During the middle of the last century, at a time when American democracy was a farce and White supremacy the law and practice of the nation, American elites were fond of talking about "the Negro problem." At the time it seemed like a commonplace and benign phrase. It's now obvious that it shaped the terms of the debate in ways that scapegoated Blacks for the nation's problems. There was, of course, considerable disagreement over exactly what "the Negro problem" was. For example, on October 19, 1942, columnist Paul Mallon wrote:
In the natural course of events, if the Negro is allowed the advantages of education to improve himself, there will soon be a Negro on the Supreme Court of the United States and in all positions of prominence and power.Keep in mind that this was in 1942. There is no Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act, no Fair Housing law. The White primary is still legal; segregation is still legal; Blacks are still systematically kept down by law and custom. The United States is a White democracy at this point. It is not yet what we now think of as a democracy. Yet to Mallon, "The Negro problem" is one of Black backwardness that can only be solved by allowing space for self-improvement. Thus his phrasing reflects deep-seated beliefs. "The Negro problem" was often seen as literally a Black problem rather than a fault in American institutions or values. Black writers readily saw the hypocrisy and scapegoating here, but even some White commentators noticed it as well. On October 6, 1944, the Iola Register editorialized:
But, you cannot legislate him into that position. Politicians cannot fawn or pamper him into it. Free housing and WPA will not put him there. He can only earn it for himself.
The Negro problem then is to raise the average Negro civilization of the country to the white average, not by fiat or other artificial means, but by providing the Negro with the opportunities to advance himself into it. Amazing strides have been made. ["Negro Problem Mishandled by Politicians," Syracuse Herald Journal, 12].
All I know about it is that it should be called the "White Problem," not the "Negro Problem." The whites created it in the first place when they imported Negro slaves for callously selfish purposes. It exists today because of the irrational prejudices and attitudes of the whites, not because of anything the Negroes have done. ["Negro Problem," 4].But the scapegoating continued. Consider how even sympathetic speakers and ostensibly neutral reporting dealt with the subject. On August 13, 1960, the Colorado Post Gazette reported the remarks of a guest lecturer at the local college:
Most Americans still do not realize that Negro problem is a problem for the whole country, a speaker at Colorado College said Wednesday.Mooney went on to decry the "extremists" of both sides and predicted that the "solution" to the "Negro Problem" would look different in each part of the country. Notice how his argument casts the problem as an essentially demographic issue. Wherever large numbers of Blacks go, trouble ensues. Rather than implicating American institutions and the entire American population, Mooney insists that problem in some areas involved "only 3 per cent" of the population and "more than 20 per cent" in others. In other words, Blacks are the problem. Similarly, but with a little more insight, on January 13, 1946, the Wichita Daily Times editorialized:
The speaker was Dr. Chase C. Mooney, professor of history at Indiana University...
One of the reasons that the Negro problem is not recognized for what it is across the land is because of the uneven distribution of Negroes in the country, Mooney said.
Until the 20th century, the Negro had no place in the north, but did have a definite place in the south, he said, explaining that it was the south that had worked out a way of life with the Negro and not the north. The north is only now facing that problem, he said...
He pointed out that few people know how many Negroes the country has and where those Negroes live...He said, "How vastly different it is to have the solution to a problem which involved only 3 per cent of the population and to find the solution when the problem involves more than 20 per cent of the population." ["Negro Problem National in Scope, Speaker Says," 21].
If the negroes were dispersed throughout the country, the negro problem would likewise be spread. It would become quite as troublesome a matter in Connecticut and California as it is in Alabama. The states whose negro population were thus increased would discover, to their dismay, that they faced a problem not to be solved merely by letting the negro vote, by calling him mister, or permitting him to sit in the front seats on buses. ["If Negroes Leave the South," 10].There is a hint here that perhaps Black migration exposes American faults rather than Black failings, but it's still only a hint. The continued use of the "negro problem" phrasing encourages the reader to think that Blacks must accommodate America as it is rather than the nation fundamentally reording itself into a place of justice for all. This, in the end, is why talk of the "Negro problem" was always so high stakes. The Black experience in the United States demanded of Whites either an openness to wholesale changes in their country and in their own minds, or else a doubling down on the scapegoating and racism. It still does. And that brings us back to Pew's recent polling.
It is very difficult to see how the majority opinion on the question above is not an echo of the old scapegoating. This conclusion is supported by looking at Pew's earlier and broader question about poverty in general:
Thus most Americans believe that poverty, as a general part of the human condition, is explained by external circumstances. At the same time, a much larger majority of Americans believe that Black poverty is individualized. Let's restate that. In the general poverty question, external factors are favored by +11. In the specific Black poverty question, individual factors are favored by +36. That's a 47 point swing. There is not good reason for it. That 47 point difference exists because we still believe in the "Negro problem."
And that's not the worst of it. Pew's question is itself a capitulation to our old assumptions about Black inferiority. Pew informs respondents that many Blacks have trouble getting ahead, and invites them to explain that fact by either external racism or internal failure. The conceit and racism in this question is the false belief that the lack of Black success is a problem in need of explanation. Where have we derived our magical standard by which we can judge the level of success a group of people ought to have in the midst of systemically unequal opportunity? Pew ought to ask a much more simple question that is at once less speculative and amply factual: "Why do Blacks have fewer opportunities than other groups in the United States?" This question would encourage the respondent to think about the world as it actually is rather than jumping to a blame game that completely elides causation.
I chuckle as I write that, though. Even now, I'm sure there are readers who think something about that question is unfair or less than true. Giving up the attachments to our race and to our country so that we can become comfortable with truth and justice is extremely difficult, especially when we are in denial about the very existence or power of these attachments. It is nothing less than a process of spiritual conversion. To speak in Christian terms, it is a matter of sanctification and moving on from "milk" fit for babies to the "meat of the word."
In its most basic and unvarnished form, White Americans have always been asking the question, "What's wrong with Black people?" If you phrase it appropriately, it is still socially acceptable to ask that question. And millions of us would still rather have that discussion than call our society, and our own sinful habits of mind, to account. There is no quick or easy solution, but everyone of goodwill must consider how we can build empathy and moral imagination in a culture that is atomizing. We must tie ourselves to others in a culture that increasingly says we are individuals with responsibility only to ourselves. And there I go again, preaching what I can't seem to practice.