It is very easy to go astray in regard to the matter of personal aversion toward the members of alien races, to magnify greatly the reality and importance of it. What seems race-aversion is frequently something else, namely, revulsion aroused by the presence of the strange, the unusual, the uncanny, the not-understood. Such revulsion is aroused, not only by the members of alien races, alien and unfamiliar, but as certainly by strange animals of not more terrifying appearance than the well-loved cow and horse; and it would be aroused as really and as painfully, doubtless, by the sudden proximity of one of Milton's archangels. It was not necessarily race-aversion which made Emerson, and may have made many another Concord philosopher, uncomfortable in the presence of a Negro, anymore more than it is race-aversion which makes the Fifth Avenue boy run from the gentle farmyard cow; any more than it is race aversion which would make me uncomfortable in the presence of Li Hung Chang. The Negro, simply, it may be, was a mystery to Emerson, as the farmyard cow is a mystery to the Fifth Avenue boy, as the Chinaman is a mystery to me.
The Negro is not a mystery to people whom he has nursed and waited on, whose language he has spoken, whose ways, good and bad, he has copied for generations; and his personal presence does not render them uncomfortable, not, at any rate, uncomfortable enough to beget the sense of a burden or a problem.
It may be very difficult for Northern readers, to whom the Negro is in reality a stranger, a foreigner, to appreciate fully the force of what has just been said; but appreciated by them it must be, or they can never hope to realize the innermost meaning of the race problem in the South.
So much for what the race problem is not. Let me without further delay state what it is. The foundation of it, true or false, is the white man's conviction that the Negro as a race, and as an individual, is his inferior: not human in the sense that he is human, not entitled to the exercise of human rights in the sense that he is entitled to the exercise of them. The problem itself, the essence of it, the heart of it, is the white man's determination to make good this conviction, coupled with constant anxiety lest, by some means, he should fail to make it good. The race problem, in other words, is not that the Negro is what he is in relation to the white man, the white man's inferior; but this, rather: How to keep him what he is in relation to the white man; how to prevent his ever achieving or becoming that which would justify the belief on his part, or on the part of other people, that he and the white man stand on common human ground.
That such is the heart of the problem should be made evident by this general consideration alone: namely, that everywhere in the South friction between the races is entirely absent so long as the Negro justifies the white man's opinion of him as an inferior; is grateful for privileges and lays no claim to rights. Let him seem content to be as the South insists he shall be, and not only is he not harshly treated, not abused, and never boycotted, but he is shown much kindness and generosity, and employment awaits him for the asking. Trouble brews when he begins to manifest those qualities, to reveal those tastes, to give vent to those ambitions, which are supposed to be characteristic exclusively of the higher human type, and which, unless restrained, would result in confounding the lower with the higher. The expression “Good Nigger” means everywhere in the South a real Negro, from the Southern standpoint, one who in no respect gets out of focus with that standpoint; the expression “Bad Nigger” means universally one who in some respect, not necessarily criminal, does get out of focus with it. So, stated differently, the race problem is the problem how to keep the Negro in focus with the traditional standpoint.