Commentary Magazine


Racial Crisis in America, by Lewis Killian and Charles Grigg; Race, the History of an Idea in America, by Thomas F. Gossett; and

A Record of Injustice

Racial Crisis in America.
by Lewis Killian and Charles Grigg.
Prentice-Hall. 144 pp. $4.50.

Race, the History of an idea in America.
by Thomas F. Gossett.
Southern Methodist University Press. 512 pp. $6.95.

The Negro Church in America.
by E. Franklin Frazier.
Schocken Books. 92 pp. $3.50.

Although the Civil War has always been regarded as the most painful and enduring experience in American history, we are beginning to realize that its effects on the national life have been far less severe than those of the trauma of slavery which led to it. The wounds of Negro degradation and white bigotry went so deep and have healed so slowly that the damage to the relations between the North and the South that followed the War and Reconstruction seems slight in comparison. Note, for example, the very different spirit in which the Civil War centennial and the Emancipation centennial were recently celebrated. The former was celebrated, particularly in the South, the scene of most of the war’s carnage, both military and social. But one can hardly say the same for the anniversary of the Emancipation, unless one regards as celebration the spectacle of Negroes demonstrating for their rights as free citizens amid police clubs, fire hoses, and guns.

Among the many recent books on race relations in America, few, if any, have had anything much more comforting to say to the white populace than what the Negroes themselves have been saying. The three books at hand were written by scholars, men dedicated to the virtues of reticence and the long view. Their tone is therefore quite different from that of the Negro militants shaking their fists in the face of the country while nothing more coherent escapes their throats than the word Now. However, Lewis Killian and Charles Grigg’s study of our racial crisis, mainly as it is being experienced in the South, Thomas F. Gossett’s historical account of the emergence of a racist ideology in the land of the free, and the late E. Franklin Frazier’s analysis of the Negro Church all provide ample grounds for distress over the lasting and manifold damage that the nation has suffered from its “peculiar institution.”

Written by two sociologists at Florida State University, Racial Crisis in America is concerned mainly with the problems of communication and cooperation among white and Negro community leaders in the South. Focusing upon one such bi-racial committee in a Southern community, Killian and Grigg discover not unexpectedly that seating twelve Negro and twelve white leaders around a table does not immediately alter the history of race relations in the South. The majority of white and Negro members were “reluctant to become actively engaged in ameliorative efforts.” The Negro leaders “reflected a variety of attitudes from accommodating to militant,” the white leaders, of “inactivity” and “business-as-usual”; only two of the white members confessed to receiving “new insights” into the problem. The chief emphasis of the committee (“communication and cooperation”) also contributed heavily to its failure, by tending to “inhibit discussion” and to give way to “the rule of charity.” In the authors’ words: “the preservation of racial peace becomes the superordinate goal for which white and Negro members of the bi-racial committee can work. But this creates a serious dilemma for the Negro leader . . . [who] cannot simultaneously serve as a guardian of the peace of the community and at the same time threaten this peace by invoking the power of the Negro community.”

The latter part of Racial Conflict is less restrained by sociological method and here the full burden of the authors’ pessimism makes itself felt. They believe that the end of segregation will not necessarily usher in a progressive period of integration, that the prejudices it has bred may well lead instead to “an ordeal of hatred and conflict,” one which “will rend American society irreparably or draw its racially separated parts together in some yet unforeseeable future.”

At this point, Killian and Grigg seem to be writing as Southerners as well as sociologists. The temper of opinion in the North still favors a less apocalyptic perspective in the belief that racial problems, however severe they may be, will eventually yield to programs that are intelligent and sincere. The authors of these programs in the North are usually referred to as White Liberals—which, in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, is becoming synonymous with “whited sepulchre.” There are, of course, white liberals in the South too, and, as Killian and Grigg find, they have some of the same problems with Negro leaders as do their counterparts in the North. Thus: “the Negro leader is likely to demand more of the White Liberal than he is willing to give”; meanwhile, there are “pressures on the White Liberal to make haste slowly and avoid alienating himself from the White in-group.”

Such comparisons, however, soon point up the contrast between the relatively clear-cut choices that lie before Southern white liberals and the much more complicated tangle of assumptions and interests that confronts the well-intentioned Northerner. In the South, according to Killian and Grigg, a white liberal is “. . . very simply, a white man who has rejected segregation and the categorical inferiority of Negroes as values.” For the Northern liberal such pleasant moral postures have quite vanished. Indeed, at present, he is likely to be spending his periods of contemplation in a lonely wilderness where he must try to decide whether his attachment to the principles of individualism and to the strategy of reasonable limits is consistent any longer with his commitments to social equality and to the political and moral imperatives posed by the legacy of slavery. I write as a Negro, but I do not touch on this matter simply to score points off the current indecisiveness of Northern liberals. To my way of thinking, the commitments that emerge from a struggle with doubt and ambiguity can be more enduring than those produced by the cant of innocence. Negro militants might therefore do well to have a little more insight and faith in assisting their ally—particularly the one who is genuine but confused—in his struggle to resolve his conflicts of principle and to work through the really formidable questions of strategy.

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The questions of strategy derive in good part from the fact that the problem of the Negro in America, as Killian and Grigg point out, is “the problem of being a black man in a white country.” In Race, The History of an Idea in America, Thomas F. Gossett, an English professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, describes the historical climate in which racial prejudice took root and developed as a part of the American system of beliefs and attitudes. According to Gossett, the psyche of the nation was fixed as white almost from the moment the first Pilgrims set eyes upon the Indians, But the “whiteness” of the colonists was not all. The problem of race was soon extended and exacerbated by the religious and anthropological myths of Anglo-Saxon and Protestant superiority which the early owners of America fashioned into a virulent social ideology that was allowed to coexist with and compromise our political principles of freedom and egalitarianism.

Gossett reminds us that in 1786 Thomas Jefferson was still of the opinion that the Negro was “condemned to an inferior status.” Gobineau’s The Inequality of the Races, widely read by the educated classes of America during the 19th century, submitted that Negroes were “inherently gluttonous, sensual and stupid.” Herbert Freeman, one of the famous professors of the Oxford School, wrote home from America in 1882 that “I feel a creep when I think that one of these black apes may (in theory) be President.”

Samuel Gompers fought for the exclusion of the Chinese on the grounds that they were “a people without nerves and without digestion . . . and no standard of morals by which a Caucasian may judge them.” (One wonders whether the labor movement has entirely repudiated Samuel Gompers’s brand of egalitarianism and humanism.) Frederick Jackson Turner thought that the coming of the Italians, Poles, Jews, and Slovaks “was a loss to the social organism of the United States.” John Burgess, a professor at Columbia, said it was “folly” and “wickedness” to attempt “to pollute the U.S. with non-Aryan elements.” And from Woodrow Wilson came a sound of alarm “over the possible biological threat to the nation from the influx of inferior stocks of people.” Gossett notes that “these examples of prejudice against immigrants, taken from the words of eminent men, could be matched and probably exceeded by popular nativist sentiment of the time.” To say the least.

Gossett traces the influence of racist ideology on American domestic and foreign policy, on its hemispheric relations, on education, literature, and the other channels of public belief and opinion. He shows that its myths helped in the elimination of the Indians from the society, and justified and intensified the plight of the Negroes, just as it led to the oppression, sometimes subtle but sometimes quite overt, of virtually every other group that was not, at one and the same time, White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.

It will not, of course, make Negroes much happier to learn that the other alien groups in America were also subjected to intense bigotry. After all, none of these other groups were made slaves, and all of them are now being rapidly absorbed into our pluralist power structure. However, Gossett’s book will help to enlighten Negroes as to how deep-seated in the racial imagination of the North as well as of the South the supremacist ideology and its myths actually are, and how much patient effort will be needed by Negro as well as white leaders to overcome their abiding effect, particularly as integration presses harder upon the legacy of white resistance to actual racial equality.

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Given this explosive ground of the civil rights movement, it is indeed fortunate that it has been guided by the moral leadership and strategy of men like Martin Luther King. However, the emergence of this group is no accident; neither is its doctrine of passive resistance nor the remarkable faith and ability in carrying it out that is found among Negroes. All can be seen to be partly the product of an institution that has powerfully influenced Negro life in America: the Negro Church. The third book at hand is a small but priceless study of the origin and development of this institution which the brilliant sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, completed just before his death in 1962.

Frazier begins by showing how the Negroes adapted to their social and psychological needs a religion which had been imposed on them mainly in order to foster their acquiescence in slavery. For slavery to succeed with a minimum of resistance it was necessary, first of all, to alienate the slaves from their tribal psychology. The slave-masters did this by breaking up the “clan and kinship organizations” which the slaves took with them from Africa, and under which they had enjoyed their own forms of social cohesion. To fill the vacuum, as well as to complete the psychological rout, so to speak, the slave-owners offered Christian instruction to the slaves. It is Frazier’s view that the slaves’ participation in religious services had the unforeseen effect of drawing them out of “their moral isolation in a white man’s world.” The slaves did not respond to Christianity with any great enthusiasm, until the Methodists and the Baptists started proselytizing their “fiery message of hope and salvation” with its “prospect of escape from . . . earthly woes.” It was during this latter period that the slave preacher emerged as the first and lasting figure of community leadership. However, the freedom to exercise “his gifts” was not unlimited; neither was the measure of influence he exercised over his flock: they were only as much as his master was willing to concede.

After the Emancipation, and particularly after the bitter reverses that followed Reconstruction, the Church became the only center of community for an unenfranchised and despised group. Contrasting the Negroes with the European immigrant groups of this period, Frazier reminds us that they had “no historic traditions and language and sentiments to identify them, and in their social and moral isolation in American society,” the Negro masses adapted their church community into “a nation within a nation.”

It was in the Church that the first seeds of Negro protest were sown. However, as Frazier goes on to show, the followers of the traditional religion were often unwilling or unable to allow the Church to develop beyond the functions of providing social community and psychological solace. In the North, the Church did undergo a process of secularization, as Negroes attempted to abandon their folkways and to gain acceptance in the white society by becoming Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and so forth. Thus the new Negro churches came to provide much of the impetus for the rise of the Negro middle class; meanwhile, working-class Negroes resisted this trend and, preserving the older religious emotionalism, initiated the many cults that still do business in the store-front churches. But throughout the various branches of the Negro religion, the Church adapted itself once again—living with, rather than trying to change, the social facts of prejudice and separatism. As James Baldwin has remarked, “Until Montgomery, the Negro Church, which has always been the place where protest and condemnation could be most vividly articulated, also operated as a kind of sanctuary.”

Nor, in Frazier’s view, has Negro religion been an unmixed blessing. By its blind devotion to salvation, it inhibited its members’ demands for redress of their grievances on earth. Further, it “cast a shadow over the entire intellectual life of Negroes” by its fearful and rigid control of community values. “It is only as a few Negro individuals have been able to escape from the stifling domination of the Church that they have been able to develop intellectually and in the field of art.” These are hard words, uttered by perhaps the leading Negro intellectual that America has seen, as well as a determined fighter for Negro rights. What Frazier has shown us with unblinking honesty is the institution that the Negroes developed in the wilderness of white America and that has itself been still another aspect of the terrible legacy of slavery.

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