m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

August 1968

The New Racialism

The liberals have been confusing their vocabulary, talking of "racism" when they mean "racialism," and have been abandoning their traditional opposition to decentralized government and racial quotas. The results may be dangerous, observes Professor Moynihan, the buoyantly iconoclastic sociologist, author, and director of the Joint Center for Urban Studies of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

by Daniel P. Moynihan

The great enterprise on which the American nation was embarked when the Vietnam storm arose was the final inclusion of the Negro American in the larger American society. That the Negro was, and still in considerable measure is, excluded none still doubt. But it seems not less clear that this fact of exclusion has been the lot of a very considerable portion of the American people over the generations and the process of inclusion, of "national integration," in Samuel H. Beer's term, a process "in which the community is being made more of a community," has been going on almost from the moment the fortunes of war and empire defined this hopelessly heterogeneous people as made up exclusively of General de Gaulle's "Anglo-Saxons." In fact, at midcentury only 35 percent of the American people were descendants of migrants from Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Most of the rest have known greater or lesser degrees of exclusion--and into the present. But none quite like that of the Negro, and final, palpable equality for him became the essential demand of our time, just as it became the demand of the American presidency; only to arouse among some elements of the society--in greater or lesser degree in all elements--a pervasive fear and deep resistance. Laws in the hundreds were passed, but changes were few. As the black masses for whatever reasons became increasingly violent, white resistance became more stubborn, even as it assumed more respectable forms: "Law and order."

This resistance has produced something of a stalemate, and in consequence a crisis. The essential symbol, and in ways the central fact, of black exclusion in white America is that the Negro is not permitted to move about freely and live where he will. Increasingly he is confined to the slums of the central cities, with consequences at once appalling to him and disastrous to the cities. The laws do not require this exclusion; in fact, they forbid it. Now also does the Supreme Court. But it prevails because of a process of private nullification by whites.

More and more one hears that this situation is likely to persist so long as to require that it be treated as a permanent condition. And largely as a result of this conclusion, a marked reversal appears to be taking place in what are generally seen as liberal circles on the subject of decentralized government and racial quotas. For a good half century now--longer than that, in truth--liberal opinion has held quite strong views on these issues, and they are almost wholly negative. Nor have these views been in any sense marginal. Quite near to the core of the liberal agenda in the reform period that began at the turn of the century and continued almost to this moment we find two propositions.

The first is that local government is conservative or even reactionary. Such nostalgia as might have persisted about New England town meetings was seen as historically obsolete and ethnically inapplicable. Local government in New York, for example, was known to be run by Irishmen, who were bosses wielding vast but illegitimate power, placing unqualified men on public payrolls, consorting with criminals, and lowering the standards of public life. In the South, local government was in the hands of racists, who systematically excluded Negroes from participation in public affairs, and much else as well. The West was far away. Hence the great thrust of liberal/intellectual political effort, and central to liberal/intellectual political opinion, was the effort to RAISE the level at which governmental decisions were made above that of state and local government, to that of the federal government. The great and confirming successes of that effort were, of course, the Administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. "States' rights" became a symbol of reaction. Distinguished public servants such as Paul Appleby developed the doctrine that those who insisted that this or that governmental activity was best carried out at the local level were in fact opposed to such activity, and confident that in actuality the local government would do nothing. E. E. Schattschneider explained the whole thrust of liberal politics in terms of the effort to raise the level at which the decisions were made. These views had consequence. Three years ago, for example, when the Johnson Administration was about to come forth with a proposal for revenue-sharing with state governments--the well-known Heller-Pechman plan--the proposal was vetoed by the labor movement on grounds that giving more resources to local powers could only strengthen the forces of conservatism and reaction.

The second general theme has to do with the whole issue of ethnic, racial (if one wishes to make a distinction between those two), and religious heterogeneity. These were matters which liberal opinion firmly held ought not to be subjects of public moment or acknowledgment. Rather as politics and women are proscribed as matters of conversation in a naval officers' mess, it was accepted that such categories existed, and given the doctrine of freedom of conscience, it was also accepted that religious diversity would persist, but in general, opinion looked forward to a time when such distinctions would make as little difference as possible. Opinion certainly aspired to the complete disappearance of ethnic characteristics, which were felt to have little, if any, validity. Increasingly, the identification of persons by race or religion, especially in application forms of various sorts, was seen as a manifestation of racism, of unavoidably malign intent.

It is hard to judge which is the more extraordinary: that Americans could have thought they could eliminate such identities, or that so little comment was made about the effort. (Resistance, then as now, was largely silent and ashamed.) Andrew Greeley has recently speculated that the historians of, say, the twenty-third or twenty-fourth century looking back to this time will find that, apart from the great population increase in the world, and its Westernization and industrialization, quite the most extraordinary event was the fusing of cultures in the American republic.

The historians of the future will find it hard to believe that it could have happened that English, Scotch, and Welsh, Irish, Germans, Italians, and Poles, Africans, Indians, both Eastern and Western, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Finns, Swedes, Lebanese, Danes, Armenians, Croatians, Slovenians, Greeks, and Luxembourgers, Chinese, Japanese, Philippinos, and Puerto Ricans would come together to form a nation that not only would survive but, all things considered, survive reasonably well. I further suggest that the historians of the future will be astonished that American sociologists, the product of this gathering in of the nations, could stand in the midst of such an astonishing social phenomenon and take it so for granted that they would not bother to study it.

I agree, largely as I feel that future historians, relieved of our nineteenth-century preoccupation with the appearance of industrialization and the issue of who would control the artifacts thereof; a preoccupation, in other words, with issues such as capitalism, socialism, and Communism, still also see that the turbulence of these times here and abroad has had far more to do with ethnic, racial, and religious affiliation than with these other issues. Nonetheless, beginning with the New Deal, federal legislation began prohibiting discrimination based on race and religion, and this movement increasingly took the form of forbidding acknowledgment even of the existence of such categories. In New York, for example, a prospective employer simply may not ask to know the religious or ethnic affiliation of an employee. A dean of admissions may not ask for a photograph of an applicant. The culmination of this movement, and given its insistence on absolute equality in competition, the high-water mark of social Darwinism in the United States was, of course, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Now, of a sudden, all this has changed. The demand for decentralization of government and local participation in decision-making about the most global issues has become almost a leading issue with liberal thinkers and politicians. Distrust of Washington, once the sure giveaway of a conservative or reactionary mind, has become a characteristic stance of forward-looking young men. And now ethnic quotas have reappeared, although primarily in terms of racial quotas. That which was specifically forbidden by the Civil Rights Act is now explicitly (albeit covertly) required by the federal government. Employers are given quotas of the black employees they will hire, records of minority-group employment are diligently maintained, and censuses repeatedly taken. In universities in particular the cry has arisen for racial quotas roughly representative of population proportions, in both university faculties and student bodies, and the proposal is most ardently supported by those who would have themselves considered most advanced in their social thinking. It would seem altogether to be expected that this process will continue, and come to be applied to all the most visible institutions of the land, starting, of course, with those most sympathetic to social change, and therefore most vulnerable to such pressure, and gradually, grown more legitimate, extended to the more resistant centers.

What on earth happened? Taking these developments in the order that I listed them, one can perceive at least two sources of the thrust toward decentralization, both related to the racial stalemate and both of which can properly be described as the result of a learning process, and on that ground welcomed. The first is the discovery by liberal middle-class America that many of the institutions of urban working-class politics served important and legitimate purposes, and that the destruction of these institutions created a vacuum in which by and large Negroes now have to live. Having destroyed the power of the local bosses, we learn that the people feel powerless. Having put an end to patronage and established merit systems in civil service, we find that the poor and unqualified are without jobs. Having banished felons from public employment, we find that enormous numbers of men who need jobs have criminal records. Having cleaned up law enforcement, we find that crime is run by the Mafia (or whatever is the current term for slandering Italians), instead of the Police, as was the case in the idyllic days of Lincoln Steffens' youth. Hence liberals now are urged to return to local organization with an enthusiasm ever so slightly tinged with the elitism of the middle-class liberal/ radical who now as always is confident that he is capable of running anything better than anyone else, even a slum neighborhood. Middle-class radicals continue to insist the Negroes in Harlem are powerless, not least, one fears, because the one type who is never elected is the middle-class radical. (But to my knowledge there is hardly a single significant elected or appointed political, judicial, or administrative office in Harlem that is not held by a Negro.) Hence an ever increasing enthusiasm of liberal foundations and reform mayors for creating new "indigenous" community organizations and giving to them a measure of real or pretend power. Whether in fact outsiders can create an "indigenous" organization is problematic. (Would it not be good sport for the Landmarks Commission to assign to Mayor Lindsay's Little City Halls their traditional Tammany designations of Tuscorora Club, Iroquois Club, Onondaga Club?) But the effort is sincere, if withal tinged with a certain elitist impulse to manage the lives of the less fortunate.

On a different level, a movement toward decentralization has arisen largely from the emergence of what James Q. Wilson has called the bureaucracy problem, the fact that "there are inherent limits to what can be accomplished by large, hierarchical organizations." Although Max Weber explained to us why large bureaucracies, once established, would work for themselves rather than the putative objects of their concern, it was not until the bureaucracies were established, and someone tried to do something with them, that any great number of persons came to see the point. Interestingly enough, this seems to have happened in the Soviet Union at about the same time as in the United States. For certain it is an endemic mood among men who went to Washington with John F. Kennedy. The problem involves not just the dynamics of large organizations, but also the ambitiousness of our society. As Wilson continues: "The supply of able, experienced executives is not increasing nearly as fast as the number of problems being addressed."

This is all to the good. It responds to reality; it reflects an openness to experience. Irving Kristol has remarked, echoing Sir William Harcourt at the turn of the century on the subject of socialism, "We are all decentralists now." The acknowledgment that race and ethnicity are persisting and consequential facts about individuals that ought in certain circumstances to be taken into consideration is long overdue. (Several years ago, to my ultimate grief, I tried to get the welfare establishment in Washington to abandon its "color-blind" policy which refused to record anything about the race of welfare recipients. Last year Southern committee chairmen brought about the enactment of vicious anti-Negro welfare legislation, which no one could effectively oppose because no one is supposed to "know" about such things.) But before lurching from one set of overstatements to another, is it not possible to hope that a measure of thought will intervene, and that the truth will be found, alas, somewhere in the middle?

The issues are intertwined, and tend to work against one another. Thus the fundamental source of equal rights for Negro Americans, for all Americans, is the Constitution. Where the federal writ runs, all men are given equal treatment. But this process is not directed by some invisible hand; it is the result of political decisions made year to year in Washington. "Local control" means a very different thing in Mississippi than it does in New York, and let us for God's sake summon the wit to see this before we enshrine the political principles of George C. Wallace in the temple of liberal rationalism. Paul Appleby knew what he was talking about. An aggressive federal insistence on equal treatment for all races is indispensable to the successful inclusion of the Negro American into the large society.

Further, to argue that all things cannot be run from Washington is not to assert that neither can they be run from city hall. Unfortunately, a good deal of decentralization talk is fundamentally antigovernment in spirit, and this can be a calamity in areas such as race relations. Giving a mayor enough untied federal funds to enable him to govern his city could release immensely creative energies. Forcing him to break up his administration into endlessly fractionating units will bring on anarchism at best and chaos at worst. Given the heterogeneous political community of most large cities, this potential for ethnic and racial chaos, Kristol remarks, is especially great.

School decentralization in New York seems to be encouraging just this. The problem is that now, as ever in the past, the lower classes of the city are ethnically quite distinct from what might be termed the bureaucratic classes, and neighborhoods tend to conform to those distinctions. The result is that conflict induced between the two groups gets ugly fast. Thus the New York times reported that the militant picketing of I.S. 201 in east Harlem in 1967 was "flagrantly anti-Semitic." Similar tendencies have appeared in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area where decentralization is being experimented with. A leaflet recently distributed there reads:

If African-American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must Be Done By African-Americans Who Identify With And Who Understand The Problem. It Is Impossible For The Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring To This Important Task The Insight, The Concern, The Exposing Of the Truth That is a MUST If The Years of Brainwashing And Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught To Our Black Children By Those Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be Overcome.

A pretty sentiment, to which, not surprisingly, there are Jews capable of responding in kind. Charles E. Silberman, the distinguished author of Crisis in Black and White, recently demanded of an American Jewish Committee meeting that it

face up to the raw, rank, anti-Negro prejudice that is within our own midst. We talk--endlessly--about Negro Anti-Semitism; we rarely talk about--let alone try to deal with--the Jewish Anti-Negroism that is in our midst and that is growing very rapidly.

All too familiar. And as Archbishop John F. Dearden of Detroit, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, observed last year, in other cities of the nation the Negro-white confrontation is becoming a Negro-Catholic (Protestant-Catholic) encounter. Plus ça change...

The danger is that we shall see the emergence of a new racialism. Not racism, a term--dreadfully misused by the Kerner Commission--that has as its indispensable central intent "the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary). There is a streak of the racist virus in the American bloodstream, and has been since the first "white" encounter with the "red" Indians. But it is now a distinctly minority position, and mainly that of old or marginal persons, with an occasional politician seeking to make use of what is left. Yet there is a strong, and persisting, phenomenon of racialism, defined as "racial prejudice or discrimination: race hatred." This is in no sense confined to "whites," much less "Wasps." (I use quotation marks. The geneticist Joshua Lederberg notes that it is scientifically absurd to call anyone in this country "black," and probably not accurate to speak of "whites" either.) Writing in a 1935 issue of Race, E. Franklin Frazier, for example, referred to W. E. B. DuBois's then current proposal that the Negro build a cooperative industrial system in America as "racialism." There is nothing mystical about racialism; it is simply a matter of one group not liking another group of evidently antagonistic interests. It is a profoundly different position from that of racism, with its logic of genocide and subordination. And it does no service whatever to this polity to identify as racist attitudes that are merely racialist and which will usually, on examination, be found to have essentially a social class basis. But our potential for this type of dissension is large and very likely growing. In the hands of ideologues (who often as not enjoy the chaos) or charlatans (who stand to benefit) or plain simpletons, many forms of decentralization in the modern city will give rise to racialism. Responsible persons should examine that prospect beforehand.

The question of quotas raises the same issue. As I am almost certain to be misunderstood--that appears to be an occupational hazard in this field (and I would seriously suggest that the training of any social scientist in years to come should include something equivalent to the processes by which psychiatrists are taught to anticipate and accept hostility)--let me offer a word or two by way of credentials. I believe it fair to say that I have been one of a smallish band of sociologists and political scientists who have insisted that race, ethnicity, and religion were and are relevant and functional categories in American life. I accept fully, as does Greeley, the Weberian analysis of E. K. Francis that the ethnic collectivity represents an attempt on the part of men to keep alive during their pilgrimage from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or as Greeley puts it, "from peasant commune to industrial metropolis," some of the diffuse, ascriptive, particularistic modes of behavior that were common to their past. I have argued in favor of the balanced political ticket; I have even been a member of one. I see the emergence of "black pride" as wholly a good thing. And so on. But at the same time, I would hope as we rush toward an ethnically, racially, and religiously conscious society that we try to keep our thinking just a bit ahead of events.

My concerns are twofold and come to this. First, I am worried that having so far been unable to assemble the political majority that would enable the nation to provide a free and equal place for the Negro in the larger society by what are essentially market strategies (full employment, income supplementation, housing construction, and such-like), we will be driven to institutional strategies involving government-dictated outcomes directed against those institutions most vulnerable to government pressure. I don't like this mostly because I don't like that kind of government pressure. But I oppose it also because I fear the kind of rigidities that it can build into a society that obviously is most effective when it is most flexible.

Remember, the Negro middle class is on the move. A recent study at Columbia found that the proportion of Negroes with professional or technical occupations in New York City is distinctly higher than that of Irish or Italians.

If there is an ethnic balance "against" Negroes in many municipal bureaucracies today, there is likely to be one "for" them in the not distant future. These are for the most part truly integrated groups, which, much as do the Armed Forces, provide major opportunities for Negro advancement on purely equal terms involving neither discrimination nor preference. (When the Jewish principal at I.S. 201 resigned, his Negro deputy refused the job on grounds that she would not be appointed as a Negro. She had no need to be. Inspired or lethargic, brilliant or bright, she was on her way to a principalship on her own. That is what bureaucracy is like.)

My second concern is, to my mind, the greater. Once this process gets legitimated there is no stopping it, and without intending anything of the sort, I fear it will be contributing significantly to the already well-developed tendency to politicize (and racialize) more and more aspects of modern life. Thirty years ago Orwell wrote, "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues...." I resist that. Not all issues. Not yet. Note that he added "and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia." Not all American politics. Not yet. But enough is, and we must therefore struggle against the effort of government, in some large general interest, to dictate more and more of the small details. It is necessary to be more alert to Robert A. Nisbet's observation that democracy is, fundamentally, "a theory and structure of political power," but that liberalism is "historically a theory of immunity from powers.

This, to my mind, is something more than a generalized concern. For centuries it has been obvious that property is not always evenly distributed, and it has been more or less legitimate to talk about it. In America, however, in the modern world generally, there have grown up new forms of property and influence, not so readily perceived, and the people who possess them have been wisely content to leave it at that. Success, as Norman Podhoretz wrote, and as he learned, is a dirty little secret in America, which those who are successful very much dislike to see discussed in public. A quality which makes for social stability at this time is that different groups in the population value different kinds of success, and tend to be best at those they most value. But government knows little of such variegations, and I very much fear that if we begin to become formal about quotas for this or that group, we will very quickly come to realize that these are instantly translated into quotas against. This is painfully true in the field of education and culture, which to a very considerable degree at this particular moment in our history is exceptionally influenced by American Jews. It was in a certain sense in an effort to resist the processes that brought about this partial hegemony that the "older American" institutions imposed quotas in the first place, and it was to abet the process that the quotas were abolished. Those were in fact quotas on success, imposed against a disproportionately successful group.

Let me be blunt. If ethnic quotas are to be imposed on American universities and similarly quasipublic institutions, it is Jews who will be almost driven out. They are not 3 percent of the population. This would be a misfortune to them, but a disaster to the nation. And I very much fear that there is a whiff of anti-Semitism in many of these demands. I was interested that when demands for quotas were made at Harvard, the Crimson endorsed with some enthusiasm the idea of ethnic representation, if not exactly quotas, on the faculty, but the editors were not at all impressed with the advantages of extending the principle to the student body. I do not know what was on their mind, but I do know that if ethnic quotas ever should come to Harvard (surely they won't!), something like seven out of eight Jewish undergraduates would have to leave, and I would imagine it to be a higher proportion in the graduate schools. This, I repeat, would be a misfortune for them, but a disaster for a place like Harvard. And much the same exodus would be required of Japanese and Chinese Americans, especially in the graduate schools.

One assumes that America has known enough of anti-Semitism and anti-Oriental feeling to be wary of opening that box again. Especially now. Given the prominence of Jews in current American radical movements--the Times describes the student activists at Columbia as "typically very bright and predominantly Jewish"--and the hostage of Israel, Jews are at this moment perhaps especially exposed to conservative or reactionary pressures which could easily make an issue of "overrepresentation." Recalling what we did to Japanese Americans in World War II, we surely should be careful about exposing Chinese Americans today to reactionary pressures simply on the basis that mainland China is our enemy.

It comes down to a matter of prudence: of recognizing our potential for racialism, and guarding against it, while responding to real and legitimate racial needs. Thus Negroes need preferential treatment in some areas, and deserve it. The good sense of the country in the past has been to do this kind of thing by informal arrangements--the balanced ticket. At the present time Israel, for example, seems to be having success with similar arrangements for its Eastern Jewish immigrants. Can we not do as much?

I hope I would not be interpreted as resisting a more open acknowledgment of these factors. To the contrary, I feel they should be more in our minds, but at a private and informal level of concern. I am acutely aware, for example, of the debilitating imbalance in the ethnic origins of American social scientists. I say debilitating because it is the nature of heterogeneous societies such as ours that analysis that could in any way be taken as criticism is routinely rejected when the analyst is of a distinctly different group. That is the plain truth of it. And it is a truth much in evidence with respect to Negro studies at this time. Thirty years ago in this country anyone seeking to learn more ABOUT Negroes would have had to read books written BY Negroes: Frazier, Drake, Cayton, Johnson, and others. Somehow that tradition, nobly begun by DuBois, faltered. There was not, for example, a single Negro social scientist on the research staff of the President's Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Now, with only a few exceptions, social science studies of Negroes are carried out by whites, and we are not to wonder that more and more the cry goes out from the slums that they are tired of that white magic and will listen no more. But Negroes are only one case, and not a particularly special one. American social science desperately needs to expand its ethnic, racial, and religious base, just as it has got to expand its interests in those areas.

Let me conclude with the words with which Nathan Glazer and I closed our own study of the city:

Religion and race define the next phase in the evolution of the American peoples. But the American nationality is still forming: its processes are mysterious, and the final form, if there is ever to be a final form, is as yet unknown.


Copyright 1968 by Daniel P. Moynihan. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1968 ; The New Racialism; Volume 222, No. 2; pages 35-40.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture