U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The problem of silence.

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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] Bell, The End of Ideology, 123.

[3] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 34-35.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You may want to read back from Moynihan and Glazer, Beyond the Melting Pot (’63 IIRC). This was a period of accelerated acceptance for white ethics (especially Jews), and there was a tendency to see northern blacks through that lens – entirely at odds with the deterioration Baldwin perceived. [Query: What did your people have to say about Hubert Humphrey, who persistently raised the race issue in the Democratic party?]

    • I’ve closely read Beyond the Melting Pot which, as you note published in 1963, is responding to the uptick in the Civil Rights Movement. There the immigrant lens is both present and yet, blacks are perceived still as somehow different, without any independent culture to build neighborhood cohesion and organization. Although Glazer sees conditions are tough, however, he basically says “well self-help is the only real option,” while expressing doubt that African American neighborhoods have the capacity for self-help. So it’s also a pretty problematic analysis.

      I’m not sure about their views of Humphrey in particular, but by his nomination in 1968, most of these men focused their polemical energy against the New Left and Black Power, and some of them at least, such as Moynihan, would be suggesting by the early 70s that the only thing to do about the race issue was stop talking about it for a while, lest any action just aggravate the dangerous levels of tension.

    • With my work on the Americans for Democratic Action, one thing that I’ve seen and come to stress is that you can’t paint postwar liberals with a broad stroke. In the years before the early 1960s, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Joseph Rauh, and others from the ADA were more focused on and vocal about civil rights (if not always race specifically) than Bell, Glazer, and Moynihan.

      Humphrey is an interesting case. In his diary, Schlesinger wrote that Humphrey, fearing the political repercussions, did not want to give the speech on behalf of civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention that ended up becoming the most famous of his career. According to Schlesinger, Humphrey had to be “shamed into it, and physically transported to the convention hall, by Joe Rauh, who had written the speech.”

      • Interesting tidbit Scott! Would you happen to have a suggestion for something that captures Schlesinger’s contribution to the discussion on race?

        I agree that, as with all people everywhere, positions and priorities vary. However, I think it is important to highlight that some of the most popular public intellectuals of the time, who some people (for example, Russell Jacoby) continue to hold up as some kind of exemplar of public engagement, got race almost totally wrong, when they engaged it at all. That’s significant both for historical, and political reasons.

      • Robin,

        I forgot to thank you before for your original post. Thanks! It’s given me some things to think about. I’m looking forward to seeing your book project take shape.

        As for Schlesinger’s contribution to the discussion on race, he typically did not engage directly with race or its meaning for the lived experience of African Americans. He did, however, highlight the importance of civil rights earlier and more consistently than some of his fellow liberals. In “The Challenge of Abundance” in the May 3, 1956 issue of The Reporter, Schlesinger outlined his vision for a “qualitative liberalism” that he contrasted with the “quantitative liberalism” of the New Deal and stressed the need for more equal opportunities for minorities as one of the issues that the “new” liberalism would need address itself to. Another example that captures some of Schlesinger’s earlier views on civil rights can be found in a speech that he gave at Seplman College in 1961. In the speech, which was published in the February 1961 issue of the Spelman Messanger, he insisted that civil rights represented “the overriding domestic issue of our day” and the “moral crux” of the nation

  2. I love the idea of tackling the idea of silences directly, Robin. These silences are particularly egregious when one considers the history of black and Latinxs in NYC. The notion of silence takes me back to Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s classic study, Silencing the Past, which should be read by all historians (Trouillot’s training is as a historically minded anthropologist, Sidney Mintz was one of his mentors).

    Here are a couple of my favorite Trouillot quotes:

    ““History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”

    “The focus on The Past often diverts us from the present injustices for which previous generations only set the foundations”

    • Thanks for these suggestions, Kahlil! I particularly am feeling the first quote you cite.

  3. Hi Marie,

    The problem of silence—in the archive, in published work, in conversations—has hounded me as well in my work on Paul de Man (and the history of deconstruction in general). I’ve found Eelco Runia’s and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s work (though I no longer cite them as regularly as I used to) particularly helpful for thinking about and through the issue of silence.



  4. Robin–I too have always found the near silence of the white New York intellectuals on race and racism puzzling and disturbing. So thanks for raising the issue in such a clear way. There are a few things, however, you might consult. First Stephen J. Whitfield’s “Northern intellectuals and the ordeal of race: the first decade of Dissent, 1954-64” Patterns of Prejudice, 49,. 5(December 2015), 502-21 focuses on this topic and reveals more engagement than is generally recognized. I did a chapter on Hannah Arendt’s controversial piece on Little Rock school desegregation in Arendt and America, which may shed some light on the difficulties at work in her attempt to talk about race and Ralph Ellison’s challenge to her position. In general, the knotty issue of African American-Jewish relationships in all their ambiguity and ambivalence hovers over the whole issue as well. Overall, it seems to me there are two issues here–why was there so little engagement from white New York public intellectuals with the race issue and why was that engagement, when it did come, so timid and moderate?

    • Hi Richard —

      I made sure to read your chapter on Arendt and Riessman, but I’ll go back and read the other one as well! I would love to engage your well-stated questions here but, I’m kind of writing a book about how I would answer them at the moment, so I’ll save it till later :). Suffice to say in summary, though, that I actually don’t think it is too surprising.

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