U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On unintended consequences.

Anyone who studies the history of ideas quickly discovers, as is so often noted here at the blog, that they are promiscuous critters. Ideas pop up or skip over where you don’t expect them, and can get adopted by people and movements seemingly far removed from their original origins. Consequently, they are also very difficult to control. People employ ideas trusting that they will serve as a means to their desired end; but often, they can transform into weapons working against them.

Consider, for example, the history of American racism. For as long as there have been anti-racists, there have been discussions (and almost always arguments) about how to best combat the ideology, as well as the practice, of white supremacy. In the last century, in particular, advocates of racial equity have tried several strategies that came back to haunt them.

The work of E. Franklin Frazier provides a useful jumping-off point. One of the most respected black scholars of his time, Frazier wrote extensively on black history and, in particular, the black family. In The Negro Family in the United States, a sweeping analysis of African American experience, Frazier began with the family under slavery. Key to his depiction of the social and familial life of slaves was the claim that the slaves had not inherited any cultural practices or memory from the African societies they and their ancestors originated from. “Probably never before in history has a people been so nearly completely stripped of its social heritage as the Negroes who were brought to America,” Frazier wrote. “[O]f the habits and customs as well as the hopes and fears that characterized the life of their forbearers in Africa, nothing remains.”[1] To contemporary eyes, this reads as a startling denial of not merely culture, but full human consciousness. Scholars of African American culture and traditions also went on to debunk such claims.

Yet at the time, Frazier emphasized this loss of African culture in an attempt to actually undermine racist portraits of black people – by claiming that slavery annihilated the culture of Africans, Frazier intended to contest racists who argued that the inferior status of African Americans resulted naturally from their inferior culture and the inferior biology on which it was based. Yet two decades later, social scientists and public commentators were frequently citing Frazier not to emphasize blacks’ freedom from a supposedly savage African cultural heritage but to highlight the dysfunction of the one they had developed in America. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan and countless others argued, the humiliation of slavery deprived black men, who had no tradition other than subjugation to draw on, of their masculinity. This set the stage, so the argument went, for an African American family that revolved around the mother rather than the father; a family at least “matrifocal” if not matriarchal.

Liberals employed this idea of the matrifocal family as part of a larger argument about the “culture of poverty.” Although the specific phrase had been introduced by sociologist Oscar Lewis in 1959, the broader concept of a culture of poverty combined a multitude of various ideas, some even contradictory, and was deeply influenced by post-war concepts of deprivation and social psychology. A discourse built by and large by liberals, the majority of those who propagated the idea of a culture of poverty did so in the belief that explaining black income inequality as a result, at least in part, of culture rather than biology would elicit understanding and sympathy. Yet instead, the claim that African American culture suffered from a “cycle of pathology” and reproduced poverty to at least some degree independently became one of the key talking points of the New Right in their decades long (and still continuing) assault upon the welfare state.

So in both these cases, the attempt of liberals to emphasize a particular idea in hopes of eroding racism backfired. What did they miss? First, the belief that emphasizing a lack of African culture and an excess of “poverty culture” would reduce prejudice relied on a rather narrow concept of anti-black racism. Strip away the falsities of biological inferiority, it was thought, and the bigotry of white supremacy would have nowhere to hide. To this end, emphasizing culture rather than biology was supposed to weaken, rather than assist, racist stereotypes. Given that liberals formulated these strategies at a time when a sizable proportion of the population still overtly advocated the idea of biological white supremacy, they might be somewhat forgiven for reducing racism to this simple a formula. Nonetheless, the evidence of an even more tenacious and institutional racism, by the time the ghettos of the supposedly more racially enlightened North had been built for several decades, was all around them. Yet liberals, invested in the political and economic structures of the post-war order, proceeded as if the majority of the work entailed in fighting racism consisted of a good dose of debunking.

Even more fundamentally, liberals relied on two assumptions so basic to their thinking that they rarely required articulation. First, they took racists very much at their word – if anti-black thinking revolved around the belief of inherent, genetic inferiority inherited from Africa, then supposedly distancing black people from Africa and insisting that lopsided poverty resulted from cultural, rather than biological origins ought to supposedly undermine white supremacist doctrine. Sometimes, as in the work of Gunnar Myrdal in his highly influential An American Dilemma, this type of bigotry was so straightforward that he claimed most Americans knew, somewhere deep in their hearts, that their prejudice could not be combined with their patriotism. That the future consisted of a population of white people who rejected racism yet participated in it daily was beyond the scope of their imagination; they did not, it appears, realize how deep the roots ran. The second assumption followed from the first; if racism was a contradiction in American life, then appealing to the “better selves” of Americans should root it out. Unfortunately, the traditions of American patriotism and political thought, as they are themselves part and parcel of the ideology of racism, provided plenty of ways to rebuild its edifice after the more superficial claims of inherent inferiority became taboo. Not surprisingly, given their investment in those traditions, liberals then and now continue to deny that a rejection of these traditions is necessary to finding our way out of a racist state.

What I am interested in thinking through now, however, is the challenge that confronts any individual who believes that intervening in the ideological discourse of a society is a necessary part of political change. Put more simply, I am interested in this problem as a person who is invested in fighting a war of position. What are we to do when the dogmas we seek to undermine prove so resilient that, having eroded or banished one form they take, they manage to reappear in another? And what if, as mid-century liberals stumbled into, we actually end up assisting their reincarnation? How can we possibly hope to avoid such outcomes?

One possible response is to bunker down, hope for the best, and believe in the Power of Truth. As Moynihan put it when defending his “bravery” in discussing the culture of poverty:

The moral grandeur of the Negro revolution makes it more than normally difficult to speak of these matters; yet it demands that we do so. The plain physical courage which the Negro leaders and their followers have shown in recent years ought at least to summon in the rest of us the moral courage to inquire just how bad things may have become while we were occupied elsewhere. It is probable that such inquiry will be resented by some and misused by others. So be it. The important fact is that it is not likely to cause any great harm if things turn out not to be so bad as they appeared. On the other hand, if present indications are correct, the only hope we have is to state them and face up to them.[2]

This option is unacceptable. Not only because, in this particular case Moynihan was disastrously wrong – in both what he believed was the problem and in the fact that it did indeed end up causing great harm – but because it privileges our personal feelings of righteousness and courage over the question of results. If fastidiously attending to every detail of truth were all that was required to change the world, it would be a commonplace occurrence rather than a slogan on inspirational posters. Yet once an individual has convinced themselves that this is what they are about – another version of this faith is the fetishization of “complexity” or “nuance” – no amount of evidence that their particular approach is not paying off dividends can compel them to abandon or readjust course. But if our end goal is meaningful social change, we’ve got to see that change somewhere else in the world, not merely in our own hearts and minds.

The other option – and apologies for how anticlimactic this must seem – is to simply do our best to learn from the past and correct our mistakes. To my mind, this is the value of the metaphor of war in the “war of position” – war requires strategy and knowing your enemy. If our “enemies” here are deeply entrenched American myths and the structures of inequality they support, then we’ve got to reckon with how resilient they are and under what conditions they have either been subverted or manipulated to a positive end. If our neoliberal age of mass incarceration tells us anything, I would argue, it is that there is nothing left to squeeze from the values of individualism and the myths of meritocracy – indeed, while appealing to these concepts led to some significant changes, it seems clear now that their limits have been reached. This puts us (and in case it is not clear, when I say “us” I am referring specifically to the left) in the prickly position of having to wage a direct assault on the ideological foundations of the country. No easy task, and many will insist that it will never work. Fortunately, the study of intellectual history – attending to the origins, structure, and function of ideas – is one of the most powerful tools available for trying to solve this riddle. That thought alone, even when the work of slogging through the history of the tenacity of injustice drains my energies, gives me the oomph to carry on.

[1] E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1966, original edition 1939), 15.

[2] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family,” in The Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “The Negro American – 1,” Daedalus, Vol. 94, No. 4, Fall 1965 (747-748).

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “If our neoliberal age of mass incarceration tells us anything, I would argue, it is that there is nothing left to squeeze from the values of individualism and the myths of meritocracy – indeed, while appealing to these concepts led to some significant changes, it seems clear now that their limits have been reached.”
    Elon Musk just announced Spacex’s plan to travel to Mars with the goal of becoming making humanity a multi-planetary species. This development, like the creation of the World Wide Web, may mark a new trajectory for American entrepreneurship away from individualism towards a newfound collectivism. It’s interesting to think of these developments as answers, though few and far between, to what you describe as stagnant individualism in today’s markedly neoliberal America.

    “But if our end goal is meaningful social change, we’ve got to see that change somewhere else in the world, not merely in our own hearts and minds.” Powerful.

    Lastly, I’d love to be added to Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH) on Facebook. It’s how I found this post, and I can’t believe I’ve just now found this community.

  2. I liked this post.

    ” People employ ideas trusting that they will serve as a means to their desired end; but often, they can transform into weapons working against them.”

    Reminds me of Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, though it’s been decades since I read him.

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