Commentary Magazine


White Racism

To the Editor:

In “Is White Racism the Problem?” [January] Murray Friedman appears to answer his own question in the negative—without having first defined “white racism.” In fact, while he admits to “many real differences between the Negro and other groups in this country, including the Negro’s higher visibility and the traumatic impact of slavery,” he argues that the Negro is “nevertheless, involved in much the same historical process experienced by all groups, with varying success, in attempting to make it’ in American life.” . . . Disavowing “simplistic slogans and equally simplistic appeals to the American creed,” he concludes by suggesting that: “There can be no effective intergroup negotiating or bargaining unless due regard is paid to the interests of all groups.” In short, he replaces one simplistic appeal with another. Is it any wonder that so many black militants, extremists, and nationalists despair of the prospect of any meaningful dialogue with “white” people? . . .

What in fact seems to differentiate the black’s experience in this country from that of the Jews, Irish, and other oft-cited “minority” groups is that by deed and attitude the slave and his descendants have been excluded from the moral sphere shared by most other subgroups of this nation. This means that the apparatus of the state has been deployed, however formally or informally, by deeds of omission or commission, to keep the black man from attaining economic, political, and social equality. . . .

Norman Goldner
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . It is difficult to see how Mr. Friedman arrives at his conclusion that because white Americans are divided into a variety of ethnic groups that are at times in conflict with one another they are exempt from participation as whites in the black-white confrontation, or how he thinks he can convince blacks that because white America is diverse it ceases to be white vis-à-vis the blacks.

In what has by now become an all too familiar litany on the part of liberal critics of the Kerner report, Mr. Friedman is more critical of the report than of the conditions it portrayed, and even blames this long-overdue recognition of the extent and depth of the black-white crisis for “helping to provoke the current backlash.” It would be more constructive if Mr. Friedman directed his attention to the meaning and quality of that backlash, with particular reference to its social and moral significance. . . .

One wonders to whom this piece is directed, with what purpose, and to what effect. Insofar as it is directed to liberals (to those who are still vocal and active in support of what they conceive to be legitimate black causes), Mr. Friedman urges that they “dispense with liberal rhetoric,” which means divest themselves of any notion that they are doing anything particularly right or noble or just. Here, rather than in the Kerner report, is a real backlash overtone.

Insofar as it is directed to Negroes, Mr. Friedman urges that they stop “pointing the finger of guilt either at Americans in general or at special groups” in the interest of “the development of strategies which can lead to a necessary accommodation.” Just what these accommodations are, Mr. Friedman does not reveal, but presumably they would be in the direction of black understanding and concern for the needs and fears of other groups.

In this regard, Mr. Friedman would be in a much stronger position to exhort the blacks had he addressed himself with equal, or indeed with greater, vigor to the “in” groups. . . . It is the white power structure which needs the prodding, which still must be convinced of the reality of the black condition and the desperate necessity for immediate remedial programs. . . . If “power has to be shared,” . . . the process out of which such sharing will eventually materialize must surely begin with . . . the present holders of power—and it is to them that Mr. Friedman should direct his appeal for accommodation rather than to the deprived and the powerless. . . .

Meyer Rangell
Floral Park, New York

_____________

 

Mr. Friedman writes:

On the whole the letters of Meyer Rangell and Norman Goldner grapple fairly with my analysis, except for Mr. Rangell’s charge that it contains “a backlash overtone.” I was careful to point out that I do not “deny the existence of racism as a force in American life, nor . . . underestimate the cruel and pervasive conflicts which it engenders.” Is it necessary to point out that I am wholly opposed to racism and have spent a good part of my life actively battling it?

I had the option of writing simply another article on the “social and moral significance” of white backlash, but to what purpose? This has been done usefully and effectively many times. Besides, denunciations of bigotry are so often taken for analysis and action by many people that I am, quite frankly, a little tired of them.

My premise is that part of the reason we have not made enough progress in the area of race and intergroup relations is that we have had a profound lack of understanding of the nature and dynamics of a pluralistic society. Because we are a nation of diverse ethnic, racial, and religious groups (at different stages of “in”-ness) whose vested interests, values, and styles naturally collide, we are always confronted by intergroup conflicts—quite apart from the disease of racism itself. By looking up from the conventional “good guy-bad guy” approach to these conflicts, we open the door to exploring different strategies and possibilities for accommodation that can, in fact, bring about significant progress.

Mr. Rangell asks, what kind of accommodations? I suggested several briefly in my article, but let me mention here the way in which we could respond to the problem of backlash in low-income and lower-middle-class white ethnic groups. Rather than simply flaying the behavior of some of the nationality groups in Milwaukee, Chicago, and other cities on issues such as open housing, Negro militancy, and the like—and it has often been atrocious—we must also examine and deal with some of the underlying problems of these groups. Most often they too are confronted with inadequate employment, housing, and recreational opportunities; status and ethnic identity problems; and a deep sense of alienation, all of which are exacerbated by the current Negro thrust. Interestingly enough, a politician has emerged on the scene—Mayor Kevin White of Boston—who has created a number of programs, such as the 15 branch city halls, which benefit poor whites as well as blacks. Mayor White has thereby earned the respect, and the votes, of the Irish and the Italians in his city. . . .

Instead of a moralistic litany of “you’re guilty, you’re guilty, you’re guilty,” we must develop pragmatic strategies and programs that work for all groups in our society. I believe this approach, by tending to the needs and de-escalating the anxieties of other groups, will be more likely to help bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life.

Both Mr. Goldner and Mr. Rangell suggest that I address myself with equal or greater vigor to the white power structure for remedial programs on the black man’s behalf. I think I clearly pointed out that if we are to have peace and progress in a multigroup society, power must be shared by “ethnic ins” with “ethnic outs.” Obviously this means that WASP corporate leadership, Jewish teachers and school administrators, and Italian and Irish craft-union members will have to move over and make room for various minorities. But the phrase “white power structure” is too simplistic and smacks of the “liberal rhetoric” which I conceive to be part of the difficulty of dealing with the kind of problems we are discussing.

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