The premise of the Kerner report on civil disorders* is, “Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively…. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” Both parts of this are not true. Since the end of World War II it was a rapacious policy of rural enclosure and, in Puerto Rico, a rapacious mercantilism that drove unprepared colored peoples north in unassimilable quantities, whether their reception would be racist or not; and add the whites disemployed out of Appalachia. To account for the explosive mixture, one does not need fancy new concepts like white racism; the old story of criminal neglect of social costs for private gain is more to the point. Further, historically, with notable exceptions, the northern whites have not been racially prejudiced—though they have been something else, perhaps more disastrous. It is best to get rid of these cliches and call each thing by its right name.
In classical psychology, race prejudice is a projection onto others of one’s own unacceptable traits. It is a species of paranoia, the repressed traits returning as floating threats. It is characteristic of the authoritarian personality, brought up with severe inhibition of the child’s initiative and animal nature; and the paranoia is excited by economic or other insecurity that makes the adult ego labile. Typically, a failing petty bourgeoisie with puritanic upbringing will have racial prejudices. The Germans were classically racist, with a full-blown ideology of Aryan supremacy that made them feel grand, whereas the Jews poisoned the bloodstream and were responsible for the Versailles treaty. Degraded by the Civil War, Southern whites developed the fullblown racism of the Ku Klux Klan; they had to be better than somebody, and niggers were inferior, apelike, a threat to Southern womanhood.
In this classical sense, the northern white middle class has hardly been racist at all. Their upbringing, though not free, has been unrestrictive by European standards. They certainly have not failed economically. Where there is more authoritarianism and insecurity, as among newly prosperous blue-collar workers—e.g., Poles, Italians, Irish, or Appalachians in Chicago—there is more racial prejudice; the same holds for retired rentiers like the Californians, threatened by inflation. (In England, prejudice is loosed at the more bitter level of job-competition among the poor.) But the usual majority objections to blacks that have caused the suburban flight have not been “prejudices” but a Gradgrind kind of facts, narrowly realistic. Blacks do downgrade the schools and make it hard for junior to compete for MIT; they make streets unsafe; they swell taxes by being on relief and not pulling their oar; they are not prepared for better jobs that have (irrelevant) mandarin requirements. By contrast, in the important area of discrimination in unionized semi-skilled jobs, there have been strong prejudices by blue-collar workers; and the most vehement opposition to open housing has come in rentier neighborhoods.
In many cities the police are recruited from just the most prejudiced classes, and this has been calamitous. And everywhere, of course, police are subject to the factual prejudices of their dangerous craft; poor suspects of any color have never gotten loving care from cops. (It happens that hippies and vocal pacifists are the worst treated of all, but this is an effect of paranoiac prejudice, since these pose an inner threat to the policeman’s manly perfection.) Schoolteachers are a striking example of a kind of factual prejudice produced by narrow craft idiocy: probably most of them start out with fairly innocent attitudes, but when little black children do not learn to read Dick and Jane, the teacher’s annoyance and anxiety, fearful of the supervisor, can come close to hatred.
HISTORICALLY, there has been, and persists, a northern middle-class exclusiveness, provincial and conformist, that could reasonably be called “racist.” But let us look at this, too, accurately, for the remedy depends on the diagnosis. Blacks have always been strange. There were few in the eastern and middle-western country and towns from which many of the whites came. Their mores were not necessarily inferior, ludicrous, or bad, but unknown. When blacks were hired as domestics, for instance by New York Jews, they were not looked down on but treated like articles of furniture. Not in business, they did not belong to clubs. Living in their own neighborhoods, they did not belong to white churches. But to be socially excluded has been the common fate of immigrant poor. Color is not the decisive factor: black Puerto Ricans, even with their culture of poverty, now make an easier adjustment. But Negroes have been continually recruited from an entirely inappropriate slave and depressed-rural background, and their exclusion has been fatally cumulative. Then, with the recent overwhelming influx of new immigrants, and their teeming offspring, the familiar atmosphere of the northern cities has changed drastically; strangeness has become menace; panic flight has ensued.
What picture of the white middle class emerges from this analysis? It is not so much racist as narrow, self-righteous, and busy. But of course. This is the same tribe that, north and south, displaced the Indians, had Negro slaves in the first place, needlessly bombed Hiroshima, and destroys Vietnamese. Whether one calls it brash enterprise or imperialist arrogance, to these people their victims are not quite persons. If the deviants shape up, fine, one does business with them—and even extraordinary efforts are made to help them to shape up. But if they persist in being themselves, they are exterminable. “Essentially,” as the Kerner report puts it, busy self-centered people do not want to be thwarted or bothered. This bleakly explains more than “racism” does.
On the other hand, the Americans have the virtues of their defects, and these are more promising. Being busy, self-interested, independent, and successful, they have also been spectacularly extraverted, pragmatic, and generous. They will pay enormous sums to convert the heathen, wash the unwashed, and teach the mentally retarded to spell. And there has been an absolute contradiction in their racial attitudes. For instance, on the one hand there was the smug silence about the Indians and Negroes in classical New England literature; on the other hand there was the pan-humanism of Cooper and Walt Whitman. The framers of the Declaration of Independence obviously meant it when they said all men were created equal; yet some of the same authors allowed the organic charter, the Constitution, to speak of “three-fifths of a person.” (This was exactly the kind of detail on which Gandhi would have fasted to the death.) The bother with the premise of the Kerner report is that, if it were true, nothing less would avail than psychiatry for epidemic paranoia, probably including shock treatment—and this is, of course, the proposition of the black terrorists. A more prima facie diagnosis allows us to appeal to the outgoingness, the pragmatism, the enlightened self-interest of Americans.
Unfortunately, in modern conditions, we must notice the increasing anxiety and privatism of the middle class. As businesses become more centralized and the standard of living more demanding and complicated, independence and enterprise are severely constricted. And more and more we see that American horsesense and generosity, which have been saving graces, give way to a desperate need to keep things under control. Self-righteousness can then become “efficient,” a cold violence that has no inner check. There is a fanaticism of business as usual, called Preserving Law and Order, manner of Mayor Daley. If citizens fail to social-engineer the deviant into conformity, they quickly resort to mechanical measures, police, tanks, marines, bombers. When the threatened victims respond with desperate countermeasures, it is necessary to up the ante and there can be a massacre. Yet in modern conditions, it is again not necessary to speak of “white racism”; what is evident is a general drive to dispossess, control, and ignore human beings who are useless and bothersome, whether small farmers, displaced coal-miners, the aged, the alienated young, the vastly increasing number of “insane.” And unassimilable racial minorities.
But modern conditions also have advantages. The very centralization and affluence that dehumanize allow also for pragmatic remedies on a grand scale; an 800 billion Gross National Product and the mass media can mount “crash programs.” Second is the remarkable moral development of the young, sophisticated and free of economic pressure. In their own way they are as ignorant and self-righteous as the day is long, but they are not narrow, mechanical, or privatist, and they disregard caste and color. Finally, there is evidence that there is still life in the American democratic process itself, that peculiar mixture of morality, civil liberties, self-interest, and sporadic violence, swelling to make institutional change. Led by the young, the blacks, and the increasingly impatient “new class” of intellectuals, there is a revival of populism. Even the mass media, which have done so much to brainwash us, now seem—sensationally and inaccurately—to be informing us, because the journalists are new intellectuals. It is an odd “System.”
In the nature of the case, blacks in the United States are, by and large, racist, from Uncle Toms to Black Muslims. Whites can disregard blacks, but blacks can hardly disregard the power that owns and runs everything. Whiteness, as Fanon points out, inevitably invades the unconscious. Frustrated and deprived, blacks project onto the whites the putdown and hostility that they themselves feel. It would be too bitter to see truly the indifference that is usually really there.
(It is hardly necessary to discuss racial relations in order to make a catalogue of human sadness. But on the black side, lack of acquaintance, the mutual misunderstanding of manners and signals, must be especially devastating. For instance, willing to be friendly but being suspicious and vulnerable, he may start out with testing, either boring politeness or probing insult. But if the white is a simple person, he will be bored or annoyed, and shrug and sign off, and the world is so much worse than it was. This can quickly spiral downward to general mutual avoidance and fear. Yet, given ghetto conditions, it would be unusual for a black child not to grow up with suspicion, if the only whites he is exposed to are not simple persons, but police, schoolteachers, and bill-collectors.)
The sophisticated ideology of Racism itself has been picked up by intelligent blacks from white paranoids; it is a fairly recent invention of Germans, Boers, and the Ku Klux Klan. (Until the nineteenth century, race was not much used as a projection-screen, though religion, caste, and nationality were vastly overworked. Even anti-Semitism was mainly religious and could usually be alleviated by conversion.) And now we see that the artifact of a “racist society” is picked up from black militants by the Kerner report. Presumably the report’s rhetorical purpose in this is to sting white guilt in order to get action, but, as we shall see, this is a slender reed to lean on.
At present, southern blacks are less racist than northern blacks. Being more acquainted with real white madmen, they themselves have less paranoia and more sense of plain injustice; whereas northern blacks have to cope with bland unconcern or downgrading by neutral rules, at the same time as they are suffering. A case in point is “Law and Order.” A Jim Crow law is mad on the face of it; but to northern middle-class whites, due process is only reasonable, it provides a neutral forum for discussion and legislation. They cannot see that to dispossessed people due process is precisely the usual runaround that they have been getting. Besides, northern blacks are now a more failing class than southern. The excessive urbanization is fiscally and physically unworkable, and is unlivable. Religion and family are shattered. There is more anomie. The great bloc of immigrants and estranged youth may have a little more money but they are much worse off than they were in the rural areas from which they were driven.
A poignant example of the clash of black racism and white lack of empathy was the expulsion of white students from the civil rights and Black Power movements, e.g., from SNCC. Innocently righteous and confident in themselves, the white students took too much initiative and too much for granted. This made it hard for the blacks to run their own show, which was indispensable if they were to regain their own confidence. If the blacks had responded with fraternal, even if angry, competition, it might have cemented a deeper friendship. Instead they responded with jealousy, including sexual jealousy, and expulsion. The possibility of free cooperation has been foreclosed. Yet, since the blacks still need help, for instance funds and facilities and to swell a demonstration, there now develops the ugly situation that sympathetic whites are manipulated, hustled, or lied to; and it must be a further humiliation for blacks to do this.
During the recent fracas at Columbia, the blacks invited their SDS allies out of a joint action because, a leader said, “They were shaky and would vacillate and panic and could not be depended on. With black kids the issue is clear, to fight racism.” (One is struck by the testimonial to Socrates’ definition of courage, to have an idea.) My guess is that the whites had a more complicated idea; but in fact the more structural issue of the action, to fight military infiltration of the university, did get lost in the shuffle, so the blacks were proved correct.
Generally speaking, it has been a mistake, in my opinion, for black militants to try to make “integration” and “black power” absolute and incompatible. The basic theory behind it is nonsense, to lay stress on the color of civilization as the Germans laid stress on its nationhood; and, practically, too much science and wisdom, as well as wealth, resides in the dominant community to try to dissociate from it without being continually phony. It is stupid to regard Galileo or Faraday as “white” rather than as human—and to be saying it into a microphone. And negatively, it would be stupid to have a black and white committee against nuclear fallout or cancer. (By contrast, draft resistance warrants separate committees, since those with and those without student-deferments have different problems.) I doubt that, outside the South, there are many middle-class whites who have any feelings at all about being “white” as such. To the extent that to belong to a racial or national group is indeed a cause of pride—frankly, as a child of the Enlightenment, I think this is thin gruel—the minority group will thrive best in a mixed society where it has influential soul-brothers or Landsmänner. And politically, the majority of blacks and the best of the whites in fact want “integration” and will insist on it.
Nevertheless, illogic has its place. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas. It is now thinkable that there could be a black committee against nuclear fallout, whereas ten years ago it was impossible to mount a protest in Harlem on this issue at all. People have to humanize themselves in their own way. It produces a curious dilemma. For example, at the Conference for New Politics, just the most energetic of the blacks insist on the official recognition of their caucus; whereas just those whites who are most thoughtful and most deeply committed to social justice are embarrassed and do not know what to do with this demand, because in fact the unity of mankind is the truth.
The actual situation, without fancy constructs, is that some are hurting and the others don’t care. Starting from this obvious premise, for the oppressed a primitive method of coping is spite. Spite probably played a part in the expulsion from SNCC—“you aren’t invited”: it is the chief ingredient in the black theater of insult, genre of LeRoi Jones; and I think it has been an important factor in the riots—“burn, baby, burn.” Spite is the vitality of the powerless; it is a way of not being resigned, of keeping a lost fight alive by preventing the dominator from enjoying his domination.
(Needless to say, let me say at once, there are other factors in the riots. In some cities there has been evidence of a political plan for insurrection, part of a plan for world insurrection. The looting speaks for itself as reasonable free appropriation by people who are hopelessly poor. Burning white businesses in the ghetto makes a rational, though desperate, political point. There is a spontaneous explosion of frustration. In any culture of poverty there is a carelessness about one’s own possessions and life, just as the homicide rate is high. On the part of the intelligent and energetic young, who have played a big role, rioting is exactly equivalent to white youth uprisings on campuses and streets around the world, in fascist, corporate liberal, and communist countries: it is an acte gratuit of freedom in the face of irrational authority; the youth component is more important than the racial or ideological component.)
Commentators seem to be unwilling to say the word spite; yet it is not an ugly or useless passion. It is a means of preserving or even of finding identity. Saul Alinsky especially has often tried to use it for community development, e.g., by organizing dispossessed and fragmented people simply to take revenge on shortweight grocers. But the trouble with spite, of course, as Alinsky also knows, is that its victories do not add up, and the letdown can lead to worse despair.
Spite is often self-destructive, “biting off one’s nose to spite one’s face”; one burns down one’s own neighborhood partly because one cannot burn down theirs, but also to make them feel bad. This purpose usually fails; to “natural calamities” the affluent Americans promptly respond with clothing and canned goods, and do not feel bad but good. To hit home, it is necessary to produce an apocalypse as when Malcolm X, during his fanatical period, prayed for an atom bomb to destroy New York, Allah’s revenge. But I have heard, too, of a “political” purpose of self-destruction, to make precisely the unengaged blacks worse off and so swell the Cadres of revolt. This motive, if it exists, is evil.
Somewhat more practical is spite-work as blackmail. It is possible that some riot areas, like Watts or Newark, have received a tangible pay-off, as well as sociology. C. V. Hamilton puts it formally when, in a recent essay, he speaks of a quid pro quo: “Blacks receive economic support and political power; whites receive a chance to live in a healthy, developing, equitable society.” But the results have been meager, and, as a political proposition, shakedown must finally produce a devastating backlash. Nevertheless, the same substance can be put in a theoretical form that is quite acceptable political science, and hopefully workable: “For the commonweal of a pluralistic society, it is necessary for every group to flourish, and every group has the duty to throw its weight around to get justice for itself and the whole.” It is not newsy in American history that this might involve some violence; consider, for instance, the burned barns and derailed trains of 1885 agrarianism, or the defiance of court and police in the labor movement, with many killed. Hamilton has to use the language of blackmail because he cannot speak of commonweal; he seems to need the ideology of race war in order to organize a following.
In my opinion, we would be much further along if Black Power had long ago presented its concrete political program, e.g., local control of police, schools, and other services; the underwriting of local small businesses and cooperative housing. Such things are perfectly plausible and, if fought for, would by now have been won. (I have been plugging them for twenty years, but I have no troops.) If a decade ago, as we urged, the integrationists had asked for the guaranteed income for all Americans instead of welfare we would now have it; liberals get used to anything, once they hear the words. Five years ago, the March on Washington should have highlighted the Vietnam War, as some of us again urged. But moderate black leaders insisted that these things were too far out. And militant black leaders insisted on the spiteful recourse of sulking and putting on the whites the burden of guessing what is needed and coming across to prove their good will. Blacks shouted “Black Power!” and puzzled sympathetic whites asked, “What is Black Power?” A painful example has been James Baldwin’s gambit: he forces the white interlocutor to ask, “But what do you want?” “You know what we want.” “No, I really don’t.” “We want just what you want.” Perhaps Baldwin says this ingenuously, but he is in error; for usually the white man does not think of himself as a “white man,” but just as an individual in his own state of confusion and misery, in which being white does not help at all. Unless he is very empathetic, he does not see the disadvantage of being not white. If Baldwin would say, “We need thus and so to live better. How can you be of use in our getting it?” then the white man will either help according to his abilities or confess that he doesn’t care enough to put himself out. Of course, a psychological use of the spiteful gambit is to avoid the risk of rejection.
But this is water under the bridge. Concrete programs for local control are emerging, there is certainly more acquaintance, and despite spectacular militant tactics there seems to be diminishing backlash. One has the impression that, in the white community, private groups small and large are far ahead of the political officials and Congress. These include, let me say wryly, big business corporations which have a natural self-interest in fire-prevention and will even make an extra buck out of racial harmony—you’ll see.
But to account for the slow emergence of concrete demands, we must bear in mind, too, that dispossessed and dependent people are disoriented and do not themselves know what they want. If something positive is given, it is suspected as second-rate or a trap or a token never adequate to need. If something is taken or achieved by one’s own effort, it thereby becomes degraded, or is a cause of envy among one’s fellows and proves that one has been “co-opted.” This is the neurosis of the victimized that Robert Jay Lifton has been studying.
Sensitive minds, like James Baldwin again, understand perfectly that just to get into the middle-class American mainstream is not humanly good enough; but then it is hard for him to explain to poor people what, these days, would be humanly good enough. Consider the current social imputation of many jobs as “menial.” When I was young, driving a bus or trailer-truck was manly, difficult, and responsible; now when there are many black drivers, it is ordinary. Construction work used to be skilled; but a black or Spanish bricklayer or mason tends to be considered unskilled. White road-workers in Vermont have a decent job; black road-workers with the same equipment have a menial job. Postman, a job requiring unusual tact and judgment, has always been a dignified occupation; now that, like other Federal employment, it is open to many blacks, my guess is that it will be considered drab. A German or Jewish waiter is a mentor or kibitzer; a black waiter has a servile job. This social imputation of worth is made, of course, by both whites and blacks. Whites, however, usually do not give it a second thought, as their young move into other jobs. The question is why the blacks go along with the same imputation. The dismaying thing is that objective criteria like the kind of work, the worth of the product or service, and often even the wages count for very little. In this frame of mind, it is impossible to be free and independent.
But this subjective evaluation by the standards of public relations is endemic in American society. Nothing is regarded as itself, on its own merits. Thus, in the present essay which ought to be on politics and ends and means, I find myself discussing emotions and unconscious emotions, like racism, spite, revenge, and guilt. I find this pretty sickening. Perhaps the chief hope in the young, with their flesh-and-blood interests, simplifications of the standard of living, casteless friendships, and direct action, is that they will bring us back to objective reality, however crude.
A chief use of spite is to make the others feel guilty; this not only prevents their enjoying their domination but may result in tangible “amends.” It is clear that with many middle-class whites, this ruse has disastrously succeeded. Disastrously, because no good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties.
Psychoanalytically, guilt is repressed resentment and this is latent dynamite. For a time the guilty may forbear retaliation for annoyance or insult and may pay token amends, but soon they turn a deaf ear and then resentfully get even.
The dilemma is that blacks are indeed victims, of a system of property relations and policing, but the present-day northern whites, as persons, are not consciously nor importantly victimizers. There is exploitation of black people in their own neighborhoods, which can be helped by phasing out of their neighborhoods; but such exploitation is trivial in the Gross National Product and is overwhelmingly outweighed by the general tax-cost in black social services, special services, special policing, etc. Since they are not economically necessary, blacks cannot get redress by striking and bargaining. Since most whites are not exploiting them, they cannot give them redress by stopping their exploitation. When there is disorder and the cops crack down, the whites feel that they were aggressed on, and this is technically true. The black demand “Just get off our backs” makes sense in asking whites to stop running the ghettos through the school bureaucracy, the welfare bureaucracy, the police, and slumlords; but it is a poor slogan since, in the inflationary urbanism and high technology, blacks simply must have white subsidy, professional help, and jobs in the only economy that there is.
ALMOST ALL WHITES now agree blacks ought to get preferential treatment and there are stirrings in this direction. But this cannot come to much if it is done by guilt, to make amends; it must be done for political motives, self-interest, decency, commonweal, and justice. Unhappily, the Americans, who neglect other public goods, whose rivers stink, whose towns are hideous, whose countryside is despoiled, and whose children are mis-educated, neglect this public good too. My guess is that, just beneath the surface, it is they who have the slogan, “Get off our backs.”
Really to remedy our domestic colonialism (and our foreign colonialism) requires profound institutional changes and structural changes in the economy. We would have to divert the military technology to useful production; control the inflation that makes poor people poorer; reverse the policy of rural enclosures that swells the cities; manage the advertising, design, and pricing of consumer goods so that people can live decently without being in the rat race; get rid of the irrelevant mandarin diplomas for licensing and hiring. To stop being exclusive, American society would have to be about human beings rather than the Gross National Product, and the privatist competition for a cut. It would have to give up its delusion of social-engineering everybody, and tailor its help to local needs and local social organization. But all this amounts to a religious conversion and seems hopeless. It is possible that we cannot have such a conversion without convulsions; unfortunately I do not hear of any convulsions that would lead to the relevant conversion. The violent champions of Che or Lenin rarely say anything relevant to the real problems of a country like ours. It is understandable that blacks are hung up on their gut issues of being hemmed in and pushed around, but it is distressing that the Peace and Freedom Party or Students for a Democratic Society cannot get beyond get issues. Radical liberals, like Harrington, Keyserling, or Rustin, propose New Dealish remedies like more public housing, schooling, and transit, that would recreate the same problems bigger and worse. Liberals feel guilty. “Conservatives” arm the police.
Meantime, we must live with the immediate problem: what to do when some are hurting and others, who have power, don’t care? How to make narrow, busy, and self-righteous people understand that other people exist?
It was exactly for this problem that Gandhi, A. J. Muste, and Martin Luther King devised and experimented the strategy of active massive non-violent confrontation, both non-violent resistance and aggressive non-violence. In my opinion, this is the only strategy that addresses all aspects of the situation. It challenges unconcern. It attacks institutions and confronts people as well. It personalizes the conflict so that habitual and mechanical responses are not easy. It diminishes strangeness. It opens possibilities for the narrow to grow and come across, instead of shutting them out. It interrupts the downward spiral of the oppressed into despair, fanaticism, and brutality. Most important, it is the only realistic strategy, for it leads to, rather than prevents, the achievement of a future community among the combatants. We will have to live together in some community or other. How? In what community? We really do not know, but non-violent conflict is the way to discover and invent it.
Non-violence is aggressive. Since the injustices in society reside mainly in the institutional system, though the personal agents may be innocent or even quite sympathetic, it is necessary to prevent the unjust institutions from grinding on as usual. It is necessary not to shun conflict but to seek it out. So Gandhi, Muste, and King were continually inventing campaigns to foment apparent disorder where things apparently had been orderly.
Naturally, aggressive massive non-violence is not safe. (Gandhi lost thousands). If only mathematically, when there is a big crowd, some will be hurt—sometimes because of one’s own young hotheads, more usually because the police panic and try to enforce impossible Byzantine restrictions, Law and Order. On the other hand, actions of this kind are far less likely to lead to a shambles. In the present climate of cold violence armed with a lethal technology, this is a major consideration.
I do not think that non-violence is incompatible with fringes of violence or flare-ups of violence, so long as its own course is steadily political, appealing to justice, self-interest, and commonweal, and if the political object of the campaign speaks for itself. Gandhi, of course, was a purist about avoiding violence, though he said that it was better to be violent against injustice than to do nothing; both Muste and King were willing to cooperate with violent groups, if they did not try to take over. Psychologically, indeed, it is probably an advantage for a non-violent movement to have a group like the Black Panthers in the wings, committed to violent self-defense, for this quiets down the more rabid opposition and makes a calmer zone for real political and economic confrontation. (Sometimes it doesn’t work out so smoothly.)
Non-violence, and King’s own campaigns, do not necessarily pre-judge the issue between “integration” and “black power.” Separatism is ruled out, however, since the point of confrontation is to come to mutual recognition and commonweal. It is not necessary to “love” one’s enemies, but there must be a belief that common humanity is more basic than racial difference; and this belief must be bona fide or non-violence becomes a mere tactic and has no energy. Certainly King’s followers took his universalist Christian rhetoric at face value. (So did I.) As I have said, it is the only realistic position; it is the tendency of history. In the world, we cannot continue to have “peaceful” co-existence, which is really cold war; we will come to community or perish. In this country, it is not the case that there could be two societies, as the Kerner report threatens. Either the dominant group will hem in the blacks in apartheid reservations, which is unthinkably abhorrent, or there will be a democratic pluralism or general miscegenation, each of which has attractions.
In the northern cities, however—and this is a grim complication—there are two distinct problems which somehow have to be solved at the same time. The first is the one we have been discussing, how to get whites to pay attention to blacks as existing, and for this, aggressive non-violence makes the most sense. But the second problem is that we have allowed, in the ghettos, the formation of what Oscar Lewis calls a Culture of Poverty, insulated, ingrown, dependent; and how can such a culture become free and independent? I don’t know; but it is possible that rioting, burning, hurling insults, apparently stupid militancy, and an extravagant black racist ideology are indeed means of regaining confidence at this level of dispiritment. King, as he came to deal with northern problems, had begun to take this factor into account, though it clearly pained his heart and mind. And it is encouraging that whites, and white officials like Lindsay, may be finding the compassion that is here the only relevant thing we have to give.
The violent who are interested in insurrection and “revolutionary” overturn inevitably consider non-violence as “reformist.” According to their theory, since it is piecemeal and does not aim to demolish the System and replace it (with what?), it cannot change anything. In my view, especially in complicated and highly organized societies, it is only by opening areas of freedom piecemeal that we will transform our lives. “Seizing power” in such societies is precisely counter-revolution and stops the social revolution short. But the human contact of aggressive non-violence is exquisitely relevant to the deepest danger of modern times, the mechanical violence of 1984. Because of it and the new spirit of the young, we will not have 1984.
Finally, it is said that non-violence might suit the Hindus but it is contrary to American spirit and tradition. Quite the contrary. It seems to me to be simply an extension of traditional American populism, the democratic process as conceived by Jefferson, that has always revived in times of great crisis: acting “illegally” and “petitioning,” rousing the general will, protected by the Bill of Rights, with fringes of violence, and ending up with important institutional change. In every major country in the world, power is terribly deeply entrenched; but America is the most likely place for a non-violent movement toward freedom to succeed.
Since I have this occasion, let me say a word about the death of Martin King. He was a stubborn, reasonable man, and political without being a fink. I do not know any other national leader for whose death I would have wept.
In my opinion, the extraordinary general grief of the Americans was not, as has been charged, hypocritical or empty. The grief for death and sympathy for survivors is one of the few emotions that bring all people, even divided families, together. I think that whites now recognize blacks a little more as persons than they did before, and this should have consequences.
May 23, 1968
Reported of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders with an Introduction by Tom Wicker, Dutton, 609 pp., $7.95 (paper, Bantam, $1.25) ↩