Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1245
In the current deluge of "civil rights" literature, this excellent book [The New Equality] is unlikely to get the wide reading it deserves. Which is too bad, for it is one of the few to put "the movement" in a broader context, to deal in recommendations as well as jeremiads, and to adopt a radical as opposed to a liberal stance (that is, dealing in essentials rather than palliatives).
The book has faults, largely organizational. Since they are not significant when weighed against the suggestive contents, it is better to list them now and be done. First, the argument does not "build"; it is episodic rather than cumulative. The chapters are more a series of self-contained essays than well-related units of a whole. Second, too much space is given to summarizing and rebutting the views of others. Some of this is necessary and some of it is brilliant (the devastating but not vindictive critique of [Norman] Mailer), but there is too much rehashing of the obvious (the defective arguments of John Fischer).
Against these minor faults, The New Equality has major virtues. The radical approach is what gives the book its special flavor and importance. This is not one more panegyric to the "American genius for compromise," nor yet another bit of self-congratulation on the "slow but sure" progress in this best of all possible countries. Our large failures are writ large and their gruesome human toll bluntly counted.
None of this is shrieked. The defects of tone we sometimes associate with a radical stance are absent. There is no claim here on a monopoly of truth, no attempt to blueprint the One Way to Salvation, no trumpet calls to the righteous for a cleansing and a violent rebirth. Hentoff is dispassionate and detached. He thus makes his hard-nosed analysis the more persuasive, and his message the more urgent.
Actually he has three interrelated messages. The first concerns the widening chasm between the white "moderate" and the Negro "activist."… The argument between moderate and activist represents contrasting attachments to order and justice. The moderate, who already shares in some of the "good things" of life, prefers to believe that social justice can be achieved without "unduly" disturbing social order. The activist, who sees little in that order worth preserving, believes that considerable tension and conflict are concomitants of meaningful change….
Aside from being "too little, too late," the moderate position suffers from the optimistic defect of placing too much faith in man's "conscience." Here is Hentoff's second theme. An appeal to morality, he argues, a reliance on the white man's guilt, is in itself an insufficient guarantee of reform. Conscience has brought some improvement in the Negro's status, but only some. If fundamental change is to come—and nothing less will do—"the movement" must organize and demonstrate its power. The hostile or apathetic white majority will not surrender its privileges unless frightened or forced into doing so: the dictum that "power only respects power" is as true of our domestic as of our foreign Cold War.
In this sense the activists are tough-minded realists. Their refusal to place entire faith in an appeal to conscience, or in the benevolent workings of time, separates them from the genteel main stream of the American reform tradition. That tradition has always been grounded in a double optimism—that the world can be made better, and that this can be done through an appeal to "right reason" rather than force and fear. The activists share the belief that the world can be made a better place, but they put their faith for change in power, not good will. To this degree, they are more in the tradition of European radicalism than American reform.
The civil rights struggle is growing more radical in ends as well as means. Hentoff's third and most far-reaching theme is that the struggle must increasingly orient itself toward larger goals—not merely an ending to segregation, but the restructuring of our society. Hentoff reflects the growing view among civil rights leaders that merely trying to win full partnership in American life is not enough. The view has two sources, one "intellectual" and one tactical. The first, represented by James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, is that partnership may not be desirable because the firm is corrupt. The root fear of the Baldwins, in part based on a romanticization of Negro-hipsterslum life, is that the Negro might exchange whatever uniqueness his sufferings have given him for a mess of middle-class white complacencies; he might surrender spontaneity and sensuality for the desiccated rituals of bourgeois life.
A second source of protest against aiming the civil rights movement solely at assimilation comes from tactical rather than ideological considerations. The view here is that although full participation in American life may be desirable, it will not materialize unless the basic assumptions of our society are first challenged. The Negro will never be fully accepted until the value structure which has so long denied him is itself overhauled. Until then, he will be given partial concessions only, just enough semblance of good faith to pacify the gullible—or the tired.
Both these sources—the intellectual and the tactical—are moving the Negro protest into a deeper form of social criticism, one which sees racism as one symptom rather than the entire embodiment of our social rot…. The problem of poverty underlies the problem of civil rights; the inequalities of American life are phenomena of class as well as color. And it is essential, Hentoff argues, for the underprivileged and poor of all colors and backgrounds to recognize their kinship. In his view, a new neo-Populist alliance is called for—one which would unite the American underclasses in a concerted drive to acquire power in the name of making fundamental changes in our society.
The possibility of such an alliance, as Hentoff himself shows, is highly uncertain. Low-status whites are often those most hostile to Negroes. Their prejudice is part of their essential protective equipment; it could be surrendered only if a new scapegoat could be found for their frustrations—possibly the wealthy and privileged. The Negro poor, on their side, "are far too preoccupied with survival and the particular afflictions of being black to think in terms of a potential alliance between them and the white poor."… [The] obstacles to a coalition of the poor are formidable. Not only the specific obstacle of color prejudice, but the inhibiting effect of our middle-class value structure (not confined to the middle-class) with its emphasis on what is safe and secure, and our reform tradition of piecemeal adjustment.
Hentoff's argument, then, can be summarized as follows: There are fundamental inequities in American life which call for fundamental reforms; these reforms require the full weight and support of the Federal government behind them; the government cannot be brought to exercise its weight unless "encouraged" to do so through political pressure from below; the best way to exert such pressure is through an alliance of the poor, a coalition transcending the civil rights issue.
It is this last leg of the argument which is the most wobbly. Hentoff does not pretend that the alliance can come about easily, but he does see it as the only real hope for revitalizing the country. Many will agree, which makes the unlikeliness of the alliance all the more depressing.
Martin B. Duberman, "Wrongs That Can't Be Civilrighted," in Book Week—The Washington Post (© 1964, The Washington Post), August 9, 1964, p. 5.