[This article appeared in the March 1970 issue of New Guard, the national magazine of Young Americans for Freedom, pp. 8, 9, 16, 17.] 

 

A View of “Racism in America 

Dwight D. Murphey 

 

            The intellectual and moral climate in America has in recent years been established primarily, though not exclusively, by “liberalism” and its alienated by-products, the New Left and black militancy.  It has been characteristic of this climate to condemn “middle class America” as “sick to the core” on a number of separate counts.  Anti-Americanism has been a phenomenon not merely in foreign countries; we have had our own indigenous brand.

            Although the alienation of the intellectual from American society is at least a century and a half old, its condemnation of our values and lifestyle has been rising to a higher and higher pitch.  With respect to racial matters, it has become common to charge that “white society is incurably racist” or that “it has become plain that white Americans will never give the Negro the justice to which he is entitled.”  Thus, Tom Wicker of the New York Times was able in his introduction to the Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders to speak of “the insidious and pervasive white sense of the inferiority of black men.”  The Commission itself was able to generalize about the responsibility of “white society” for racial injustice.

            The “Old Left” draws from this it characteristic conclusion; simplistically, it urges that the problem can be solved by a crash program of federal spending.  Nelson Rockefeller reacted to the Kerner Commission report by favoring the expenditure of $150 billion in the ghettos.

           

            Having escalated the long-standing “liberal” disrespect for American society, the “New Left” concludes for its part that the “answer” lies in revolution.  So also does a portion of the black power movement.  Dick Gregory appeared, for example, at the Wichita State University campus some time ago to say that if America’s racial problems were not solved within three years, America would have civil war.  At the same university in November, 1969, a member of the Black Student Union demanded that the student government allocate $500 to the BSU.  She threatened to incite “25,000 blacks to incinerate the buildings of this University” if such a payment was not made.

            Statements such as these and actions based upon them have made us all familiar with the intensity of such feelings and the depth of the condemnation of America on these grounds.

            But are we familiar with the opposite view, the conservative perspective on “racism in America”?  Unfortunately, this view is articulated far less often.

            It is hardly possible in a brief article to state fully the conservative attitude toward these matters, but we may make a beginning by pointing to a number of salient points.

            1.  Frankly, there are deep racial problems.  No statement of the conservative position ought to start with a disclaimer or a minimization of the problem.  The classical liberal position—a very important part of American conservatism—is clearly to the effect that the ethic of a free society is violated, and violated deeply, if a large number of persons in the society treat other members badly on grounds separate from the character or ability of the individuals themselves.  Not that classical liberalism would call in the police power of the state to solve such a violation of the ethical tone of a free society; it would not.  But there is an ethical base to classical liberalism that must stress the destructiveness of discrimination that negates the individual’s own value.

            Slavery in the South was—however much history may explain its presence—a distinct exception to the free society that classical liberalism has sought to attain.  And so is widespread racial discrimination even though it, too, has causes that are perhaps historically understandable.

            2.  We ought not overlook, however, despite this recognition of the existence and importance of the problem, that the problem is very often overstated.  It would be surprising if it were not; human beings who feel strongly about such subjects will naturally dwell on their worst features and will rarely present a balanced view.  In addition, conservatives know all too well that the deeply seated bias of the media will tend constantly to accentuate, not underplay, the extent of the distress.  And the very fact that the “civil rights movement” arises out of “liberalism,” which has so long been alienated from American life in many ways, means that the issue is bound to be clouded over with ideological fever and by a carry-over of the more general alienation.

            A Negro student told the author last summer that he himself had never felt the effects of discrimination until he took a “sensitivity training” workshop.  While we would not suggest that he is typical, it leads one to reflect on the possibility that a significant portion of the distress is ideologically activated and accentuated.

            3.  In any case a conservative can hardly fail to look at it from a perspective very different from that of the alienated intellectual or minority group member.  His overall philosophy sees America as far from perfect but nevertheless as embodying the best hope the world has ever had, particularly to the extent that it still embodies many residual values of the classical liberal “free society.”  In this total context, he sees racism as a serious problem, but he also knows that America has made major humanistic contributions to the welfare of the human race, black or white.  He sees that the so-called “bourgeois values” denounced so much by the Left, although again far from perfect even from his own point of view, are essentially the values of a free and creative civilization.  Looking at our civilization in light of its total values, he sees that—despite its imperfections—it merits his loyalty and support.  Its reformation ought to be the product of loving concern for it, not hatred for it.  And the reformation ought to be in ways that make it more, not less, compatible with the values of a “free society.”

            To the conservative, America can certainly be improved; he himself has a vision of the direction that improvement ought to take.  But he hardly considers America “rotten” or “befouled.”

            4.  Consistently with their overall philosophies, both the Burkean conservative and the classical liberal will recognize that racial problems arise very largely out of the pervasive weakness of human beings, not out of the exceptional malevolence of any given group.

            This means it is a mistake to look on racial problems as a matter of “the good guys versus the bad guys.”  White Americans show the foibles and limitations of human beings generally.  Unfortunately, most human beings have long shown a propensity to treat badly anyone from whom they psychologically differentiate themselves.  Examples are abundant.  A faculty senate was established at Wichita State University four or five years ago.  The senate is already breaking into factions due to the desire of the members of one college to band together to elect the Senate President each year.  One would think that 500 very well “educated” faculty members would know better.  The fact that they do not is indicative of the extent of the problem.  All through history, men have split into factions and fought.  The Religious Wars of the sixteenth century are a good example.

            When a differentiation is so patent as the racial one, then, it is expecting a lot to call upon people to set aside their usual tendencies.  Those tendencies are childish; but then, after all, the human race is essentially childish.

            This does not excuse racial injustices.  What it does do is to make us aware that, because they are deeply rooted in the present nature of man, there can hardly be a panacea-type solution.  And if a panacea is not possible, then it becomes apparent that the only really worthwhile solution is one that is in harmony with the “balance of values” that conservatism seeks to keep in view.

            It is also worth reflecting on the fact that a “holier than thou” attitude by either the black militant or the Left, old or new, is thoroughly unjustified.  Are such groups, dedicated to alienation, collectivism and possible revolution, in a sound moral position that entitles them to castigate others?

            From an even broader perspective, we must ask whether we could expect that Negroes as a whole, if they were in the majority, would be any more compassionate or just toward their fellow man than the white majority is today?  Perhaps they would be, because of the lessons of their own experience.  But, then again, perhaps they would not be.  Or, most likely, they would reflect the same mixture of good and evil, fairness and injustice, the white population now shows.  They are people; white Americans are people.  Neither group is perfect; neither is all bad.

            5.  A conservative will seek to understand the historical antecedents of a problem.  This makes possible an appreciation of the complexities of a human problem that can hardly be had any other way.  We come to understand the depth of the problem and feel compassionate concern for the people involved in it.

            In the racial context, an historical perspective tells us that there has been much injustice on virtually all sides with respect, first, to the presence of slavery and, second, to the problem of the position of the Negro in American life.  The original slave traders were the most culpable, though they share that culpability with the Negro tribes that sold their own Negro captives into slavery.  And, however we may abhor the slave trade, we know that it was countenanced by a good many civilized nations over thousands of years.  We must not forget that the Communist and fascist nations have given us some prominent twentieth century examples of slavery.

            Each succeeding generation in the pre-Civil War United States inherited a problem that already existed.  There was a tendency toward the ultimate abolition of slavery until the Abolitionist movement put the South on the defensive and the invention of the cotton gin gave slavery an economic boost.  Certainly the South was not entirely right in the defense of its own institutions, but neither was the Abolitionist, who was ready to see the destruction of the American republic, if necessary, to abolish slavery.  The fact that the North won the Civil War and emancipated the Negro masks over our recognition of the essentially ugly value choices made by the Abolitionist.

            The Civil War created its own intense bitterness.  This was made even deeper by the “radical Republican” policies during the Reconstruction, when the newly-emancipated Negro was given the vote and the white southerners who had fought in the war were disenfranchised for their participation.  It would be hard to imagine a more barbaric policy; its residue of hatred has continued down to the present day.  At the very least, it set the pattern for the eventual southern attitude toward the Negro.  Instead of the humane, helpful attitude the South might have taken, the ultimate result was indifference and segregation, a direct result of the southerner’s more-or-less justifiable bitterness.  This is not to say that the average southerner could not have been wiser and more compassionate since the end of Reconstruction in 1876; it is merely to show that the problem has deep roots that complicate it and make simplistic answers all the more chimerical.

            6.  The conservative could not be consistent with his love for the free society if he were willing to call in the powers of the state so solve so massive and so subtle a problem as that of racial injustice.  Certainly he can urge that government and law do nothing to augment the injustice; the conservative’s “rule of law” principle seeks impartiality and legal equality.  But to call in massive police and regulatory power to solve so pervasive a problem would be to create the overpowering state that conservatives fear so much.  The conservative realizes that such state power may sometimes be used for beneficent purposes, but that that same power, even though created for such a purpose, is exceedingly dangerous.  For that reason, among others, he would never call it into being in the first place.  Such power is dangerous, we might add, not just for “white Americans,” but particularly for “black Americans.”  There is no assurance that a statist America would always treat its minority groups well.

            It is almost unbelievable to enthusiasts of the Left that a conservative is ready to leave such problems as racism to the healing balm of education and time.  But that is precisely where conservatism must leave them if it is not to call in the state as a major instrument.  The quality of human life is virtually a direct concomitant of the spiritual and intellectual character of the people who live it; the conservative realizes that the real answers to problems come through spiritual, intellectual uplift.  Anything less is a delusion.

            7.  As a last point, the conservative will stress that the elevation of any given people must primarily come from the energies and dedication of the people themselves.  The really sound philosopher for the Negro race was Booker T. Washington, who stressed the basic need for a slow accretion of work, responsibility and education.

            The white population will never be more than peripherally concerned with the plight of the Negro, if for no other reason than that it simply is not central to their lives.  It is the Negro himself who, through his own grasping of opportunities that already exist and through his developing sense of dignity and worth, is the only person who can gain for himself the respect and affection of other races.  At bottom, nobody can do this for him.  And perhaps, if he comes to see this, he will also come to see that it is the philosophy of individual liberty, and not the philosophy of liberalistic collectivism, that offers him the greatest long-term advantage.