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June 1966

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, and needy.

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 white neighborhoods.

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?

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 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.

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.

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.

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 home territory.

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.

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.

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."

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 mercy.


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.

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