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Norman Podhoretz "Postscript" (1993) to "My Negro Problem--and Ours"

Some thirty years after "My Negro Problem—and Ours" was first published, on the occasion of its inclusion in a book of essays about Black-Jewish relations, Norman Podhoretz offered his thoughts on the ways in which his essay was received, and on the evolution of race relations in the U.S.:

This book is not the first time "My Negro Problem—and Ours" has been treated as an event in the history of black-Jewish relations. Yet even though I spoke explicitly as a Jew throughout, and even though in the concluding section I drew a comparison between blacks and Jews, I was writing not as a Jew but as a white liberal; and it was as a statement about liberal feeling in general, rather than about Jewish feeling in particular, that the essay was generally read upon its original publication in 1963. In later years, with the spread of black anti-Semitism, "My Negro Problem" began being cited as evidence that "the Jews" were hypocritical in their professions of support of black aspirations and demands. This was in fact an egregious and slanderous misrepresentation of the American Jewish community, which (even in the face of the rising tide of black hostility to Jews) has to this day remained far more sympathetic to blacks than any other white ethnic group. It was also a distortion of what I was saying—though that distortion, and the political purposes it has served, may be one of the factors which has kept the essay alive.

Other factors which may have kept it alive have served other purposes. When "My Negro Problem" first came out, a critic said that there was something in it to offend everyone. He was right. Integrationists, white and black alike—who were the dominant force in the civil rights movement at the time—took offense at my prediction that integration was not going to work. Black nationalists—who were mounting an increasingly influential challenge to the integrationists—took offense at my slighting references to the history and culture of their people as nothing more that a "stigma." And Jews were offended by my willingness to entertain the possibility that the survival of the Jewish people might not have been worth the suffering it had entailed.

As the years wore on, however, a curious reversal occurred. Now it began to seem that "My Negro Problem" had something in it to please, if not everyone, then a growing body of sentiment both among blacks and whites. This something was the idea that all whites were incorrigibly racist. To be sure, I had not exactly endorsed that idea. What I had actually said was that all whites were sick and twisted in their feelings about blacks. But to most readers, it seems, this formulation was the functional equivalent of a charge of universal white racism. It thereby lent itself nicely to the view that the "Negro problem" —indeed the only Negro problem—was external oppression, and that nothing blacks themselves did or failed to do made, or could ever make, more than a trivial difference.

The almost complete abdication of black responsibility and the commensurately total dependence on government engendered by so obsessive and exclusive a fixation on white racism has been calamitous. It has undermined the very qualities that are essential to the achievement of independence and self-respect, and it has spawned policies that have had the perverse effect of further discouraging the growth of such qualities. It has thereby contributed mightily to the metastasis of the black underclass—a development which, in addition to destroying countless black lives, has subjected more and more whites to experiences like the ones I described going through as a child in "My Negro Problem."

In 1963 those descriptions were very shocking to most white liberals. In their eyes Negroes were all long-suffering and noble victims of the kind who had become familiar through the struggles of the civil rights movement in the South—the "heroic period" of the movement, as one if its most heroic leaders, Bayard Rustin, called it. While none of my white critics went so far as to deny the truthfulness of the stories I told, they themselves could hardly imagine being afraid of Negroes (how could they when the only Negroes most of them knew personally were maids and cleaning women?). In any case they very much disliked the emphasis I placed on black thuggery and aggression.

Today, when black-on-white violence is much more common than it was then, many white readers could easily top those stories with worse. And yet even today few of them would be willing to speak truthfully in public about their entirely rational fear of black violence and black crime. Telling the truth about blacks remains dangerous to one's reputation: to use that now famous phrase I once appropriated from D.H. Lawrence in talking about ambition, the fear of blacks has become the dirty little secret of our political culture. And since a dirty little secret breeds hypocrisy and cant in those who harbor it, I suppose it can still be said that most whites are sick and twisted in their feelings about blacks, albeit in a very different sense that they were in 1963.

The opening section of "My Negro Problem," then, is perhaps even more relevant today than it was then. I cannot, however, say the same for other parts of the essay. Obviously I was for the most part right in predicting that integration as it was naively envisaged in those days (blacks, with discriminatory barriers lowered, more and more moving on their own individual merits into the middle class and working and living harmoniously together with whites in all areas of society) would not come about in even the remotely foreseeable future. The one and perhaps the only institution in which the old integrationist ideal has been fully realized is—to the surprise and chagrin of many liberals—the army. Almost everywhere else—to my own surprise and chagrin—a diseased mutation of integration, taking the form of a quota system and euphemistically known as affirmative action, went on to triumph in the end.

It has been a bitter triumph, attained at the cost of new poisons of white resentment and black self-doubt injected into the relations between the races. True, more blacks are economically better off today than they were in 1963, and the black community has more political power than it did then. But at the same time relations between whites and blacks have deteriorated. Gone on the whole are the interracial friendships and the interracial political alliances that were very widespread thirty years ago. In their place we have the nearly impassable gulfs of suspicion and hostility that are epitomized by the typical college dining hall of today where black students insist on sitting at tables of their own and whites either are happy to accept this segregated arrangement or feel hurt at being repulsed.

Then there is the other great cost—the damage done to the precious American principle (honored though it admittedly once was more in the breach than in the observance) of treating individuals as individuals rather than as members of a group. The systematic violation of that principle as applied to blacks has opened the way to its violation for the sake of other "disadvantaged minorities" (a category that now includes women, who are a majority, and is beginning to include homosexuals, who are as a group economically prosperous). And so the dangerous and destructive balkanization of our culture and society proceeds.

With respect to blacks, this development grew out of the unexpected cooptation of black-nationalist passions by the ideology of reverse discrimination. The Black Muslims are still out there preaching for separationism, but their old driving force—the call for "black power" —is now firmly harnessed to the integrationist mutation. This mutated integrationism, moreover, has gone beyond demanding that blacks be force-fed by government coercion into jobs and universities and professional schools in proportion to their numbers in the population. It now demands that districts be gerrymandered to ensure the election of black legislators; and the next step seems to be government coercion to ensure that these black legislators will be "authentic" (i.e., committed to the endless extension of reverse discrimination.) Like meritocratic standards, elections may soon be denounced as subtle instruments of "institutional racism."

Failing to anticipate these developments in "My Negro Problem," I found no escape from the trap I was describing except the wholesale merging of the two races. And because my objective in writing the essay was to speak the truth as I saw it and to go where it took me no matter what the consequences, it would have been a cowardly betrayal to shrink from the conclusion to which my analysis inexorably led. Yet if I did the right thing from the perspective of intellectual coherence and literary fitness, I was wrong to think that miscegenation could ever result in the elimination of color "as a fact of consciousness," if for no other reason than that (as Ralph Ellison bitingly remarked to me) the babies born of such marriages would still be considered black.

Why, then, have I permitted "My Negro Problem—and Ours" to be reprinted here, as I have dozens of times before, without revision? The answer, frankly, is that I have always been proud of it as a piece of writing (and I like to believe that its virtues as a literary essay have been another, and possibly even the main, factor in keeping it alive). It is the nature of a successfully realized literary work that it achieves an existence independent of its author, and so it is with "My Negro Problem—and Ours." Long ago it ceased belonging to me, and for better or worse I feel that I have no right to tamper with it of to kill it off. I do, however, hope to write at length about all these issues again someday—if, that is, I can ever muster the kind of nerve that came very hard even to my much younger and more reckless self.

Reprinted from Paul Berman, ed. Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments (Delacorte Press, 1994) by permission of Norman Podhoretz. Copyright © 1994 by Norman Podhoretz.

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