As Hitler’s hysterically racist version of fascism year by year strengthened itself in Germany and then spread all over Europe, a generation of intellectuals, not to mention millions of ordinary men and women, had to confront some unsettling questions. Could “it” (Nazism) happen here or there or, indeed, anywhere? How did the nation of Beethoven and Brahms, Goethe and Schiller and Gropius turn itself over to a bunch of thugs, murderers, and confidence men? Was there something special about such a turn of events, something rooted in the German “national character,” in a particular people’s history and culture? And anyway, why did the Führer’s racial hate, directed at so many segments of the world’s population, strike so many responsive chords: enthusiastic applause; discreet approval; sympathy; the embarrassed silence of those who suddenly heard spoken on a grand scale what hitherto had to be whispered or joked about in private?
Once the Nazis were beaten, many of us were glad to forget those issues, or leave them to theologians, moral philosophers (sometimes masked as novelists or playwrights), and, not least, social scientists. Of the latter, some were traditional scholars: economists, political scientists, or historians, they had the task of sifting through the rubble of this century’s destroyed dreams and realized nightmares—in the hope of finding answers to all sorts of persisting questions. How deliberate was Hitler’s rise, how much the product of right-wing intrigue, left-wing myopia and ideological rigidity, popular indifference, rising unemployment, a long tradition of fear and hate that goes back, say, to Martin Luther’s later years? How did Versailles lead to National Socialism—and if Hitler’s particular leadership had not been available, might Germany never have embarked on the course that led to the Second World War? Indeed, could the Weimar Republic have survived and even flourished, given a reasonable measure of support from Germany’s one-time enemies (and constant competitors), the capitalist democracies of Britain, France, and the United States?
Meanwhile others belonging to relatively young fields like psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and anthropology began to come up with a different way of looking at the appearance of the Nazis—as well as developments in Europe and the United States. In 1941, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom anticipated this new kind of inquiry; there and in Man for Himself (1947) the eternal struggle between good and evil obtained yet another kind of metaphorical expression. An exploitative and hoarding “character type” was contrasted with its opposite, a loving and gentle “character,” and an “authoritarian” conscience was compared with the “humanistic” kind. Fromm has never been a naïve, label-prone psychoanalyst or social psychologist. He repeatedly reminds his readers that he is not trying to look upon the rise of Hitler and his followers as a purely psychological problem: “Nazism is a psychological problem, but the psychological factors themselves have to be understood as molded by socio-economic factors.”
Still, the Nazis progressively claimed the obedience, loyalty, and passion of the German people, and in Fromm’s mind did so for reasons that a certain kind of psychologist is especially trained to understand: insecure, fearful, narrow-minded, and blindly submissive parents, themselves hurt and stifled by the kinds of lives they have to live, turn on their children and make of them the kind of putty that shrewd demagogues can almost infinitely, it seems, shape and use.
Fromm does not hesitate to make generalizations. He speaks of the “lower strata of the [German] middle class, composed of small shop-keepers, artisans, and white collar workers.” He refers to their love of the strong and hatred of the weak; their pettiness and pervasive hostility; their thriftiness with feelings as well as with money; and essentially their asceticism, hence susceptibility to a leader who knows how to sanction mass hysteria. Unsure of their jobs or income they feel unsure of themselves, turn on outsiders and strangers with a vengeance, become envious of all sorts of people, and convert that envy into a curious (and dangerous) kind of moral indignation, which ambitious politicians have no trouble taking advantage of.
Needless to say, Erich Fromm did not claim that he had spent among German workers the amount of time analysts offer to their upper-middle-class patients. He does indicate in a footnote1 that the “view” he is presenting of German workers, and by extension others in the industrial nations of the West, “is based on the results of an unpublished study of the ‘Character of German Workers and Employees in 1929/30.’ ” In that study, interestingly enough, “the responses of six hundred persons to a detailed questionnaire showed that a minority of the respondents exhibited the authoritarian character, that with about the same number the quest for freedom and independence was prevalent, while the great majority exhibited a less clear-cut mixture of different traits.” Fromm studied the responses of that group of people to certain questions, then tried to make a series of formulations that would be suggestive and clarifying—just as a poet or dramatist hopes with a metaphor to make connections hitherto unnoticed.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fromm’s line of thinking was pursued with great thoroughness by Theodor Adorno and others in this country. The result was a vast study, The Authoritarian Personality, which extended and strengthened Fromm’s views. On the basis of questionnaires, psychological tests, and interviews, certain men and women were found to possess what was called an “authoritarian personality”: that is, they seemed rigid, conformist, somewhat self-righteous, not particularly introspective, rather deferential to those considered their superiors, and unable to tolerate life’s ambiguities. Such people were far more likely to be prejudiced and, as the book’s title suggests, those same people can be considered potential recruits for a totalitarian movement.
While Adorno and others were trying to distinguish between various “groups” of people by asking them questions and giving them tests, without getting to know them over the months, let alone years, of their lives, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts were also speculating at great length on the forces that compel particular individuals to fear and hate others. Robert Waelder (1960) connected the totalitarian mentality to a “paranoid system.” Ernst Simmel (1946) and Rudolph Loewenstein (1947) emphasized the prejudiced person’s need to find scapegoats, to attribute his or her own greed, envy, hate, or lust to others.
As one goes through the articles and books by these and other analysts, the mind’s deviousness and complexity once again become clear—even as they do when a particular patient’s “psychodynamics” are discussed by the kind of doctor who treasures the subtlety and ingeniousness of a person’s thinking. Sibling rivalry, parricide, incest—themes familiar to Greek tragedians as well as to a white Southern novelist like William Faulkner—come up repeatedly in the psychiatric literature on racism, and if sometimes the formulations are extravagant or awkwardly stated, there can be solid and luminous moments, too.
The more tentative and modest efforts hold up today as the best. When, for example, the analyst Rudolph Loewenstein writes about anti-Semitism he draws upon his clinical work with both Christians and Jews, and carefully refrains from sweeping sociological or historical generalizations. Consequently, the reader gets a sense of depth: he has been taken deep into the confines of a concentration camp, helped to understand how the men there feel; but he is not allowed to forget that he will have to turn elsewhere if he would know when and by whom such a place was first developed, or what people now run and profit from it, and if indeed he would determine the spirit that, finally, obtains among the prisoners, hard-pressed and endangered as they are.
Still, as one analyst has commented, “Members of hate groups are not prone to subject themselves to psychological investigation. Therefore, any observation of such individuals, no matter how brief and incomplete, deserves to be communicated.” The analyst who wrote those words, Terry Rodgers, had seen one white man in analysis for five months and in so doing observed “the evolution of an active anti-Negro racist.”2 The man had come to the doctor with serious symptoms and as one reads the clinical discussion, one can only sympathize with both analyst and patient and be impressed with the unwillingness of the former to use his experience with the latter in order to characterize millions of other white people.
Another analyst, Dr. Joel Kovel, is more audacious and ambitious. In White Racism (1970) Dr. Rodgers’s brief and abruptly terminated clinical experience is called upon for good reason: the author has no firsthand clinical observations of his own to report, not to mention reports of interviews with any of the “white racists” he is convinced constitute the largest group of this nation’s population:
A really deep survey of white Americans would doubtlessly reveal a great mixture of racial patterns in everyone, but it might be predicted that the substantial majority continue to reserve their most intense feelings for the hallowed racial patterns of yore; that is, they hold to a mixture of dominative and aversive racist beliefs, according, one would expect, to their authoritarianism and the degree to which their superego has internalized aggression.
Dr. Kovel mentions the strong influence that Herbert Marcuse’s writing has had on his own thinking; both men have in common a bold and imaginative approach to the West’s social and political problems. Neither of the two is much given to optimism: Dr. Kovel says that only a “minority, who are in the vanguard of history,” are free enough of racism to offer any hope at all that things will basically change, and in One Dimensional Man Professor Marcuse sees most Western men and women rendered utterly inert and compliant by the power of what he calls “advanced industrial culture.” Those who dissent are in one way or another appeased, placated, deterred, assimilated. We are systematically indoctrinated with false needs, which are “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression.”
The result is that our “universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions or dictations.” As for Marcuse himself, he and no doubt a few others, too, have somehow struggled away from such “hypnotic definitions”; and if one happens to wonder how he can be so sure that millions of Americans haven’t likewise done so, the answer is to be found in his book: the newspapers, radio, and television every day express what is on just about everyone’s mind, hence how corrupted and enslaved we all have become—except, of course, for a few social critics, like the author of One Dimensional Man.
Meanwhile millions of American men and women live and work and try to make do as best they can; and they, unlike the racist patient Dr. Rodgers writes about, do not find their way to the buildings where psychiatrists practice or, for that matter, to the academic offices of those social or political theorists who write so persistently and surely about what is happening to this or that “majority.” For over ten years I have been trying to find out how some of those American men and women (they are white-collar and blue-collar working people) think and feel about—well, about many things: black people, the bosses who own or run the nation’s factories and stores, the politicians who come and go, the radio or television programs that Professor Marcuse mentions watching and Dr. Kovel considers part of a culture which “generates racism for the benefit of a false whiteness.”
No doubt about it, at times I can only be grateful for what I have read in the various books I have just mentioned and a number of others like them. I will be sitting in the living room of a man who works in an automobile factory, or a policeman or a fireman, or a store clerk, and I will hear “the authoritarian personality” giving vent to itself, and “white racism” coming forth in one awful word or phrase after another, and “one dimensional man” affirming proudly what he and his neighbors have come to. On such occasions a theorist’s ideas about what is happening in a society, like a good psychiatrist’s interpretations, rightly timed and sensibly worded, help one to pull together what seems otherwise chaotic or frightening, or both.
Yet there are other moments, and they are not so infrequent either. Here is a man speaking who works in a General Electric factory outside Boston—and I have to emphasize as strongly as I can that I have known him and his coworkers and neighbors for five years, spent that length of time with them and their families and neighbors:
“The country is in bad trouble, that’s how I see it. We’re paying for all the wrong things we’ve done; I’d say that. We had no business getting into Vietnam in the first place; they’re a bunch of crooks and thieves and liars, the people in the government we’re supporting. Look at some of the countries we’re pouring money into all over the world—dictators and generals run them, and there are a small bunch of rich, and most of the people are so poor you can’t even imagine how they live, like animals they live. Here in this country you have the highest standard of living in the world, but it’s still the same: there are the rich and there are the poor, and then there are people like us—we work day and night to keep up with the expenses. (I don’t know how I’d make it if I didn’t have a second job on the weekend.)
“I get sick and tired of welfare cheaters and worse are the hippies, who sit around doing nothing—but they call up Daddy if they run into trouble; and the niggers, always pushing, pushing. But what the hell, who really is in charge of this country, who is calling the shots, who is raking in the money? Not the poor colored people, I’ll tell you, it’s not them. What have they got for themselves out of this country, for all the damn back-breaking work they’ve done since they got picked up in Africa by guys with guns and sent over here like cattle? What does the ordinary worker get out of this economy, that he doesn’t have to fight for every year or two? Nixon freezes wages, he freezes prices, but the bankers and the stock market people (gamblers, that’s all they are, nothing else), those guys just keep pulling it in, profits and more profits. Some of them have these high price lawyers and accountants and they fix the tax forms up so that a millionaire can end up paying practically nothing compared to the hunk they deduct from my check every week. (And if they run into real trouble, there’s always the lobbyists in Washington who can go see congressmen and senators and get the tax laws changed.)
“Sometimes I wonder what to tell my kids. They ask you these whys: why one man has so much money that he owns five houses and buys a painting for a million dollars, and meanwhile children are hungry and there’s no work for thousands and thousands—right in this country. I tell them that it was always like that: even Jesus Christ couldn’t beat the big boys, the rich boys; they got rid of Him, plenty quick. So, what can a guy like me do? I tell my kids not to try and make sense out of this country; it’s like with people, there’s a lot of bad and a lot of good. If you ask me, I think in the long run the working people of this country will have to realize that it’s their sweat that produces the wealth, and that means we should have the same rights as the stockholders. No man should have to beg, and no child should go hungry, and no board of directors of a big company should be allowed to sit and make decisions as if it’s the stock market people, always buying and selling their shares, who turn out those cars and all the other things our factories produce.
“I can’t figure out how to make things more honest and fair in this country; I’m no big brain. But I’ll see some of those big brains talk on television, and I’ve seen them on the streets protesting, and a lot of them are damn fools, that’s right, and in love with hearing their own voices. They write about one scheme and then another (they get paid for doing it) and they’re against everything that they haven’t come up with themselves, and they hit you every place; they make you feel ashamed of everything in your life: your country, the schools your kids go to, the factories where you work and the things you help make, the union you belong to, the dreams you have—that your kids go to college and get good jobs.
“I notice, mind you, that the people who criticize this country most, they’re not doing so bad. They call America all kinds of names, but just look at them: they live the good life; they look pretty prosperous to me; no one’s stopping them from saying anything they want. I’d sure like to let off some steam every once in a while the way they do—and maybe pick up a few bucks for doing it, and get cheered; but no, I have to clock-in at eight, and I’m no sooner home than it’s time to eat and say good night to my kids and go to bed myself. Before I get there, though, I’ll hear on a program or I’ll read in the paper that I’m a bigot, people like me, because I’m not fair in my mind to the colored—or to youth, they’re called, not kids, or to the women and the fairies. Everyone wants liberation; that’s what you hear, liberation this and liberation that, liberation for everyone—yes, everyone except families like mine, and we’re the majority, only that Nixon is mistaken if he thinks we’re always going to be so damned silent. All we want is to get by this week and go into the next one without drowning in bills.
“Maybe all of us who just work and don’t bellyache ought to start demanding liberation for us. I mean, we could quit showing up at the factories and start calling a lot of other people names. Soon there’d be no food in the stores and nothing to buy, and the planes wouldn’t work, and the TV would stop and the newspapers, and we’d all be shut up. Then maybe we could start over again. You see injustice in this world, and you think sometimes that we should—start it all over, and make the country better, make it more like the people said it should be, the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence. I still remember some of the words in it, even now—about men being created equal; it’s a shame they’re only words.”
The longer I know this man, the more I hear him talk, the harder it is for me to call him this or that, and in so doing feel halfway responsive to the ironies and ambiguities and inconsistencies that I hear in his words and, more important, see expressed in his everyday deeds, his situation in life. He speaks at times about blacks and students and college professors with more anger and contempt than this excerpt indicates. He can be irrational, mean, narrow-minded; and he can work himself up into a spell of mixed racism and jingoism that would only please some of the very people he chooses to attack later on: the rich and powerful, the “vested interests,” an expression he learned from Harry Truman and uses over and over again.
He can also be seen working beside black men, talking easily and warmly with them, sharing food with them, offering advice to them and taking advice from them—on what kind of gas to buy, where to get a household item, a gadget, an article of clothing. One day, sometimes one minute, I hear him waving the flag frantically, or treating the struggles of all kinds of people with a nervous scorn that does nothing to reassure him about his own worries and fears. The next day, if not the next minute, he is a strong social critic, a populist, an independent-minded citizen who sees through all sorts of sham and cant and hypocrisy, as spoken and practiced by people he will often collectively refer to as “the powers that be.” A white racist, a one dimensional man, a male chauvinist, an American imperialist, an authoritarian person, he is a far cry from the noble, unblemished proletarian hero some radicals have praised to high heaven—and sought to lead.
Maybe there never was such a proletarian man, at any time in history, in any country; I have no way of knowing. I have enough trouble with my own reactions to what I observe. I become annoyed, saddened, frightened, outraged. I also feel admiration, respect, affection—and a measure of shame. Some of this man’s barbs hit home, bring me up short, and make me wonder why it has been, why it continues to be, that in my mind’s way of thinking I can’t quite do justice to the complexity of his life, let alone the “problem” that arises when someone like me spends time with him and with others more or less like him.
In a way, when I met these white American working men and their families, I was as ill-prepared to comprehend them as I was to make sense of the black people I first worked with in the South and later met up North. I had heard about them, too, from psychological and sociological theorists—about the “mark of oppression,” about the “basic Negro personality,” with all its weaknesses and failures and “disadvantages.” Yet, year after year I saw enormous strength and resiliency as well as liveliness and resourcefulness in people who were (also, it has to be immediately added) capable of being moody, tired, worn-down, and quick to express anger against themselves as well as against a white visitor and his kind.
Perhaps I should have known all along that only a certain kind of novelist or moral philosopher or social historian can do proper justice to the lives of human beings as they are lived in such flagrant disregard for the needs and insecurities and ambitions that various theory-prone social scientists or ideologues happen to have. So one belatedly turns away from one kind of social observer and searches out another: James Agee in Alabama; George Orwell in Wigan; Simone Weil among France’s workers and peasants; C. Vann Woodward trying to fathom the life of Tom Watson—only to find that for them, too, it has been hard, and sometimes impossible, to avoid one or another pitfall.
When he sat down to write up his experiences, Agee had a hard time commenting upon the darker, less generous side of the Alabama tenant farmers he grew to love so much. (In 1941 liberal intellectuals could only be moved to compassion by Agee’s words and those honest and powerful photographs of Walker Evans; yet I know from my own work in Alabama how “racist” such people can be—and no doubt in 1965 the road between Selma and Montgomery was lined by people not unlike Agee’s friends.) When George Orwell wrote about England’s coal miners he also shifted back and forth; at one moment they are fine and decent and honorable, but at other times he realizes that the grim and uncertain lives they live affect their temperaments and the way they react to others, especially strangers. Likewise Simone Weil goes back and forth, now stressing the dignity she would see expressed in the course of her work in factories near Paris and among the peasants of Bourges, now emphasizing the “workman’s woes” she encountered, and the effect they had on the spirit of the people she tried so hard to be with and feel close to.
If all three of those extraordinary social observers tried to reconcile for themselves and their readers what seemed almost irreconcilable in the people they went out of their way to meet, there is something else each of them couldn’t seem to stop doing when they wrote: scold the intellectuals. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, The Road to Wigan Pier, and The Need for Roots one can detect the following sequence: sympathy and concern for people hurt, cheated, brutalized; outrage at the society that permits and sanctions such a state of affairs—accompanied by expressions of disapproval, disrespect, or outright contempt directed at the intellectuals, toward whom Orwell can become almost violent, Agee sarcastic, and Simone Weil impatient. (In The Need for Roots she says: “A condition of any working-class culture is the mingling of what are called intellectuals—an awful name, but at present they scarcely deserve a better one—with the workers. It is difficult to make something real out of such a mingling.”)
Often I wonder whether those three somewhat tormented souls have not unwittingly used their annoyance with intellectuals as a means of acknowledging the impossibility of the task they as observers and writers have set out for themselves. True, plenty of intellectuals can be smug, condescending, narrow-minded, arrogant, cruel, noisy, self-serving, full of empty-headed postures and prejudices. But intellectuals are also an exceedingly convenient target, especially for their own kind. Maybe they are easier to take after and ridicule than those bankers and board chairmen and municipal bond lawyers turned public officials who keep their mouths shut, put very little down on paper, but pull strings to their own enormous satisfaction and profit.
The closer Agee, Orwell, and Simone Weil came to the people they wanted to understand, the more confused and outraged each of those three rather sensitive intellectuals must have felt. In no time confusion and outrage can turn to hate; and hate directed at people who are familiar or highly visible is easier than hate turned upon a whole social and economic system, and those who benefit handsomely from it. So the worker I quoted above shouts loudest at blacks when he is most angry at those “vested interests” he keeps on mentioning—and not necessarily because his “personality” is rigid or “authoritarian.” I suspect that for Agee or Orwell or Mlle. Weil a similar process took place, with the intellectuals filling in for the factory worker’s blacks—the more so because a good number of intellectuals, in contrast to the vulnerable poor of our ghettos or rural areas, actually do make up an influential and parochial and by no means impoverished “vested interest.”
In any event, I believe the fourth person I mentioned, C. Vann Woodward, once went through a bit of what the other three did; but perhaps because he was not out there in what anthropologists call “the field,” but rather at work on a political biography, the experience was less tortured and easier to put in perspective. Even so, Professor Woodward worried that he would be accused of being too sympathetic with so notorious a racist as Tom Watson turned out to be. Nor could he resist saying this: “When a liberal journal fastens upon Watson the responsibility for the sinister forces of intolerance, superstition, prejudice, religious jingoism, and mobism, it is indulging in half-truths as surely as does the veriest demagogue it denounces.”
Woodward’s Tom Watson concretely and quietly offers a shrewd and subtle examination of what we now call “white racism.” As a young man Watson demonstrated his decency, generosity, kindness; a poor and honest idealist, he struggled for years against Georgia’s railroad companies, utilities, and growing corporations, as well as their dependable allies the newspapers. He was repeatedly tricked, abused, slandered, made to realize the futility of his efforts—and eventually he certainly did give up and in despair and rage and hate turn on just about everyone. The analogy between his predicament and that of millions of ordinary working-class men and women is by no means a farfetched one. He and they might have come to be different, might at any point in their lives have changed, found new loyalties, sympathies, affiliations—if the economic and political system had asked them in a significant way to do so.
In 1960 I watched white mobs harass black children as they tried to enter previously all-white schools in New Orleans. The anger I heard, the obscenities and threats, sounded crazier than anything I’d heard when I worked in mental hospitals. When I went to psychiatric meetings I was constantly asked why, in God’s name, people do and say such things. Were they all psychotic? Did they need psychiatric “help,” perhaps some exposure to “sensitivity groups”? Yet, in 1961 Atlanta had no mobs, no violence, when the schools there desegregated—not because that city’s population has a higher degree of “mental health” (whatever that is) but because a city, a state, and the federal government had in effect decided that school desegregation had to begin—quietly and without interruption.
Historical change was taking place, and in millions of minds, in ids and egos and superegos all over the South, that development was noticed and had its effect. In 1960 I heard this from a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Louisiana branch: “Let them try putting those nigger kids in our schools. We’ll boycott them. If necessary, we’ll sacrifice our lives to defend our schools, keep them white.” In 1961 I heard this from a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Georgia branch: “It’s a bad thing, this school desegregation, but it’ll never amount to much, even if it spreads. The main work we have is to keep the white people proud of their race, and let the niggers know that some of us aren’t going to sell out to them for their votes. We are teachers, the Klan is, that’s right.” Even on the extreme borders of fanaticism and racism assumptions change, and rather more quickly than some of “us” (richer, more powerful) might grant or, for that matter, find it in ourselves to manage.
Even when such progress does take place, maybe most of us continue to be, in Dr. Kovel’s term, “metaracists”—people who, he says, “acquiesce in the larger cultural order which continues the work of racism.” A definition like that possesses a staggering inclusiveness which one takes for granted from certain evangelical ministers, but not from a physician concerned with the complexities of the human mind. There is a showy kind of pessimism that psychoanalytic social critics have always had, mingled with a strain of moralistic self-righteousness and arrogance that sets off a small “us” from millions and millions of “them.”
One wonders, anyway, whether both Dr. Kovel and Professor Marcuse don’t in countless respects join the rest of us (breadwinners and home owners) who “acquiesce in the larger cultural order,” as do twenty million blacks, six million of whom—a good deal more than belong to the NAACP, let alone the Black Panthers—are glad and proud to say that they belong to the Baptist Church. Day after day I have heard from ordinary blacks or Chicanos what they, like America’s working-class white people, have in mind: work, more money, a higher standard of living for themselves and their children.
“We want in, we want to live like other Americans, we want the good things of life for our children. Let the hippies laugh at money and good clothes. Let college students say America is no good, and our schools are no good, and we should go live in communes. I want to finish high school and be an electrician, and I’d like to live in my own house and have good furniture in it and a new car and all the rest.”
Black, poor, a serious student, the youth who practically shouted those words at me, or the white youths I know who speak in a similar vein and work in steel mills or automobile factories, deserve to be described with a vocabulary that does not dismiss them all as brainwashed dupes, but takes into consideration their ability to look into their minds analytically and examine their own society critically, even as our intellectuals claim to be able to do.
Here is the black youth just quoted doing precisely that:
“I think a lot of white people are prejudiced; but the same goes for black people. We’ll call each other racist names, and we call white people a lot of names, too. But my uncle just got a job, a construction job, and he says he’s had some good talks with the honky-whites. He says you can’t just write them off; you can’t write anyone off, not if you’re on the bottom side of the world, and you want it to change. You have to keep pushing, and it’s like my grandmother says: she’s lived to see so many changes in this country, changes she never believed would happen. The rich people, the well-off white people, they can wring their hands; it doesn’t cost them any money to do so. I can’t afford to think that way. The way I see it, there’s a lot wrong with the country, but there’s a lot right with it, and I’d like to be nice and comfortable, with a good job and plenty in the bank, then I could sit back and do my criticizing—maybe I could go to college and get paid for doing it.”
A particular element of class consciousness is to be found in much of what I hear from such youths, black or white: while they must work hard for relatively little, and keep their mouths shut, and hope to get more of what they need, others live well, call themselves “liberals” or “radicals” or whatever, come up with one idea after another, have the freedom to do so, and the time, too—even get paid for doing so. And some of those ideas, those elaborate if not overwrought theories, have about them, as they filter down to “them,” the impersonal objects of description and formulation, an air of unreality if not comic absurdity.
For instance, a former factory worker now become a union official says this:
“Look, I’m not perfect, and the men in our union aren’t. Who said we were, anyway? I’ve heard some of these radicals talk—they say the worker would be so wonderful, if it wasn’t for the capitalist system, or the kids would be so wonderful, if it wasn’t for bad parents and bad teachers, and the black people, they would be so wonderful, if it wasn’t for all the white racists. Who can swallow that stuff? People are good and bad, all of them. That’s no news, but I’ll tell you there are some people who won’t stop until they make life so complicated that it’s a miracle we’re still around and kicking, us plain, dumb, ordinary people who keep everything running while the professors write about us and call us everything—God knows what, and I wonder sometimes if He could understand some of the talk you hear these days.
“I went to a meeting last week; they called it a ‘workshop,’ and we were told that it’s ‘white racism,’ that’s the cause of all the trouble in our cities, and unless we change these ‘white racial attitudes,’ we’re going to explode, this country. They were all wringing their hands, and confessing that it’s true, it’s true, we’re no good, all of us, we’re white racists. Well, I didn’t say anything. I thought to myself: go ahead, do your confessing; go ahead, meet every week and look inside yourselves, they said they were doing.
“Sure, the Kerner Commission Report they read to us from was right; sure there’s been racism in this country since it was founded. But the slaves weren’t brought over here because white racists wanted them nearby to shout at, and the colored weren’t kept on those plantations for that reason, and they’re not sweeping floors and working in kitchens or any other place for that reason. They were labor, labor when they were brought over here, and they are labor now—a pool of cheap labor, and that’s what the big boys who own plantations or corporations (or a big house they need kept clean) have always wanted: plenty of people desperate enough to do mean, tough, unpleasant work for cheap wages, or no wages at all.
“The more I hear people shout at me and my men, and call us “white racists,’ the more I realize that the people who shout the loudest know us the least—but you can be sure of this, they get paid plenty for writing, and telling the Kerner people our ‘racial attitudes’ are the ‘basic cause.’ The people who call me a ‘white racist’ are bragging, they’re saying that they’re the best people, they’ve looked into their souls, and changed their personalities, and got rid of their ‘white racism,’ and they’re no longer bigots and all that, and taken in by the ‘false values,’ they call them, of this country. Of course these professors come here from all over the world to live; you bet they do—where else can they sound off as much as they want, and say all they do, and get a lot of money for doing it, and have a flock of those half-witted, gullible students rushing after them, one after the other, and calling them God?
“I’d sure as hell like to let off steam about a lot of things, and so would my men; but people like us are keeping the electric company going, and the gas company, and the telephone company, and the production lines—we’re too busy trying to earn enough not to go broke, so we just have to live with our ‘racism’ and all the rest. But you go look for yourself: you’ll see my men, black and white, doing their job. I wonder how much time these people that write all these things about us spend with black people—or with anyone except themselves. We’re supposed to say yes to what they say about us—but just let us say a word or two about them, and we’re called ignorant and pigs and racists and all the rest.”
I suppose some of his anger and resentment is bound to rub off—another reason perhaps for the “defensiveness” or “anti-intellectualism” in the writings of Agee and Orwell. On the other hand, we have a right to expect from the well-to-do intellectuals who write about subjects like “the authoritarian personality” and “white racism” (for the government, foundations, or editors) a measure of concreteness and common sense, not to mention some evidence that what is handed down as virtual law has somehow been tried out in the world “out there”—tested against the social, political, and economic realities and, yes, the psychological ones, too, which the overwhelming majority of people live out rather than try to fit into theories or prophesies.
I have no wish to say that many of the factory workers I have come to know these recent years are not (in varying degrees and at particular moments) “white racists,” and many other “bad” things, too. I suppose I have enough firsthand data to justify utter despair—the conviction that we are headed for the rubbish heap of history. Still, there are about us the examples of Cesar Chavez and Andrew Young, John Lewis and Ralph Nader, Dorothy Day and Saul Alinsky, and dozens of white and black political organizers I have been privileged to know this past decade—I think of Bob Zellner, once of SNCC and now in Louisiana and Mississippi trying to be of service to poor and working-class whites, and of Jim Branscome fighting the strip miners and big coal and oil interests through Save Our Kentucky, or of Charles Sherrod among rural Georgia’s blacks.
A while back Julian Bond refused to be satisfied with a label like “white racist” even when applied to an obvious one, Lester Maddox. Mr. Bond took pains to emphasize that Maddox’s struggles as a youth with bitter poverty require us to look at the Georgia Power Company, at the owners of textile mills, at the way the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia are run—by whom, for whom, at whose over-all expense. Quaint, those American populists—and infinitely shrewd about politics, economics, and, just as well, matters of the mind and heart.
None of the people I have just mentioned as sources of hope and promise has any new or ingenious answers for us; some of them are proud to say that they have never written a word, let alone constructed a theory or written a book, and some have written tentatively, yet also with a tough insistence, that there are all sorts of things that can be done and that they themselves are every day trying to do. And they know that they are exceptional, often isolated, figures, up against more cynical and powerful leaders who long ago were willing to manipulate and sell out the working people who counted on them.
It may be that never in our lifetime or in anybody’s lifetime will Americans rid themselves of “white racism” or “metaracism,” stop being “one dimensional” and instead become two or three dimensional, shed themselves of the “authoritarianism” (and God knows what else) that lurks in their dreams and fantasies. But perhaps we can, many of us, black and white, intellectuals and workers, fight hard and politically so that children are well fed, so that their parents can find work and get good pay for that work—and most important, in the words a young welder once directed at me, so that “the working people of this country have more and more say about what goes on in this country.” A Southerner, the man’s father belonged to the Klan:
Once my daddy when he was old, and just before he died, told me this: he said that if our country had been a better one, he’d have had a good job and lived a better life, and not been pushed around all the time and had the money from his crops go to big landowners and the banks, and then he’d have been a better person.
The poor, depressed, benighted, selfpitying, white racist old father could have done worse as a psychiatrist, a political scientist, or a social theorist.
December 30, 1971