Commentary Magazine

Is White Racism the Problem?

One of the less fortunate results of the black revolution has been the development of a by now familiar ritual in which the white liberal is accused of racism and responds by proclaiming himself and the entire society guilty as charged; the Kerner report was only the official apotheosis of this type of white response to the black challenge of the 60's. No doubt the report has performed a service in the short run by focusing the attention of great numbers of Americans on the degree to which simple racism persists and operates throughout the country, but in the long run its picture of an America pervaded with an undifferentiated disease called “white racism” is unlikely to prove helpful. And even in the short run, the spread of the attitudes embodied in the report may have had a share in helping to provoke the current backlash.

It is, perhaps, understandable that blacks should take phrases like “white racism” and “white America” as adequate reflections of reality. Nevertheless, these phrases drastically obscure the true complexities of our social situation. For the truth is that there is no such entity as “white America.” America is and always has been a nation of diverse ethnic, religious, and racial groups with widely varying characteristics and qualities; and conflict among these groups has been (one might say) “as American as cherry pie.” According to the 1960 census, no fewer than 34 million Americans are either immigrants or the children of immigrants from Italy, Poland, Ireland, and a host of other countries. Racially, the population includes not only Caucasians and 22 million blacks, but 5 million Mexican-Americans, and smaller numbers of Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and Puerto Ricans. Membership in U.S. religious bodies, finally, breaks down into 69 million Protestants (who themselves break down into 222 denominations and sects), 46 million Roman Catholics, and 5.6 million Jews.

Neither earlier restrictive immigration laws nor the forces working toward the homogenization of American life have rendered these groups obsolete. While it is true that we have carved out for ourselves a collective identity as Americans with certain common goals, values, and styles, we are still influenced in highly significant ways by our ethnic backgrounds. A number of social scientists, including Gerhard Lenski and Samuel Lubell, have even gone so far as to suggest that these factors are often more important than class. And indeed, membership in our various racial, religious, and ethnic groups largely accounts for where we live, the kinds of jobs we aspire to and hold, who our friends are, whom we marry, how we raise our children, how we vote, think, feel, and act. In a paper prepared for the National Consultation on Ethnic America last June, the sociologist Andrew Greeley reported that Germans, regardless of religion, are more likely to choose careers in science and engineering than any other group. Jews overchoose medicine and law. The Irish overchoose law, political science, history, and the diplomatic service. Polish and other Slavic groups are less likely to approve of bond issues. Poles are the most loyal to the Democratic party, while Germans and Italians are the least.

Such ethnic differences1 are by no means mere survivals of the past, destined to disappear as immigrant memories fade. We seem, in fact, to be moving into a phase of American life in which ethnic self-confidence and self-assertion—stemming from a new recognition of group identity patterns both by the groups themselves and by the general community—are becoming more intense. The “black power” movement is only one manifestation of this. Many alienated Jews suddenly discovered their Jewishness during the Israeli War of Independence and especially the Six-Day War. Italians have recently formed organizations to counteract “Italian jokes” and the gangster image on television and other media, while Mexican-Americans and Indians have been organizing themselves to achieve broadened civil rights and opportunities. At the same time large bureaucracies like the police and the schools are witnessing a growth in racial, religious, and ethnic organization for social purposes and to protect group interests.2 To some degree, each of us is locked into the particular culture and social system of the group from which we come.


The myth, to be sure, is that we are a nation of individuals rather than of groups. “There are no minorities in the United States,” Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian, declared in a World War I plea for unity. “There are no national minorities, racial minorities, or religious minorities. The whole concept and basis of the United States precludes them.” Thirty years later, the columnist, Dorothy Thompson, warned American Jews in the pages of COMMENTARY that their support of Israel was an act of disloyalty to the United States. “You cannot become true Americans if you think of yourselves in groups. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not become American, and the man who goes among you to trade upon your nationality is not worthy to live under the Stars and Stripes.” And more recently the New York Times criticized Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Farmer in similar terms after the two Negro leaders had laid claim to a share of the national wealth and economic power for Negroes as a group. Terming this plea “hopelessly utopian,” the Times declared: “The United States has never honored [such a claim] for any other group. Impoverished Negroes, like all other poor Americans, past and present, will have to achieve success on an individual basis and by individual effort.”

The ideology of individualism out of which such statements come may be attractive, but it bears little relation to the American reality. Formally, of course, and to a certain extent in practice, our society lives by the individualistic principle. Universities strive for more diverse student bodies and business organizations are increasingly accepting the principle that, like government civil service, they should be open to all persons qualified for employment. But as Nathan Glazer has suggested:

These uniform processes of selection for advancement and the pattern of freedom to start a business and make money operate not on a homogeneous mass of individuals, but on individuals as molded by a range of communities of different degrees of organization and self-consciousness with different histories and cultures.

If, however, the idea that we are a nation of individuals is largely a fiction, it has nonetheless served a useful purpose. Fashioned, in part, by older-stock groups as a means of maintaining their power and primacy, it also helped to contain the explosive possibilities of an ethnically heterogeneous society and to muffle racial divisiveness. Yet one symptom of the “demystification” of this idea has been the recognition in recent years that the older stock groups are themselves to be understood in ethnic terms. The very introduction of the term WASP into the language, as Norman Podhoretz has pointed out, signified a new realization that “white Americans of Anglo-Saxon Protestant background are an ethnic group like any other, that their characteristic qualities are by no means self-evidently superior to those of the other groups, and that neither their earlier arrival nor their majority status entitles them to exclusive possession of the national identity.” As the earliest arrivals, the WASP'S were able to take possession of the choicest land, to organize and control the major businesses and industries, to run the various political institutions, and to set the tone of the national culture. These positions of dominance were in time challenged by other groups, in some cases (the Irish in city politics, the Jews in cultural life) very successfully, in others with only partial success (thus Fletcher Knebel reports that, contrary to the general impression, “the rulers of economic America—the producers, the financiers, the manufacturers, the bankers and insurers—are still overwhelmingly WASP”).

But whatever the particular outcome, the pattern of ethnic “outs” pressuring the ethnic “ins” for equal rights, opportunities, and status has been followed since colonial times and has been accompanied by noisy and often violent reaction by the existing ethnic establishment. There was the growth of the Know-Nothing movement when the mid-19th century influx of Irish Catholics and other foreigners posed a challenge to Protestant control; there was the creation and resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan at every stage of the black man's movement toward equal rights; there was the organization of Parents and Taxpayers groups in the North and White Citizens Councils in the South to oppose school desegregation and Negro school gains. Bigotry and racism certainly played a part in these phenomena. Yet they are best understood not as symptoms of social illness but as expressions of the recurring battles that inevitably characterize a heterogeneous society as older and more established groups seek to ward off the demands of newer claimants to a share of position and power.

Even the recent explosions in the black ghettos have a precedent: “In an earlier period,” Dennis Clark tells us, “the Irish were the riot makers of America par excellence.” They“wrote the script” for American urban violence and “black terrorists have added nothing new.” So, too, with some of the educational demands of today's black militants. As late as 1906, the New York Gaelic American wanted Irish history taught in the New York City schools!


Racial and ethnic conflict takes its toll, but it has frequently led to beneficial results. When pressures mounted by the “outs” have caused widespread dislocation, the “ins” have often purchased community peace by making political, economic, legal, and cultural concessions. As the Irish, for example, became more fully absorbed into American life through better jobs, more security and recognition—in short, as the existing ethnic establishment made room for them—Irish violence decreased, and the Irish have, in fact, become some of the strongest proponents of the current racial status quo. The hope of achieving a similar result undoubtedly accounts in some measure for concessions which have been made to Negroes in many racially restive cities today. Thus, when white voters in Cleveland helped elect a Negro mayor (Carl Stokes), they were not only recognizing his abilities—which are said to be considerable—but also acting in the belief that he could “cool it” more effectively than a white mayor. Nor is it a coincidence that the Los Angeles city and county school boards are now headed by Negroes.

In the past, a major barrier to the advancement of black people has been their inability to organize themselves as a group for a struggle with the various “ins.” Their relative powerlessness has been as crippling as the forces of bigotry arrayed against them. As one Philadelphia militant said, “Impotence corrupts and absolute impotence corrupts absolutely.” But some black power leaders have recently emerged with a better understanding than many of their integrationist colleagues of the fact that successful groups in American life must reserve a major portion of their energies for the task of racial or religious separation and communal consolidation. Divorced from posturing and provocative language, the emphasis by certain (though not all) black militants on separatism may be seen as a temporary tactic to build political and economic power in order to overcome the results of discrimination and disadvantage. “Ultimately, the gains of our struggle will be meaningful,” Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton wrote in Black Power, “only when consolidated by viable coalitions between blacks and whites who accept each other as co-equal partners and who identify their goals as politically and economically similar.”

This is not to suggest that black power (or Jewish power or Catholic power) is the only factor in achieving group progress, or that “the American creed,” of equal rights, as Gunnar Myrdal has called it, is a mere bundle of words. Indeed, the democratic tradition can act as a powerful force in advancing minority claims even when the majority does not accept its implications. Public opinion polls have reported consistently that open-housing laws are unpopular with a majority of Americans, and yet 23 states and 205 cities have enacted such legislation and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 makes it a federal responsibility. Nevertheless, the democratic ideal obviously has never guaranteed full entry into the society to ethnic out-groups. In a pluralistic society, freedom is not handed out; for better or worse, it has to be fought for and won. The “outs” can attain it only by agitation and pressure, utilizing the American creed as one of their weapons.

It is important in all this to recognize that no special virtue or culpability accrues to the position of any group in this pluralistic system. At the moment the American creed sides with Negroes, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and other minorities who have been discriminated against for so long. But we should not be surprised when Italians, Poles, Irish, or Jews respond to Negro pressures by rushing to protect vital interests which have frequently been purchased through harsh struggles of their own with the ethnic system. Here is how a skilled craftsman replies to the charge of maintaining racial discrimination in his union in a letter to the New York Times:

Some men leave their sons money, some large investments, some business connections, and some a profession. I have only one worthwhile thing to give: my trade. I hope to follow a centuries-old tradition and sponsor my sons for an apprenticeship. For this simple father's wish it is said that I discriminate against Negroes. Don't all of us discriminate? Which of us when it comes to a choice will not choose a son over all others? I believe that an apprenticeship in my union is no more a public trust, to be shared by all, than a millionaire's money is a public trust.

Surely to dismiss this letter as an expression of white racism is drastically to oversimplify the problem of discrimination. But if the impulse to protect vested interests accounts for the erecting of discriminatory barriers, no less often than simple bigotry or racism, it is also true that Americans are sometimes capable of transcending that impulse—just as they are sometimes capable of setting aside their prejudices—for the sake of greater social justice. E. Digby Baltzell has pointed out in The Protestant Establishment that the drive to gain equal rights and opportunities for disadvantaged minorities has frequently been led by members of older-stock groups. On the other hand, members of minority groups are not necessarily ennobled by the experience of persecution and exploitation. As Rabbi Richard Rubenstein has observed, “the extra measure of hatred the victim accumulates may make him an especially vicious victor.”

Nor does the position of a given ethnic group remain static; a group can be “in” and “out” at the same time. While Jews, for example, continue to face discrimination in the “executive suite” of major industry and finance, in private clubs and elsewhere, they are in certain respects becoming an economic and cultural in-group. To the degree that they are moving from “out” to “in” (from “good guys” to “bad guys”?), they are joining the existing ethnic establishment and taking on its conservative coloration. Rabbi Rubenstein has frankly defended this change in an article, “Jews, Negroes, and the New Politics,” in the Reconstructionist:

After a century of liberalism there is a very strong likelihood that the Jewish community will turn somewhat conservative in the sense that its strategy for social change involves establishment politics rather than revolutionary violence. Jews have much to conserve in America. It is no sin to conserve what one has worked with infinite difficulty to build.

So far so good—though, regrettably, Rubenstein uses this and other arguments to urge Jews to opt out of the Negro struggle. The point, however, is that not all the groups resisting black demands today are “in” groups. Just as in a fraternity initiation the hardest knocks come from the sophomores, the most recently accepted and hence least secure group, so in ethnic struggle the greatest opposition will sometimes come from groups whose interests would seem to make them natural allies.

At the moment some of the hottest group collisions are taking place in the big-city schools. The “outs”—in this case the blacks—see the older order as maintaining and fostering basic inequities.” Hence, we are now witnessing the demand for decentralization or “community control” of big-city school systems. The “ins”—in the case of New York, the Jews; in the case of Boston, the Irish—naturally see these demands as a threat. The blacks claim that the existing system of merit and experience tends to favor educators from older religio-ethnic groups; the latter fear that new and lowered criteria of advancement and promotion will destroy many of their hard-won gains. The result is increasing conflict amid charges of racism from both sides.

The underlying problem, however, is a power struggle involving the decision-making areas controlled by an older educational and ethnic establishment. At the heart of the issue is a group bargaining situation whose handling calls for enormous sensitivity and the development of procedures that will protect the interests of the conflicting groups. A similar confrontation in the 19th century which was badly handled was a major factor in the withdrawal of Catholics from the Protestant-dominated public schools and the creation of their own school system.


In the meantime, struggles among other groups persist, often also involving the schools. Frequently, these result from differences in group values and styles as well as interests. An example is the school board fight in Wayne Township, New Jersey, which attracted national attention in February 1967. The Jewish, and total, population of Wayne, a suburb of Paterson and Newark, had grown sharply since 1958, when it was a homogeneous Christian community with only 15 Jewish families. With a changing community came new pressures—burgeoning school enrollment and school costs, and anxiety over court rulings banning prayer and the reading of the Bible in public schools. There was one Jew on Wayne's nine-member school board in 1967 when two others decided to run. The vice president of the board, Newton Miller, attacked both Jewish candidates, noting, “Most Jewish people are liberals especially when it comes to spending for education.” If they were elected, he warned, only two more Jewish members would be required for a Jewish majority. “Two more votes and we lose what is left of Christ in our Christmas celebrations in the schools. Think of it,” Miller added.

Subsequently, the Jewish candidates were defeated amid widespread condemnation of the citizens of Wayne. The incident was cited by sociologists Rodney Stark and Stephen Steinberg as raising the “specter of political anti-Semitism in America.” In their study, they concluded, “It couldn't happen here, but it did.”

Miller's statements may indeed have appealed to existing anti-Semitic sentiment in Wayne. But this was not the whole story. After all, the Jewish member already on the board had been elected by the same constituency that now responded to Miller's warnings. And it must be admitted, furthermore, that by and large Jews are “liberals,” willing to spend heavily on the education of their children just as they are desirous of eliminating religious practices from the public schools—attitudes shared, of course, by many non-Jews. Miller appealed to group interests above all: to an interest in preserving traditional religious practices in the schools and in holding down education expenditures. There was in this case genuine concern by an older religio-ethnic establishment that its way of life and values were in danger of being swept away. The votes against the Jewish members were of course illiberal votes, but that was just the point. In Wayne, charges of anti-Semitism obscured the real problem: how to reconcile differences in group values in a changing, multigroup society.

All this is not of course meant to deny the existence of racism as a force in American life, nor to underestimate the cruel and pervasive conflicts which it engenders. But it must be recognized that the crucial element in much of intergroup conflict is not how prejudiced the contending parties are, but what kinds of accommodations they are capable of making. For many years, a federal aid to education bill has been tied up in Washington, in part because of a Roman Catholic veto. The Catholic hierarchy, whose schools have been undergoing financial crisis, and a number of Orthodox Jewish groups who also want government assistance for their schools are ranged on one side of the issue. On the other side are most Protestant and Jewish groups, along with civil-liberties and educational organizations, who are suspicious of the motives of the Catholic Church and fear that financial assistance by government to parochial schools will lead to an abandonment of the separation of church and state principle embodied in the federal and state constitutions, with the resultant destruction of the public schools. Debate now ranges in many states over providing free busing of pupils to parochial schools, supplying textbooks, auxiliary services, and equipment to non-public school students, and financing construction of buildings at church-related colleges and universities. The result has been an intensification of religious tensions.

In this controversy, however, the problem is not, as many seem to believe, mainly one of constitutional law. In spite of the First Amendment, American public education throughout our history has reflected the values and goals of a Protestant society—until, that is, Catholics and other groups began to press for, and finally obtained, a more neutral posture. The problem here is rather one of adjusting to the reality of the Catholic parochial school system—to the public service it performs and to the political power it represents. When the Constitution was adopted, Catholics numbered less than 1 per cent of the total population. Today they are the largest single religious group and they support a parochial school system which, in spite of criticism inside and outside the Church, continues to educate large numbers of Americans.3

It seems likely that this controversy will be resolved through a redefinition of the American public education system. Thus, secular and other aspects of parochial education that benefit the general community—subjects such as foreign languages, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and gym—will in all probability receive some form of public assistance. Indeed, this is already happening in the form of shared time or dual enrollment (parochial school children spend part of the day in public schools), aid to disadvantaged children under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and various other measures.


It is a tribute to our social system, proof of its workability, that the inexorable pressures of pluralistic confrontation do result in shifts in power and place WASP control of political life in the nation's cities was displaced first by the Irish and later by other ethnic groups. The newest group moving up the political ladder is the Negro, with mayors now in Gary and Cleveland. The Negro press predicts that by 1977 there may be 21 black mayors.

There are, of course, 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 is, nevertheless, involved in much the same historical process experienced by all groups, with varying success, in attempting to “make it” in American life. The idea that he faces a monolithic white world uniformly intent for racist reasons on denying him his full rights as a man is not only naive but damaging to the development of strategies which can lead to a necessary accommodation. It does no good—it does harm—to keep pointing the finger of guilt either at Americans in general or at special groups, when what is needed are methods for dealing with the real needs and fears of all groups.

As David Danzig has written: “Few people who live in socially separated ethnic communities, as most Americans do, can be persuaded that because their communities are also racially separated they are morally sick. Having come to accept their own social situation as the natural result of their ethnic affinities, mere exhortation is not likely to convince them—or, for that matter, the public at large—that they are thereby imposing upon others a condition of apartheid.” Nor is exhortation likely to convince the 20 million families who earn between $5,000 and $10,000 a year that they are wrong in feeling that their own problems are being neglected in favor of the Negro. It is clear that intergroup negotiation, or bargaining, with due regard for protecting the interests of the various groups involved, is one of the major ingredients in working out racial and religious adjustments. In other words, power has to be shared—in the schools, on the job, in politics, and in every aspect of American life.

The time has come to dispense with what Peter Rose has called the “liberal rhetoric . . . of race relations.” There can be no effective intergroup negotiation or bargaining unless due regard is paid to the interests of all groups. Nor will effective bargaining take place until we learn to go beyond simplistic slogans and equally simplistic appeals to the American creed.


1 Throughout this article, references to ethnic differences include racial and religious differences.

2 A New York City police spokesman listed the following organizations operating among members of the 28,000-member force several years ago: the Holy Name Society, an organization of Roman Catholics, with 16,500 members; the St. George Association, Protestant, 4,500 members; the Shomrim Society, Jewish, 2,270 members; the Guardian Association, Negro, 1,500 members; the St. Paul Society, Eastern Orthodox, 450 members; and the Hispanic Society, with 350 members of Spanish descent.

3 A study by Rev. Neil G. McCluskey in 1963 reported that 26 per cent of the children in New York, 34 per cent of those in Chicago, 39 per cent in Philadelphia, 23 per cent in Detroit, 28 per cent in Cincinnati, 30 per cent in Boston, and 42 per cent in Pittsburgh attend Roman Catholic parochial schools.

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