Nat(han Irving) Hentoff Martin B. Duberman - Essay

Martin B. Duberman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1245 words.)