Commentary Magazine


“My Negro Problem”—III

To the Editor:

Whatever my disagreement with Norman Podhoretz’s article “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” I believe that COMMENTARY is to be commended for publishing it and thereby helping to open up areas for discussion that have been closed too long.

Like Mr. Podhoretz’s ideas or not, approve them or dispute them, subject him and his article to the analyst’s couch, the important thing is not the way he rationalizes his experiences or the conclusions he comes to, but the fact that he brings into the open emotionally based prejudices that exist despite intellectual convictions. All people have emotional reactions often hidden and often inconsistent with their verbalizations. Is it possible that we shall ever attain full and satisfying integration without acknowledging—not accepting—them?

This would seem to be the point of this article and I regret that Mr. Podhoretz instead of writing simply of his own personal experiences proceeded to draw from them highly questionable generalizations and by such intellectualization to obscure the validity of this point.

I regret even more profoundly some of the attacks upon Mr. Podhoretz and COMMENTARY for publishing the article. I understand passionate conviction and deep loyalties, but when righteous indignation veers on demagogy it must be deplored. I refer particularly to those who assail Mr. Podhoretz for questioning whether Jewish survival was worth six million innocent lives. A man can be committed to the survival of the Jewish community yet ask the question that Job asks: Is it worth it at such a price? (Incidentally, a question that was never asked of 6,000,000 victims.) High moral rhetoric will not answer the very real problem the article poses. Nor will silence eliminate discrimination and prejudice. . . .

By writing the article, Mr. Podhoretz has afforded us not only the opportunity to evaluate his attitudes critically, but the even greater opportunity of questioning ourselves and the contradictions that may exist between our own utterances and actions. Such self-exploration could be extremely productive. It might even help us to understand why discrimination, however subtle, is practiced today by so many articulate defenders of integration.

Joseph Willen
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

In the dark all cats are gray. So now in the light should all cats be white? You are saying the only hope for a Negro is to become white. It is cruel and insulting to wish a black man white. Think of pale hordes who risk skin cancer and other afflictions to achieve the “stigma” you would wish out of existence. Wish instead, Mr. Podhoretz, that the black man accept with delight the irony of having no choice.

(Mrs.) Zöe R. Sherwood
Poughkeepsie, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . Mr. Podhoretz’s experience would seem to be neither very exceptional nor profitable—to himself or to others. It reveals nothing new about the “love” or “hate” content of the racial nightmare except perhaps that the use of these emotive words can only confuse and obfuscate any reasoned attempt to “solve” the black-white problem.

I was born in a small upstate New York town, and on the right side of the railroad tracks. That did not save me from being beaten up regularly on my way to school by a bigger Negro boy who finally solved my Negro problem for me by teaching me how to win by not fighting fair. Twenty-five years later my son, who had organized the first-graders in defense of the Scottsboro boys (he believed that they were first-graders, too) was similarly educated and emancipated by an equally tough and unscrupulous Negro roughneck in the school yard of the Newton, New Jersey high school.

Neither of us hates Negroes as a result of these experiences, nor thinks that as a race they are congenitally dirty fighters. But neither do we love them, nor they us, although we both continue to aid the struggle for equal Negro rights. I don’t love any of the many Negro leaders I have worked with, although it has been my good fortune to like and be liked by most of them.

Again, neither love nor hate will serve to exorcise the racial nightmare, whereas reason and good will can do, have done, a great deal, even in dealing with hate phenomena like the Black Muslims. The latter are unlikely to determine the future of black-white relations, precisely because they base themselves on the Hitlerian mystique of inter-racial “hatred.”

. . . Negroes can fight for the right to be full citizens and whites can help or hinder them, preferably without the emotional complications of love or hatred. The dirtiness, the violence of that fight then becomes largely a matter of tactics, a clear, cold word which can be reasonably argued about.

James Rorty
Columbia, New Jersey

_____________

 

To the Editor:

The article by Norman Podhoretz deserves no less than all the acclaim it has aroused. How wonderful it is that via this article we can “speak from the heart.” The only hope for moving out of darkness is to bring light to the dark places within us. Congratulations.

(Rabbi) Bernard Kligfeld
Long Beach, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz’s article . . . is probably the most honest, straightforward personal examination of the roots of hate and prejudice that I have ever seen. He puts the psychological realities into perspective by juxtaposing them with his own personal experience. He substitutes truth for glibness, honesty for cant, and his soul for the illogical logic of rationalization. And he is right about the solution; the only way to destroy a barrier is indeed to destroy it. This is a classic essay which will have poignant meaning for generations to come.

(Dr.) Harry Levinson
Topeka, Kansas

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . Whatever may be true of Mr. Podhoretz’s problem, our Negro problem, so called, is one of justice and injustice, to gain for Negroes in law and practice truly equal rights. This has nothing to do with likes or personal feelings. . . .

I have worked for equal rights for Negroes all my life. When I am asked if I like Negroes I answer “No.” I add, of course, that I don’t like whites either. I like some Negroes and some whites, but it never occurs to me to put my efforts at racial justice on the basis of personal likes and dislikes. Would members of the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, put their efforts on the basis of whether they like Communists or members of the John Birch Society?

Alfred Baker Lewis
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I was enormously impressed by “My Negro Problem—And Ours.” It is the first time that I have seen an article by a white person that was frank, open, and expressed the concern and upset within the mind of a liberal. I think the tremendous sensitivity that Mr. Podhoretz shows and his analysis of the problem will prove of great value to people working in the field of human relations. . . .

O. Bernard Leibman
Queens College Flushing, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Mr. Podhoretz deserves much credit for having the courage to be blunt and honest. His insight into the mechanism of prejudice that it is “a two way street” should add to our understanding of the issue. That envy as an emotion may take hold of the privileged is a truth often ignored. This is coming to the surface in the relief welfare issue. Also his remarks about the white middle-class liberals are painfully true. . . . And finally, it was refreshing to find an absence of the usual phrases that were applicable in the 19th century. The status of the Negro is changing from day to day. This is news to our sociologists.

The Utopian solution Mr. Podhoretz suggests is not going to do us or our children much good. I do not have a better one. What troubles me in the confrontation is that the values and standards of our culture are being further diluted. This is happening, first, because our Jewish intellectuals are not grounded in our own heritage. And, secondly, the Negro leadership is politically oriented for short-term integration rather than cultural elevation and assimilation. Were they to emphasize the latter course it would not eliminate prejudice but would lift a cloud from our cultural and economic horizon.

Concerning Jewish survival Mr. Podhoretz says that there was “a memory of past glory.” However, in the beginning there was slavery, as we proclaim on Passover night. It is the glory that followed a period of slavery that is unique and might serve as an inspiration to the Negro people.

(Dr.) Menahem Steinberg
Chicago, Illinois

_____________

 

To the Editor:

To my mind, Mr. Podhoretz’s article is a beautiful explication of what has been for too long lethargically taken for granted or left unsaid, if not avoided. My thanks for his insight and honesty and courage. . . .

Jon Aaronson
Civil Rights Club
Harpur College
Binghamton, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

The intellectual agony, the personal courage, and the moral integrity evidenced in the article by Norman Podhoretz in your February edition have rarely been witnessed by this reader anywhere in the annals of American opinion and journalism. The will and the capability to show that popular panaceas may not be panaceas at all, and that our social problems may in fact have no solutions—all of this runs wholly contrary to the purposive optimism of American liberalism. But Mr. Podhoretz, a distinguished editor whose own credentials as a liberal are not subject to question, has not hesitated to take a look without the rose-colored glasses at a critical American problem. . . .

In one respect, however, the situation may not be so dark as Mr. Podhoretz reports, although in a more comprehensive sense it may be even darker. . . . From my own years in the South I think it accurate to report that in that region hatred is not the essence of racial differences. On the contrary, the typical white Southerner characteristically feels a form of love for Negroes, whom he has known long and well, but it is similar to the love that an adult feels for a small child. . . . The Southern white loves the Negro but feels that he is in some way inherently inferior and thus is not qualified to join white society on unrestricted terms. The analogy is not perfect, of course, because the adult expects that the child eventually will grow up whereas the Southern white characteristically questions whether the Negro will ever develop sufficiently to be fit for unlimited access to white society. Yet, the analogy holds even here, to some extent. . . . The hope in this situation is that once the Negro has forcefully persuaded his white Southern neighbor that he is not an inferior subhuman creature, something approximating the old love relationship will reassert itself just as it does between parent and child after the child himself has attained adulthood. . . .

The aspect of the situation which is perhaps far more somber than even Mr. Podhoretz suggested is to be discerned by taking a longer historical perspective. In virtually all societies of which we have any record there are patterns of discrimination no less odious than those which we now discern in our own society. Whether the substance of the discrimination be founded on racial distinctions, other visible physical differentiations, economic differences or whatever, it is apparently true that peoples everywhere have felt a need to regard themselves as inherently superior to some other peoples. . . . The conclusion is that even if we followed Mr. Podhoretz’s prescription of intermarriage, and even if this eventually resulted in only a single worldwide racial type, people would presumably still find grounds on which to regard other people as inferior and thus to be discriminated against.

If there is a bright spot in this otherwise somber conclusion, at least with respect to America, it may be found in a continuing commitment to democratic values and a continuing effort to improve the practice of those values. Even hatred, fortunately, is an emotion which is not necessarily incompatible with democratic procedures, as long as the hatred is weaker than the commitment to these procedures. . . .

Vincent Davis
Department of International Relations
University of Denver
Denver, Colorado

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Mr. Podhoretz’s article seemed to me to speak out honestly and clearly on an important part of the problem of racial conflicts and misunderstandings. I plan to use this article in a workshop discussion program of which I am chairman, because it so definitely reveals the individual and personal problems, and avoids the generalization and the stereotype. . . .

I am grateful that he had the courage to express his thoughts where restraint has so often been suggested as the safer course. I hope this action leads to a more meaningful approach to our whole intergroup problem in these United States.

David Aronson
Upper Montclair, New Jersey

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I suspect that the Negro problem of Mr. Podhoretz (and ours) is really one of weariness. One senses a feeling of exhaustion and frustration among Negro leaders, who—at least in the courts and official sympathy—keep winning and winning, at what must be a fearful emotional cost, and yet have won so little compared to what must eventually be won. Historically, many great social and political upheavals have been preceded by corrective improvements. There is no denying that the status of Negroes has improved in every respect. The difficulty is, simply, that having a glimpse of what life can and should be like for them, Negroes (understandably) have lost the power to move gradually and prefer “deliberate speed.”

Some great issues are never resolved. They may be modified or cease to matter. . . . To imply—as does Mr. Podhoretz—that we must now all face and resolve our individual ambivalences is to shirk the questions of the day. . . . The struggle to assist Negroes, in one way or another, to achieve more or less equal minority status is the only viable one. Any redirection in emphasis, however prophetic, may prove to be a luxury pursued at the cost of all the gains so far achieved. The question is obviously not that of equal minority status or miscegenation. The former is enough to think about and the continued struggle for it can be relied upon to produce its share of unanticipated, related agonies without musing on hypothetical issues which are best left to a future and, hopefully, more enlightened and less scarred generation. . . .

Lloyd Kaye
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

If Mr. Podhoretz had spelled out his basic outlook in “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” his conclusions would have been less shocking than dull. His social ideal is a monolithic national culture achieved by a thoroughgoing assimilation. . . . This is but one step short of cosmopolitanism. To solve the Negro problem the Marxist cosmopolite proposes the classless society. Mr. Podhoretz recommends a monochromatic nation. . . .

The situation of the American Negro is that he is black in a predominantly white and hostile society. His background, neglected by the history books, is one in which he can take at least a little pride. And, if need be, he can weave a concept of “négritude” which includes Mr. Podhoretz’s contributions of physical grace and vitality. The authentic Negro, like the authentic Jew, does not seek to disappear. They both rest their hopes on integration in a genuinely pluralist society, where the overwhelming majority will regard their neighbors’ differences with equanimity, with understanding, and with approval.

Nathan Learner
Quincy, Massachusetts

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz’s solution of the Negro question—and the Jewish, it would seem—has all the weaknesses of utopianism. Before miscegenation can be seriously encouraged, a revolution in values must take place. Otherwise, like so much in utopianism, it is cruel, not at all humane. And to encourage—I should say sacrifice—one’s own child is a kind of sublimated infanticide, with the right mixture of pleasure and pain for the parent. I would find Mr. Podhoretz more persuasive, incidentally, if he would lead the way. All this does not mean that Southerners are right in saying that before we propose integration we had better see that its logic leads to the question: “Would you want your sister to marry a Negro?” Certainly disturbing, the question may be easier to answer than we think. Like Mr. Podhoretz’s proposal, the question is raised in a social vacuum. Only when miscegenation is normal will the question really pertain to actuality ; and then it will no longer have any force or meaning. . . .

Isadore Traschen
Troy, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

What a fine—yes, great—article that was on your/our Negro problem. Mr. Podhoretz is doing for the conscience and unconscious of “our persuasion” what Baldwin has been doing for his.

Gerald Walker
Past President
Society of Magazine Writers
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Mr. Podhoretz has written of the relationship between the white man and the Negro with deep sensitivity and unusual candor. . . . The cathartic effects of such candid soul-searching can serve to contribute a measure of progress in the troubled sphere of race relations. . . .

In spite of this, however, I feel moved to register a sense of uneasiness which the article has provoked in me. True, Mr. Podhoretz has honestly exposed a cancer, an operation which no doubt caused him, as well as many of his readers, considerable pain. But after so skillfully cutting through to the root of the trouble, having sighted it, he abruptly drops his instruments, as it were, and gives in to a terrible paralysis of movement, or at best a strong desire to escape from the scene of the operation. For in his concluding paragraphs. . . . Mr. Podhoretz has . . . called for total assimilation, for the disappearance of color differences through intermarriage. He has also invoked the terrible fate of six million innocent Jews—victims of German massacres—as an example of what awaits a group which insists on survival as a distinct entity; and he has questioned whether the centuries-long effort at perseverance was worth such a horrible price. . . . Without presuming to be “God himself” I would suggest to Mr. Podhoretz that survival, on a group level no less than on an individual one, can be a basic desire, and need hardly be justified. The sacrifice of so many lives toward that end is justification enough. . . .

Menahem Dunsky
Montreal, Canada

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Mr. Podhoretz has made a moving confession of his early experience with Negroes but he went over the cliff when he said that in the culture of the streets when we were kids, there was an irreconcilable difference between us whites and the Negroes. I contend that not as many as he thinks shared his social trauma.

I grew up in the Harlem of the 1920′s, and in my 7th Avenue Arrow A.C. there were Negroes and Spaniards as well as Jews. Our loyalty was to 7th Avenue, not to our color or religion. If I feared and hated any group it was the Irish of 8th Avenue. . . .

In my non-liberal Orthodox Jewish home, I would have been sharply scolded had I expressed any Jim Crow sentiments. . . . There was prejudice in my youth but it was against the goyim. It came from religious-survival motives having to do with intermarriage and from the bad dreams of pogroms. It came from an American Christian world which ignored us and tried to keep us in our place. . . .

I recall these fragments of the past to oppose them to Mr. Podhoretz’s memories and to remind him and Mr. Baldwin, whose article in the New Yorker he refers to, that they have forgotten the lessons of the Jewish drama in America. . . .

Mr. Baldwin . . . says the Negro is sick and tired of the sin of gradualism. But gradualism is a sin only when history is permitted to move at the speed set for it by the majority culture. We Jews have forced history to move faster. Not by assimilating, but by becoming more Jewish; by accepting our identity, not our place; by learning who we were and who we are and letting America know it. Indeed, that is what Mr. Baldwin has so successfully done as a Negro.

There is a failure of communication here. But the fault is the Negro’s as well as ours. He has only begun to tell us who he is, where he came from, what he wants. Equal rights are fine, but equal rights for whom? Why aren’t there courses in Negro history in our schools? White bias is only half the reason: Negro weakness of will is also responsible.

Assimilation is as bad as extreme nationalism. . . . Mr. Podhoretz has a theory which, if pursued, would deprive the American of African descent and the American of other descents of the growth inherent in the marriage of cultures, not necessarily of blood. . . .

Michael Blankfort
Los Angeles, California

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I would like to add my voice to what I am sure is the outcry raised by Norman Podhoretz’s article. I can readily understand why Mr. Podhoretz thought of the child he was when he read Mr. Baldwin’s piece; Mr. Baldwin’s evident and fierce honesty tempts us all to emulation. All the same, there is a radical difference between Mr. Baldwin’s “Letter” and Mr. Podhoretz’s “Problem”: Mr. Baldwin’s piece is interesting in itself, Mr. Podhoretz’s only as a memoir. . . .

Baldwin’s solution seems to me wrong, but his right to express that solution undeniable. Podhoretz’s solution, evidently an official recognition of the miscegenation practiced in this country since Negroes were first brought here, seems simple enough and satisfactory. What’s wrong, then, with his “Problem”?

In the first place, it is a pseudo-problem. Mr. Podhoretz’s Negro problem is his, rather than ours. His solution, furthermore, is inadequate. Assimilation is not a substitute for social pluralism. Also, it smacks of the conformity we all think we deplore, and suggests that the only way to protect ourselves from one another is to hide in one another. In this connection, let me answer Mr. Podhoretz to say that . . . the ovens of Auschwitz did not discriminate between assimilated and non-assimilated Jews, did not even insist upon consuming only Jewish bodies. Auschwitz was a terrible but inadequate attempt to solve the problem of minorities, in the crudest and most desperate way. White solutions to what white men choose to call “the Negro problem” have not yet reached that degree of crudity and desperation, but the nature of white exploitation of the Negro is obvious. . . .

My other objection to Mr. Podhoretz’s article is the standard liberal objection, at which lately we have been learning to sneer. Whites have simply lost the franchise to express hatred of the Negro. We have, one way or another, hated the Negro long enough; even if we have not individually hated the Negro, we have behaved as if we did. Our job is certainly to understand our feelings about Negroes, as Mr. Podhoretz has earnestly tried to do; but we are no longer free to luxuriate in them. . . . There may come a time—soon, I hope—when Mr. Baldwin will lose his franchise to express Negro hatred of the whites, or when the social situation is so changed that private feelings, even of James Baldwin, are irrelevant and unimportant. . . .

R. L. Colie
Department of History
Wesleyan University
Middletown, Connecticut

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I do hope Norman Podhoretz feels better now. If public confession in a compote of sociology, psychology, and philosophy doesn’t help, what will?

Oddly enough, I know of a Jew (me) who didn’t suffer the emotional and practical disadvantage of growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood. I didn’t grow up thinking all Jews were rich either. . . .

Where I lived there were none other than Jewish boys to chase me home and beat me up. I never won a medal for track (which is why I was so consistently caught, I guess), but a kid named Goldstein did once shake me down for six marbles.

So there I was, a victim of Jewish cruelty. Some of those cruel Jewish boys were also pretty fast with carefree Jewish girls and aroused erotic notions within me. Some skipped school, too, and didn’t wear scratchy coats and earmuffs in winter. . . . I don’t mean to brag, but I’m sure I logged as many childhood hours cowering as did Mr. Podhoretz.

Mr. Podhoretz has come to the conclusion that the genuine, lasting answer to the Negro problem is (I’m not gutsy enough to use the brave word he did) assimilation. I hear tell some Jews have considered that road as their solution, too. But I do wonder if the Negroes are prepared to wait that long. I suspect many Jews aren’t. . . .

Mr. Podhoretz is concerned that the integrated Negro of tomorrow may run aground on empty, middle-class values. If I were a Negro I would say that is my problem, not his. . . .

I’m going to go way out on a limb and guess that Mr. Podhoretz’s traumas notwithstanding, millions of American Negroes are going to continue to press forward for equality—in jobs, in schools, in neighborhoods, in unions, in every place and everything. No one, least of all Mr. Podhoretz, has suggested anything better for them to do. And when that equality is achieved no one is going to be more surprised than Mr. Podhoretz, for then he will understand what Negroes have been after all this time. . . .

Gene Brook
Huntington Woods, Michigan

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . Norman Podhoretz’s piece will, I think, give rise to much bitter laughter since it fails in so many ways as a solution (even as an examination) of one of our sorest problems. It fails, I believe, because: (1) it offers only an account of an experience strictly limited in time and space; (2) it does not take into account the hundred or so years of harsh white supremacy that resulted in the Negro viewing all whites—Jew and gentile—as his omnipresent nemesis; and (3) it overlooks the value of a pluralistic society, seeing, instead, the only solution as lying in intermarriage. . . .

Elliott Gross
Monsey, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

After reading and re-reading “My Negro Problem—And Ours” I am convinced that this essay too will serve as a landmark in the social essay along with Baldwin’s. I was very moved by Norman Podhoretz’s piece. And not simply intellectually. . . .

Why envy the Negro his grace, his physical skills? Why not ask what it is that prevents grace and physical skill from becoming a general property of the young? Mr. Podhoretz speaks of middle-class, white respectability—what does this mean but being cut off from the labor process, the work process, the creative process, as such? The solution is thus not the direct liquidation of the color line, through the liquidation of color; but rather through a greater physical connectedness of the whites; and a greater intellective connectedness of the blacks. . . .

Irving Louis Horowitz
Chairman
Department of Sociology
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Geneva, New York

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.