One of the challenges of reworking my dissertation into a book involves how to integrate race into my analysis of postwar public intellectuals. The problem is one of silence. In their work published before the early 1960s, the “New York intellectuals” rarely explored the problem of the color line, and when they did, the issue usually appeared as a small side note to illustrate a separate point they were making, such as the provincialism of certain segments of the country or the dynamics of American class relations. Race and racism itself, as a subject deserving of extended analysis and attention, went nearly completely unexamined.
It is not merely the lack of such focus on race – the absence of chapters, articles, or books that took racism and Jim Crow as serious topics in need of explication – that strikes one as a shocking omission. Some of the most egregious silences come in the course of discussing subjects supposedly separate from race that are, as most scholars now fully acknowledge, anything but. Particularly painful are the moments when the American political system is being praised for its capacity to resolve conflicts through compromise and toleration.
Take, for example, this moment from Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology, published in 1960: “The saving grace, so to speak, of American politics, was that all sorts of groups were tolerated, and the system of the ‘deal’ became the pragmatic counterpoint of the philosophic principle of toleration.” One might feel pressed to interfere with this picture by pointing out that the first century of the nation’s existence consisted of repeated political crises revolving around the expansion of slavery, a conflict which frequently burst into limited episodes of violence until the Civil War killed hundreds of thousands of people over the question. A bit later, however, Bell does address the issue:
In the 170 years since its founding, American democracy has been rent only once by civil war. We have learnt since then, not without strain, to include the ‘excluded interests,’ the workers and the small farmers. These have secured a legitimate place in the American political equilibrium. And the ideological conflicts that almost threatened to disrupt the society, in the early years of the New Deal, have been mitigated.
Had one been entirely ignorant of American history, nothing in this passage would have informed them that the Civil War was a war over slavery, and that at the time of this writing, the ancestors of those slaves had not yet, in fact, been included as one of the tolerated “interests” of American society. They might have even thought that the Civil War had been a class war between capital and “common men”!
Such omissions require critique, for they cannot simply be summed up as the shortcomings of a pre-Civil Rights intellectual. On the superficial level they can, of course, begin to be described as such. But this is not enough. Here, Bell was not merely describing a contemporary process of logrolling and interest groups, although failing to underscore how white solidarity made such “moderate” compromise possible is bad enough. Rather, he pushes this erasure of the centrality of white supremacy all the way back into the past, brushing over the cause of the Civil War and making the oppression of African Americans a mere insignificant set piece to the overall drama of American democracy.
In No Name on the Street, James Baldwin spoke to this astonishing – and, he clearly argues, willful – silence while accounting for his disillusionment with, and rejection of, the white liberal intellectuals that Bell so well represents:
One wondered, indeed, if anything could ever disturb their sleep. They walked the same streets I walked, after all, rode the same subways, must have seen the same increasingly desperate and hostile boys and girls, must, at least occasionally, have passed through the garment center. It is true that even those who taught at Columbia never saw Harlem, but, on the other hand, everything that New York has become, in 1971, was visibly and swiftly beginning to happen in 1952: one had only to take a bus from the top of the city and ride through it to see how it was darkening and deteriorating, how human bewilderment and hostility rose, how human contact was endangered and dying. Of course, these liberals were not, as I was, forever being found by the police in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood, and so could not have had first-hand knowledge of how gleefully a policeman translates his orders from above. But they had no right not to know that; if they did not know that, they knew nothing and had no right to speak as though they were responsible actors in their society; for their complicity with the patriots of that hour meant that the policeman was acting on their orders, too.
Little did they know, white liberals would soon long for the day when only black intellectuals like Baldwin condemned this self-serving complacency. Come the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, in both its liberal and radical forms, would force the issue. How the story went from there, as theories about the inadequacy of black culture combined with the emergence of colorblind ideology to justify continued racial oppression, is a sad one which I’ve related too many times here at the blog. Thinking through my project, however, it is clear to me that the explanations and justifications that emerged during that tumultuous decade cannot be considered as separate from, or unaffected by, the substance of those previous silences that glare so painfully up at us from the pages of postwar political commentary. It is my challenge, then, to bring race into the conversation where, superficially, it is not – to plumb the content of what, on the surface, appears as silence.
 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Revised Edition) (New York & London: The Free Press, 1960/1962), 112.
 Bell, The End of Ideology, 123.
 James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 34-35.