Excerpted from Baron’s “Myrdal Preface: Remaking Race,” 2016 (Unpublished).
"'Nothing handed down from the past could keep race alive if we did not constantly reinvent and re-ritualize it to fit our own terrain. If race lives on today, it can do so only because we continue to create and re-create it in our social life, continue to verify it, and thus continue to need a social vocabulary that will allow us to make sense, not of what our ancestors did then, but for what we ourselves choose to do now.'
The remaking of race is, as Barbara Fields asserts, a continuous process, but at times the process is more intense than others. In my lifetime I have witnessed a couple of the more concentrated periods of change. In one of these, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, I spent a decade of my life and work as a participant in the heated contest over what form the changes would take. Today with an African-American as President of the nation we are testing out in a new way how race will be recreated. Some even envision that race will cease to be a significant social category designating group control and unequal status. While I am convinced the nature of our racial relationships will be considerably transformed, I do not foresee for a very long time that race will no longer be a major social dividing line that discriminatorily marks out inequality for most of the people who are recognized as black.
In matters regarding race, much has changed in the 80 years since I was born and grew up in a Border State. In my home city, segregation of black and white was almost as stringent as in the old South. While Jim Crow laws were not as elaborated in Missouri, administrative procedures and virtually uniform social customs filled in to form an oppressive system of racial control. White society had little conflict over this situation. My family was supportive of the liberal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal government and took seriously the social justice themes of the Jewish tradition. Yet, I cannot recall any discussions regarding change in racial arrangements.
Today, an African-American is no longer barred from hotels and restaurants. Indeed, one occupies the White House. Still, for the majority of black people their life situations – at work or out of work, in their neighborhoods, and in their schools – are clearly unequal, often precarious, and even oppressive. This condition is chillingly demonstrated in that one of five African-American young men is in prison or the parole system. No country in the world, even the most oppressive, has a rate this high.
As sweeping as the transformation I have witnessed in my lifetime is, in the 80 years before my birth there were even more dramatic changes in the character of race. At the beginning of this period Missouri was a slave state. Race as a social regulator of behavior had, in large part, been constructed as a corollary to the slave system. To put an end to this system, it took a four-year-long-Civil-War in which the black community’s mobilization, most often on its own initiative, was critical for the Union victory. African-Americans’ capacity to redefine themselves and mobilize on their own behalf was powerful enough to shape the nation’s and the states’ policies for the ensuing decade. For the next decade race became operationally and intellectually the terrain of fierce contests which lingered on for another couple of decades. Then a new regime of racial control was stabilized politically, economically, and socially through the system of Jim Crow.
My history classes did not present me with this information. I was taught that both the suppression and the advancement of African-Americans were essentially the work of whites, and most of which we consider suppression today was really a kind of benign stewardship. In the view of our nation that was passed on to me African-Americans had little to do with the forces, forms, and visions that shaped the environment within which they lived. Actually, there was little expectation of impending changes on the racial scene.
During my youth forces were at work that would change the dimensions of the field on which race was contested. Major socio-economic developments were transforming the national scene. They would compel adaptations in institutions and ideologies. The United States was industrializing and urbanizing at a rapid rate with the large corporations increasingly playing a larger role in the economy; the cotton culture of the old slave South was in decline; the Great Depression gave birth to the New Deal’s fashioning an interventionist welfare state that was more equitable in terms of class. The economic catastrophe and the following World War II shook the old arrangements to their core. Internationally with its rise to become the hegemonic power, albeit contested by the Soviets, the country had to present a different face to a world in which former colonials were pushing towards independence. While political, economic, and international relationships that would strain the established racial order changed rapidly, the formal racial system remained rather stable. Most likely it was inevitable that this stability would give way under the pressures generated by the major alterations in the underlying social conditions.
However, nothing was foreordained as how race relations would be transformed:
• Would it be through the old oppressive mechanisms taking on new and different forms? The political and ideological power of the solidly racist South was certainly an instrument for managing this.
• Would it be the work of national policy elites? There was a progressive wing, in the sense of early 20th century Progressivism, and a conservative one. Neither of these groups gave much attention to racial matters or had invested much thought as to how they would become stewards of change in these matters.
• Would the community and workers' organizations based upon grassroots constituencies and emboldened by the New Deal press for an expansion of democratic citizenship to include African-Americans? Before the Civil Rights Movement few whites of any persuasion or position were committed to racial justice. Many who saw black people as economic competitors were actively racist. Those who did support the advancement of African-Americans usually did so when they perceived that their own interests and issues could be advanced by such an alliance.
• What role would African-Americans play in envisioning the goals and determining this transformation? Some whites thought none; others thought only by their going through a “civilizing” process; few saw them as a vital force on their own. Among African-Americans most were so involved in maintaining their own communities and survival that this did not become a big public issue. However, among a portion of the organizers and intellectuals this was a question.
Such was the racial scene of my adolescence and youth. I became aware of it slowly, at first through personal contact with some black peers who did not seem that different from me. Sometimes I sensed a conflict between the democratic egalitarian practices that were expanded during the 1930s and the norms of racial inferiority, but this was not something looming largely in my consciousness. Not until I went away to college did I seriously deal with this issue intellectually. My thinking was most seriously influenced by my involvement in a movement challenging the college fraternity system, which despite whatever useful social functions it served institutionally reinforced pecking orders of religion, race, and class.
At the same time, I began the attempt to make intellectual sense out of the national racial scene. Quite by happenstance one of the books I took with me to college was Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma. It was a fat green volume of about 1300 pages. By the end of my freshman year I had read the whole thing, appendices and all. This exercise was the way I learned sociology. In America the book itself has been one of two or three most influential social science and policy works produced during the 20th century. At great frequency we still hear its themes, if not the book, cited in discussions of polices and values. During the ensuing 60 years at various times I have had a dialogue with that book. Although I have been influenced by it, I have also argued with it and opposed many of its formulations.
This dialectic has largely been shaped by my engagement with the racial contests of the second half of the 20th century that have had such a profound impact on all of American life. Personally, during the 1960s I had the good fortune to be employed by the Chicago Civil Rights Movement to head up a research department. In the 1980s I was immersed again when I worked for our city’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, first by directing the issues in his electoral campaign and then by serving as his chief policy advisor. Much of my daily life was dominated by battles over race and racism. The social base I served was not just working to change laws and norms. It was also working upon itself to develop its own capacity and capability to reshape the environment and themselves. This imparted a popular and participatory cast to the vision and principles that guided me.
At the same time, as a trained historian, I worked to explicate the totality within which these events were taking place. Most of this work centered on the control systems of racism especially those within the contemporary urban North. Here where racial control and exploitation were not reinforced by explicit laws – in fact after World War II even in some northern jurisdictions faced sanctions –the outcomes were still unequal and oppressive although not as sharply differentiated as in the South. While I was already comfortable with historical analysis, necessity demanded I become an autodidact in economics, sociology, and political science. The systematic academic modes of analysis were valuable and reinforced the Enlightenment perspective with which I had come of age. However, my experiences in the tumultuous struggles around civil rights forced me to expand beyond Enlightenment and positivistic claims of the university disciplines. The fierceness of the contests with which we were engaged led me to understand that especially in matters social there were not only a uniform reason and objective truth, but that understandings of the social actors were also formed as part of the developments. History in the making differed from history as an object of investigation. Subjectivity derived from a group working out its potentiality was shaped by, but not necessarily, determined by its history – 18th Brumaire & Niebuhr on creature and creator. Different groups construct concepts, information, and even memory in ways that make coherent their sense of potentialities, their objectives, and their values.
In matters of race the African-American engagement in this creative process was largely disregarded or even considered impossible by the dominant society. Blacks were considered as objects for tutelage not subjects of defining action. The only black voices receiving much creditability there were those accepting the reigning values and methods. The conflict-driven aspects of racial relationships were basically ignored or explained as driven by a lack of social and cultural development on the part of blacks. If there were to any resolution, it would be through some long-term evolutionary process. Whether the values being propounded were explicitly racist ones or liberal, reform-minded ones, the black community in itself was not considered a source of a value system or an important actor in any possible changes.
On a personal level, my engagement in the fight challenging the de facto segregated Chicago school system caused me to amend my ways of thinking. For a period of four years this work consumed my professional life and carried over to much of my private life. I considered myself a radical scholar. Within my Enlightenment perspective the radical reorganization of social and political life was framed by laws of development that could be discovered by scientific inquiry and managed by rational planning. My viewpoint and skills proved very useful in documenting and analyzing the situation. But the growing mobilization of sectors of the African-American community with the sense of competence and capacity this generated, a sense of becoming the instruments of change for themselves, forced me to rethink. This rearrangement of my ideas was reinforced by the fierceness with which entrenched holders of power fought back or the more flexible ones tried to readjust as a means of maintaining their control.
I came to realize that many of the black community leaders had a more valid understanding of the racial consequences of the way the schools were run than the professors at the University of Chicago. There was more to what was happening than developing a solid knowledge base and then fashioning the appropriate policies. Also at stake was what groups’ visions, values, and senses of potential were shaping the inquiry. Simply put, many black groups were coming to perceive both problems and possibilities that even their white liberal allies did not.
The developing consciousness within the black community was a transformative process both for themselves and the nation at large. It was a transformation conjoining consciousness with organization. One clear manifestation of the change was in how they renamed themselves. Around the turn to the 20th century there had been a concerted effort to be called Negro, with a capital “N” in print. The campaign was in opposition to the use of derogatory forms of this Latin word for black. It even led to a substitution of “Negro” for “colored”. By the late 1960s the young militants insisted on renaming themselves “black” and within another decade they successfully denominated themselves as African-Americans. At the beginning of the past century the naming battle was to counter the derogatory. By the maturity of the Civil Rights Movement the terms of the conflict shifted to one about who would do the defining. The black power and black nationalist movements were the most highly visible manifestations of this transformation, but under this surface there were varying degrees of the change in self-consciousness and mobilization framed by the redefining process.
During the 1950s and first half of the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement operated with the assumption that in the American body politic there was an established egalitarian value framework and the problem was to remove the barriers that kept African-Americans from their rightful position within this inclusion, within this political order. Among whites, most liberals could accept this position at least in theory, but there was a wide variance as to the time horizon within which this inclusion could or should take place; for many it would be in their lifetime or maybe even that of their grandchildren. They were balanced by a significant number and often well-organized hard-core racists, not only in the Old South but also in the North. The majority of whites held positions in between that held there was no serious problem at stake that some tinkering with the legal arrangements or cultural development among blacks would not be able to handle.
The clash was great, resulting in monumental shifts in our society. The impact went beyond racial consideration. The space opened up and the example set by the black mobilization and its victory generated a model for the women’s, Latino, anti-war, and gay-lesbian movements. Mass actions, including riots and civil disobedience, strained the political order, but the pragmatic aspects of American culture eventually facilitated the formulation of a new balance in which formal racism was to a large extent restricted. Nevertheless, the sharply asymmetric character of race relations remains.
I lived through these historical developments, often at the center of controversies. At times I was an accuser, at others an accused. My thought-world too was changed. I turned back to Myrdal’s work. This time I tried to make sense of the new racial scene by critiquing his analysis. As the reader will see, I have great admiration for Myrdal as analyst working to create a theory and ideology for new policy possibilities. Today, he and his formulations are still invoked as a canon for proceeding towards a democratic, egalitarian destiny. Of the 20th century social scientists only John Maynard Keynes is referenced more frequently. Like Keynes he fashioned formulations that could facilitate enough consensus to formulate and justify a new forward within an expanding welfare state that faced a divisive crisis. “
Back to Top