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The Negro and the South


[clock] 20-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 1927

Dr. Giddings, the eminent sociologist, has declared “consciousness of kind” to be the primary social tie which binds peoples together. It is the proverbial philosophy of “Birds of a feather will flock together.” We like people who manifest a likeness to ourselves. Those of the same heredity, language, general appearance, customs, and thought, have a common consciousness of being of the same kind, and by a social gravity are drawn together. It varies in degree of expression from being of the same race, on through the closer relationships of tribe, clan, and neighborhood, to find its climax in the family, where it becomes the consciousness of kinship. It is inevitable that we should find the antithesis of this principle in the consciousness of difference. Here is the social shock which separates.

Now the most profound element of one’s self-consciousness is, that he is human. For each man this is an undebatable self-assumption. Whatever else may be true, each man claims to be simply, and absolutely, human. The inevitable inference then follows, by an involuntary process of consciousness, that to the extent others differ from him, they are abnormal, or unhuman. In its last analysis, whenever race consciousness expresses itself in any form of race prejudice, it is a feeling that, to the extent of the racial difference, the other race is abnormal, or unhuman. Will not this account for much of “man’s inhumanity to man”?

The primary expression of race consciousness is also the primary instinct of the individual, for self-realization, or self-fulfillment. It is revealed in the instinct of self-preservation and self-defense. This individual experience so easily becomes a group experience. The more closely the individual feels his likeness to the rest of the group, the more easily he merges and identifies himself with the group. Here is to be found the source of the sense of racial superiority. It is a group egotism. This group egotism, with its instinct for self-realization, becomes aggressive, asserting its right to make its type dominant. Whenever a group proves its superiority by “might,” it easily passes into a sense of “right,” and creates its own religious sanction. Here, perhaps, is the mother of the idea that “might makes right,” and that kindred doctrine, “the divine right of kings.” It is so easy for the group to believe that God made it superior, therefore it rules other groups by “divine right.”

I

The whole racial discussion today is confused and clouded by much pseudo-scientific talk of “superior races.” There has been little effort at clear definition of what is meant by “superior.” That there is a vast difference in the attainments and achievements of races is readily granted. This, however, is far from proof that the more backward peoples might not show superior accomplishments under different environments, and perhaps along different lines of endeavor. I find myself in accord with a statement of President Glenn Frank, made in The Century Magazine some time ago:

I have been forced to the conclusion that, to date, research in the matter of race has been neither extensive enough nor critical enough to justify cock-sure dogmatism regarding either the equality or the inequality of the human races. We simply do not know enough yet to speak with scientific certainty.

The assumption of the superiority of certain racial groups over others, upon such flimsy and inadequate research and testimony, does a deadly wrong to the hitherto disadvantaged races. Upon such an assumption, it is almost inevitable that the stronger group will fail to give the weaker group those opportunities which are necessary for the development of any peoples, and shut them off from the challenging prizes of social civilization, which alone can awaken their latent and undeveloped powers. But perhaps the most deadening influence of this premise is its effect on the stronger group itself. The teaching, that one racial group is inherently superior to another, quickly yields the illogical inference, that any member of the “superior group” is superior to every member of the inferior group. This gives to the individual of the stronger race a false appraisal of his own value, and often robs him of a needed urge for self-improvement and development. If he be granted social privileges and advantages just because of the color of his skin, or the peculiarities of his features, he will be too easily satisfied with his position and accomplishments to make the needed effort for that which is better. It is also inevitable that this will influence his attitude to, and treatment of, the members of the less advantaged race. So it is from this standpoint, I would view the story of the negro and the south.

II

It is still a common experience to hear our southern people boast of the fact, that we are a more homogenous people than those of any other section of our country. The claim is often made, with sectional pride, that our people are of the purest Anglo-Saxon blood, and that the South is the most genuinely American part of the nation. Yet it has always been true that more than one-third of our population consists of a most distinctly alien race. Do we forget, or do we deliberately ignore, these millions of negroes? Have we so completely adopted them into our racial family, conforming them to our thought and customs, that we are unconscious of the racial differences? Or is it that in excluding them from full political citizenship, we have excluded them from our social consciousness?

Any one who knows southern life must know that neither one of these statements is true. The negroes, as a race, have not only been distinct and definite in the part they have played in southern civilization, but they have been acutely in the conscious thought of the southern whites. There has never been a time when the sense of race difference has not been vivid and vital. In the very beginning of the slave trade in this country, the soil and climate of the South made an irresistible invitation to the slave dealers. Tobacco and cotton determined the industrial expression of our people, and predestined us to a century and a half of agricultural life. The slave fashioned our social system, giving us feudalism for its form, and made us an aristocracy instead of a democracy. Yet during all of these years, these two races have dwelt together with the most definite and marked racial and social distinction.

If we really wish to understand this deep difference between the two races, we must remember the sensational distance there is, in a psychic measurement, between the Anglo-Saxon and the negro. There are the shocking obvious differences of color, features, and temperament. Despite the long years of close association, these differences are still distinct in consciousness, while ever and anon the mysterious experiences of centuries of different heredity, speak in tones that are strange and alien to each other. When we remember that superficial differences are the most obvious, and most influential with the average man, we need not be surprised that the average white man never quite loses the consciousness of difference between himself and the black man. To what extent is there not, back of all the racial problems and perplexities between the whites and the blacks in the South, the conscious or unconscious assumption, that the negro is not human?

Now, before we go too fast in any inferences from such a premise, let us remember that this does not necessarily mean an unkindly attitude. Indeed, most of us love our dogs and our horses, and are benevolently inclined to all of the domesticated animals. However, there is an impassable gulf in the consciousness between the human and the purely animal. There are few white people in the South today— certainly an ever decreasing number—who would say that the negro is not human. I am searching, however, for the essence of that instinctive sense of difference, which often involuntarily finds expression in the attitude of the white man to the black man. It has a well nigh limitless variation in degree, but to the degree in which it is present, does it not mean that the white man views the negro as something less than normally human?

In the case of the relationship of the two races in the South, we must add the significant factor that to the white man, the negro belongs to a slave race. This is infinitely more important in its psychic implications than as a social or political difference. A slave man is a certain kind of a man. He is a man with fixed and predetermined limitations of physical and spiritual accomplishments. The really deadly wrong which is accomplished in slavery is not so much political or economic; it is the wrong that is done to personality itself. It is found in the fact that the slave baby, even before it is born into the world, has the metes and bounds of its life, fixed and predetermined. In a word, the definition of its personality has already been made for it. Now it is this definition of personality, which clings to him for the rest of his life, which has been the significant psychic influence in the relationship between the whites and the blacks in the South. This, too, has deepened the consciousness of difference between the two races. In the thought of the white man, and who knows to what extent in the thought of the negro, there is not only difference in race, but the negro is also different in that psychic sense, that he is a slave-kind of a man.

Here, after all, is the deadly curse of any class or caste distinctions which are made between men. The moment you place any adjective before the name of a person, which modifies or limits the definition of a man, you rob him of some of the rights of manhood. Indeed, the most significant right of a man is the right to make his own definition of his own personality, unhampered by racial or political distinctions, in the thought of his fellow men. Again let us be careful not to go too far in our inferences. Personally, I believe that slavery, as practiced in the South, was the most benevolent that has ever been known. The view point of slavery is not necessarily unkindly. It may be, as it was very largely in the South, the patriarchal view. Many of the most cruel social results of slavery have been unintentional—social harvests of unintentional seed sowing.

It is only with this background of thought that we can see the true significance of the freeing and the enfranchisement of the millions of blacks in the South. The only way to understand any social condition is, by that most difficult psychic accomplishment, to look from the standpoint of other people. It is difficult even for the sympathetic children of the southern whites today to put themselves in the place of their fathers in 1866-70. How much harder it was for the people of the North, away from all the immediate and terrible problems which faced the South, with only the fine fervor of doing a benevolent act in delivering slaves from bondage, to see the real situation, and understand the terrifying problem.

III

With the freeing and enfranchisement of the negroes, the white people of the South were faced with a social situation, unparalleled in the history of civilization. Here were eight millions of a backward race—ignorant children, accustomed to the rigid discipline of a parental control—suddenly turned loose in society, and given the tremendous power of the ballot. It must be remembered that in many sections of the South the negro was in an overwhelming majority. The social and political civilization was fronted with a massed ignorance and irresponsibility, manipulated by shrewd and conscienceless white leaders, from both North and South. One need only suggest the social terror of the white people, as they faced this threat to all that they held dearest in their civilization. These days of “reconstruction” meant more than is conveyed by the mere statement, that millions of ignorant slaves had received the ballot. These negroes were stirred to a race consciousness, and their sensitive emotions played upon, by recalling the real, and the fancied, wrongs of their past. In this mood they were taught to vote. They were taught to vote not as individuals, but en masse. Note the significance of the fact that they voted then, and to a large extent, wherever they have the ballot today, they vote now, as negroes. The social and political destiny of the South was thus placed, not in the hands of the negroes, but in the hands of a small group of political adventurers, who controlled this huge franchise. So the result was that while robbing the white people of the South of their political freedom, they at the same time failed to give any real political freedom to the negroes. For it must be remembered that whenever a people votes en masse, with a class, race, or religious, consciousness, the individual is robbed of his political freedom.

Here is to be found the explanation of the political solidarity of the South. The arousing of the racial consciousness of the white people of the South was an inevitable answer to the menace of the racial consciousness of the blacks. The result of the contest was inevitable. The white race triumphed, but not even yet are we able to count the cost. The disfranchisement of the negro was accomplished by the forging of a political solidarity of the South. Ever since that time, the whites have voted en masse — not as individuals but as white people—and they have done so at the cost of the political freedom of the individual. Since the days of reconstruction there has been no genuine freedom of political discussion, or liberty of political action, by the white people of the South. All economic, social, and political, issues have been decided in an atmosphere of an intense race consciousness, and we have gone to the ballot box, year after year, coerced into uniformity of action by a racial fear. Thus has the sense of racial difference been deepened, and the racial separation widened.

There is another aspect of the freeing and enfranchisement of the negro slave which, while difficult to state, is even more deeply significant. We must recall once more that in large areas of the South the negro outnumbered the whites, sometimes in a proportion of three to one. Suddenly this great mass of undeveloped and highly emotional beings was turned loose from the discipline of slavery, and made legally the equals of their former masters. It is difficult for us, in this generation, to appreciate what must be called the race terror, which possessed the white people. It was something over and above a social and political fear. It was something primary and instinctive, which raised an alarm, though vague and indefinable, which seemed to threaten the integrity of the race itself. For generations these black peoples had been familiar as a part of the daily experience of life. They were a kindly, irresponsible group of children. They had been dealt with as individuals, in what was often close personal relationships. Emancipation came as a social catastrophe, sundering the old relationships. Race consciousness became acute and dominant. These hitherto familiar, kindly beings seemed alien and menacing. Vague and indefinable as it was with most people, there was a definite fear of the actual submergence of the whites by the blacks.

IV

It was at this time that the southern people reared their defense dogma, “no social equality.” Its original purpose was unquestionably for the defense of the integrity of the white race. It is defensible, however, in the interest of the highest welfare of both races. It is not my purpose here to attempt to prove this proposition, nor do I intend to be dogmatic in its assertion. Personally, I believe that it is to the highest interest of the negro and the white races in the South that the integrity of each race shall be strictly maintained. What I am insisting upon is that this distinction should be made in the interest of both races, and not for the benefit of a “superior race,” at the expense of an “inferior race.” Here, to my mind, has been committed the profound mistake which has been hurtful to both races. Undoubtedly the average white person in the South, in his declaration that there shall be “no social equality” between the races, means that every negro is inferior to every white man. With this premise firmly fixed in his mind, it is inevitable that he shall, consciously or unconsciously, act toward a negro, in all the relations of life, as to an inferior. It need hardly be pointed out that this must, and does, breed all kinds of injustices. He thus allows the racial characteristics of a man to become a barrier to his receiving rights and advantages, which should be inherent in his humanity, no matter what may be his race.

In a very real sense, the hurt here has been greater to the white than it has to the black. It is a deadly danger to any group of men to believe that they can inherit rights superior to another group. It is the evil which is at the heart of any doctrine of aristocracy, which carries with it the belief that birth grants special privileges. This social fallacy has found its hurtful expression in many ways in the South. For example, in many of the states the white man is granted the privilege of the ballot, practically because he is white, while the negro must show an evidence of educational qualifications to vote. This takes away from the ignorant whites one urge toward the acquiring of an education, while it has been a tremendous stimulus to many of the negroes to take advantage of the schools. Of course it gives to nearly all of our white people a false sense of values, and contributes at the same time to a false racial pride in the superior privileges, which they have done nothing to earn.

To my mind, the statement of our “defensive dogma” has been most unfortunate and unjust, from its very negative form. If we had made a positive statement, embodying clearly the principle of the maintenance of the integrity of the two races, there is no reason why the relations of the two races could not have been developed upon just and helpful lines. There is every reason to believe that the best leadership of the negroes would gladly join us in such a declaration. In doing this together, the whole atmosphere would be changed. The suggested social taint and insult to an “inferior race” would be removed. Many contacts between the two races which are now foolishly forbidden, and many barriers, which are expensive obstacles to the commercial welfare of our people, might be removed, without in any way weakening the defensive principle which is intended to preserve the distinctness of the two races.

Today the negro is almost as completely within the power of the white man as in the days of slavery. From the Potomac to the Rio Grande there is not a single local political office which he can hold. He can serve on no political committee, nor enter into conference in any political caucus. The great bulk of the property and the management of great commercial enterprises are in the hands of the whites. Nearly all of the great institutions of civilization, schools, hospitals, libraries, art treasures, and facilities for recreation, are in the control of the whites. This is the most dangerous power for any people to have. It is absolute authority without responsibility. The moral strain is greater than that of slavery. It is not wholesome for any group of people to be given such power over any other group, without any restraining sense of responsibility. The negro is taxed without representation. He is governed by laws in the making of which he has had no voice. He is summoned before judges in whose election he has had no word.

It was inevitable that this should result in wide-spread injustice to the negro. He has not been on an equal footing with the whites before the courts. He has been commercially exploited, forced to live under the most unsanitary conditions, and has been given the poorest educational and cultural opportunities. That is the dark side of the picture, but there is a brighter side. There has been a slow, and yet distinct, growth in the consciousness of the white people, of a sense of responsibility for this weaker race. It has found expression in a large number of the states, municipalities, and rural communities, in increased appropriations for their schools. In over nine hundred neighborhoods of the South there have been formed inter-racial committees, composed of the best representatives of both races. These committees meet, not for the academic discussion of the “race problem,” but for practical counsel concerning human needs. More than any particular accomplishments of these groups, their true value is to be found in the kindlier feeling that is being created. So one may easily find in the attitude of our newspapers, the acts of countless individuals, and the deepened interest of our religious bodies, evidence of the improved, and improving, relations between the races.

It would be folly to search for some philosophic phrase, or cure-all formula, with which we might hope to heal our social ills, in any of the relations of life. No genuine social problem is easy of solution. But may we not lay it down as a primary principle, that broken relationships must be mended at the point of breaking? A figure of speech, I grant, but one which is truly significant of our social situation. We began with the social law that “consciousness of kind” draws us together, and a sense of difference separates. Then our task, while not simple nor easy, is clear. We must seek to create and stimulate that consciousness of kind until it shall, indeed, become a consciousness of kinship. To my mind, we have here reached a principle so fundamental and universal as to be applicable to all of life, in every relationship. I would not ask that there should be any slavish following of any particular method of any organization. But in whatever way and by whatever means we can come closer to the human needs of the negro, and deal with them from the standpoint of our own needs, the inevitable result will be the cultivation of this consciousness of human kind. There need be here no violation of our determination to preserve the integrity of the races. I am convinced that the more our hearts are filled with human kindliness for him, the more intelligently and carefully we will protect him, and ourselves. Neither is there need for raising questions about social results in the far-off years to come. It is a safe principle to do the duty of the hour, trust one’s principle, and leave the results to God. I know we are prone now and again to say this or that is to be a final test of Christianity. I do not believe that there is any one test; but I am convinced that the efficiency of the Christian religion never found a more insistent challenge than in the relationship of the races in the south.

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