Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: History with a Present Meaning

The history of American race relations provides an almost perfect example of the process by which popular myths are created to permit the simultaneous existence of two apparently incompatible elements of a social complex; one of these elements is usually an aspect of the social structure and the other an aspect of ideology. Since changes are now occurring in both elements of the race relations complex—in social structure, for example, toward industrialization and away from agriculture in the South, and in ideology toward, among other things, a belief that America’s position in world affairs requires the enforcing of democratic principles at home—the older myths are no longer “socially necessary.” They are therefore being peeled away—first by historians, then by schoolteachers and public leaders—thereby exposing facts of American history that have been hidden from the mass of the American people for many years.

Slavery was discovered to be economically profitable in America, notably in the Southern states and especially after the invention of the cotton gin, which, with the improvement of transportation, made it possible to change Europe’s clothing from wool to cotton. Slave-produced cotton and sugar (and slave breeding in Virginia) not only created a number of great fortunes, but also gave their owners political power and social status in the rapidly growing nation. This situation, of course, was in direct contradiction to the American ideological commitment to liberty and equality. The means of reconciling, and hence of retaining, the two incompatible forces was to create several myths. One of these was the belief (based on such legends as that God had ordained that the sons of Ham should forever be servants to the other offspring of Noah) that the Bible sanctioned slavery. This belief can still be found today in the more backward areas of the South, but there have been enough enlightened clergymen to prevent its general acceptance. Another early religious justification of slavery was the notion that it served as a means of converting heathens into Christians, but this provided a sanction only for the slave trade and not for the continued retention of Negroes as slaves.

A more potent myth, and one accepted by the richer and better-educated groups in the South during the period 1800-1860, was based on certain ideas concerning the nature of “true democracy.” Democratic political activity and the cultivation of the arts and sciences were said to be full-time activities. As in ancient Athens and republican Rome, manual labor in the South was to be performed by slaves, who would be well treated but necessarily excluded from politics and “culture.” This idea had great influence on the philosophy, politics, manners, architecture, and literature of the ante-bellum South, but it was weakened by the South’s failure to produce a great artistic and scientific culture. For all practical purposes it died when the Civil War destroyed even the appearance of artistic achievement and forced the South to compete with the “cruder” industrial North on the latter’s terms.

But the most powerful myth of all—which swept the North as well as the South, which grew rather than declined after the Civil War, and which has begun to weaken only in recent years—is that of racism. Racism, of course, had its origin in European thought—in the writings of Linnaeus, Buffon, and others—and has played an important role elsewhere in the West. In its American form it implied the following beliefs: (1) The races are biologically unequal, with Negroes being much lower on the evolutionary scale than whites; (2) a high level of civilization is the product and the expression of the biological character of a superior race, and Negroes are therefore inherently incapable of producing a high civilization of their own, or of maintaining the one developed by the whites of the Western world. Negroes, then, are fitted only to be servants or laborers in America; (3) it follows that any biological amalgamation of the races would lead to a decline of Western civilization and the ultimate destruction of its institutions (including Christianity, the monogamous family, the modern state, and large-scale economic enterprise); (4) to maintain racial purity, the possibility of sexual intercourse between members of the two races must be guarded against by social segregation.



Some of the most important aspects of American social life and history have been distorted to conform to the racist mythology, but the facts are gradually coming to be known more widely. Many of the “new” findings have now been conveniently brought together in John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom1 and Rayford W. Logan’s The Negro in the United States.2 What are the findings?

Most startling, perhaps, is the discovery that there has been a significant admixture of Negro blood in the white American population, especially in the South. The process began in Colonial times, when there was fairly free intermarriage of Negroes with lower-class whites. Even when legal and social barriers were erected against intermarriage, their purpose was to avoid interference with slavery, not to prevent biological amalgamation, and free Negroes continued to be assimilated into the larger white population. It was not until racism developed at the end of the 18th century that the barrier against intermarriage became rigorous. But even after the rise of racism, sex relations between white men and Negro women continued to be frequent; the only effect of racism was to insure that the offspring would be allocated to the Negro race—at any rate, in those cases where the offspring were definitely known to have Negro mothers. For coincident with the birth of racism was the inauguration of a practice it theoretically prohibited—the “passing” of persons socially defined as Negroes, but whose physical appearance and ancestry were predominantly white, from the Negro population into the white world. This practice was of course attended with extreme secrecy, and it is impossible to get exact statistical information, but estimates made for the period around 1900 indicate that several tens of thousands of persons with Negro ancestry were “passing” into the white population every year. The racist myth prevented open recognition of this fact, but Southern whites occasionally acknowledge it in private conversations. No “harm” resulted either to the population or to the culture, although some consistent racist might attribute Southern backwardness to this “mongrelization” of the whites.

Another element of the racist mythology was that Negroes were happy in their subordinated role, first under slavery and then under the elaborate system of segregation and discrimination that developed after the Civil War. The large number of suicides, revolts, and escapes under slavery, now reported by the historians, and the frequent organization of protest moves since the end of slavery, give the lie to this belief. A whole series of psychological and sociological studies have demonstrated that the effect of segregation on Negroes has been a sense of frustration, inferiority, and inadequacy. Some years ago, the psychiatrists Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey, in The Mark of Oppression, showed how discrimination and specific incidents of prejudice left deep wounds on the personalities of some Negroes. More recently, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (himself a Negro) has exposed the delusions of the Negro upper and middle classes in his Black Bourgeoisie,3 a book that disturbs many Negroes, just as the others mentioned here have disturbed many whites.

Frazier says bluntly—and documents his statements—that Negro business has largely been a failure; that “influential Negroes” have never really had much influence; that whites have never accorded much respect to the “respectable” Negroes, whether that respectability was based on the older morals and manners or on the more modern display of wealth through conspicuous consumption; that Negro politicians have served white interests or their own personal interests, but seldom the Negro cause; that the Negro middle class is rootless because it has broken with both the older genteel tradition and the folk tradition of the lower classes; that most Negro “achievements” played up in the Negro press are not really so important and in any case are ignored by the whites; that Negro “society” is a farcical imitation of white “society.” Frazier holds that the Negro middle and upper classes are characterized by a sense of inferiority, a fear of competition with whites, anxiety about loss of status, intellectual suffering, various escapist activities, self-hatred, antagonism toward other minorities (especially Jews), and the use of material possessions and of children as compensations (which Frazier labels “fetishes”). He also believes that the respectable Negro male exploits “charm and personality” to impress others, instead of adopting the “masculine role” called for by American culture, and he accuses the “black bourgeoisie” of finding rationalizations for discrimination instead of marshaling an aggressive attack upon it. Frazier will only succeed in getting upper and middle class Negroes to accept these assaults on their own myths if Negroes have in fact already achieved greater psychological security in the United States than they ever enjoyed before.



Supreme Court decisions involving Negro rights were, with some exceptions, an official source of myth-making until as late as 1944. Indeed the Court’s decisions since 1944 demonstrate how fantastic some of the old decisions were. For example, the 1944 majority opinion in Smith v. Allwright simply held that, since the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited restriction of the franchise without due process of law, and since a primary was an election, it was illegal to prevent Negroes from voting in a primary. Previously the Court had repeatedly avoided a clear-cut statement as to whether a primary was actually an election, in spite of the fact that in the one-party South the general election almost always merely confirmed the results of the Democratic primary.

The epoch-making 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education invoked the well-known fact that segregation in the public schools had detrimental psychological effects on Negroes, and hence was illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment, which holds that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of any citizen of the United States.” The 1954 decision was a direct reversal of the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which was based on the following idea: “Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other. . . . We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” This was simply a follow-up to the mythological reasoning in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) where the Court made an undefined distinction between “citizens of the United States” and “citizens of the State,” attributed the disputed right to the latter, excused itself from specifying any rights belonging to the former, declared that state governments could make any law abridging the privileges or immunities of “citizens of the State,” and hence nullified the major clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Another notable decision in the same myth-making vein was in the Civil Rights case (1883) in which the Court declared unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875, to insure the constitutionality of which the Fourteenth Amendment had been specifically passed and ratified.

The myth-making character of the Court’s decisions did not go unnoted in their time. Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Kentucky Unionist, wrote a vigorous dissenting opinion in the Civil Rights case which began with this statement: “The opinion in these cases proceeds, it seems to me, upon grounds entirely too narrow and artificial. I cannot resist the conclusion that the substance and spirit of the recent amendments of the Constitution have been sacrificed by a subtle and ingenious verbal criticism.” Yet the majority decision in the Civil Rights case still stands today as the law of the United States. Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, however, has been vindicated by the Court’s unanimous 1954 ruling. In that dissent Harlan wrote, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

The Reconstruction period, 1867-1875, is another area in which myth drove out history. According to the popular mythological view, Negroes and carpet-baggers then dominated the Southern state governments, which were cesspools of corruption, and did nothing to protect white womanhood from rape by savage Negroes. The actual facts are that only one Southern legislature (and that one for only two years) had a majority of Negroes; as it happens a majority of that particular state’s population (as of several other states) was Negro. There were no Negro governors, and the twenty-two Negroes who served in Congress (1869-1901) were on as high an educational level as their white colleagues.

There was never a great number of “carpet-baggers”—most of the Northerners who moved South during the Reconstruction period were Federal officials who came to administer the programs that Congress had enacted, or schoolteachers (mainly New England spinsters) who came to start the South’s first public school program (for whites as well as Negroes). As for the “Scalawags”—native Southerners, mostly of the poorer classes, who cooperated with Federal Reconstruction—they assumed a temporary prominence which they lost after 1875, when they joined the former Confederate leaders in subordinating the Negro. Nor were the Southern state governments any more corrupt than the Northern and Federal governments of the same period. The golden cuspidors in the halls of Southern legislatures that even so distinguished a historian as Allan Nevins gave credence to (a mistake he later apologized for) are legendary.

There is no evidence of a Reconstruction crime wave, and while rapes did occur they were not nearly so frequent as lynchings, which the mythology interpreted as the Southern white community’s reaction to rape. When statistics were collected after the 1890′s, it was discovered that only a fourth of the lynch victims were even accused of rape, and since there was usually no preceding trial, it is impossible to tell how many of the accusations were just. The Reconstruction, as its name implies, was actually a period in which the Federal government tried to reestablish a modicum of social welfare and order in a disorganized and war-torn South. Contrary to the belief of the myth-makers that it was a time of unmitigated turmoil and terror, Reconstruction’s real failure was that it did not go far enough. The Negroes were not provided with a basis for economic independence, and this situation—as Franklin points out—made it easier for upper-class Southerners to restore a system of white supremacy.

The post-Reconstruction period also has its myth—that the restored power of the former slave-owners in state government brought order, peace, and gradual progress to the South. The facts are that violence and illegal activity were institutionalized and absorbed into the law-enforcement agencies themselves, so that Southerners—both white and Negro—have never known the security of life, limb, or property taken for granted in the North. Moreover, the South made no economic progress until it began to adopt Northern patterns of industrialization and mechanization, starting in the 1920′s. Meantime, around 1900, the Negro was pushed down to an economic and social level such as he had not experienced even during the days of slavery. The mythology has it that segregation was a traditional Southern institution; actually most practices of segregation were created by state law during the 1890′s and received their basic legal sanction in Plessy v. Ferguson.



The Negroes of the United States have been a subjugated people, and their behavior and living standards show the marks of oppression. It is impossible to tell precisely what they would accomplish if they had the same opportunities and liberties that other Americans have. Significant progress toward equality only began after 1942, and already there is a marked improvement in living standards and behavior patterns among a considerable number of Negroes. It still remains true that Negroes are conscious of themselves first as Negroes and then as Americans: as Franklin puts it, the main question for Negroes today is not whether the world will be destroyed by the atomic bomb, but whether their homes will be destroyed by a bomb thrown by their white neighbors. Nevertheless Negroes are Americans—indeed they are ultra-American, as Frazier somewhat disgustedly points out, in considering some of the foibles of American culture—and they ask nothing more nor less than equal treatment and acceptance as Americans.

The economic, political, and legal changes since 1942 are rapidly insuring equal treatment. But full acceptance awaits the clearing away of the rubble of mythology. Books like those of Franklin, Logan, and Frazier are among the first efforts in this direction, although they suffer from their lack of contact with other work that has been done in the field, and from the general absence of detailed technical studies of relevant historical demography, constitutional law, popular symbolism, etc., etc. Some of the detailed studies now being made, like Dudley and Beverly Duncan’s The Negro Population in Chicago,4 while competent, do not meet the need. The Duncans fail to place Chicago’s changes in the context of larger American changes, and their conclusions are dated, since they rely entirely on the last published census and ignore subsequent important trends. But the quality of monographic researches on the Negro is improving rapidly, and the gaps in scholarship will clearly be bridged soon. This research, to be significant, will require the combined efforts of historians and sociologists, who at the moment are unfortunately working in isolation.



1 Knopf, 639 pp., $7.50.

2 Van Nostrand (paperback), 191 pp., $1.25.

3 Free Press, 264 pp., $4.00.

4 University of Chicago Press, 367 pp., $6.00.


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