Commentary Magazine


Liberalism & the Negro: A Round-Table Discussion

This is the third round-table discussion COMMENTARY has held in recent years on vital questions of the day. Like the first (“Western Values and Total War,” October 1961) and the second (“America and the World Revolution,” October 1963), the present discussion was wholly spontaneous, lasted for three hours, and took place before an invited audience which was given an opportunity to participate during the last hour. What follows is an edited transcript of the entire proceedings.

_____________

 

Norman Podhoretz:

I think it may be fair to say that American liberals are by now divided into two schools of thought on what is often called the Negro problem—though it probably would be better to use the term that Professor Myrdal used as the title of his famous book, and to speak not of a Negro problem but of an American dilemma. On the one side, we have those liberals whose ultimate perspective on race relations (as David Danzig puts it1) envisages the gradual absorption of deserving Negroes one by one into white society. At its most extreme, this position has sometimes looked forward to an eventual merging of the two races, though of course that possibility has rarely been discussed in public among liberals—and for very good reason, as I am here to testify. Over the past two or three years, however, a new school of liberal (or perhaps it should be called radical) thought has been developing which is based on the premise—to quote Danzig again—that “the rights and privileges of an individual rest upon the status attained by the group to which he belongs.” From this premise certain points follow that are apparently proving repugnant to the traditional liberal mentality (if one can judge by New York Times editorials and the statements of presumably liberal politicians like Governor Rockefeller and the late President Kennedy). For the traditional liberal mentality conceives of society as being made up not of competing economic classes and ethnic groups, but rather of competing individuals who confront a neutral body of law and a neutral institutional complex. At any rate, the newer school of liberal thought on race relations maintains that the Negro community as a whole has been crippled by three hundred years of slavery and persecution and that the simple removal of legal and other barriers to the advancement of individual Negroes can therefore only result in what is derisively called “tokenism.” This school of thought insists that radical measures are now needed to overcome the Negro’s inherited disabilities. Whitney Young of the National Urban League, for example, has recently spoken of a domestic Marshall Plan, a crash program which he says need last only ten years, in order to bring the Negro community up to a point where it can begin to compete on equal terms with the white world. Other Negro leaders have similarly talked about 10 per cent quotas in hiring, housing, and so on. Negroes, they say, ought to be represented in all areas of American life according to their proportion in the population, and where they are not so represented, one is entitled to draw an inference of discrimination. The slogan “preferential treatment for Negroes” is the most controversial one that has so far come up in this discussion. To get some notion of how controversial this particular idea is, we need only remind ourselves of how roughly Stanley Lowell, chairman of the Mayor’s Human Rights Commission in New York, was attacked when he recently advocated the adoption of such a policy.

There is, then, a conflict within the liberal community on the question of race relations; that much seems obvious. And the conflict is exacerbated by certain economic considerations that Professor Myrdal, in particular, speaks of in his new book, Challenge to Affluence. Given our sluggish rate of economic growth, can enough jobs be created to satisfy the demands and aspirations of the Negro community even if formal discrimination is eliminated altogether? In other words, it may be that the problem of unemployment is the crucial one, and not the problem of segregation. But that’s something I hope we’ll get into later. What we want to take up first is the question of whether the conflict I have been trying to describe will lead—as some people deeply fear that it will, or indeed already has—to a widening split between the Negro movement and the white liberal community, and whether and how this split might be adjudicated, both in principle and in practice. Mr. Hook, while you may not be an expert on race relations, you are most certainly an expert on the principles of liberalism, and so I think I’ll ask you to start.

_____________

 

Sidney Hook:

Well, let me begin by referring to an experience I had thirty years ago, when I was on the executive committee of the American Workers Party, which was certainly dedicated to the proposition that society consists of competing economic groups. We had sent our organizers to the South, and one night, at a meeting of our executive committee, the organizer from Texas appeared. He had succeeded in organizing councils of unemployed workers among the whites and Negroes, and the question then developed as to how and under what circumstances to arrange the first meeting. It turned out that the white members had refused to come to a meeting unless the seating were segregated, and our organizer was now reporting back to us for instructions. Now, all of us were liberals, all of us were socialists—indeed left-wing socialists—and we were faced with a dilemma, because if we insisted upon banning segregated seating at that meeting, there would be no organization and no possibility of getting the reforms we were working for. Well, the decision was made to have the first meeting, at least, segregated—in the hope that when these unemployed workers got together, they would, in recognition of their common interests and common struggle, abandon segregated seating in the future. It didn’t work out that way because there was no future: the opposition to any kind of council of the unemployed, segregated or desegregated, was too strong. I cite this story to illustrate the fact that a conflict of principles can arise whether you take the traditional, liberal-individualistic point of view or the social group-conflict point of view.

To me, the case against discrimination rests fundamentally on ethical premises. The justification of formal rules of equality lies in the hope that such rules will further both the economic and the ethical equality of human beings—and I define this ethical equality as an equality of concern on the part of the community for each individual within it to develop his capacities to their greatest reach, for each individual to become a fully developed person. From this perspective, I do not see any conflict with the traditional principles of liberalism, as I understand them, in the idea of a temporary crash program to improve the position of the Negro community.

Let us imagine that an earthquake or some other disaster has taken place in a neighboring city followed by an influx of the population from that region to ours. I think it would be perfectly compatible with our commitment to democracy to make special provision for the people involved—individuals who had been disadvantaged, who had suffered more than members of our own community—so long as the provision were temporary. There might be some relative injustice to some other individuals in our community who were also in need, but any moral order of priority would have to recognize the greater need. We have done comparable things in the past. In the 30’s, there was an influx of refugees from Germany to the United States. Very often these immigrants were given vocational opportunities that others in the community may have been just as qualified to fill. But no one thought it was unjust to provide special opportunities for them, because their need was more urgent, sometimes desperate.

The other day I read that James Farmer had proposed a program to the President involving vast measures of remedial educational enrichment for deprived children. Now to be sure, those who would profit most by a program of this kind would be Negro children. It isn’t because they are Negro children that we ought to support this program; it’s because they are deprived children. They have been disadvantaged more than other children, their need is greater, and therefore they are morally entitled to special treatment. This is how we can achieve the level of ethical equality I was talking about a minute ago. I draw the line only where I think a respect for the personality of Negroes requires that it be drawn. It is well known that in some institutions like the Bronx High School of Science, and in certain other special schools for the gifted, the number of Negro students in relation to the school population is small. Some of my friends have argued that in order to establish a proper balance, in order to provide equal educational opportunity for the Negro student, he should be given a special status in those schools—which means that standards should be lowered or waived altogether; otherwise, the argument runs, it would take too long for the imbalance to right itself. This seems to me to be objectionable on many grounds. I consider a program which would lower the standards of achievement for Negroes as tantamount to regarding them as second-class citizens. We have a moral responsibility to provide the educational opportunities that Negroes need to achieve the full measure of their own potential. But to say to the Negro in a spirit of patronizing friendliness, “Well, if you can’t make the grade we set for the whites, we’ll lower it for you,” is an expression—perhaps an unconscious expression—of the kind of chauvinistic attitude which in the past all genuine liberals have deplored. Negroes have just as much right, for example, to be treated by adequately trained physicians as whites. Under present conditions, unfortunately, this depends upon there being many more Negro physicians in practice. And although it may take time for a sufficient number of Negro physicians to be trained—unhappily there are not many more today than there were twenty or thirty years ago—the measures required to counteract that situation do not entail a lowering of professional and intellectual standards. What is needed is a program to create greater educational opportunities for those now deprived, and to mobilize the nation’s resources at the most strategic points toward that end.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

Mr. Baldwin, you’ve had some unkind words to say about liberals, if I remember rightly. Do you still want to say them? How does the situation look lo you—especially in terms of what Mr. Hook has just said?

_____________

 

James Baldwin:

I don’t want to sound—as I’m told so often I do sound—bitter or disaffected, but I do think that there’s a very real problem in talking, as Mr. Hook was just doing, about ethical considerations in a society which is essentially not ethical. I might be perfectly willing to be one of the first Negroes to be accepted either here or there; I might even be perfectly willing to wait ten years or a generation to be fitted into American civilization, or American society, if I really felt that one could be fitted into it as it now is, as it’s now constituted. But to my mind, you see, before one can really talk about the Negro problem in this country, one has got to talk about the white people’s problem. The German refugees that Mr. Hook mentioned and all the other immigrants who have come to these shores and who have gotten or not gotten preferential treatment were nevertheless looked on by the bulk of the American community as white people, and they never served—at least not in the memory of any man living—the same function that. American Negroes have served. I don’t think we can discuss this properly unless we begin at the beginning. And the beginning is that Negroes were a source of cheap labor and everything white people did thereafter in relation to Negroes was a way of justifying this. I think it can be said, and I think that most liberals would finally have to agree, that the presence of the Negro here is precisely what has allowed white people to say they were free; and it is what has allowed them to assume they were rich. There is a sense in which one can say that the history of this country was built on my back. I don’t mean that other people didn’t pay for it too, but I do mean that the economy would be very different today if I hadn’t built the railroads for nothing, if I hadn’t picked the cotton for nothing—if, in fact, my role weren’t to keep on doing all that, in effect, for nothing. After all, part of the reason there is a battle going on in the Deep South (to leave it only there for the moment) is that as the Negro starts voting and becomes economically free, the power of the Southern oligarchy will obviously be broken and the South is apt to become a very different place. And if the South becomes a different place, so will the rest of the nation.

Now, to get back to preferential treatment and ethics and morality: from a certain point of view, it doesn’t matter whether you send Negro kids to the Bronx High School of Science or to any other school, indeed; and it doesn’t matter what you teach them about ethics and morality there. Because those kids don’t live in school, they go home. I went to DeWitt Clinton High in New York; I wasn’t a bad student; and I got along very well with my playmates and all that jazz. Nevertheless, when the school day was over, I went back into a condition which they could not imagine; and I knew, no matter what anybody said, that the future I faced was not the future they faced. So inevitably, as graduation time approached, what had looked like a friendship broke up and we went our different ways—because the forces of our society drove us in different ways. Clearly, in terms of the American mythology and in terms of any realistic assessment of my future, I was going to be a porter, and they were not.

What I am trying to say is that you can’t hope to invest a child with a morality in school which is going to be destroyed in the streets of Harlem—and every Negro in America lives in one or another version of Harlem. Until we can deal with the question of why Negroes are kept in ghettos and why white men move out when Negroes move in; until we can deal with the question of why precisely in a free country we allow the South to dictate to the federal government; until we face our responsibilities as citizens of this country quite apart from the Negro problem, I don’t see that we can begin to talk about the Negro problem with any hope of clarity.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

Mr. Glazer, as a sociologist who has studied what is called in the trade the acculturation of immigrant groups, do you agree with Mr. Baldwin that this whole problem begins with cheap labor?

_____________

 

Nathan Glazer:

I’ll get to that point eventually, I suppose, but I’d rather talk about liberalism first, because I see a number of very serious problems in connection with that word. Liberalism assumes the existence of certain mechanisms for the solution of problems: it assumes reasonableness; it assumes also a kind of good will; it assumes an acceptance of the principle of the fundamental equality of all men. But none of these assumptions applies in the South. Let me read you a newspaper clipping I’ve brought with me: “A group of housewives in Jackson, Mississippi charged in a bitter hearing today that their children are being subjected to brainwashing by textbooks that teach them that prejudice is wrong. The women also contended that the school books introduce pleas for world government, and try to further a belief in the brotherhood of all people.”

Now this seems to me a real challenge to the American Creed—to use a term that Dr. Myrdal made famous—and it raises a question similar to the one that the appearance of Nazism in Germany raised for liberalism in the 1920’s, or for that matter that the Southern defense of slavery raised for this country in the 1850’s. What does liberalism do or say in the face of what seems to be a mass commitment to evil, or at least to a point of view that doesn’t enforce on those who hold it an obligation to work toward any improvement?

Having mentioned the worst problem, I would now like to speak about the big cities of the North, which seem to be the major context for our discussion here. Unfortunately what happens in the big cities of the North is colored by the fact that they’re part of the same country as Mississippi and Alabama. Maybe it would have been better if we hadn’t fought the Civil War at all, and could now take the same attitude to the South as we do to South Africa—because I do think that the Southern kind of position just can’t be found in the North. Regardless of their behavior, people in the North won’t even admit to poll-takers that they are prejudiced—or anyway very prejudiced. Now even if this is hypocrisy, a case of the homage that vice pays to virtue, it’s still true that the American Creed does prevail in the North. Bills can be passed; whites and Negroes can confer together on what ought to be done about discrimination; you can get a Fair Employment Practices Law; you can get a Fair Housing Law. Of course, many Northern Negroes see all this as not only illusory but as some sort of farce. The assumption seems to be that the people who run the Fair Employment Practices Law aren’t doing their job or that the law itself is irrelevant. So Negroes in New York, for instance, insist on jobs by demonstrating in the streets and chaining themselves to cranes, while the political authorities run around trying to do something about it. But I’m convinced that the Fair Employment Practices Law isn’t a farce. In New York they have a big budget; they check personnel procedures and application forms (in the big organizations anyway); they act pretty quickly on complaints. And they get results—Negroes do get jobs. But the results aren’t good enough—at least not good enough to make the Negroes feel that the political order is responsive to their real situation and their needs.

Then take the case of housing. It’s not a matter of “tokenism,” nor can you talk about an exclusive power structure, when a Negro, Robert Weaver, heads the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency in Washington, or when a Negro runs or is second in command of a local housing commission (he’s usually one or the other), and when 30 per cent of his staff is Negro. Despite what the Amsterdam News says about those Negroes—that they’ve sold out, that they’re Uncle Toms, or what have you—if not for an accident of fate, they might today have been on the staff of the Amsterdam News writing editorials themselves. Anyhow, I know something personally about the housing situation since I worked for Mr. Weaver for a year in the Housing and Home Finance Agency. There’s no question that probably four-fifths of the Negroes in New York City (and other cities as well) live under awful conditions; a small number, of course, live in nice houses in Queens, and a much larger number (about one-sixth or one-seventh) in public housing projects. Now, it’s hard enough to deal with the demand for “Freedom Now” in general, but how do you even deal with the demand for Freedom Now from rats, from vermin, from crowding, from garbage? How do you provide good housing conditions now? People with perfectly good credentials, both racial and libertarian, have been struggling with such matters for a long time, and they have to contend with conflicts of interest—this, I suppose, brings us back to Mr. Baldwin’s point about the power structure and the economy—that no one seems able to overcome. It isn’t Mr. Weaver’s fault or the fault of any other administrator. There are some cities, for example, which could build far more public housing than they are currently doing. Why don’t they? Well, one of the reasons is that this housing would be available to Negroes, and the white people of those cities don’t want Negroes living near them. But that’s only the beginning. There is also the question of money. We don’t have adequate funds for public housing. Two per cent of all housing in this country is public housing as against something like 30 per cent in England and similar percentages in other countries. Americans don’t like public housing, and one of the reasons they don’t like it is that they put all sorts of restrictions into the law to make sure that it will be awful. Nobody ever quite says this, but the idea is that while the poor may be entitled to safe, decent, and sanitary housing, they aren’t entitled to live as well as we do.

The Northern problem, then, is not a problem of laws or of formal equality. Negroes in the North vote, they go to school, they get jobs, there aren’t any repressive or discriminatory statutes on the books. But formal equality simply hasn’t worked to produce actual equality, or rather it has been working too slowly. It’s ridiculous that there should be only one Negro principal out of six hundred or eight hundred in New York City. The Amsterdam News, looking at such a figure, says that the Board of Examiners discriminates. I myself feel sure that the Board of Examiners doesn’t discriminate—not in the way the Amsterdam News means. They have tests which for a lot of reasons Negroes find hard to pass: the school system, like everything else, is a bureaucracy, and Negroes haven’t yet been able to penetrate it.

Now let me come back to an important point that James Baldwin brought up. The formal equality that prevails in this country has always been accompanied by a great order of inequality that doesn’t apply only to Negroes, though Negroes are its worst victims. Traditionally, there have been ways of dealing with this problem, and these ways have worked well enough to prevent ethnic and race wars from breaking out. One of them has been the provision of formal equality itself: formally we take no cognizance of differences among groups. Informally, however, cognizance has always been taken of these differences. We set up “balanced” tickets, we make sure that different groups are represented on boards, commissions, and so on. Of course, all this comes about as a result of pressure from these groups—pressure that elicits an intelligent or a civilized response from someone in power. Sometimes the man in power, like the mayor of Detroit, is clever enough to give a job to a member of the pressure group before he is asked for it, or before the pressure group even thinks of asking for it. In my opinion, this is a reasonable procedure. American democracy has always been a hazardous thing. The official idea—call it hypocritical if you will—is that we are all alike and can live together in harmony. But everyone knows that we are all different and want to live apart—which we do. The Jews live apart, not only because they are often socially excluded, but also because they themselves want to maintain their separateness. The same is true of the Catholics: they want a certain amount of contact with other groups, but not that much, and they do many things to insure their separateness, including the maintenance of a very expensive parochial school system. This, then, is the American group pattern. The problem for Negroes is not that they are outside the pattern, but that they have been very badly off within it. And this too poses a challenge—a challenge of another sort—to liberalism.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

Mr. Myrdal, to what extent do these matters we’re discussing seem to you a problem of laws—some that can be made, and others that can be removed? I know that you have some ideas as to what is likely to happen so far as the legal situation is concerned in the next ten years.

_____________

 

Gunnar Myrdal:

Let me start a little further back with the ideological framework that you sketched in before, because I don’t feel myself at home at all within that framework, and most American liberals I know, Negro and white, don’t fit into it either. You tell me that there are now two schools of thought. The first believes that if the Negroes are given their rights, they can move up one by one, and eventually you will have an integrated society. Then there is another school which says that society is made up of groups and not of individuals, and that it is the whole group which must be moved up. I don’t see those two positions as the real alternatives. Certainly as a liberal, I believe that all laws and rules that discriminate against Negroes must be done away with, and I personally am optimistic enough to believe that within the next ten years all such laws and rules will in fact disappear. But we should not be so stupid as to think that this by itself will solve the problem. It won’t. Prejudice will continue to exist even if the legal and institutional basis for it is removed. And not only that, but since the Negroes are poor—and since they have a higher proportion of illiteracy, of school dropouts, and the rest of it—other things besides the removal of prejudice are needed to lift the group. To that extent, I agree with the second school of liberal thought that Mr. Podhoretz was talking about—except that I don’t understand why they should speak of the Negro group. I don’t think Negroes are going to be given preferential treatment and I think it would be most unfortunate if they were—though Professor Hook is probably right in saying that there are individual cases in which preferential treatment might work. But on the whole, what is needed, of course, is to lift all the poor people at the bottom, the people I call the “underclass” or the submerged group, out of poverty and everything that poverty implies. And this means—as Mr. Baldwin said—remaking American society. I think it would be most unfortunate to try to get a kind of Marshall Plan specifically for the Negro. There are several reasons. Politically, I doubt that it would be possible to push such a plan through—if only because white people today simply do not have a bad conscience over the fact that Negroes were brought here into slavery a long time ago. My ancestors were the Vikings, who were of course a murderous crowd—murdering, raping, and enslaving people. And yet you’ll find the average Swede or Norwegian almost proud when he talks about the Vikings. The point is that ancestral guilt doesn’t work, and it certainly won’t work in America where the underclass includes so many other groups—the Puerto Ricans, the Mexicans, and the poor whites in all the big slums in the big cities and the small slums in the small cities and the rural slums in the country. Improving the lot of this whole submerged group has become a very acute problem for America, and it is only in that larger setting that the Negroes will be able to achieve anything more than formal equality. Furthermore, looking just at the practical side of the whole matter, anyone with any sense knows that it’s not possible to solve the Negro housing problem as a Negro housing problem. For one thing, you could never get the money; and even if you could get the money, I doubt that it could technically be done. I think the same is true of education: you’ll have to get rid of all your bad schools and improve the whole educational system.

Of course at the moment the Negroes are the only active part of the submerged group. The others—the Mexicans, the Puerto Ricans—are just quiet. The Negro rebellion—it seems to me very interesting that this should have happened—is an exception to the general rule that America has the least revolutionary proletariat in the world. But when the situation of a rising group is aggravated by unemployment, you inevitably get a revolutionary situation; and now you’ve got one in America. This doesn’t mean, however, that something preferential ought to be done for the Negro group alone. For the last six years I’ve been working very hard on development problems in Southeast Asia, and I’ve seen something of how a policy of preferential treatment works out in practice. There is India, for example, where, as you know, the Untouchables constitute a much larger group than the Negroes do in America. The Untouchables for some time now have been given preference in employment, in education, in voting, and in many other areas. But when you look at all this closely, you find that it really amounts to nothing more than tokenism, because it affects only a very tiny minority of the Untouchables. And in addition, it also contributes to stabilizing the situation of caste in India, just as, I am sure, preferential treatment for Negroes would tend to make firmer and more lasting the differences among groups in America. And there I am liberal in Mr. Podhoretz’s first sense—both in believing that all formal discriminatory rules and laws must be eradicated and in looking forward to a society which is color blind. I’ve seen places in America—a few university campuses, for instance—where people already move around together and don’t notice who is Negro and who is white.

_____________

 

Hook:

May I ask you a question at this point, Dr. Myrdal? It seems to me that a dedication to the long-range goal of remaking all of society is not responsive to the specific problems which exist here and now. Let’s take your illustration of India, for example. In India not only are special considerations given to the Harijans, but there is, I believe, an unofficial policy that 10 per cent of all civil service posts be set aside for Moslems until such time as the number of Moslems in the civil service shall be proportionate to the number of Moslems in the population as a whole. This plan has a time limit built into it. It was designed to meet a specific situation, and was an indication of the willingness of the Indian government to make provision for the special, disadvantaged situation of the Moslem, and particularly to assure the Moslem that he was not outside the national community. I do not think such a policy—which has probably lessened the danger of subversion and civil war in India—is incompatible with liberalism.

_____________

 

Myrdal:

Well, you give the argument for this kind of thing, but you know, Gandhi was always against it. Furthermore, it’s dangerous, because it can lead to a situation where people who are less qualified are preferred to people with better qualifications.

_____________

 

Hook:

It depends upon how critical the situation is—and, of course, I am assuming roughly equal qualifications. But these are not the only measures to be adopted. I agree that it is essential to move toward the improvement of the economic situation. As a socialist, I take it for granted that we are trying to move in that direction. But economic improvement alone does not eradicate discrimination.

Here I want to go back to the fundamental question that Mr. Baldwin raised about whether we are an ethical society. Of course, no society has historically been organized on the basis of ethical principles, but I don’t think we can understand how any society functions without observing the operation of the ethical principles within it. And if we examine the development of American society, we certainly can say that we have made some progress—not enough progress, to be sure, but progress nevertheless—by virtue of the extension of our ethical principles to institutional life. If we want to explain the progress that has been made in the last twenty years by minority groups in this country—not only the Negroes, but other groups as well—I believe we have to take into account the effect of our commitment to democracy, imperfect though it may be. After all, one of the justifications for having laws against discrimination on the books is that after a while people begin to regard the law as the determining norm in their lives. I can’t see how we’re going to achieve what Professor Myrdal has in mind if we don’t assume that the direction we should be moving in is ethical as well as economic.

_____________

 

Baldwin:

I must say that I don’t myself necessarily take it for granted in this context that one is always moving in an ethical direction.

_____________

 

Hook:

One should.

_____________

 

Baldwin:

Well, I’m not sure that one can. I’d like to. But what strikes me here is that you are an American talking about American society, and I am an American talking about American society—both of us very concerned with it—and yet your version of American society is really very difficult for me to recognize. My experience in it has simply not been yours. God knows I have no desire to say that we have made no progress, though I have certain attitudes of my own about it. For example, as far as I can tell, the progress that has been made in the last twenty years has not been mainly due to the application of ethical principles but to the fact that the country has been extremely prosperous (without further examining what that prosperity really means). When the economic level of the country as a whole rose, obviously the Negro level rose more or less proportionately with it. And this created, among other things, those kids in the streets who were raised in relative security and therefore had a different attitude toward the world than we did who were raised in the Depression. Besides, by the time these kids were sixteen or seventeen, the black people of America were no longer at the mercy of the American vision of black people, because there were now other black people in the world who escaped the definitions which American Negroes had always been taught and more or less forced to live with. Now that is, if you like, progress. But looking at it as a black American citizen, looking back at the entire record and speaking not as a sociologist but as a writer, I don’t see that there’s been any real change in American attitudes. I’m delighted to know there’ve been many fewer lynchings in the year 1963 than there were in the year 1933, but I also have to bear in mind—I have to bear it in mind because my life depends on it—that there are a great many ways to lynch a man. The impulse in American society, as far as I can tell from my experience in it, has essentially been to ignore me when it could, and then when it couldn’t, to intimidate me; and when that failed, to make concessions. The way white Americans look on each other is not the way they look on the black population here. You simply can’t get around that fact.

_____________

 

Hook:

Mr. Baldwin, we have lived, of course, in different worlds, but perhaps not so far apart. I grew up in a Brooklyn slum before the First World War, and I was just thinking of the difference between Mr. Podhoretz’s experience as he described it in his COMMENTARY article last year,2 and my own. I went to a school where the hero was a Negro teacher, a man by the name of Jim Harris. He was a hero primarily because he could kick a football over the school building. But he was also my hero because he was the man who gave me, so to speak, my educational start. At the same time there were race riots going on in Brooklyn, not reported in the press. On the basis of your experience, Mr. Baldwin, you say that the attitudes of the American people to the Negro haven’t changed. But on the basis of my experience, I say that the attitudes of large sections of the American people have changed. Things that were practiced when I was young would be regarded as intolerable today. In Coney Island, for instance, there was a horrible game: I mention it only as a symbol of many other things. For a nickel you got three hard balls that you could throw at a Negro who served as the target. I remember being consoled by my father who told me that it really wasn’t a Negro who was the target but a white man dressed in black face—as if that made any difference. Today, of course, such a thing would be regarded as an outrage. The whole moral tone has improved, and part of the new attitude toward the Negro is a reflection of the burgeoning consciousness of more and more whites that the democratic legacy was betrayed in the past by the way Negroes were treated. These whites haven’t got a sense of collective guilt, but they do have a greater sense of responsibility than most people had when I was young. And this, it seems to me, is of the first importance to recognize. A kind of revolution of rising expectations has taken place—expectations as to what decent conduct should be—and it flows, I think, primarily from education. That’s why I would continue to put the main emphasis on education.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

Mr. Baldwin, this seems to me a crucial point. Did you literally mean to deny a minute ago that there have been important changes in white attitudes toward Negroes in the last twenty years?

_____________

 

Baldwin:

Well, I have to repeat that, yes. But could I come back to it in a moment after I talk about two other things? One is the concept of rising expectations. I think that concept applies to immigrant groups, and we’ve talked a great deal about immigrant groups here—that is, people who came to this country voluntarily and who managed, once they got here, to achieve a way of life and a whole attitude toward reality and toward themselves which they could not have achieved if they had remained wherever they came from in Europe. In that sense it is perfectly true that the idea of rising expectations is part of the American experience: you leave the famine-ridden farm in Ireland, you come to America, you fit into the American scene, you rise, you become part of a new social structure. But that is only the European immigrants’ experience. It is not the Black experience. I did not one day decide to leave my farm and come to America. I was brought here. I did not want to come. And when I got here, I did not, like the Irish and the Jews and the Russians and the Poles and the Czechs and the Italians, immediately find myself in a slum and then by hard work and saving my pennies rise out of the slum into a position of relative economic security so that my idea of reality changed. That is not the black experience in this country, and there is no point in pretending to ourselves on any level whatever that it is. The black experience is entirely different. You find yourself in a slum and you realize at a certain point that no amount of labor, no amount of hard work, no amount of soap is going to get you out of that slum.

Which brings me to the second thing I want to talk about—education. Any Negro born in this country who accepts American education at face value turns into a madman —has to. Because the standards that the country pretends to live by are not for him, and he knows that by the time he starts pledging allegiance to the flag. If I had believed, if any Negro on my block had really believed what the American Republic said about itself, he would have ended up in Bellevue. And those who did believe it did end up in Bellevue. If you are a Negro, you understand that somehow you have to operate outside the system and beat these people at their own game—which means that your real education essentially occurs outside of books. You cannot believe, as Americans apparently do believe, that George Washington chopped down that cherry tree and said “I cannot tell a lie.” You know better. And so what you have to do is educate yourself. I think it might be useful to turn the proposition we’ve been discussing around for a minute, and instead of talking about giving Negroes preferential treatment, talk about giving white people preferential treatment for the purpose of enabling them to learn their own history. Because what you discover as a Negro child in school—and certainly later—is that you are not in the history books. It doesn’t demand a vast amount of perception to discover why you are not in the history books. And then you realize that if you are not in the history books, a great many other things must be left out of the history books too, including everybody else in the country.

_____________

 

Glazer:

But that’s not the point. Sure—everybody else has been left out too, and they know it.

_____________

 

Baldwin:

I’m not sure they know it.

_____________

 

Glazer:

Of course they know it.

_____________

 

Hook:

They know it because they read about it in the books.

_____________

 

Glazer:

No, they know it the same way Negroes do—because they’ve been left out of the books. The Jews aren’t in the history books, the Italians aren’t there, the Japanese aren’t there, the Czechs aren’t there. In fact, the immigrants are only there to explain how the cities became corrupt. So this is a society in which we all learn to live on two levels—the level on which we say that there’s equality in America, that we all have the same chance to get ahead, that we’re all going to get our rightful share; and that other level on which we know perfectly well that somebody always has an advantage, that some groups are more privileged than others, and that some people have better connections than others. I don’t think the first level is a complete phony. Since the assassination of President Kennedy, a lot of the Irish in Washington have been very sad for more than the obvious reason. They know that many of them will be leaving, even though it may take a year or so. But why were there so many in the first place? Was it a plot? A conspiracy of the power structure? Of course not—these were the people the late President was comfortable with. This is American society—the part that never gets written about and that everybody knows about. Politicians certainly know about it, and they act on it when they make up tickets and appeal for votes

Let’s look at it this way: on the one hand, this country does too much through laws, much too much, and one of the problems is that you can’t get rid of them when you need to, because they all represent complex compromises. But on the other hand, very important things are done in America without any legal authority. Now there, I think, the Negro revolution has reminded people of the failures of sense and of awareness which they have been guilty of. It’s ridiculous that New York. doesn’t have thirty Negro school principals by now. But I’m convinced that the reason has more to do with blindness than with prejudice as such. In general no one paid enough attention to the fact that the lower class was becoming mostly Negro in the cities. Now they’re paying attention.

_____________

 

Hook:

Do you think there’s been progress in the last twenty years?

_____________

 

Glazer:

Oh, that’s a complicated story. Yes, in a way. If you look at income figures, Mr. Baldwin, you have to conclude that a lot of Negroes must have believed “that stuff” and not gone crazy. Twenty per cent of the Negroes in New York have white-collar jobs; that figure must mean something. As far as white attitudes are concerned—yes, there’s been progress in the sense that there’s been a decline in violent attitudes and violent feelings. What they’ve been replaced by is another question. The ethical quality of American life is least evident among people talking to each other in places like bars and private homes. But it does come into effect wherever the groups have to get together—where the politicians get together, where heads of school systems get together, and so on. Then they remember the American Creed. But the whole thing is very perilous. Look at the public-opinion polls. Down below hardly anybody wants equality or is in favor of civil liberties, and they want to take the vote away from the Communists. But up above they remember the American Creed. And the system works because there’s enough power at the top to keep it going. Is that progress? I don’t know. But I think that’s the way things work in America.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

Mr. Myrdal, you had a comment to make on this question of the ethical element in American life, didn’t you?

_____________

 

Myrdal:

Well, what I believe is that this country succeeds in living a very sinful life without being deeply cynical. That is the difference between Europe and America, and it signifies that ethics means something here. And it is because ethics means something here that I feel certain there are going to be changes in the law within the next ten years. It’s true, as Mr. Glazer says, that the ethical element operates particularly within institutions, and the higher the institution the more perfectly it operates. A local labor union may stand for discrimination, but the national association won’t; it will be more liberal because it represents a greater investment of American ideals. On the other hand, of course, your ethical American will very happily ignore many things around him which are bad, and he is particularly ready to follow his ethical principles to their logical conclusion when it doesn’t cost too much. The civil rights things don’t cost very much. But improving the real situation of Negroes and poor people generally would cost money. Now, as an economist, I think I can prove that in the end it wouldn’t cost money, because it would mean the utilization of wasted resources, and the utilization of wasted resources has to make a society richer. Still, there is all this superstition about the budget in this country, and getting around it really presents a messy problem.

As to white attitudes toward Negroes, yes, I do believe that there have been changes. But you know, no upper class ever gave up its monopoly or its privileges out of ethical principles; the submerged group needs power to force its way in, and it is this that makes the ethical principles prevail. In a place like Bloomington, Indiana, they have slums that are exactly like Harlem, but the people living in them aren’t Negroes, they’re “Kentuckians,” old-American stock who have migrated from the Appalachian region. They live in shacks, they have a high crime rate, there’s a lot of prostitution and gambling, they get only occasional work. But nobody cares. Many people in Bloomington probably aren’t even aware that such slums exist in their town. And there, of course, the Negro rebellion helps—it helps to make people conscious of the extent to which poverty is still a problem, and it helps activate the better part of the American heart.

So power is important, but attitudes and ethical principles count also. And where the Negroes are concerned, they count enormously, because the Negroes don’t have enough power. I had a visit the other day in Stockholm from a Negro sociologist, a professor from California, who said that he didn’t believe at all in my idea that the better part of the American heart was on his side. “But brother,” I said to him, “you are only one-tenth of the American people, a poor tenth, and you are powerless; if the whites wanted to, they could dump you all in the ocean or they could buy up some old plantation land somewhere in Mississippi and pen you up in it. They can do whatever they like with you.” “No, no,” he said, “what about the Supreme Court?” “Well,” I answered, “if the whites, who are 90 per cent of the population, wanted to change the Constitution, they could dump the Supreme Court in the ocean too.” So what the Negroes have to rely upon in the end is that America is its institutions, and that the highest of these institutions will act when they come under pressure. And when they act, they will act according to certain principles, which, like Professor Hook, I call ethical.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

Mr. Baldwin, what do those institutions look like to you, as a Negro? First, do you have any real faith in them to operate against the resistances, and particularly the second-line resistances, that have been developing in the North? And second, how seriously do you want us to take your statement that there have been no attitude changes? What about that 20 per cent Mr. Glazer was referring to who are not in Bellevue, but who are assimilated, acculturated, embourgeoised, or whatever nasty word you want to use?

_____________

 

Baldwin:

Mr. Glazer doesn’t go to cocktail parties with them. I know about that 20 per cent; my point about progress would be the same even if the figure were higher. No matter how well they may get along in the office with their fellow workers, they are not white, and they still lead different lives from white people, and in the main they don’t tell the truth to white people. Mr. Hook talks about ethics, but when he says ethics, I read attitudes. And I know about the attitudes that Americans have toward justice, freedom, and equality, and I understand that no self-respecting white American on a certain level is about to say what he feels about Negroes—and indeed, I’m sure he doesn’t feel much about Negroes, I’m sure that by now he knows that my body odor is no worse than anyone else’s. But the gap between your institutions (assuming now that they’re ethical) and the people in the streets is what has created the danger in which we stand now and the urgency of our situation. You and I around this table and everyone in this room may agree that our institutions are really working to liberate the Negroes. But the Negroes don’t believe it. And given their history, given their experience and their actual situation, they have no reason to believe it. They would have to be willing to be betrayed one more time by the people on the top who say, “Wait, and we’ll take care of you tomorrow,” and tomorrow means the 20 per cent Mr. Glazer is talking about, while the other 80 per cent are still in jail.

Who created this pressure on the institutions, after all? It was the people in the streets, disaffected and despairing, who forced whatever changes have taken place within the last six years; it was the people who got their heads broken and were put on chain gangs. Six years in and out of jail is not easy. If America were really a more ethical society, this price would not have been demanded. And it’s certainly not through being paid yet.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

May I reformulate the question for everybody around the table? I think it’s unfortunate that the word ethics came into the discussion.

_____________

 

Hook:

That’s a very peculiar observation.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

Maybe so, but I think it ought to be possible to discuss the question without reference to how good or how bad anybody’s intentions are, and therefore I’d like to reformulate it in the following manner. Have we by now arrived at a point where it is beginning to be conceivable that the Negroes as a people, as a community, will take their place within the next five or ten or fifteen or twenty years as one of the competing groups in the American pluralistic pattern? By a pluralistic pattern, I mean precisely one which is made up of groups, each competing for a share of the pie and each getting about as much of the pie as its political, economic, and intellectual power can get for it. Until pressure was brought by those people on the streets, it was not, in my opinion, conceivable that such a thing would happen. Now I believe that it is conceivable. Do any of you agree?

_____________

 

Hook:

I think it all depends on what we ourselves do. To take the position (which seems to me almost implicit in Mr. Baldwin’s words) that it’s hopeless, that the more things change the more they remain the same, may have a tendency to paralyze our ethical impulses. Our real problem—and this is how I interpret ethics—is to work on all the specific projects by which we can bring our Negro fellow citizens into the “kingdom of democratic ends.”

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

What about the kingdom of jobs?

_____________

 

Hook:

I’ll come to that. But in answer to Mr. Baldwin and to set the record straight, I want to point out that the Supreme Court desegregation decision of 1954 was handed down before there was any pressure from the streets. Of course the Supreme Court has played a very unhappy role, from Dred Scott to the nullification of the Civil Rights Act of 1875; if that act had been upheld in 1883, discrimination could have been abolished a long time ago. But let’s not dwell too much on the past. The 1954 decision was a tremendous reversal, and it did not come about as a consequence of pressure from the streets. Nor were the actions of two American Presidents in sending soldiers to enforce the rights of individual Negroes—something which, when I was young, would have been hard to imagine—the consequence of mass pressure from the streets.

Now to return to the specific instance of jobs. One of the problems we encounter here is trade-union opposition to jobs for Negroes. Many of us fought for labor in the past, and now we discover that some of our friends in the labor movement are opposed to sharing jobs with Negroes. Well, what is one to do? Does one deplore it and let it go at that? Certainly not. It seems to me one should press for legislation which would deny the use of federal services to any trade union that discriminated against Negroes. There are very few unions that could survive a law of this sort. Applying the same pragmatic approach to every other point, it should be possible to do some creative thinking instead of throwing in the sponge whenever we encounter a particular problem which is very stubborn. Sometimes we have to go slowly. It’s a mistake, for instance, to try to integrate the schools by bussing white children from long distances into Harlem; this does neither the schools nor the children any good, and it creates unnecessary obstacles to other measures which favor the common goal. In answer to your question, then, Mr. Podhoretz, as to what the next ten or twenty years have in store for us, I should say it depends entirely upon our own intelligence and our own courage.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

Mr. Baldwin, is it conceivable to you that the Negroes will within the next five or ten or twenty years take their rightful place as one of the competing groups in the American pluralistic pattern? Or is something more radical—or perhaps less radical—more likely to happen the way things are going now?

_____________

 

Baldwin:

In the first place—I want to say this particularly to Mr. Hook—I don’t feel at all hopeless. One can’t afford to. But I’m afraid I have to keep coming back to the same thing. Because the whole structure interlocks. In itself it’s a very interesting fact, though a sinister one, that trade unions should object to Negroes being in them and working side by side with white workers. But that’s not the only problem. The problem is that the economy cannot provide enough jobs for everybody—I mean white people now—and so when the Negroes come along and ask for jobs, we get, as we have now gotten, into a very dangerous situation which could precipitate chaos. If this is so—and we all know it is—then we have to take a very hard look at the economy and do whatever has to be done to revise it. Or take legislation: even if we got from the federal government a law prohibiting trade unions from discriminating against Negroes—and any such law is a long way off—it would still have to be enforced, and that has to be done by the people, really. How much time can a man spend in court to get a job or a house? Now since the law is so far off, and since there is no guarantee that we’ll get it or that it will be enforced if we do get it, Negro men chain themselves to cranes and lie down on airports to dramatize the situation and, if necessary, to immobilize the country. At bottom—and I’m very serious about this—it is not a Negro problem. It is not what is happening to the Negro that is so terrible. It is what is happening to the whole country that is so terrible. That’s why when you ask about the Negroes in the next five or ten or fifteen years taking their place as a competing group and getting their share of the pie, I can’t answer directly. I can’t put it that way to myself. What pie are you talking about? From my own point of view, my personal point of view, there is much in that American pie that isn’t worth eating.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

O.K., that’s you, but what about your fellow Negroes? Wouldn’t they be perfectly happy to eat everything in that pie? You said in The Fire Next Time that Negroes wonder whether they want to be integrated into a burning house, and at that point—as someone observed—you were speaking as an American social critic rather than as a Negro. Now the question is, is it the Negroes who feel that the house is burning and that the pie is rotten, or is it only James Baldwin?

_____________

 

Baldwin:

I think this: terrible things have happened to white people as a result of our history and terrible things have happened to Negroes. One of the things that has happened to Negroes is that they themselves have acquired such habits of inferiority and have evolved such a way of life—which, whatever else one says about it, is more vivid than the bulk of white American lives—that they have become in some sense accustomed to their oppression. I don’t mean that they accept it or that they like it, but they know it. They know it. They do not call the cops as other American citizens do; they don’t have the same expectations.

_____________

 

Glazer:

Yes, they do call the cops.

_____________

 

Baldwin:

Not at all. They don’t.

_____________

 

Glazer:

They call the cops. One of the biggest demands in Negro slums around the country is for more police protection and better police protection. Maybe they don’t like the police, but they want them. Look at the newspapers, talk to the people. They certainly demand the cops.

_____________

 

Baldwin:

No, but let’s be clear about this. It depends on who you are talking about now. Who wants them?

_____________

 

Glazer:

A lot of Negroes do.

_____________

 

Podhoretz:

The cops are part of the pie. I think we can agree on that, so we get back to the same question.

_____________

 

Baldwin:

Before we get back, I want to say one thing. At least in Harlem and on the South Side of Chicago, the two Negro communities that I more or less know, the complaint about the cops is that they don’t protect the property, they don’t protect the lives. One can be robbed in Harlem three times a week and nothing will ever happen. Now if they’re asking for cops, they’re not asking for what you think they’re asking for. They’re asking for police protection. It is not the same thing.

_____________

 

Hook:

I’d like to pursue the question that Mr. Podhoretz asked as to whether James Baldwin is speaking


Footnotes

 

1 “The Meaning of Negro Strategy,” COMMENTARY, February 1964.

2 “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” February 1963.

3 Mr. Silberman is a member of the Board of Editors of Fortune.

4 Mr. Clark is professor of psychology at CCNY.

5 Mr. Abel is a playwright and critic who contributes frequently to COMMENTARY.

6 Mr. Katz is editor of Midstream.

7 Mr. Phillips is co-editor of Partisan Review.

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.