I remember being invited more than two years ago to lecture at Columbia on the racial crisis in the city, especially as it pertained to politics. I spoke before an audience of bright, young, white law students. They listened to the lecture, I thought, in a rather sullen way. The burden of the lecture is the burden of this chapter in my book-that one who becomes somehow immersed in some of the visceral and brutal realities of the racial crisis cannot escape a premonition of chaos and imminent disaster.
What I had to report that night was later to become the substance of an article, "Race, Religion and Revenge," published by the Christian Century in its issue of February 14, 1962. I gave the speech and said, I trust, what, as nearly as I could figure out as a white person, was and is the truth about the relations between races in the Northern cities. When I finished, there were a lot of comments from the law students. They fell, roughly, into two categories. The first alleged that I had been too harsh and "pessimistic" about the relations between the races in America, and these assertions were documented by the experiences of some of the students themselves, such as the fact that several of them had been exposed to Negroes in New York-taxi drivers and waiters and the like-and had been treated by them, in these situations, with civility and courtesy. After further discussion, it soon became apparent to the students that the casual contacts they had experiences with taxi drivers, elevator operators, waiters, and so on, did not constitute significant, nor even honest and honorable, communication with Negroes in the city. So that line of attack on my paper was abandoned. The line which took its place was much more revealing. They said, in effect, "Well, the trouble with you, Stringfellow, is that you have lived so long among them that you have begun to think like they do!"
Their objection, finally, as far as I could comprehend it, was that I, by living and working those years in Harlem, had somehow ceased to be a white man, or at least had lost the capacity and authority to speak as a white man-through, I suppose, overexposure to Negroes.
If that be the case, let it be.
All this time I had thought that there is something unique about being a human being, something which transcends all of our human differences and diversities, whether of race or age or class or profession or sex or wealth or whatever. And if it must come to pass, in the agonizing tension and fears which characterize the racial crisis, that any white person regards me-or anyone of a number of other white people-as a traitor to our race and heritage, then let that be. It can only prove how deep and pathetic the estrangement of the races has become in this society, so fond of boasting of its democracy and regard for humanity.
The estrangement is almost complete. The proof of that is in the so-called white liberals of the North, as much as, or perhaps more than, in the white segregationists of the South. For these white Northerners, in their professions of liberalism toward the Negroes, suffer from a mentality which still assumes that white people retain the initiative in the racial crisis and that white people have, and should continue to have, the prerogative of determining the pace of the Negro's emancipation and the terms of reception into full citizenship. "What would Negroes want?" they ask, not discerning that this very question embodies the essence of white supremacy, even though perhaps it be a more
subtle and more genteel white supremacy than that characteristic of the irrational and crude segregationists of the Deep South.
That question "What do the Negroes want?" presupposes that what the Negroes want is for the whites to give, as if, in this society, the whites retain some right to dispense to the Negroes or to anybody else what is theirs by birthright and citizenship and, in truth, by their common humanity. Whites have no authority-legally or morally-to rule upon any demands of Negroes. White people have only to acknowledge and honor at last the same civil and human rights for Negroes that they treasure for themselves.
Yet the condescension among Northern whites is still conspicuous and, one might add, obnoxious. It is, in its own fashion, much more embittering and provocative, much more incisive and die-hard than the rabid, traditional, and sometimes pathological racism of the South. It not only assumes that whites hold the initiative in the resolution of the racial crisis, which is a fantasy, since the initiative has now conclusively passed into the hands of the Negroes, as the past years attest; but it also still treats participation by white citizens in the civil rights struggle as a "good cause"-as a cause that ought to be supported by people or principle and conscience, just as aid to refugees might also be supported with time and money, or just as the work of the United Nations might be upheld with words and occasional actions.
The only thing is that this is no "good cause." Not at least in the sense that refugee assistance or apologetics for the United Nations may be. The Negro revolution is no ordinary charity to which enlightened whites should give their donations and their names. The Negro revolution is, rather, an authentic revolution, in which the whole prevailing social order of the nation is being overturned in the face of three hundred years of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and de facto racism throughout the country. Every important institution in the public life of the nation-education, employment, unions, churches, entertainment, housing, politics, commerce, investment, welfare, transportation, public accommodations-is immediately affected by this revolution, and this revolution will not spend its course until every such institution surrenders to its objectives. The only real question is the means by which the inevitable integration of American public life will take place-peaceably or violently, realistically or obstinately, today or tomorrow.
This is no "good cause," in the conventional sense of the term.
And to treat it as such-as so many Northern liberals still do- is in itself condescending and stupid. How, then, should white people, especially those in the North, treat this issue?
First of all, they must surrender their prerogatives of decision. First of all, they must face the fact that the real decisions determining how the racial crisis will be resolved are for the Negroes to make. First of all, they must give up their idea that they have and should continue indefinitely to have the prerogatives of white supremacy. First, white people must die to that mentality by suffering the hostility and rejection of Negroes and by risking their lives and the future of this society in the hands of the Negroes.
That is the preface to reconciliation between black and white people.
~ My People is the Enemy (1964), p. 125-29Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.