The White Northerner:
Pride and Prejudice
"You'd think Negroes were the only people in America that
have a tough time,"a resentful thirty-year-old Northern mother complained to
Dr. Coles, a psychiatrist in the Harvard University Health Services, in the
course of his research into the day-to-day realities of race relations. He
found little ground for the smugness Northerners frequently display when they
talk of integration and the South.
by Robert Coles, M.D.
For decades a steady trek of Negroes from the South has increasingly confronted
the North and the Far West with race as a local, volatile problem. But it is
only recently that the North has had to face its white problem, in contrast
with that of a Negro one. The historical and political pressures working to
liberate the Negro have not been confined to the South. Negroes everywhere in
America are awakened. No longer do they stay quietly in their bulging
neighborhoods, out of everyone's way but their own. Aroused Negroes in the
South have had a clear direction to travel; there were--and even with new laws
still are--voting polls to enter, restaurants to frequent, schools to claim as
theirs too. Negroes in the North have the complaints of the poor. Even to lodge
those complaints, and certainly to make sure that those complaints lead to
changes, requires not a struggle for political rights supposedly every
American's by birth, but a direct assault on our complicated, ambiguous, not
always equitable social and economic system.
Yet Negroes are not the only ones struggling for money and position in America.
In the South they alone have been excluded from a wide variety of places and
privileges, though there--and elsewhere, too--there are millions whose white
skin gives them precious little more than the Negro has. In the North such
people have not even had what is any Southern white man's consolation. "I'm
poor," a fiercely segregationist farmer in Alabama once told me, "but I'm proud
of my race, and I'd as soon die as see it contaminated." I can still see his
home, a cabin really, "two rooms and a pathway." His farm is small, and so is
his income. His children are getting neither the quality of food nor the
education this country can well afford for everyone. His wife is a tired but
determined woman. Once, a few years ago, they left their farm for the city; but
there, too, they saw hardship, and a kind of impersonal living they could not
bear. 'So we're back here. At least we can grow some food; and the niggers
aren't creeping in on us." As long as Negroes were niggers, and niggers tightly
kept in their place, the farmer was at least that much a man of property.
Millions of blacks were his.
I spent a number of years in the South, trying to comprehend the feelings and
attitudes of hard-pressed yeomen like that man, as well as those of Negroes no
longer willing to sacrifice their lives and livelihood to the emotional
security of such white people. More recently I have returned North, now to
learn how Negro and white children manage under the desegregation, by busing,
of so-called de facto segregated schools. Beyond that, however, I am trying to
gain some sense of how their parents, and others like them, feel, not only
about particular problems, like the value of the neighborhood school or of
busing, but the more general matter of their racial feelings, their attitudes
toward whites or Negroes, as the case may be.
In the case of the Negro families I have come to know, there is, frankly,
little new to be heard and seen. All over the country, Negroes are waging a
similar struggle, and though the Southern sector of the battle is harder, the
Northern one is no easy game either. What Negroes in both sections share is
their long-subdued rage, their finally acknowledged, freely proclaimed
frustration. They are on the march, everywhere on the march. This is their
historical moment, and it is a binding one for large numbers of them in every
region. "Every time we make a gain, anywhere, I feel it," a twelve-year-old boy
from Boston told me recently. Two years ago I heard words like that almost
daily from Negro children in Georgia and Louisiana. Even Negroes who still feel
terribly cornered or beyond that, dazed by years of hunger, uselessness, and
joblessness, manage to say what I heard from one old man in a Northern ghetto,
"It's all over for me, and a lot of others; but one thing makes me glad, every
time I think of it: it'll never be as bad again for us. It just can't be.
That's what civil rights means to me."
For whites the civil rights movement has supplied no such assurance,
confidence, or new comradery. Quite the contrary, in both North and South there
has been characteristic but quite differently expressed confusion. The white
Southerner has found himself less and less that: more and more he is a
Southerner, with all the special problems every region has, who happens to be
white. "The nigras, we have to get them to cooperate with us, like everybody
else, if we're going to get more industry here and keep the city booming." Once
a convinced segregationist, in two years he had yielded one way of thinking for
another, and seemed not the slightest troubled or hurt for the exchange. In
point of fact he was only confused by his own resiliency, by an occasional
twinge of memory: "How can you say 'never' one year, then 'yes' the next? It
wasn't just that we obeyed the law. I guess it was really because we finally
got it through our heads that it was in our own best interests to do it."
In the North and the West the issues have not been so clear-cut. It is not a
matter of swinging into line with the rest of the nation so that its laws are
obeyed, its customs followed. The rest of the nation is the North and the West,
and from Harlem to Watts, uneasy, suspicious millions present themselves, newly
aroused and aware, to the rest of us. What they demand cannot be satisfied by
compliant voting registrars or the fresh hospitality of restaurant owners. Very
poor, and long scorned, they are asking for money and power. In so doing they
stand alongside others, who have their own reasons to feel shaky, apprehensive,
Recently in Boston some Negro children were bused into neighborhood schools
serving white children, not by the city, but upon the initiative of individual
Negro parents. Indignation spread through the area. The people became aroused,
and in unusually large numbers registered their sentiments at the polls. There
is uneasy talk about a so-called "white backlash vote," waiting in the wings to
single out and dismiss summarily anyone trying to give special favor to
Negroes, most particularly by encouraging them to live and go to school in
Here are the words of a thirty-year-old woman, the mother of six. She is Irish.
Her husband works in the repair shop of a utility company. They live in a mixed
Irish and Italian neighborhood in Boston where homes vary, some modestly
comfortable and well kept. others in obvious decline. Her young children now
have several Negro children in classes with them, and though the two young boys
and the little girl do not seem to mind, their mother is quite upset.
Why do they do it? I don't understand them at all. They have their own
people just as we do, but suddenly they're not happy together. They want to go
here and there and send their children everywhere. All you hear these days is
news about them. You'd think Negroes were the only people in America that have
a tough time. What about the rest of us? Who comes here asking us how we get
by, or how we feel about what WE had to go through?
In nearly every interview, I hear in one way or another certain common themes:
we all have it rough, the Negro being only one of many in that regard; what the
Negro calls the civil rights movement in the North is in fact an attempt to
crowd out others, from schools, jobs, and opportunities of one sort or another;
no one is entitled to anything "special," not when others have to sit by and
get little or nothing; somehow the Negro is rather devious and clever, as well
as half-witted and immoral, because he has managed to exact both sympathy and
consistent help from people--the well born, the well educated--who have ignored
the misery of other people for decades.
My father couldn't find a job either, not a steady one, anyway. I
remember my mother telling us how he walked and walked, practically begging for
work. She said he would almost offer to work for nothing rather than sit around
home doing nothing. The day he applied for relief was the saddest day of his
life. It broke him. He hated himself ever after. He was always against taking
charity and to have to ask for it was too much for him. When the war came he
got steady work again, but my mother said he never was the same. He was always
nervous, worried about losing his job like in the thirties. He became very
tight with his money; he even hoarded pennies in a bank....He was plain scared
for the rest of his life. To be truthful, I think he died happy. It was like a
relief for him. He was very religious. He went to Mass every morning. He died
with a smile on his face and our mother, she said he had been waiting for that
day for a long time. He used to say to her that whether it was heaven or hell
the good Lord chose for him, it would be better than the worry and the trying
to make ends meet of this world.
That's the trouble, though, with Negroes. They're a superstitious set.
They have no real faith, except all that shouting they do, and they only know
how to ask, not go out and earn. I know they had it bad here, but so did we
all, my father and everyone else practically, except for the rich. And it's the
rich, out there in the suburbs, who keep on telling us what we should do. They
preach at us to take them here and let them live there, and act this way to
them, and that, and so on until you get sick hearing it all. Suddenly they re
so kind, the suburban crowd. They stepped all over us, and kept us out of
everything, the Yankees and the college people over there at Harvard did. Now
they're so good. They're all excited and worried about people, but only the
Negroes get their sympathy, only them. Talking about prejudice, that's what we
face, prejudice against US. I think we should start suing in all the courts,
and marching down those streets, like the Negroes. Maybe if we had done that a
long time ago, we wouldn't still be so up against it now.
In the South the Negro can be lived with by the white man, at very close
quarters, too. Even the poorest white man can keep company with Negroes, share
jokes and general talk with them. The white child can play with Negroes; while
growing up he can eat from their hands; as an adult he works with them every
day. The Negro's general position helps the white man feel on sure ground,
above the uncertain social and economic waters that threaten mast of us at one
time or another with feelings of worthlessness or insecurity. In the particular
situations of daily life, however, a given Negro can be depended upon, even
though, as a race, they can be excluded or looked down upon.
In the North, for many white people the Negro, perhaps pitied in the past, is
now a constant topic of news and conversation. He comes upon a scene where his
presence is new. He comes upon a region with its own history of religious
prejudices and racial antagonisms, at times cloaked perhaps, but no less grim
and brutal than those the South has lived with so defiantly. While he has
aroused the concern, even the devotion, of many, to others his arrival and the
widespread solicitous response to his arrival only confirm a number of existing
fears and suspicions. Life is indeed harshly competitive; another group is
coming, and at a time when jobs may be scarce. Moreover, those who favor the
Negro and want so earnestly to aid him are the very people who care not at all
about the poor (and white) people who have been living in the cities and towns
of the North for generations, or at the least before the Negro came to stake
out his claim.
A young lawyer--an aspiring politician--in an extremely poor section of Boston
spoke as follows:
This is a slum...but it's a white slum, so no one cares about it. There's
no glamour in white slums, only Negro ones. The suburban housewives and the Ivy
League students, they've gone poor-crazy, but only for the colored poor.
They've been pushing us around all these years before the Negroes started
coming up from the South, and now they have someone to do it for them. They do
a good job, too, the Negroes do. They act as if they own the world, just like
their friends out there in the suburbs. It's contagious, you see. The ministers
and the students come on Saturdays to tutor the Negro kids and take them to the
park. They drive right by this neighborhood without blinking an eye. We have
overcrowded schools. We have rotten buildings that should have been torn down
years ago. We have lousy parks that aren't half the size they should be. A lot
of the people here have jobs that barely give them enough to get by; and the
others, I'll tell you, are on relief or unemployment checks or veterans'
checks, or something. We have our delinquents and our dropouts--the works. Who
cares, though? Who has ever cared about this neighborhood? If we have some
alcoholics here, or people in the rackets, that shows how no good we are. If
the Negroes pull a switchblade on you and rob and steal you to the poorhouse,
that means they've been persecuted, and we have to overlook everything they do
and treat them as if they were God's gift to America. It's a two-faced business
if you ask me and it's becoming worse now that they talk about juggling our
kids around so that they're "integrated." That's when you'll get the explosion
here, when they try to move our kids across the city, or bring all those little
darkies here. We've got enough, enough of our own troubles.
His voice was strong, sometimes strident. At first I didn't know whether he
meant everything he said, or whether he confused me with an audience in one of
his campaigns. After a few months he relaxed some with me, and though he never
really changed his views, he did become more philosophical:
I don't hate Negroes. A lot of people in this district do, but it's a
recent thing, and I agree that the real trouble isn't the Negroes, though they
sure manage to irritate people. I think a lot of this trouble between Negroes
and whites will last until the whole setup in the cities changes. Probably it's
true the race issue has made it better in the long run for the poor white man
as well as the Negro. You can't sit here and see others demanding jobs
without...wondering why you don't have one either, or if you do, why it pays so
little, or gives you nothing if you're fired or retire.
Through talks with people like him I think I have a fairly good sense of how
cheated and nervous many white people in Northern cities feel; cheated out of
the most ordinary comforts and opportunities, and nervous about losing what
they do have in the one war, the poverty program, which is being waged on their
I don't think we'll get through it without trouble, though. My people
really are sensitive to this thing now, and unless the whole country changes,
and we get as good a break as every Negro seems to think he's entitled to, then
there will be resentment, and you'll have what they call the 'backlash.'
I admit a politician is in a bind over this. He can try to lead his
people, try to make them realize what's really going on; or he can ride with
the tide, and make sure he wins every time; or he can really work the race
thing up into something, so that he makes it worse, but wins bigger and bigger
each time. I think most politicians are in the business of winning elections,
so they're not going to do the first. But most of them aren't rabble-rousers,
either. They just want to get elected; so it's the second choice they take,
just like everyone else does, usually. They try to steer a middle ground, not
so much one way or the other.
In many ways the poor and lower-middle-class white people in our Northern
cities are going through a kind of experience precisely opposite to that of
Negroes. At this time in history Negroes are being affirmed, while these white
people feel increasingly deserted and alone. The Negro's excuse for his present
condition is everywhere made known: it was not his fault, but ours. We carried
him here by force and kept him in bondage for three centuries. He was not
simply poor, but singled out for a very particular form of exploitation. The
brutality and exclusion that he experienced have now become our national
problem, because the price once exacted for the Negro's compliance lives on in
the illiteracy and fearfulness we encouraged in him for so long.
In the Northern cities a white man who is poor has no such past history to
justify his condition. He is poor, or uneasily not-poor, but no more than that.
Even our expanding middle class has its definite limitations. Those limitations
are now shifting in character but by no means disappearing. While it is true
that educational opportunity and the money to secure it are much more available
than ever before, we are also facing severe technological problems, as machines
replace not only men but other machines. It no longer is fatuous to predict an
astonishing productivity harnessed to a relative handful of workers.
Meanwhile, we stubbornly cling to an ethic that prefers to reward only those
who can find work, while consigning all the rest to charity, and not a little
contempt. Through no fault of their own, not improvidence, not ignorance, not
apathy, many people simply cannot obtain the regular work they want and need.
Others may have reasonably secure jobs, but they are jobs that hardly pay
enough to guarantee much security against an inflationary economy. "Who can
keep up with it?" a mother who was barely able to make ends meet said to me in
an aside during a talk we were having on racial tensions in Boston.
The Negroes say they have nothing. Well, we have more, that's true. My
husband works, and it's a steady job. We're Irish, so in this city there's no
trouble there, I'll have to admit. But it's as hard as can be just living and
staying even with everything. My husband has to work extra just to pay the
bills. We don't have any money put away. The kids always want something. All
the television does is tell you to buy, buy, buy. A few years ago my husband
didn't have a job, and we didn't know where our next penny was coming from. Now
he has the job all right but it's even harder in a way. Any raise he gets means
nothing compared to what happens to the cost of everything. You have to be an
owner of something or a professional man to have an easy mind today.
On another occasion I found her directly envious of Negroes. They were on the
bottom, and at least had somewhere to go. She didn't think there was much room
"up there" for her family. Moreover, the Negro gets an enormous amount of
sympathy and attention, and from people and institutions she feels possessive
about. As a matter of fact, in one of the bluntest conversations I have had,
she said to me:
They may be poorer than a lot of white people, but not by very much.
Anyway, what they don't get in money they more than gain in popularity these
days. The papers have suddenly decided that the Negro is teacher's pet.
Whatever he does good is wonderful, and we should clap. But if he does anything
bad, it's our fault. I can't read the papers anymore when they talk about the
race thing. I'm sick of their editorials. All of a sudden they start giving us
a lecture every day on how bad we are. They never used to care about anything,
the Negro or anything else. Now they're so worried. And the same goes with the
Church. I'm as devout a Catholic as you'll find around. My brother is a priest,
and I do more than go to Church once a week. But I just can't take what some of
our priests are saying these days. They're talking as if we did something wrong
for being white. I don't understand it at all. Priests never used to talk about
the Negro when I was a child. Now they talk to my kids about them all the time.
I thought the Church is supposed to stand for religion, and eternal things.
They shouldn't get themselves into every little fight that comes along. The
same goes with the schools. I went to school here in Boston, and nobody was
talking about Negroes and busing us around. The Negroes were there in Roxbury
and we were here.
Can we really solve the racial problem in this country without coming to terms
with the worries and fears of this woman? There is an unnerving thread of truth
that runs through her remarks. She and her husband do indeed have cause to
worry about jobs and money, even as Negroes do. It is quite true that our
newspapers, our churches, our political leaders have changed recently. Because
they have learned new social concerns does not mean that the people who for
years followed their leadership can fall in line easily, particularly when
there are no concrete, persuasive reasons for them to do so. Moreover, the
rivalrous and envious observations made by the people I have quoted ring sadly
and ironically true: there is a certain snobbish and faddish "interest" in
Negroes from people who would not think of concerning themselves with those
many white families who share with Negroes slums, poor schools, uncertain
employment--the parade of crippling events that make up what "we" so easily
call "poverty" or "cultural disadvantages."
Everybody can't live with you, can they? Everybody likes his own. But now
even the school people tell us we have to have our kids with this kind and that
kind of person, or else they will be hurt, or something. Now how am I supposed
to believe everything all these people say? They weren't talking that way a few
years ago. The governor wasn't either. Nor the mayor. They're all just like
cattle stampeding to sound like one another. The same with those people out in
the suburbs. Suddenly they're interested in the Negro. They worked and worked
to get away from him, of course, and get away from us, too. That's why they
moved so far, instead of staying here, where they can do something, if they
mean so well. But no. They moved and now they're all ready to come back--but
only to drive a few Negro kids out for a Sunday picnic. Who has to live with
all this, and pay for it in taxes and everything? Whose kids are pushed around?
And who gets called "prejudiced" and all the other sneery words? I've had
enough of it. It's hypocrisy, right down the line. And we're the ones who get
it; the final buck gets passed to us.
Many of the poor white people I know in both the South and the North envy not
merely the attention the Negro is now getting or even the help he so badly
needs. While most of them are not aware of it--I have met a few who are
exquisitely aware of it--they also envy the Negro his success at finding a
viable protest movement. They need one too; though likely as not they don't
know they do or don't know how to achieve it. They are stymied at the
complexity of our social and economic system; it is easier to hate than to
think up a way to make more and better-paying jobs available, or make a minimum
income for every family the law, and ethical principle, of the land.
If such people are frustrated, then so are we--the comfortable, well-educated,
and secure. This nation has yet to settle upon a policy that would aim to
distribute fairly our astonishing wealth, including all its surpluses and
potential productive capacities. Do we need wars and military spending to keep
our economy going, or can it be harnessed to provide the schools, houses,
hospitals, and just plain food and clothing that millions of us need and don't
have? Until such problems are solved, the bitterness and resentment we see
between whites and Negroes will continue, and perhaps increase--a reminder of
man's devious ability to conceal his real struggles, and thus remain at their
Copyright 1966 by Robert Coles. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1966 ; The White Northerner: Pride and
Prejudice; Volume 217, No. 6; pages 53-57.