The White Liberal's Retreat

In the eight and a half years that have elapsed since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision banning segregation in the public schools, a civil rights revolution has taken place. For a closer scrutiny of the changing attitude of some liberals toward desegregation, we turn to MURRAY FRIEDMAN, who holds a doctorate in American political and social history from Georgetown University and who has been an intergroup-relations official for eight years.


IN THE forties and fifties, liberals, intellectuals, and many middle-class whites came to believe that the elimination of segregation was the central domestic problem in our country. There was general agreement outside the South that once this was accomplished a host of social, political, and economic problems involving the Negro would disappear and he would finally be able to take his place as an equal partner in American life. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its momentous decision in 1954 banning segregation in the public schools, a high-water mark in the alliance of the liberal white and the Negro was reached. The decision set in motion the civil rights revolution we are experiencing today, in which the Negro, aided by a sympathetic white community, has been seeking entry into areas of American life previously closed to him.

In the eight and a half years that have elapsed, a reaction to desegregation and to militant efforts by Negroes to achieve it has emerged among many of those who greeted the High Court decision so enthusiastically. These second thoughts have developed as a result of the pain and turmoil involved in making what proved to be difficult social adjustments. In some measure, too, historical anxieties about and antipathy to the Negro have reasserted themselves. Such a retreat or pullback on the part of liberal whites (including many conservatives who are liberal on race issues) has important consequences for civil rights progress.

One of the indications of this retreat appeared following the wave of resistance that swept through the South after the 1954 decision. Northern liberals expected opposition, but when violence developed in Little Rock, Clinton, and other parts of the South and public schools were closed, they were startled by the extent of the upheaval. Gallup Polls have shown, as Charles Stember has noted in his recent study. Education and Attitude Change, a shift in attitude in 1957 among better-educated whites. Increasingly, they have been willing to accept a slower and smaller amount of desegregation in the South.

This mood was reflected by President Eisenhower at press conferences, where he sidestepped expressing an opinion on the decision itself and cautioned that change must first come about in the hearts and minds of men. It is found in the hesitation of the Kennedy Administration (which has been far better on civil rights than its predecessor) to introduce new civil rights legislation and in the efforts of the President to find a national consensus on racial issues.

While Northern opinion has firmly rejected violence and outright defiance of federal court decisions on desegregation, as demonstrated in Mississippi, it has accepted token integration, the device Southerners have skillfully fashioned to avoid the consequences of integration. Apart from indignant Negroes who have reacted with sit-ins and other direct-action efforts, few voices have been raised against token integration, in spite of the fact that less than 8 percent of Negro children in the South are attending desegregated schools, less than one percent if we exclude border areas such as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Northern opinion was satisfied with progress made when Atlanta, Dallas, and a few more cities admitted a handful of Negro children to white public schools for the first time without violence.

This new understanding of Southern adjustment problems on the part of white supporters of integration also results from certain changes that have taken place in the North. The heavy exodus of Negroes from the South since World War II. has, to a large degree, shifted the center of the race problem to the metropolitan areas of the North and West. The Negro is no longer an abstraction to the white liberal but a concrete reality — in many instances, a potential or actual next-door neighbor, a classmate of his child’s, a coworker at office or workbench. This confrontation very often points up the gap between the worlds of the Negro and the liberal white.

The white lives in a middle-class society marked by an emphasis and overemphasis on education, aspiration, and advancement. The world of the Negro frequently is the urban slum. It is a world of slum housing and slum living, where violence, family dislocation, and blunted hopes are the norms. (There is, of course, a middle-class Negro community, and it is growing, but most whites have little or no experience with it.) Contact with it produces shock and disgust, as in the description by Marya Mannes of the West Seventies in New York, where she grew up. There are still some nice people there, she writes, but they are lost in a “brown sea of squalor.”

Liberal whites are, consequently, caught in the dilemma of believing in equal rights for Negroes and even of working for them, while at the same time attempting to escape from the real and fancied disadvantages of desegregation. In recent years, they have helped put on the books of many cities and states laws banning discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, yet they themselves have been moving to the farthest reaches of the cities and to the suburbs. They have pushed up the enrollment at private and parochial schools, shut their eyes to the widespread practice of gerrymandering of school district lines to avoid integration, and helped to create pressures for separating slow from rapid learners in the public schools, a process which often results in keeping middle-class white children apart from Negro and Puerto Rican youngsters.

I do not want to oversimplify this situation. The movement out of the older areas of cities has always been a form of advancement for Americans. And the pressure for separating slow from rapid learners represents in no small measure concern among middle-class whites that educational excellence be encouraged. Liberals are genuinely worried about what the introduction of unprepared slum children will do to their schools. They are fearful that physical commingling of middle-class children with culturally deprived youngsters will depress the level of the schools serving the former while the latter, unable to keep up because of inadequate preparation and background, will become even more embittered and hostile. The result is that many liberals, while opposed to color lines, are helping to make these lines stronger and tighter.

IT WOULD be easy to dismiss liberal whites as possessing double standards and being as prejudiced as those they criticize, which some, in fact, are; nearer the truth, however, is the fact that they have been confronted with a series of extraordinarily complex problems growing out of the need to adjust to a modern urban society large numbers of rural Negroes from the South suffering from inferior, segregated educations and other deprivations. The belief of the liberal whites in interracial justice, while morally sound, does not provide a useful guide for dealing with this situation.

To add to his dilemma, the liberal white is increasingly uneasy about the nature and consequences of the Negro revolt. Out of the bitterness and want that have been the lot of the Negro in our society has come a civil rights revolution whose explosive power worries and even frightens those people who traditionally have been sympathetic to the Negro. The N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League were fashioned early in the century by a coalition of whites and Negroes to change old and create new law on civil rights and help adapt the Negro to his new urban environment. These essentially middle-class techniques of social action are now labeled too slow by newer Negro (and some white) “direct actionists,” who have turned to sit-ins and boycotts in the North as well as in the South, “buy Black” campaigns, and strident demands by Negro leaders that Negroes be elected or appointed to office on a frankly racial basis. There has also been a growth in the Negro nationalist movement.

Liberals are increasingly resentful of these demands. In testimony before a congressional committee investigating alleged discrimination against Negroes and Puerto Ricans in unions recently, David Dubinsky cried, “I’ll be damned if I will support the idea of the professional Negro, the professional Jew, the professional Italian that a man should be a union officer because of his race, color, or creed. He should be an officer on his merits, ability, character.” Quite so. But ethnic and religious considerations have long been a factor in public life, partly for practical reasons but also as a means of providing upward mobility for minorities. It is rather late in the game for liberals to hold up this yardstick rigidly to the Negro.

White leaders who have not or who are thought not to have adjusted to the new tempo of racial change have come under bitter attack. (The Chicago Daily Defender recently called Dean McSwain of Northwestern University, chairman of the Chicago Mayor’s Committee on School Board nominations, “a well-known Negro hater” and charged his committee was “composed of men and women who are little removed from the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council mentality” because they had proposed no Negroes for school board vacancies.) These harsh criticisms, which many white liberals see as making little or no distinction between friends and enemies, have angered many of them.

Involved also in the disenchantment of some liberals with the new Negro is the realization that they are being thrust aside from positions of leadership in the civil rights effort. Having controlled this fight for so long and dictated much of its strategy, the liberals resent being pushed out. Jewish civil rights groups, for example, have always felt a special interest in the Negro. Jews were active in the creation of the N.A.A.C.P.; for many years it has had Jewish presidents. More and more, Negroes are going it alone. Newer, completely Negro-led groups, such as Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and A. Philip Randolph’s Negro Labor Council have charged or indicated by their actions that white civil rights groups and the more conservative Negro organizations have been moving too slowly or not moving at all. This has produced considerable friction within the civil rights coalition, as evidenced in the bitter debates between Randolph and George Meany of the AFLCIO. The N.A.A.C.P. has recently added to the tension by leveling charges of racial discrimination against the Jewish leadership of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

The attacks upon Jewish civil rights leadership have been still another element in the growing estrangement of liberals from the Negro. A middle-class group with special status fears growing out of their own experiences with discrimination, Jews are worried about Negroes’ moving into their neighborhoods, which are often the first to be broken in the Negro advance. They are caught between their belief in interracial justice and a desire to join the middle-class exodus to the suburbs, a desire which has been heightened by evidence of Negro anti-Semitism and the rise of the “black nationalist” movements. Jews, however, continue to remain in the forefront of the civil rights fight; they are often found in the leadership of efforts to stabilize mixed neighborhoods and are usually the first to welcome newly movedin Negro families.

In the final analysis, a liberal, white, middleclass society wants to have change, but without trouble. And this an aroused Negro community cannot provide, as was demonstrated in the freedom rides crisis. When the first riders went into Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, in May, 1961, and were initially greeted by violence, there was strong sympathy for them. As the rides continued, however, the public mood shifted to apprehension.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy called for a cooling-off period. The head of the St. Louis Catholic Interracial Council, a veteran of more than twenty years in civil rights work, announced his opposition to the efforts of outsiders to bring about racial change while supporting sit-ins. “Whatever is used that increases racial tension,” he concluded, “is not good, per se.” By June 21, the Gallup Poll reported that 63 percent of those aware of the rides disapproved of them.

In his concern about avoiding social turmoil in race relations, the liberal white stands in danger of trying to contain the civil rights revolution. He cannot do this, nor would it be wise to do so if he could. It is a revolt well within the American tradition of social protest. Negro militancy, while it undoubtedly presents certain dangers, has accomplished the white liberal’s goal of bringing about civil rights advances. Within a year after the first rides, barriers to racially integrated travel in the South largely disappeared. Important social change is rarely accomplished without conflict; moreover, such change in the South has always required pressures from other parts of the country. If the pent-up bitterness of the Negro community is not relieved by the type of gains symbolized in the accomplishments of the freedom rides or the equally successful boycotts to obtain jobs organized by Negro ministers in many Northern cities, it might easily burst out in new and socially irresponsible directions, perhaps in the further growth of the racist, Negro nationalist movements.

Another area of difficulty lies in the rift that has been developed between the white intellectual and the Negro. To no group is the Negro more indebted. It was the sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and liberal thinkers and writers who, beginning in the thirties, attacked the myth of the inferiority of Negroes and helped gain wide acceptance for the belief that Negroes should be accorded equal rights and opportunities. One of the major grounds on which the U.S. Supreme Court rested its decision on desegregation was the evidence of social scientists that public school segregation created in the minds of Negro children feelings of inferiority and denied them equal protection of the laws. It is significant that the Supreme Court has increasingly come under attack from critics outside the South for the reasoning used in its desegregation decision, although few challenge the end result of the decision. Lawyers have taken the High Court to task for basing itself “upon the quicksands of social psychology.”

SINCE 1954, there have been indications of a change in the way in which the Negro and racial problems are viewed by intellectuals. There has even been an attempt to make racism scientifically respectable. One group has emerged which includes Carleton Putnam, a businessman and historian; Henry E. Garrett, former head of the Department of Psychology at Columbia and a past president of the American Psychological Association; and Nathaniel Weyl, author of The Negro in American Civilization, who argue that Negroes are inferior biologically and in innate ability to whites. They cite various studies which show that the I.Q. of Negro children is below that of white youngsters, the discrepancy becoming greater with advancing years, and point to the high rate of Negro crime and social disorganization. They attribute this to differences in brain structure between African Negroes and whites rather than to environmental shortcomings, deprivation, and discrimination.

While theories on racial differences have been repudiated by most social scientists, the appearance of these ideas and the seriousness with which they have been treated by some scholars and liberal thinkers are significant. Commenting on an article by Professor Garrett comparing Negro and white I.Q.’s in the Summer, 1961, issue of Perspectives in Biology, Professor D. J. Ingle, head of the Department of Physiology at the University of Chicago, writes, “There are reasons for thinking that racial differences in intelligence may be real.”And in a review of Weyl’s book, Nathan Glazer, who collaborated with David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd, while critical of Weyl’s reliance on African brain-size data and on other points, concludes that he “is dearly free of any prejudice and deserves credit for having raised for public discussion crucial aspects of the Negro question which receive little discussion in academic and liberal circles, and which are usually left in the hands of bigots and incompetents. . . . What are we to make of the high rates of [Negro] crime and delinquency, illegitimacy, family break-up and school dropout?”

That there are intelligence and behavioral differences between Negroes and whites, taken as groups, is of course true. Most social scientists attribute these differences to the special historical experience of the Negro. The important thing is that these differences are not fixed, as the racialdifference theorists believe. We know that in New York’s Demonstration Guidance project and Higher Horizons programs, conducted in slum schools, dramatic successes have been achieved in raising I.Q.’s and improving the behavior of Negro and Puerto Rican children. These programs point to the importance of making up for cultural shortcomings and stimulating the motivation of children to learn and behave rather than investigating African brain size.

The question that Glazer poses has been a source of growing concern to liberal thinkers (and to some Negro leaders) since 1954. John Fischer, in a widely discussed article, several months ago called upon Negro leaders to look up from the civil rights fight they are waging and give attention to remedying the behavioral and cultural shortcomings of the Negro. This emphasis has led to efforts such as Dr. Shepard’s in St. Louis, to upgrade Negro slum children before they are thrown into the more difficult world of the middle-class white, and to the dramatic successes achieved by New York’s Demonstration Guidance project and Higher Horizons programs. These efforts are a reflection of growth in the liberal’s understanding of the full dimensions of the race problem.

There is some indication, however, that the effort, as Fischer puts it, to bring about “changes in the habits, character and ambitions of a lot of Negroes” is causing some liberals to accept postponement of pupil desegregation, especially in slum areas, although they continue to accept the goal of integration. In his important and wellreceived book Slums and Suburbs, James Conant, while sharply attacking discrimination against the Negro, nevertheless sees no need to try to eliminate public school segregation that results from housing patterns and is not enforced by law. “I think it would be far better for those who are agitating for the deliberate mixing of children,” he writes, “to accept de facto segregated schools as a consequence of a present housing situation and to work for the improvement of slum schools whether Negro or white.” He would have the community turn its attention to pouring money and social services into these schools and into slum areas in order to bring its citizens up to the level of a middle-class society.

Few would deny that this needs to be done, and in massive proportions, but one can measure the distance the pendulum has swung when it is suggested that public school desegregation be dropped out of the process of dealing with the race problem in Northern cities. It has always been a cardinal tenet of the liberal belief that segregation plays a major role in contributing to the social dynamite stored up in the Negro slum because of the secondclass citizenship it automatically confers upon the Negro.

How desegregation should take place and with what safeguards, so as to protect educational excellence and maintain sound educational practice, are, of course, valid questions with which we must wrestle. But the public schools, which shape the thinking and attitudes of children and transmit our goals and values, should not be divorced from the effort to bring about an integrated society.

While the statement that there has been a pullback on the part of liberal whites will shock many of those who sincerely want to help Negroes obtain full citizenship, the phenomenon is nothing new in American history. It occurred following Civil War Reconstruction, when many of the Negro’s staunchest allies retreated or withdrew completely from the civil rights battle. It has been difficult to sustain the effort to bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life in the face of the strains this creates — his cultural and economic shortcomings and the open and covert opposition to integration that exists in all parts of the country. For hostility to according the Negro social equality has been almost as powerful a force in American life as has been the effort to secure these rights for him. On a trip through the United States in 1831, Tocqueville wrote, “The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it as intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

One other historical parallel may help to illuminate the process I am describing and to account for, particularly, the appearance of racist theories. In the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there emerged a racist philosophy among certain intellectuals that coincided with the influx into the country of large numbers of impoverished immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The counterparts of Putnam, Weyl, and Garrett — who, incidentally, came to dominate intellectual thought on racial issues down to the 1930s — also felt there are innate mental and behavioral differences between these new and older racial groups, the inhabitants of Southern and Eastern Europe possessing characteristics that would make them a burden to the community. It is not hard to see that the appearance of many Negroes in the cities of the North and West, the immigrants of our own day, has produced a similar reaction among many, including sympathetic, whites.

I do not mean to imply that all the moral fervor has gone out of the white liberal’s crusade on behalf of the Negro. Many whites have taken part in freedom rides and sit-ins. A pilot experiment has been completed in Philadelphia in which 175 college and graduate students from campuses around the country spent part of their summer vacation tutoring primarily Negro youngsters to overcome school difficulties.

Nevertheless, an issue or series of issues has developed between many liberals and the Negro, the heart of which seems to be this: many liberals are hinting to a restless Negro group that they postpone their most urgent demands because many Negroes are not yet ready to be integrated into a white middle-class society and the social costs, in terms of conflict, may be too high. One writer in the liberal New Leader suggests a new Negro strategy of disengagement to repair the damaged communication lines between whites and Negroes. In other words, to the Negro demand for “now,” to which the Deep South has replied “never,” many liberal whites are increasingly responding “later.” But the Negro will accept nothing short of first-class citizenship, now. It will call for a great deal of patience and understanding among those who make up the civil rights coalition if racial progress is not to be seriously jeopardized.