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The Enduring American Dilemma

ISSUE:  Summer 1983

For most of humanity’s poor and discarded, change— real, useful social change—is as elusive, and as seductive, as the Holy Grail. For a great many in an American generation coming of age in the 1960’s, the civil rights movement showed the possibility of change. It did so as well for some in older and later generations. That was its true and great achievement.

It was peculiarly wrought change, perhaps only arguably replicable elsewhere. Its twin and complementary engines were popular protest and courtroom litigation; both were led by the oppressed themselves. The one claimed and measuredly received the protection of a written and enforceable Constitution. The other invoked its declarations and insisted upon their observance.

The uniqueness was deepened by the nature of the combatants, that is, those particular blacks and whites. We American whites were, by and large, as crudely prejudiced and despising as people anywhere have allowed themselves to become. Yet we had once fought a bloody war among ourselves over those black people we so generally contemned; and we had, even in the South, exhausted well before the 1960’s the stock of moral presumptions and rationalizations that had once sufficed to excuse racial domination. The civil rights movement, from the close of World War II, crashed against a nation which by then had left neither moral nor constitutional grounds for resisting; only grounds of hatred, selfishness, custom, and politics. That was not enough, not for a culture that had up to then always panted for a conviction of its own rightness, its own moral superiority.

Gunnar Myrdal saw our race problem as essentially a struggle within the national conscience. He was not the only one who did (black commentators usually did), but his became the most famous of such interpretations. He was right, though there was, of course, more to say, as he also knew. Getting to one’s own conscience’s commanding presence is often a long, struggling business; for a nation to do the same, to bring itself to act in a certain way because it believes it right to do so, requires a process so intricate and vast that the nation itself will be importantly and permanently changed by it. Indeed, so hard is the way that by the time conscience is reached—was reached—morality becomes— became—the gilt embellishing other and less lovely reasons for deciding that change we must.

It is certain that those national decisions of the 1960’s (and those of later years have not gone beyond them: history doesn’t flow, it moves by episodic turns and leaps) did not affirm a new moral order; and almost certainly they did not, for all the talk then and since about “white guilt,” confess that the old was bad. National morality sought for legal norms and, once found, encased itself in them. Those decisions of the 1960’s limited themselves to agreements as to how the Constitution was to be read. That was all. The nation agreed that its Constitution forbade:

  • denial through any means of an individual’s voting rights;
  • segregation of public schools by compulsion of law;
  • denial of service or accommodations at places, publicly or privately owned, that seek the public’s patronage; and agreed furthermore
  • that in fact race is not a “reasonable” and therefore constitutionally acceptable basis for any classification scheme.

I have formulated the above narrowly but also with undefined terms, because that is probably the way the white majority saw its several decisions as they emerged through its legislature and courts. When blacks have in the years since brought follow-on issues, ones that could make more tangible the promises of voting or open schools or nondiscriminatory employment and housing, they have sometimes won, sometimes lost. But it has been apparent each time that beyond those simple constitutional norms the public sees no particular moral significance attaching to black claims any longer. Should we bus, should we practice affirmative action, should we redistrict—these are seen by the public as questions of controversy between contending interests, like labor disputes or battles over nuclear power plants. Partisans may regard such issues as tinged, even heavily laden, with social morality; the general public seems not to. Regarding race and civil rights, its moral decision was, simply, an agreement to respect and obey the terms of its own Constitution, no more than that.


That settlement is at least not necessarily injurious, as long as gains are held and laws enforced. The legislation of the 1960’s and 1970’s did, after all, create a large federal bureaucracy (and similar structures exist in many states), which in its regular workings can be expected to defend and extend rights previously won. Indeed, it did work that way even, for the most part, in the Nixon/Ford administration despite lack there of strong interest. What has been radical about the Reagan administration is its apparent desire to slow down, halt, or even to redirect the bureaucratic process. Many blacks and other observers, with considerable reason for doing so, see this as challenging the constitutional settlement. Thus Julian Bond, an astute analyst and a man who has retained his loyalty to the principles of the movement, has said:

For the Reagan administration, the Constitution is a document of infinite elasticity, to be tailored and snipped to fit the fashions and passions of the moment. . . . When the government becomes the aggressor against the civil rights of its people as it has done in the last two years, it becomes the promoter of prejudice and makes common cause with the stain of racial supremacy that has persisted throughout our history.

New politics in Washington has nourished and been nourished by a noisy and well-organized illiberal faction throughout the country. It is interesting to speculate on the origins of its new strength, much of which is to be found in the South. One possible explanation is that it fills a vacuum left when the changed times proscribed the ancient emotional outlet of holding the “nigger” down, and when the only two social causes ever widely and consistently adopted by southern white churches—and most Northern ones too—alcohol and extramarital sex, were pretty well worn out as crowd attractions. To serve in their place came school prayer, antiabortion, a couple of race issues that can be labeled otherwise, busing and affirmative action, and—crowning all—a new wave of Russophobia.

Myrdal’s finding had been that the country’s treatment of its black citizens was and always had been opposed to its national ideals. There was an illiberal spirit in the 1930’s and 1940’s matching any that pervades these later days. But he insisted that there were ideals more basic than, superior to, that ugly spirit. Those he called the “American Creed,” a fabric of widely, even commonly, held principles derivative of Christianity, the Enlightenment, and English law. The opposition of practice to beliefs deeply imbedded in national feeling is unendurable; so Myrdal perceived and foresaw an historic process for putting an end to it. “America is continuously struggling for its soul,” he said, and racial relations are a principal battleground. The contemporary question is: does anything resembling that creed still exist, disciplining and ultimately directing national decisions?


Myrdal’s views and analysis are by now well known because they passed into both the popular and the scholarly ways we all adopted. Moreover, he had the fairly rare distinction of being proved right by later events, for they did match the large outlines of his interpretations.

One reason that makes it worthwhile to focus again on his thesis is that we may have forgotten what he was dissenting from. He was against a point of view that was then weighty and authoritative in social science. It is one which now shows unmistakable signs of reviving; viz. that social problems had best be left alone to work themselves out and that intervention by government to direct or speed up the process is futile and productive of much harm. Myrdal argued the case for the possibility of change and for the necessity of conscious action in order to achieve it. (Interestingly, he did reject categorically that method—civil disobedience—which the civil rights movement would later find to be efficient and, one can say, also respectful of the “American Creed.”) He stood opposed to “inferring from the facts that men can and should make no effort to change the “natural” outcome of the specific forces observed. This is the old do-nothing (laissez-faire) bias of “realistic” social science.” There are social scientists (as well as politicians) today again advising that we leave race and poverty problems to “natural” forces, just as there are others of a different partisanship who advise that we leave other problems, drug abuse, for example, alone. A sophisticated public will listen to both groups with considerable skepticism.

To the contrary, Myrdal saw racial discrimination as being inherently and always an unstable condition. Its natural tendency if left alone is to worsen, because discrimination will produce inferior attainments, thus more perceived justifications for itself, and thus more discrimination. Edward P. Thompson has recently made us familiar with the thought that the Cold War and its resultant arms race “feed upon” themselves, that they have by this time little cause outside themselves. Kenneth B. Clark is distinguished among those who have described a similarly pathological spread and deepening of ghetto conditions among contemporary urban blacks. Social cancers like these are not self-destructive. They are self-perpetuating, and other-destructive. It takes intervention to cure them, and what Myrdal called “a sudden and great opinion catharsis” is a well-nigh necessary help.


The civil rights movement supplied that. It came upon the United States in the post-World War II decades, when the government was steadily expanding its policies of foreign intervention and military growth, policies which in time would choke the life from the movement, though not from the remnants of its spirit, scattered as they were through society and infusing it with rich meanings; for the movement changed not only society but persons, for whom its profoundest import is that it lives on, like a church of believers. The movement had its glory days, its terribly hard days; had its strong leaders, its staunch ranks of determined people.

It had also its great ideas. One was that justice is incompatible with racial inequality and that injustice is incompatible with America’s Constitution, either its written one or, in an Aristotelian sense, that which has clothed and molded its whole social order. Another idea was that integration of nonwhites into the sharing of social opportunities, responsibilities, and awards is both practical necessity and moral obligation. A profound third was that nonviolence is the only civilized way.

These were themes of the civil rights movement at its greatest as they were, for instance, proclaimed at the August 28,1963 “March on Washington,” proclaimed by the spirit of the day as well as by the magnificent speeches of such men as Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, and—above all—Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet within a month, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham was bombed, and four black children lay dead and a score badly hurt. There would be still another year of protest, national tumult, and sacrificial suffering before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, another two years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Myrdal had foretold what would be the source of the dynamism that would bring us through those fierce times. It would be the “dilemma” itself, a “trouble,” a “sense of uneasiness,” a—in short—bad conscience that beset white individuals and their institutional organs. He recognized in 1942, as Gandhi already knew in India and as the civil rights movement would later know here, that publicity was consequently the oppressed group’s friend. When national ideals are flouted by national practice, the strategic necessity of reformers is to find their way into what the media managers regard as “news.” It is hardly a reform route workable for the people of, say, Saudi Arabia or, perhaps, the Soviet Union. But it could and did work here.

And so we changed. The change has, however, reached a limit. We need to ask why. W. E. B. Du Bois once wrote (1948):

The Negro is fighting a slow, determined battle and is not going to give up. . . . He proposes to reach complete equality as an American citizen. And by equality he means abolition of separate schools, the disappearance of Jim Crow travel; no segregation in public accommodations; the right to vote, the right to think and the right to speak, the right to work and to live in a decent home, and the right to marry any person who wants to marry him.

That is a fair statement of what became the program of the civil rights movement. All of it was nominally achieved; much of it became actual. We celebrate that. The two failings, from failure not of the movement but of national will and policy, are in schools and jobs. Those are failures which strike at the heart of political ideals, such as the right to “pursuit of happiness” or the preambulary averments of the Constitution. But those are ideals never legislated; they thus fall short of the American insistence on identifying morality with law.

Separate schools are abolished by law but are the near rule in practice. Unemployment among blacks is rife and typically double the national averageack welfare has always moved ahead or back with the cyclical swings of the economy. The upward cycles of late never pull up the numbers of people who earlier sank down. The poor or those kept from being so only by a variety of doles grow in number and helplessness. Blacks are heavily overrepresented among them. Only gentle optimists, doctrinaire economists, or self-servers of one sort or another can see much hope for the economic or educational (and the two march together) progress of the black lower class. The civil rights movement heralded the possibility of real change. Let us see it as a closed chapter, in order to preserve its glory. For the next chapter in black American history only doubtfully promises change.


Many blacks have, indeed, advanced educationally and economically, and that too has been a bright achievement of the civil rights movement. It is no longer the case, as Myrdal correctly saw it once to be, that “the Negro genius is imprisoned in the Negro problem.” It is out in the general society, actively benefiting all of us in spite of the stupidity of the opponents of affirmative action who would lock it up again. But about a third of all the country’s poor are black, about a third of all blacks are poor. The statistics gradually worsen and the conditions harden.

As blacks always have, since the Niagara Movement of 1906, they again will have to lead their own struggle. (That could be said more generally: lower classes always and everywhere have had to lead their own ascents. ) That is especially so, now that it is an economic rather than a constitutional struggle. It would seem to require organization on two, closely connected levels. One is political, the end of it being the directing of the intervening power of government toward structural changes in the economy, ones that assure places in its benefits for all residentsacks have had striking successes in city elections, but there seems little that black mayors can do to lessen the poverty rampant among their black supportersack congressmen in their present numbers can do little more. What remains to be seen is whether these local bases will toughen and multiply into a national political power responsive to and determined to change the demeaning life conditions of the black poor. The 1982 and early 1983 elections may bear hope that such could happen, for they give indication of arrest in the steady decline in black voting that has been occurring since the late 1960’s.

Toward this end, blacks can use, and almost certainly must have, white supporters and allies. For the second kind of needed organizing, whites are of doubtful use. The urban slums are the carriers of poverty and degradation. The charge that white discrimination and white money caused them is easily proved; but what whites or government can directly do toward their repair is hard to see. For the physical and economic conditions imposed on lower income blacks in the large cities, South and North, have predictably resulted in social patterns that go beyond the capability of white intervention. What can either heavy-handed or well-meaning whites do to arrest the growth of black female-headed welfare households, a datum that has become the invariable correlate of a growth in poverty? To meet this problem, whites can think of little else constructive to do than to press birth control. What can they do toward reforming the related criminal conduct of jobless black males, chiefly young? Liberals’ worries and conservatives’ prison building are offeredack communities need to find ways to govern themselves. In doing so, they will have to show the public power whether, when, and how to intervene. If that means resisting centralizing tendencies in our cities, they should do so. If that means reforms in the administration of social services and welfare, they should tell the public that and make it listen. If that means asserting community responsibilities as superior to someone else’s notion of a novel right (as in the tempest over the maligned “squeal” rule), they should do that too.


There are reasons for pessimism. One is that, while the ghettos and their agonies persist and even grow, their natural political and community leaders are moving off into the general society. Integration is working, for them and the larger society which benefits from them. One cause for the present issue being, as is said, class not race is that the black elite has less and less connection with the black poor. That is not meant pejoratively. The prospering black is today in about the position of a prospering white Southerner of only a generation or so ago. No longer does his advance depend, as it once did, on the situation of “his people.” He can and does move away, physically and economically; to try to maintain connection becomes artificial.

An even deeper cause of pessimism—for somehow leaders and organizers do emerge—is that the historic tension, that struggle of the Americans with their principles, is disappearing. Or so it does seem, at least for the present. What begins to seem to be true is that the Constitution’s is a more controlling role in American social life than we had before acknowledged. For it is the code of public morality.

Discerning principles is hardly noncontroversial. Myrdal and his associates did it by asking a lot of questions of a lot of people. Most of us do it by living here and listening, reading, and feeling. However it is done, the findings will be disputed. Certainly, Mr. Reagan’s rosy vision is different from mine, which is that the American public has lost—or put aside for the time being—its idealism. It is self-satisfied.

The civil rights movement meant to the general public something we had not realized. It meant fulfillment. Race, as Myrdal the foreign observer amazedly realized, permeated all of American life. He underestimated. It not only plagued the American conscience; it was just about the only thing that did. And the burden has been discharged. The old, damning injustice of slavery, segregation, and terror did keep us all, black and white, Southerner and Northerner, liberal and resistant, wondering, thinking, fearing, forgiving; shaming ourselves, summoning ourselves, risking ourselves; kept us in a tension where we sometimes hated, sometimes loved, but always felt. We escaped from it on cheap terms—by agreeing to obey our own law—and slumped down into the sweetness of freedom from principle.

The public generally feels that, so far as race matters go, it now has squared its practice with its ideals, and that it did so by doing all that was called for, which was to obey the letter and clear implications of its own basic lawacks who continue to appeal to it may get politicians’ assurances that they “care.” They will get no more. The deep well of American responsiveness—an uneasy, troubled conscience— to racial injustice has dried up.


I am speaking narrowly of “racial” injustice. One wants to believe, and therefore does as long as he can, that American public opinion can be and is being aroused to confront itself on some other deep issues, of war-making and arms racing, of environmental waste, of children’s rights, and more. None is greater than the poverty of so many of us. So many blacks are poor, and so disappointing have been past efforts to join blacks and other poor politically, that to stress poverty instead of race may seem both abstract and impractical. Perhaps. What needs to be seen, however, is that an era has ended in which there were racial solutions to what were the sorest problems of black people, i. e. , the violation of their civil rights. There are not racial answers to today’s economic and educational wrongs. The essential black struggle today is not about voting rights, or freedom from official terror, or segregation in public accommodations. It is about poverty. There are no racial solutions to that, no civil rights to be enforced; only economic and educational policies to be won; ones that value human work and personality, as our present order does not.

One final look back at Myrdal, for it helps us see more clearly who we are, what we value. He found it useful to distinguish and to weigh the racial prejudices he encountered among white Americans. The result was the “Rank Order of Discriminations.” They were, in the descending order in which he saw white America as determined to oppose any change:

  1. Intermarriage and sexual relationships with white women
  2. Personal contacts (social intercourse generally, such as eating together, use of titles, etc.)
  3. Segregated schools, churches, transportation
  4. Political enfranchisement
  5. Discriminatory treatment in courts, by the police, by other officials
  6. Economic discrimination

Myrdal next found that blacks’ interests were in reverse order. They coveted most urgently jobs and income, not white women. So he took hope: what whites were most resistant about, blacks scarcely wanted, and what they most valued, whites would be readiest to provide. It has not worked that way. It turned out that the two highest interests of whites, as the “Rank Order” had them, didn’t really matter much to white people. It was the substance of the thing which did. What mattered were the controls over institutional, political, and economic life.

It has not been that white power holders have wanted to practice educational or economic discrimination; mostly they have quit that. It simply comes out that way. The country could take some pride in having created, by the 1960’s and 1970’s interventions of government, a very impressive and healthy ingress of individual blacks into what is called the “mainstream.” What is equally true is that the underclass, and it is heavily black, is superfluous to any present economic needs of the United States. This is not discrimination by deliberate policy. It is something more formidable. It is the discriminating effect of the social machinery.

So it is tempting to say that the civil rights movement not only taught the oppressed that change was possible but that it also taught the rich and powerful that change need not be feared. It has been a remarkable “revolution.” A vast social movement occurred, with considerable turmoil and productive of deeply important social effects. Yet nothing much has changed, in the matter of how and by whom the country is directed and controlled.

The resultant economy does not need those millions of us who are permanently kept as wards of the state. Hardly during this entire century has the American economy except in wartime generated sufficient employment, In all fairness, it would seem that by this time the burden of proof would be on those who insist that a far larger measure of public control and direction is not required. The typically American liberal critique (of which Ralph Nader is a classic example) has focused on hampering the rich and strong, not on elevating the weak. That is not adequate. The civil rights leadership (and in extolling its accomplishments we should note also its shortcomings) had little or no economic program. The 1963 March on Washington was for “Jobs and Freedom”; no one said where the jobs were to come from. Since then, millions more have become jobless.

The United States has had, in common with other nations of the West but in ways of our own, the traditional conviction that politics is subject to moral judgment. Along with all of its harsh pains, the black condition (no other racial situation has comparably permeated American sensibilities) held the issue of right and wrong constantly in our political thought. It little succeeds in doing so still. The women’s movement, the environmental movement, the peace movement—all appeal to a moral consciousness they hope is there. Good luck to them. The survival of the world may, in fact, depend on peace, disarmament, and the American responsibility toward them being finally seen as demands on our slumbering moral judgments, as the Catholic bishops call upon us to do.

But for the time being, moral judgment seems suspended. The politics of power and interest prevail. A nation which can seriously debate whether its laws should expressly permit the bribery of foreign officials, which can at its highest levels and among its most eminent opinion makers assert its right to subvert foreign governments, has not taken even a small step toward reuniting its politics with a moral order (except, perhaps, one of its own invention, one that is merely, as we allege the Russians’ to be, part of the state’s ideology).

But time periods are short in the American story. The antebellum South, that culture where Cotton was King, lasted only 30 or 40 years; the era of legal segregation flourished from only about 1890. The patina of age around those social orders is of image more than actuality. It’s been already nearly 30 years since Brown vs. Board of Education, 20 or about since the great statutes of 1964 and 1965. Anniversaries abound. This year is the twentieth of the high spirited March on Washington. It is the tenth, of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Denver case, its first ever in a Northern school integration case. It was too a notable victory for civil rights, promising effective court remedies. One year later, in the Detroit case, the Court established another first; for the first important time in 20 years of schools litigation it was to turn back the civil rights side. And so it has done often since. Plaintiffs who used to want nothing better than to “get to the Court” now think long before embarking on that attempt.

Probably it is correct to say now that civil rights as an issue has come of age, struggling no longer against a system of oppression but with numerous other issues for primacy. It remains to be seen whether black leadership can transmute the black civil rights cause into the all-peoples’ poverty cause. They have not done that yet. One of of our ablest students of these matters, Eddie N. Williams, said a few years ago: “What is needed is a mass citizens’ movement to apply sustained pressure to achieve the political and economic objectives of blacks, Hispanics, and the disadvantaged generally, [and, quoting M. L. King, Jr.,] to put pressure on the political system to achieve the goals of a just society.” The opportunity is still there, not yet obliterated by the clash of nuclear arms that surely lies ahead if political power is not soon put into sane and justice-caring hands. “Man is a free agent,” said Myrdal, “and there are no inevitabilities. . . . History can be made. It is not necessary to receive it as mere destiny.”


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