Commentary Magazine


The White Liberal

To the Editor:

James Baldwin, arguing in your symposium on “Liberalism and the Negro” [March], seemed to be fighting the wrong battle. His arguments against the white liberal have nothing to do with the realities of the fight for public accommodations or voter registration in the South, or with the struggle for jobs, for good education, or for decent housing which plagues the Negroes of the North.

On the Southern battlefields—in Selma, Alabama, for example—Mr. Baldwin remains a liberal: an angry, black Northern liberal who cannot be distinguished from an angry, white Northern liberal in intellectual references, speech patterns, accent, or usage. While others are fighting the real war in the South, Mr. Baldwin is like a chaplain standing behind the troops, issuing sermons to them when they are on leave from marching or from jail.

I was in Selma, Alabama two days before Mr. Baldwin was. I traveled with Dorothy I. Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women and two other ladies. Two of us were white, two were Negro. The Northern black liberal, James Baldwin, would have sneered at the efforts of the mixed team of liberal ladies who were trying to bring a little hope and a little help to that beleaguered town, and to build a bridge between the Negro and the white communities. Would a divisive tactic as suggested by Baldwin have been more useful?

Some of us were later subpoenaed to appear before the Dallas County Grand Jury. Perhaps Mr. Baldwin was too. That’s the way they treat all liberals in Selma—black and white alike. They subpoena them, they jail them, they try to intimidate them whether they are named Gregory, Baldwin, or Smith.

I heard Dick Gregory say at a Freedom Rally in Selma that he wished that by the grace of God there were some way the entire Negro race could disappear overnight. “They [the whites] would go crazy hunting us . . . because they need us.”

Mr. Baldwin must know that if all the white liberals disappeared overnight, the Negroes would come hunting us. We all need each other, not to hate, not to love, but to survive. . . .

(Mrs.) Louis G. Cowan
New York City

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To the Editor:

Having read your panel discussion, . . . I should like to say that James Baldwin speaks for me, and, I believe, for all . . . his colored brothers.

We have no desire to integrate into a burning house, “especially when the foundation is rotten.” We are more interested in our acceptance within a reconstructed society. . . .

Anthony Moody
New York City

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To the Editor:

We, of Liberator Magazine, were amused and interested by your symposium. We were also frightened. It seems that the “liberals” are not in contact with reality. We wonder whether you are showing the strains of racism and having to apologize for its existence. . . . We grieve for the liberals because they find themselves attached and attracted to and in love with tokenism and the select few Negroes who meet their standards. We grieve for you most particularly because we think you might be sincere but also misguided as to what the problems are.

As you continue to turn out material like that symposium, we can only hope that you are spending your evenings reading and thinking about what the real problems of our culture are. It seems that the participants in the discussion . . . were just not aware of those problems. In this connection, may we call to your attention a discussion on liberalism and the Negro, which appears in our June issue.

C. E. Wilson
Associate Editor
Liberator Magazine
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Contrary to Mr. Myrdal’s assertion, economic progress is not the answer to acceptance of the Negro, although it would help. . . . Even Negroes in the highest economic circumstances have not been accepted. . . .

Nor is Mr. Hook correct in his assumption, shared by many who probably call themselves liberals, that the problem of race relations can be solved by intelligence. This is not the answer. Pure, extraordinary love of a fellow being is the answer . . . . Cold intellectuality has gotten us nowhere . . . and never will. As Mr. Baldwin and so many other Negroes so vividly realize, we are talking too much and feeling too little. . . .

Janet Keim
Indiana, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

. . .The inability of the other panelists and the audience to understand what James Baldwin and Dr. Kenneth Clark were trying to say reflects . . . what could be called the “empathetic fallacy.” That is, the white liberal thinks that the American black man is as white as he is, and hopes that the black man in his turn will think that the white American is as black as he is. Unfortunately, as Mr. Baldwin’s writings consistently and passionately point out, this reciprocity does not exist. There may be some black Americans who are white, but there cannot at present, because of our mutual history, be white Americans who are black. . . . Because of the existence of this fallacy, we white liberals find it difficult to understand the hate that Baldwin talks about. It is a special kind of hate, having more to do with Buber’s I-thou relationship than with anger or despising. . . .

Again and again in the discussion, Mr. Glazer, Mr. Hook, and even Gunnar Myrdal trapped themselves into being unable to admit—as all of us liberals are unable to admit—that the black American is black and the white American liberal is white. All three from their various positions fell back on the “some of my best friends. . .” defense. And the most appalling performance was by Mr. Hook, who saw signs of salvation in the fact that university communities have no black-white problems. One wonders if there would still be no problems if those same communities were suddenly to acquire a proper proportion of Negroes—enough, indeed, to threaten faculty jobs. . . .

What the white liberal refuses to recognize is that every American Negro—every single one—lives in the dirty hole into which our past has put him, no matter how rich, how intellectual, how famous, how anything. Not one of us whites ever meets a Negro without feeling that, knowing it, or being ashamed to face and admit it. And we cannot help ourselves or matters in general simply by believing that Negroes are or can be, white like us. We have not let them live with us or as we do, and we must now pay the consequences.

What can we do? Aside from hating the history we share with the American Negro, we can do nothing except what we are now doing in our various ways. Like young lovers, we can only be stumbling, awkward, and inept—and Mr. Baldwin and Dr. Clark and all black American liberals will have to suffer us and perhaps even welcome us in order to achieve, by the only means available to us, the end we and they seek—a mutual exchange of enough whiteness and blackness so that deprivation and fulfillment can flow back and forth between us without the hindrance of thought or the obstacle of ethics. . . .

Sey Chassler
Executive Editor
Redbook Magazine
New York City

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To the Editor:

In the course of the symposium, Mr. Glazer repeatedly expressed amazement that there are so few Negro principals in New York City. . . .

Surely Mr. Glazer is aware that in the not too distant past there were also very few Jewish or Italian principals. Nevertheless, children of these immigrant groups, though growing up in slums, took advantage of educational opportunities and were able to meet the standards of a Board of Examiners whose procedures were reputed to be far more inflexible than those of the present Board. As Negroes, a more recent in-migrant group, take advantage of educational opportunities in New York City, they, too, will qualify and become principals. (It should be mentioned here that the Board of Education has recently set up special courses in Negro and Puerto Rican districts to coach Negro candidates for supervisory positions in the schools.)

Elsewhere, Mr. Glazer states that the Board of Examiners “. . . [has] tests which for a lot of reasons Negroes find hard to pass. . . .” If these, however, are fair tests of scholarship and understanding of educational problems, surely Mr. Glazer would not condemn, nor seek to change them, in order to secure more Negro principals. I believe the merit system of selecting qualified candidates, regardless of race, color, or creed, to be an equitable one, which has generally resulted in the selection of better qualified personnel for our schools. (In all phases of the examination except the final interview, the identity of a candidate is shielded by assigning a number to his paper so that neither prejudice nor favor is possible. . . .)

As more and more qualified Negro teachers enter the New York City school system and gain experience there, more and more Negroes will eventually qualify as principals. Our children deserve the best qualified principals available. This—and this alone—should be the criterion for their selection.

Joseph H. Aaron
President
Junior Principals Association
New York City

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To the Editor:

Why do so-called “white liberals” feel the need to justify their attitudes toward Negroes by theorizing in the areas of sociology and economics? Could it be that their “liberalism” is based on their ignorance of what the Negro really is? Could it be that they . . . are only partially able to perceive him as a human being?

Mr. Baldwin has tried, and I fear in vain, to convey to white Americans what it means to be a Negro in this country. Every Negro in America feels, in varying degrees, the reality inherent in Mr. Baldwin’s work. He tells the world what Negroes feel. Unfortunately, few of your panelists seemed to understand what he was saying. Their observations were academic and clinical, their approach reminded me of missionaries. . . .

As a self-incriminating portrait of “white liberals,” I feel that the panel was a brilliant success. It revealed that the white liberal is emotionally unprepared to be liberal when confronted with straight talk about the Negro. His perspective is too narrow.

Donald F. Joyce
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

The profound gap between Messrs. Baldwin and Clark and the rest of the participants . . . seemed to point up that the problem of race relations in America is not integration, but personal equality. . . . What Negroes are looking for as a group is not a middle-class house in an integrated neighborhood with a white-collar job, but rather the right to self-respect. . . . We should recall that a case was carried all the way to the Supreme Court over the right of a Negro woman to be addressed as “Miss” in an Atlanta courtroom . . .

There are major differences between the Negro experience and the Jewish or immigrant experience. One is that the Negro is not just discriminated against, but rather held in complete contempt. . . . And unlike the Jew of the Middle European ghetto whose experience his own somewhat resembles, the Negro does not have the buffer of pride in the law and the ghetto civilization . . . nor the buffer of isolation, . . . for he meets his white employers daily. . . . Before talking about civil rights, we must at least try to imagine what it would be like to grow up as a Negro. . . .

Julian S. Weitzenfeld
Farmville, Virginia

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To the Editor:

“Liberalism and the Negro” was a fascinating demonstration of how very nearly impossible it is for a Negro to make known to a white what being a black American means. (I should at this point admit to being white, which perhaps makes such a statement unforgivably presumptuous). It was staggering to witness how James Baldwin’s attempt to explain the implications of being black was challenged on all sides—as if his very perceptiveness and eloquence made his experiences as a Negro raised in Harlem of questionable relevance. It was a slight relief when Kenneth Clark intervened to rescue Baldwin from the stigma of being a unique eccentric of no particular color.

The problem . . . is incredibly difficult to solve, even theoretically. If whites could somehow experience in their guts the dreads, horrors, and occasional joys of Negro life it would be hard to imagine their continuing to pretend that Negroes aren’t quite human beings (a pretense white liberals can be expected to deny unanimously). But between the whites’ deep-seated fear of such empathy and the Negroes’ three-centuries-old tradition of dissembling in order to save their skins and their sanity, it is hard to imagine how the necessary intimacy could come about. Perhaps it happens in interracial marriages; conceivably the programs a few colleges have of sending a few white students to spend a year at Negro colleges accomplish a little along these lines. But the programs providing for groups of white and Negro families to spend Sunday afternoons in each others’ homes strike me as too superficial and self-congratulatory to be worthwhile. “Education,” the favorite liberal panacea, has yet to devise a way to enlighten men’s guts. Even were a well-intentioned white to move to Harlem, the fact of his being white would to a large extent invalidate the experiment. And if Baldwin has any approaches to offer to the problem, the white liberals in all probability refuse to take them seriously.

(Mrs.) Louise Bram
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

I was present at your symposium . . . and somewhat disconcerted to find myself tremendously indifferent to the occasion, the major reason being that I found the participants so obviously concerned with their own style as opposed to the subject itself.

Each had come armed with his personal suppositions, but because Mr. Baldwin tended to take a subjective and highly emotional approach, and the others, a more objective and theoretical one, it seemed to me that communication among the panelists themselves became the major problem. . . . I found it unfortunate that there tended to be more speeches than listeners. . . .

Rhoda Nathans
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Reflecting . . . upon James Baldwin’s attacks on the liberals, it struck me with a certain amount of glee (although I have only sympathy with the liberals, of whom I consider myself one) how very similar Mr. Baldwin’s attitude toward whites is to that of many Jews toward Gentiles.

As a non-Jew married to a Jew, many, many evenings of my life have been spent with Jewish friends and acquaintances in the course of which I have been told again and again that there are certain things I cannot understand because I am not Jewish. If I do seem to understand, I am told it is because I have a “Jewish heart.” This last remark is usually made in Yiddish and then kindly translated. I have also heard frequently about how devoid of color, sensitivity, and intellectuality practically all non-Jewish life is. . . .

(The foregoing is not to be taken as more profound than it seems. . . . It is merely a casual observation although I think there must be some moral to be drawn from it.)

Lees C. Waintroob
Highland Park, Illinois

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To the Editor:

I found your round-table discussion . . . quite disturbing. For all his eloquence and verbal facility, James Baldwin was unable to reach more than one white person in the audience and was totally incapable of communicating with any of the other liberal, intellectual panel members, who seemed to respond to him like old-fashioned toy horses with blinders on. This realization was especially depressing to me in that it served to highlight the utter futility of the less verbal Negro’s even attempting to communicate with the white “professional liberals” in his community. In other words, if James Baldwin can’t get through to them, I might just as well forget it.

(Mrs.) Irby D. Houston
Hopewell, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Your round-table discussion . . . left me depressed on two counts. First, it reinforced my own prejudices on the subject of liberalism, a term which seems to have become a semantic trap, useless for any kind of significant discourse . . . Second, I was appalled at the apparent inability of such perceptive and able people as James Baldwin, Kenneth Clark, and Sidney Hook to communicate with each other effectively. . . .

Kenneth Birr
Delmar, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . The comments made by Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Hook, and Mr. Clark about white Liberals remind me of what Jean-Paul Sartre had to say about democrats and anti-Semites: . . . To paraphrase, the democrat (liberal) tries to destroy the Jew in order to preserve the human being in him; the anti-Semite destroys the human being in order to see nothing but the Jew. The same thing is true of the attitude of a number of honest liberals toward the Negro.

Ulrich H. Jenny
Gerlafingen, Switzerland

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To the Editor:

The real difficulty with your symposium was that James Baldwin operates on two somewhat incompatible levels—Negro ideologue and artist—neither of them accessible to a liberal, narrowly defined.

Thus in his ideological role as the voice of “the people in the street,” Mr. Baldwin perforce resorts to rhetoric . . . whereupon Sidney Hook objects to his “exaggeration,” which has no place in the logical, reasonable discourse of an ideal liberal society. Nathan Glazer, on the other hand, concedes with baffled asperity that actual politics does invariably diverge from liberal theory. . . . What neither Glazer nor Hook seems to appreciate is that Baldwin’s rhetoric has been the means of welding the Negro civil rights movement together. . . .

On the other hand, when Mr. Baldwin speaks of a sort of liberal “collective unconscious,” a reservoir of unthinkable thoughts which makes “innocence” possible, he does so in his role as artist, not as ideologue. . . . The same is true in his answer to Lionel Abel’s question about the seeming contradiction in the claim that Negroes, though grievously disadvantaged . . . lead lives that are more vivid, vital, etc., than those of the more fortunate whites. Here Mr. Baldwin’s role as artist, “speaking again only for myself . . .,” lets him evade the paradox. The great majority of Negroes would be only too happy to be integrated into the bland, over-privileged, other-directed, feckless world of white liberalism, but James Baldwin, because he is a writer, is determined to hold out for something better. However, strictly as a Negro leader, Mr. Baldwin cannot legitimately insist on anything beyond the standard American pie: affluence, anomie, and the rest—for example, his extremely practical “last word” in the final paragraph of the symposium. . . .

Howard Hubbard
Sherborn, Massachusetts

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