Yet in spite of the evidence, and even his own occasional uncertainty that the West refuses to accept socialist revolutions, Segal continues to pound home his assertion that non-whites must declare race war on the whites to gain their rights. To make it seem reasonable that the contest between white and non-white is “the major preoccupation of mankind,” he has to base it on something more than sentiment and guilt feelings. Poverty is his link to race, and the West’s antipathy to revolution (which stems from an exaggerated fear of communism) is what forces the masses to rebel against the white-dominated powers that control them. “In the end this refusal to countenance revolution simply advances the prospects of racial struggle,” he warns, “for it perpetuates the economic inequities, the national poverty and the resentment at white domination in the present and the past that produced the colored consensus of rebellion.” But would socialist revolution of the kind Segal seems to favor—that is, a Maoist dictatorship of the peasantry—end all racial tensions and make men brothers again after centuries of antagonism? One would like to think so, but the evidence is scant, and the example of China’s “cultural revolution” not an inspiring one.
When he is not busy chastising the United States for a simple-minded anti-communism that leads it to foolish interventions in such places as the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, and when he is not scourging the Russians for behaving like complacent bourgeois instead of militant revolutionaries, Segal tries to show how racism has been a Western disease throughout the ages. The history of the world, from the first stirrings of the cave man to the riots in Watts, passes in solemn procession to demonstrate the white man’s rapacity toward his darker brothers. At times this is instructive, such as his excellent account of the history of slavery in America and the emergence of the militant Negro. Often, however, it is overdrawn, tedious, and of dubious relevance. Segal has done his homework diligently, and he writes with considerable skill. But had he managed to temper his polemic with more analysis, had he dispensed with the capsule history of the world and examined the psychology and sociology of racism, had he not insisted upon distorting the basic problem of poverty in the underdeveloped nations to the subsidiary question of race, and had he not allowed his guilty conscience to overwhelm his judgement, this gifted young South African might have written something more useful than a mea culpa to flagellate the consciences of white liberals.
The Race War is a tiresome litany of guilt at a time when guilt is no longer an adequate way of coping with the real problems of those who live in misery and want. Poverty is not basically a function of race, although it often takes racial forms, and the eradication of racism does not necessarily, or even incidentally, alleviate poverty. Racism is just as great a problem for non-white societies such as Japan and Indonesia as it is for white societies with non-white minorities. While the white West has often behaved in barbarous ways toward those it deemed its racial inferiors, whether at home or abroad, racial guilt is not much more effective a way of dealing with the problems of discrimination and want than is racial arrogance. “The guilty white liberal,” as Harold Isaacs justly observes in the issue of Daedalus on color and race, “is only too glad to assign all virtue to the oppressed; the oppressed is usually only too ready to accept this gratuitously offered halo.” But the halo does not fit much better on the new head than the old one, for racism is endemic to many non-white societies, and, as he points out, “formed part of many of these cultures long before their exposure to the power of the conquering white Europeans.” Further, as we learn from the essay by Hiroshi Wagatsuma, “since a very early time in history, the Japanese have valued the skin color they consider ‘white.”‘
IF RACISM IS NOT a white monopoly, neither does a low place on the social scale by a dark-skinned minority necessarily indicate racism—as Segal would have us believe. In Northern Africa, Leon Carl Brown writes,
the white-black relationship…would seem disturbingly like that in the United States. A minority of detribalized blacks, almost all of whom were brought in as slaves, occupies the lowest socio-economic rungs in the social ladder. Not only are they unable to return to their native lands, but they are also in no position to demand consideration or respect.
Yet racism of the kind practiced in the United States is unknown, and indeed inconceivable. For historical and cultural reasons, “no ‘color bar’ developed in Northern Africa. The spectrum of black-white relationships is explainable in class, not caste, terms.” Yet class terms are real and not always easy to bridge, even in presumably integrated societies such as Brazil. There, according to the sociologist Florestan Fernandes:
Some people are afraid they will lose their standing by “accepting the Negro”; others accept the Negro only under conventional circumstances and reject him when it is a question of a true friendship or communion of sentiments. Still others defend certain archaic positions at all costs and reject any possibility for the Negro to reach positions of management or leadership. Mixed marriages meet with almost insurmountable resistance as things now stand.
The place that color plays in man’s relation to man is, as these essays from Daedalus make apparent, exceedingly complex and infinitely varied. It differs from society to society, just as it changes in the same society from one period to another. If the crisis of race seems a particularly pressing one to us today, it is because we have been forced into an awareness of the injustices which this society, and other societies (not all of them white), have been practicing for decades, and even centuries. Race has become a preoccupation throughout the Western world, and perhaps nowhere more than in the United States. This leads outraged intellectuals such as Segal to a kind of inverted racism of their own. They are unwilling to grant to non-whites the same humanity—that is, the same venality, nastiness, and stupidity—that they take for granted among whites. In this sense the non-white world—if it even makes sense to use such a phrase—serves as a symbol for their feelings of rejection and alienation from their own society. That such rejection may, in some cases, be justified does not, however, justify sloppy and self-deceptive thinking.
At the moment there is, among certain radicals, a conviction that American foreign policy is devoted to the subjugation, and if necessary the extermination, of non-white peoples who are deemed inferior. Thus a group which calls itself the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam has recently issued an open letter to President Johnson in which it declares that “disrespect of non-white people…has become the cornerstone of our foreign policy” and that just as when “the [American] Indian refused to be enslaved, he was exterminated,” so now, “because automation is gradually forcing the Negro to become an economic liability on American shores, he is facing extermination on the shores of Southeast Asia.”
Yet while one cannot deny the inequities of the draft, nor minimize the deep-seated racism of this country, nor justify the tragic and corrupting violence to which we are subjecting the people of Vietnam, this argument fails to fit the facts. Negroes are not being drafted because they are black, but because they are, for the most part, members of an economically and socially deprived class. They are at the bottom of the social heap in large degree because of racism, but this is hardly the same thing as a policy of deliberate extermination. Similarly, although we are inflicting terrible suffering upon the Vietnamese, we are not doing it because they are non-white, but because we suffer from a cultural lag about the nature and the dangers of communism. It is worth remembering, after all, that our allies in Asia are just as non-white as our adversaries. The simple-minded attitude that ascribes everything we may dislike to racism is not helpful to a reevaluation of an aberrant foreign policy, nor does it do justice to the real problems that consign men to misery and divide them from one another.
For the non-white peoples, and even for the white peoples, of the underdeveloped countries, the real problem is not how to wage race war against the West. Rather it is how to gain access to the skills and tools of the industrial West to reshape their own societies. This is their revolution and its effects are likely to be far more long-lasting and far more sweeping than peripheral antagonisms between white and non-white societies. In the struggle to alleviate the misery much of the world has taken for granted throughout the centuries, a preoccupation with a nonexistent “race war” is as distracting as it is indecent.
June 29, 1967