Commentary Magazine


Negroes on the March, by Daniel Guerin; The Negro Potential, by Eli Ginzberg

Propaganda vs. Sobriety
by C. Vann Woodward
Negroes On The March. By Daniel Guerin. George L. Weissman. 192 pp. $1.50.
The Negro Potential. By Eli Ginzberg With The Assistance Of James K. Anderson, Douglas W. Bray, And Robert W. Smuts. Columbia University Press. 144 pp. $3.00
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Daniel Guemn’s Negroes on the March is the translation of an extract from his Ou Va le Peuple Americain?, a two-volume work published in Paris in 1951. The larger work, so the author tells us, was the product of a visit to the United States in 1947 and 1948. While he has attempted to bring the translated extract up to date by “noting the main occurrences and developments between 1951 and 1954,” the predominant tone and outlook are still that of 1948—the year of the Henry Wallace campaign, when revolution was around the corner, and heroic formulas for social problems were the order of the day.

Mr. Guerin begins his book with an attack on another foreign critic of American race policies, the Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal, author of An American Dilemma. His main criticism is that Myrdal “does not explain how, by whom and why race prejudice was brought into being.” The Swedish writer’s conclusions are “quite in harmony with the concerns of those who subsidized his work [the Carnegie Corporation], and serve their interests quite well.” The corporation did not want “the real causes of the evil to be laid bare; for if a cause-and-effect relationship were established between capitalist oppression and race prejudice, the victims of race prejudice would be likely to draw conclusions dangerous to the established order, while the white victims of capitalist oppression would be inclined to ally themselves with the colored people.”

Our French critic is quite ready with his own explanation of the cause of race prejudice. He tells us that it was “artificially and systematically manufactured by the subtlest and most diabolical methods” to keep the working class divided and thus more easily oppressed and exploited. It seems that “no real remedy exists within the framework of the present economic and social system.” The only cure, of course, is the revolutionary one—the overthrow and destruction of the present system.

During his travels in America, Mr. Guerin pictured himself as a modern Diogenes with his lantern looking for an honest man. In the South honest men were pretty scarce: he turned up only six after an exhaustive search. And as a matter of fact they were none too plentiful in the rest of the country. Among the Negroes too they were extremely hard to come by. The NAACP was “tainted with the traits of the Negro petty bourgeoisie,” and since Mr. Guerin is of the Trotskyist persuasion, he is naturally critical of Negro Stalinists.

While Mr. Guerin notes a number of efforts at progress in the last few years, he declares that “there has been no fundamental change in the political, economic, or social position of the American Negro” since his visit in 1948. He professes the belief, however, that “emancipation is on the march, and all hopes are warranted.” But in view of the cure he prescribes he would seem to promise no more real hope than that school of social psychologists who diagnose race prejudice as a mental illness afflicting millions of American people, and then have to admit that there are simply not enough psychiatrists to treat them all.

It is not that this book is so badly informed. The author claims, perhaps with some justice, to have “read everything of importance that has been written on the Negro question in the United States.” But he persistently works his information into stereotypes. His pictures of historical background, group attitudes, and regional configurations are painted with the glaring oversimplification of posters. And back of it all is the nostrum of revolution and the image of the Negro as “the bearer of flames, the volcanic element, on the soil of ‘calm and prosperous’ America.”

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To turn from this to Eli Ginzberg’s The Negro Potential is to turn from rhetoric to statistics, from the soap box to the study. Professor Ginzberg has quite as much sympathy for the Negro victims of prejudice as Mr. Guerin, but he is willing to face hard facts and unwilling to propagandize.

The central theme of The Negro Potential is the expanding opportunities of the Negro and his poor preparation to exploit these opportunities. While the author contends that the Negro is still far short of equality of opportunity and that complacency is entirely unwarranted, he points out that “the economic opportunities of the Negro in the United States have vastly increased” in the last fifteen years. The same is true of the Negro’s opportunities in the military services during the last decade. Prejudice and discrimination are still handicaps, but the Negro’s own deficiencies in training, education, skills, and health are also tremendous obstacles to his progress. These deficiencies are no doubt largely the result of poor schools, poor housing, and poor neighborhoods—which are themselves the products of discrimination. But whatever accounts for the appalling deficiencies that block the potential development and usefulness of the American Negro, Mr. Ginzberg’s point is that the time has come to face up to them.

The impact of the book is best conveyed by a few samples from the disturbing results of the studies upon which it reports. Only one out of seven Negro boys finishes high school in the South, and only one out of three in the North. But the quality of education received is even more disturbing than the quantity. One study revealed that only three out of every hundred graduates from segregated Negro high schools in the South were qualified to enter a good inter-racial college. Another showed that only 6 per cent of the top-ranking Negroes from Southern high schools did as well or better than the average student who took regular college entrance examination tests. Mr. Ginzberg concludes that “the overwhelming majority of graduates from Southern Negro high schools cannot compete with the average graduate of the average high school.” How dim the prospect is of improving Negro education in the South is indicated by tests of some fifteen hundred Negro seniors in 37 colleges who were preparing to teach: their average score ranked below 96 per cent of all college seniors.

The Negro also fares badly in the schools of the North. The superintendent of one metropolitan school district where the great majority of students were Negroes, found that “less than 1 per cent of the entire student body in the area had an intelligence quotient of 120 or above.” In the schools of an upper middle-class white suburban community, on the other hand, about 30 per cent had an IQ of 120 or above. A survey of the graduating class of 32 public schools in a dozen Northern and Western states in 1952 showed that Negroes accounted for 3,300 of the total senior class enrollment of 10,400, or over one-third. Yet only 53 Negroes were in the highest quarter of the class. The white students therefore did fifteen times better than the Negroes in class standing. Since only 24 of the 53 Negro students in the highest quartile had taken college preparatory courses, less than one out of every hundred Negro seniors was qualified for college admission. Mere improvement in schools is no panacea. A childhood of poverty, family instability, inferior status, and segregation, seriously stunts the intellectual potential of Negro children before they reach school age.

The staggering cost of the lost potential of Negro ability is spelled out by Professor Ginzberg in realistic detail. The loss in military manpower alone, as revealed in army records of the Second World War, is sufficient to bring home the critical nature of the problem. Since two-thirds of all American Negroes still live in the South, where they make up a fourth of the total population, the South suffers most from the loss of the Negro potential. It would seem very doubtful that the South can keep pace with the rest of the country under this partly self-imposed handicap, especially if it continues to lose its most competent and best-trained Negroes to the North. Its recalcitrance on segregation is therefore “self-destructive.”

Mr. Ginzberg and his associates warn the Negro that “equality cannot be bestowed; it must be earned.” They also warn liberals and reformers that, “because inequality is so deeply imbedded in the past, it will take considerable time, even under the best circumstances, for the Negro to gain equal status with the white population.” Such admonitions are typical of the tone of the book. The Negro Potential is therefore best described as sobering rather than inspiring. It is, in fact, the proven thesis of the book that this is a problem and a time for all the sobriety we can muster.

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