From The Archives

Mugging the White Liberal

In 1964 activists argued that liberalism was obsolete and must be replaced by a new radicalism “that puts the freedom movement ahead of the Cold War.”


Imagine three goldfish dropped into a fish tank filled with sharks. Or imagine Billy Budd mugged by the Emperor Jones.

Then you might have some idea of the malevolent and paranoid violence that characterized the panel discussion last week at Town Hall between three white liberals (Charles Silberman, author of “Crisis in Black and White”; producer and television moderator David Susskind; and the New York Post’s James Wechsler) and six Negro intellectuals (Ossie Davis, author of “Purlie Victorious”; actress Ruby Dee; Lorraine Hansberry, author of “Raisin in the Sun”; poet and playwright LeRoi Jones; author John O. Killens; and novelist Paule Marshall).

The audience for this fratricidal Armageddon was about two-to-one white, but most of the whites appeared to be either self-flagellating kooks or east of ADA driftwood from the 1930s.

It was an audience that (black and white) hooted and insulted James Wechsler, a man who personifies what is gentle and just in the liberal tradition. It was an audience that cheered from its guts — the way a fight crowd does at the first smear of blood — the mention of Malcolm X and Paul Robeson, and guffawed at references to Gandhi, Djilas, and Ralph Bunche.

     • Alienated by Brilliance

The panelists sounded like the Negro counterparts of Henry Miller, Edward Albee, and Jean Genet, alienated as much by their brilliance as their blackness. Their corrosive nihilism, their estrangement from reality, and their desperation are sketched in the following quotations:

“It is impossible to carry on a dialogue with the white man…There is no point in even seeking help or support from the white liberal.” (Marshall)

“How many white liberals will desert our ranks when we assert our right of self-defense?” (Killens)

“The Civil Rights Bill has been amended to death.” (Marshall)

“Why can’t Harlem organize a vigilante group? Will the press and the police be so friendly then?” (Killens)

“I am coming more and more to believe we need a new nationwide organization that is more militant than anything we have today and that will be committed to liberating the black man by whatever means is most effective.” (Marshall)

“The war of liberation will be a war of the races.” (Dee)

“Unfortunately, this is not a revolution yet, because in a real revolution we blow bridges up, not stall them.” (Killens)

“We are wasting our time talking to these white liberals…The New York Post represents an understanding of reality that debases the world every day.” (Jones)

     • ‘Summer Patriots’

In essence, the Negro intellectuals, during their moments of rationality, tried to argue that liberalism was obsolete and must be replaced by a new radicalism “that puts the freedom movement ahead of the Cold War.”

Killens, Hansberry, and Marshall, with an apparent proxy vote from the taciturn Jones, simply attacked the liberals for “robbing Negro organizations of their militancy through financial control,” and asserted that liberals were cowardly and condescending “summer patriots of the freedom movement.”

Wechsler described his antagonists’ position as a rebellion by a small band of Negro intellectuals against the leadership of Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph. “You people can’t tell Jim Crow from Jim Farmer,” he said.

Now to respond directly to a few of the assaults upon reason and fact committed during this meeting.

“I cannot trust the white liberal today because of his cowardly conduct in the face of McCarthyism. And it was his white brother he betrayed then, so what will he do to me in the face of racism?” (Davis)

This kind of thrust represents a synthesis of the style of the bigot — caricature of opposition — with McCarthyism itself — guilt by association.

Of course too many liberals — large and small — cringed, recanted, and ratted before Paul Joey’s juggernaut. But certainly a majority opposed the lunacy, from Herbert Lehman to Ed Murrow to Arthur Miller to James Wechsler.

     • Vote Record

And, more pointedly, in the last session of Congress Manhattan’s white liberals Congressmen Ryan and Farbstein voted against the bloated HUAC subsidy, while the Negroes Adam Clayton Powell and Chicago’s Representative Dawson voted for it — and HUAC is now chaired by Representative Willis of Louisiana. And the bill now pending before the City Council to establish a civilian board to review allegations of police brutality was written by a white liberal — Ted Weiss — not by either of the two Negroes on the Council.

“The war of liberation will be a war of the races.” (Dee)

It is true that for three centuries the Negro has been the receptacle for the white man’s fantasies, whether they be of contented slaves on the plantation or of rhythmic phallic symbols in Harlem. Unfortunately, the Negro is now apparently making the white man the receptacle for all his fantasies of revenge.

If Mao gets his way, Miss Dee’s prophecy might come to pass. But if that final conflagration does come, I suspect I will be standing with Jim Peck, Mike Harrington, and James Wechsler against Moise Tshombe, Haile Selassie, and Dr. Duvalier.

“If Negro leadership is irresponsible, it is irresponsible to me, and not to the white liberal.” (Davis)

This is an example of the curious double standard of morality that Negro leadership expects and guilt-paralyzed white liberals too often provide; it is the kind of moral juggling of facts Soviet apologists are so expert at.

The only standard is truth. Their missiles equal our missiles. Budapest equals the Bay of Pigs. Djilas equals William Worthy.

And so too does Congressman Dawson equal George Meany; Hulan Jack equals Bobby Baker; Malcolm X equals Governor Wallace; and Adam Powell equals Jimmy Hoffa.

Finally, there is James Baldwin’s assertion, “The white liberal has no role. He is our affliction.”

The fundamental rupture in our society (and in the world) is not, as Silone suggested, between Communist and anti-Communist; it is not between black and white as Miss Dee says; it is between the affluent and the impoverished. It is a conflict of resources rather than races, and no one may say I cannot be a partisan in that conflict.

A majority of America’s 40 million poor are not black, but are white. They are the skilled workers idled by automation; they are the hillbilly prisoners of Appalachia; they are the Bowery derelicts; they are the Italian, Jewish, and Irish victims of urban renewal; they are the millions of elderly; and they are the thousands of migrant farm laborers.

It is time Baldwin and the cultural Mau Maus to his left admitted that the enemy is not the white liberal — who comes in many assorted shapes and sizes and wants to be treated as an individual, just as Baldwin wishes to be distinguished from Ralph Ellison or Jesse Gray, to be seen as a man. The enemy is obvious. The enemy is an automating economy that is grinding the unskilled worker, white and black, into ashes and dust; the enemy is the conservative coalition and anti-democratic procedures that rule the Congress; the enemy is the spiritual malaise that drives millions into the Birchite battalions; the enemy is a mass media that pollutes our culture; the enemy is the Cold War, Jim Crow, and apathy.

I suspect it has been a wilful strategem on Baldwin’s part to overstate his rage in order to make contact and to galvanize guilt into commitment. But he is making a mistake. He is marshaling only the most shallow and psychotic whites, while estranging the very best. You simply cannot call a self-respecting ally an affliction and expect to get away with it. 

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2023

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