Commentary Magazine


Public Affairs: The Coming Test of American Democracy

What is disquieting in our present condition is the contrast between the gravity of the two great domestic problems that require solutions—race relations and unemployment—and the complacency permeating the thoughts and actions of government and public alike.

After dictating that sentence, I was informed of President Kennedy’s assassination. Returning after a week of horror and sorrow, pity and shame to the task of discussing these two issues, I find their timely gravity accentuated, if anything, by the tragedy of dual violence through which we have just passed. Interrelated as they are, these issues threaten American democracy with a dissolution of the consensus on which it rests; and if that consensus should ever be dissolved, violence must replace it. Violence from below, actual or threatened, would call forth violence from above, or vice versa, and American democracy would transform itself—in all probability imperceptibly and gradually rather than in one glaring breakdown of constitutional processes—into a police state. This alternative to government by consent of the governed is inescapable; for government must rest on one of two foundations: either consent or violence.

The unequal condition of the American Negro has been an endemic denial of the purpose for which the United States of America was created and which, in aspiration and partial fulfillment, has remained the distinctive characteristic of our society: equality in freedom. That unequal condition has been, in Jefferson’s words, “a moral reproach,” a “condition of moral and political reprobation.” The first step toward eliminating this evil and complying with the American purpose was taken a hundred years ago with the emancipation of the slaves. We have tended, in view of the present unequal condition of the Negro, to underrate the practical importance of that emancipation and to look upon it as a mere change in legal status which had only a small effect on the actual conditions of life. But we should remind ourselves that a slave was a piece of property, like a chicken or a chair, without any attributes of legal personality. He could not marry and had no right to his children. He had no rights in court and was devoid of all other legal protection: he was, like a dog, subject to the master’s punishment. In most slave states it was a criminal offense to teach slaves how to read and write. Thus, in order to assess correctly the present status of the Negro in America, it is necessary to compare that status not only with the ideal of equality in freedom, but also with the status of slavery of a century ago. Emancipation transformed the Negro from a thing into a man—a precondition not only for what he has achieved and can hope to achieve in the future, but also for awareness of himself, of what he is and can become.

The problem which American society faced a century ago in the form of slavery posed itself in quite different and much simpler terms than does the issue of segregation today. On the legal plane, solution of the problem of slavery required only a single act: the Emancipation Proclamation. On the level of actual enforcement, the task was first to contain slavery within a circumscribed territory and then to eliminate it altogether through a victorious war. By contrast, the problem which faces us today in the form of segregation cannot be solved by legal enactment, even though legal enactment is a precondition for its solution. The Supreme Court decision of 1954 declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional, by itself made hardly a dent in actual segregation. After a protracted period of perfunctory compliance and widespread defiance and evasion, it was the spontaneous initiative of the people themselves, Negro and white alike, supported by the full powers of the federal government, which started to compel real compliance with the Supreme Court decision as well as with the principle of integration in other fields of social interaction.

Furthermore, and most importantly, the problem of segregation is not geographically localized, as was the problem of slavery, even though it is posed in certain Southern states in different terms than elsewhere. In consequence, segregation cannot be contained and sealed off, as was slavery. Slavery was a localized cancer which could be cut out; segregation is a metastasized cancer to be treated by more complex and uncertain means. There are no segregationist and integrationist states, as there were slave and abolitionist states. All states of the Union are segregationist in different degrees, with regard to different activities, and by virtue, or in spite, of different legal arrangements. Even where the law requires integration in all fields of social interaction, segregation is still a social fact.

It is a fact, moreover, which is all-pervasive and resistant to change; by no means does it apply to Negroes alone. Less than thirty years ago I had to deal with American consuls who considered it their patriotic duty to violate the law in order to prevent the immigration of Jews, and once I was here, I could not find a place to sleep in the White Mountains of New Hampshire until I registered under my wife’s maiden name. Less than twenty years ago I could not get service at the Dartmouth Inn in Hanover, New Hampshire. And even today Jews, like Negroes, are barred from owning property in one of the best residential districts in Washington, D.C. Thus segregation is a general social phenomenon, nourished by social myths, fear of what is different, actual social differences, and incompatible interests, real or fancied. These factors on which segregation thrives are as such impervious to legislation, although legislation can provide levers with which to contain and weaken them through the application of irresistible pressure.

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In the face of the foreseeable persistence of segregation as a social fact, the Negroes of America have at their disposal four courses of action: passive acceptance of a slightly improved status quo; peaceful agitation and pressure; alienation; violence. In view of the high hopes which are being placed upon the practical consequences of legislative enactments, especially on the economic plane, militant alienation and violence—and alienation ultimately means violence, too—are bound to attract large masses of Negroes. Violence, since it cannot organize itself against a rational political objective, is bound to appear as anarchy, a completely unmanageable breakdown of law and order. No less real for not being deemed fit to print stories about, that anarchic violence already terrorizes many of our streets and schools. I have been told that in one Chicago school in one week of November 1963, more than twenty students were attacked by fellow students with deadly weapons, one teacher was hit on the head with a bottle by a student, and one teacher was raped. The student who hit the teacher was only suspended for three days by a frightened school administration, whereupon her father went to school to complain about the treatment his daughter had received!

Such violence, spreading unchecked, is bound to call forth counter-violence by those who feel themselves threatened. While the progress the Negroes are likely to make in their actual conditions of life will be too small to integrate them into the main body of American society, and hence meet their aspirations, it will be significant enough to threaten, or at least appear to threaten, the social position of masses of white members of the lower middle class. This problem is being aggravated by the large-scale migration of Southern Negroes to the North; the Negro population of Mississippi, for instance, has decreased from 51 per cent of the total in 1950 to 42 per cent in 1960 and 36 per cent in 1963. Here will be an additional incentive to the kind of violence that has traditionally been employed by a low stratum of American society that feels itself threatened by a still lower but rising one. We have had a foretaste of things to come in the protracted violence (inadequately reported or not reported at all) which has accompanied or prevented the attempts of Negroes to move into white neighborhoods. Thus we are facing the prospect of a three-cornered relation of violence: the Negro against the government, the white lower middle class against the Negro, and the government against both.

This prospect will be gravely accentuated by the persistence and the probable spread of unemployment. The permanent unemployment we have been unable thus far to cope with is different in nature from the mass unemployment of the 30’s. The latter was the result of a temporary maladjustment, a consequence of the natural fluctuations of the business cycle, to be remedied by the techniques of Keynesian economics. The unemployment of our day is the result of structural defects due to technological innovations, to be cured only by radical structural changes.

Technological innovations have affected the structure of our economic system in three different respects. Automation is replacing human labor with machines; machines are making unskilled labor permanently unemployable and are assigning to skilled labor an ever more limited scope; and machines are increasing productivity far beyond the ability of a market economy to consume. In consequence, an enormous and ever expanding productive apparatus and the ever shrinking segment of the population profiting from it find themselves face to face with an ever increasing segment of the population permanently severed from the productive processes and kept on a level of bare subsistence only through the benevolent intervention of the state.

Both economic theory and economic practice have been helpless in confronting the gap which technology is opening up between a productive majority and a permanently unemployable new proletariat, which may well become a majority tomorrow. What is needed to close that gap is not the half-hearted application of Keynesian remedies, devised for quite different circumstances, but a revolution in our economic thinking and practice commensurate in its magnitude with the changes modern technology has wrought in our economic circumstances. Such a revolution will have to recognize two fundamental facts, one economic, the other moral.

Economically, we are in the process of acquiring a productive capacity which is transforming our economy from one of scarcity into one of abundance. Morally, we have accepted the obligation to provide all citizens with a modicum of economic well-being and security as a precondition for having an equal opportunity to realize their human potentialities in freedom. It is only outmoded economic theory and practice which stand in the way of our using our productive power for this moral end. Once we have overcome this cultural lag by bringing our economic thinking up to date, we will have to subject our economic system and social organization to a radical transformation.

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The two great issues with which American democracy must come to terms—equality in freedom for the American Negro and the restoration of a meaningful economic and social order—are thus interconnected. The former cannot be fully achieved, and might even be ultimately jeopardized, without the latter. For even if the Negro were to come into full possession of legal and social equality, he would still be exposed to the disabilities of a contracting labor market. As an unskilled laborer, regardless of discrimination, he is likely to be permanently unemployed. But even as a skilled worker competing without discrimination for ever scarcer jobs, he would still be threatened with unemployment. The resentment of Negroes whose new equality revealed itself as meaningless in economic terms would be a source of alienation from America and an incentive to violence against it. The resentment of the ever swelling mass of white unemployed would be a source of alienation from the political and social status quo and an incentive to violence against both the Negro and the government. One resentment would be pitted against the other, fanning anew the enmity of races and jeopardizing the ability of the government to govern without the continuous use of violence.

The government, thus deprived on a large scale of the consent of the governed, would have to resort to violence in order to be able to govern. It is at this point that the political order of the states of the Deep South acquires a crucial relevance for the future of American democracy. The governments of these states are already deprived of the consent of the governed, for their legitimacy reposes upon the myth of the natural inequality of the races, a myth unacceptable to the politically conscious Negroes and the white moderates alike. Thus these states can only govern by violence, and it makes a difference only for the modalities of application but not for the substance of the case whether that violence is exerted through the instrumentality of a lynch mob, of an unpunished murderer, of arbitrary police brutality, or of an equally arbitrary administration of justice which destroys life and liberty even more effectively than a mob does.

What is worse, this government by violence is not limited to the Deep South, but rules the nation as a whole through the Southern bloc’s domination of Congress. The Southern Congressional leaders cannot afford to support the integration of the Negro into American society since their very political power derives from a denial of the Negro’s natural equality. And allied as they are with the most feudalistic sector of the American economy, from which the economic sustenance of their power flows, they cannot even contemplate the radical structural changes in our economic system that technology has made necessary; for them an obsolescent Keynes is a symbol of unacceptable radicalism.

Thus we are in the presence of a dual paradox. On the one hand, a minority which governs its territory through violence rather than the democratic consent of the governed is able to thwart the will of the majority of the nation which seeks to enable American society to cope with the problems of race and permanent unemployment. On the other hand, if it succeeds, that minority will make inevitable the extension of its own methods of government by violence to the whole nation. A century ago, slavery was contained and extirpated through civil war. Today, we face the danger that government by violence may engulf the whole nation through the manipulation of the levers of political power by those who once defended slavery and now can govern their own states only through violence.

Who really won the Civil War? The Union has been preserved, but on whose terms? The house that was divided against itself a hundred years ago is still so divided. It still stands but it has begun to wobble. If the explosive mixture of racial discontent and economic deprivation were ever firmly lodged in its foundations, it could be held precariously together only by the cement of violence.

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