Americans believe strongly in the socially transformative power of education, and the idea that we can challenge racial injustice by reducing white prejudice has long been a core component of this faith. How did we get here? In this first-rate intellectual history, Leah N. Gordon jumps into this and other big questions about race, power, and social justice.
To answer these questions, From Power to Prejudice examines American academia—both black and white—in the 1940s and ’50s. Gordon presents four competing visions of “the race problem” and documents how an individualistic paradigm, which presented white attitudes as the source of racial injustice, gained traction. A number of factors, Gordon shows, explain racial individualism’s postwar influence: individuals were easier to measure than social forces; psychology was well funded; studying political economy was difficult amid McCarthyism; and individualism was useful in legal attacks on segregation. Highlighting vigorous midcentury debate over the meanings of racial justice and equality, From Power to Prejudice reveals how one particular vision of social justice won out among many contenders.
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From Power to Prejudice
The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America
By Leah N. Gordon
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Attitudes, Structures, and "Levers of Change": The Social Science of Prejudice and Race Relations
Gunnar Myrdal's training in economics and experience constructing Sweden's welfare state led many to expect a political-economic analysis from An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). To a large extent Myrdal delivered. The race problem's roots, he suggested, lay squarely in political economy. African American status as a statistical minority and the fact that "practically all the economic, social, and political power is held by whites" created a situation, Myrdal held, in which "Negroes do not by far have anything approaching a tenth of the things worth having in America." The economist emphasized systemic and relational factors—exploitation, disenfranchisement, and the intricate, violent politics of white supremacy—when explaining African Americans' low economic, political, and social status. His major recommendations for change followed this combination of social structural and political economic logic, as the social engineer called not only for effectively enforced civil rights laws but also for state-led economic planning, industrial restructuring, and political mobilization of northern African American communities.
However, the postwar trajectory of the ambitious synthesis exposes how a study focused squarely on the politics and economics of racial injustice came to be remembered as an investigation of the white conscience. Despite the weight of Myrdal's evidence, the book would be best known for "the American dilemma" thesis, which held that the conflict between the American creed of democracy and equality and the reality of racial discrimination created a mental and moral crisis for white Americans. Myrdal chose the individualistic framing because he wanted to emphasize that the race problem's roots lay in white America to a public used to equating "the race problem" with "the Negro problem," because he worried about offending his sponsors, and because his experience in wartime Sweden made the political importance of irrationality difficult to overlook. The effects of this choice were far-reaching. A clear example of the contested but decisive ascent of racial individualism, many postwar social scientists, religious and civic activists, and philanthropists paid attention to Myrdal's psychological and moral framing and overlooked the political and economic analysis at the heart of the volume.
Myrdal's work came to be known as a study of the white conscience in a particular intellectual, institutional, and political landscape. To situate the case studies that follow, this chapter chronicles the growth of individualistic paradigms for conceptualizing the race issue, and the contexts that nurtured them, in the fields where that growth was especially pronounced: psychology, sociology, and the interdisciplinary behavioral sciences. Racial individualism slowly emerged in psychology and sociology in the 1920s and 1930s, in step with a relatively small antiprejudice education movement whose reformist efforts were often justified by and helped to legitimize research on prejudice. The interwar years also, however, saw the robust flowering of systemic and relational frameworks, especially in sociology and anthropology, which largely overshadowed racial individualism's interwar development. While Myrdal sought to integrate dispositional, systemic, and relational frameworks, his volume represents a turning point in racial individualism's expansion, as psychological and rights-based individualism reinforced each other and drew attention away from his political economic theorizing. In the decade and a half following An American Dilemma, the individualism so celebrated in Myrdal's analysis of the race issue took root in academic debate more broadly. Personality-based theories of prejudice gained widespread popularity among psychologists, sociologists associated with structural functionalism presented prejudice and discrimination as aberrations to consensual social norms, and interdisciplinary social relations and behavioral sciences frameworks drew scholarly attention away from political economy.
During and immediately following World War II rightward shifts in American liberalism, advances in survey research, accelerating scientism, the presence of émigré scholars, and antiprejudice activism—and then, after 1949, McCarthyism and behavioralism—intersected to alter scientific agendas on the race issue. In addition, theoretical shifts toward personality theory in psychology and from social ecology to structural functionalism and large-scale quantitative work in sociology favored individualistic approaches to racial research. While in many cases a rightward moving political context made individualistic theories of the race issue increasingly useful in the civil rights struggle, the relationship between social theory and social reform was not always clear-cut. The impracticality of large-scale political economic restructuring led activist-scholars away from reforms that reflected systemic and relational logics. At the same time, the psychology of prejudice did not always support racial liberalism as seamlessly as liberal integrationists might have hoped.
The Psychology of Prejudice and the Sociology of Race Relations, 1920–44
Research on prejudice expanded in the 1920s and 1930s as psychologists, sociologists, educators, and religious workers responded to the discrediting of theories suggesting prejudice was instinctive, to advances in attitude testing methods, and to religious and educational reformers' ameliorative interests. Although in the first two decades of the twentieth century many social scientists had viewed prejudice as a natural and instinctive response to racial difference, two interwar theoretical developments raised new questions. Columbia University cultural anthropologist Franz Boas's view that racial differences were culturally and historically not biologically determined gained widespread acceptance among racially liberal social scientists, while John Broadus Watson's behavioralist views of psychology suggested that children's beliefs and behaviors were not innate but shaped by stimuli. Both theoretical developments left many scholars searching for explanations for racial prejudice, inequality, difference, and conflict that reached beyond the rejected biological and instinct-based explanations. In addition, beginning in the Progressive Era and continuing through World War I, northern urban reformers sought to assimilate "provisionally white" southern and eastern European immigrants, responded to spikes in nativism, and worried about interracial conflict as the Great Migration accelerated. In this context, psychologists, social psychologists, and sociologists interested in prejudice addressed the sources, nature, and malleability of racial attitudes and built on innovations in quantitative attitude scaling techniques. In contrast, sociologists and anthropologists of race relations (often in dialogue with work by economists, historians, and political scientists concerned with sharecropping, Jim Crow, and southern white supremacy) examined patterns of intergroup interaction and the social, cultural, economic, and political structures that influenced them. Although many scholars of prejudice addressed how the social or cultural context shaped attitudes, the study of prejudice, in contrast to the sociology or anthropology of race relations, required individual units of analysis. Moreover, while interwar studies of prejudice often tested and legitimated educational interventions, the sociology and anthropology of race relations frequently suggested that larger-scale, and often less precisely defined, reforms were needed.
Advances in attitude-based survey research methods encouraged not only psychologists but also many sociologists and anthropologists to focus on racial attitudes in the interwar years. Scholars distinguished attitudes from instincts, ideas, and feelings. They also disagreed about the relationship between private attitudes and publicly expressed opinions and argued about whether attitudes reliably predicted behavior. Nonetheless, survey-based attitude research expanded considerably among academics and pollsters working for government and private corporations during and after World War I. Surveys in contrast to other types of statistical research were organized around "the individual record" and, since it was easier to find large enough "N's" for the study of individuals rather than communities, cities, or corporations, surveys usually measured individual people or households. The refining of attitude scales in the late 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s—especially advances by Emory Bogardus, L. L. Thurstone, Rensis Likert, R. F. Sletto, and Louis Guttman—provided psychologists and sociologists with better means and added incentives to examine prejudice quantitatively.
Focusing on prejudice did not preclude interest in how the social, economic, and political context, the immediate institutional setting, or the cultural milieu mattered to attitude development, however. In fact, one strand of psychological research on prejudice focused on "contextual effects." The earliest comprehensive social scientific study of prejudice, New York social worker Bruno Lasker's Race Attitudes in Children (1929), found that children were "born democrats" but their feelings toward other racial or ethnic groups reflected what they learned from the adults and institutional norms they encountered. In a 1938 survey of literature on racial attitudes, Columbia-trained psychologist Eugene Horowitz (later Hartley) described "sociometric" analyses that assessed at what age school children exhibited preferences for their own racial group and studies of how "community pressures" contributed to prejudice in children. Other psychological (and some sociological) work correlated demographic variables such as region, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation with patterns of prejudice.
Another strand of interwar research on prejudice investigated whether and how education could alter racial attitudes; this work tended to be less concerned with social or cultural context. Educators and religious or social welfare workers produced much applied work on prejudice, although many scientists who were well known for their "basic" scholarship, including University of Pennsylvania sociologist Donald Young, University of Chicago psychologist L. L. Thurstone, and Harvard University social psychologist Gordon Allport, also studied educational interventions. Published in education, social psychology, sociology, and psychology journals between the 1920s and the mid-1940s, much research tested subjects' racial attitudes before and after exposure to various types of education: factual material on the achievements of minority groups or "scientific facts" about the constructed nature of racial categories; emotional material such as movies or literature; college, high school, or elementary school courses; informational pamphlets; cultural performances; tours of minority neighborhoods; or planned interracial contacts. Drawing correlations between attitudes toward and knowledge about minority groups, assessing changes in racial attitudes over time, and comparing the effects of different types of "stimuli" were also popular research topics.
Research on the malleability of prejudice emerged in step with educational and religious efforts to reduce prejudice. Although intercultural educator Rachel Davis DuBois recognized that economic inequality and disenfranchisement represented basic sources of racial injustice, she promoted a decidedly dispositional approach to fostering inter-group understanding that celebrated minority "cultural gifts." Focused largely on school children, the intercultural education movement that DuBois, Hilda Taba, and a few others led beginning in the late 1920s employed cultural performances, curricular interventions, and planned interracial contacts to encourage white tolerance and minority self-esteem. Also gaining steam in the 1920s, religious organizations such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Federal Council of Churches, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the American Friends Service Committee sponsored antiprejudice educational initiatives and research on their effectiveness. Although professional networks linked researchers to this nascent movement for intergroup goodwill, the relationship between anti-prejudice education and scholarship on prejudice was not always direct. Many well-known scholars of race—not only those who studied prejudice but also many who approached the issue from a social structural or political economic perspective—attended Race Relations Institutes run jointly by DuBois and the American Friends Service Committee at Swarthmore College in the 1930s, while others wrote instructional materials for the Bureau for Intercultural Education or pamphlets for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Research on prejudice often generated findings that were inconsistent or inconvenient for reformers, moreover, while many antiprejudice activists used social science only loosely or selectively. Still, the simultaneous rise of research on and educational efforts to alter prejudice was hardly a coincidence. The psychology and sociology of prejudice and education for tolerance reinforced each other as activists frequently relied on scholarship to legitimize their programing and scholars claimed that activist groups needed their research. Together the two grew through the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Each would generate much new interest as the nation entered World War II.
The individualism of interwar scholarship on prejudice is particularly evident when assessed alongside the broader range of social scientific work on race relations circulating in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s. Prejudice-based theories of the race problem coexisted with robust alternative—systemic and relational—approaches in the interwar years and as war started in Europe. While sociologists and anthropologists had long defined race as a central interest, it was race relations, especially racial conflict and inequality, not prejudice, that these disciplines prioritized. A number of debates divided proponents of the leading interwar approaches to the race issue, the Caste and Class school of social anthropology and the Chicago school of social ecology. Both frameworks, however, took cities, communities, or collectivities as units of analysis and shared a tendency—in contrast to scholarship on prejudice—to de-emphasize the causal importance of individual attitudes.
A cohesive caste system that linked culture, politics, and social mores caused racial oppression and intolerance in Caste and Class theories. Associated with Lloyd Warner, John Dollard, and their students, social anthropologists produced many well-known community studies of southern race relations, including John Dollard's Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937), Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary B. Gardner's Deep South: An Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941), and Hortense Powdermaker's After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939). Warner argued that the American South exhibited the uncommon combination of a caste structure that existed alongside a class structure, while Davis, Powdermaker, Dollard, and the Gardners corroborated these findings empirically. The Caste and Class school described southern white supremacy as a "system of racial subordination" reinforced by "interlocking mechanisms of economic, political, and legal control" and further empowered by sexual taboos that became "ingrained" in the personalities of white and black southerners. Psychology played an important role in Caste and Class thinking, and John Dollard would move toward psychological frameworks by the 1950s, when he explicitly theorized the relationship between economic dislocation and prejudice in Frustration and Aggression (1950). In the social anthropology of the 1930s, however, prejudice was part of a multicausal system but not an independently acting, primary source of racial conflict or oppression.
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Table of ContentsContents Acknowledgments Abbreviations Introduction One / Attitudes, Structures, and “Levers of Change”: The Social Science of Prejudice and Race Relations Two / “Data and Not Trouble”: The Rockefeller Foundation and the Social Science of Race Relations Three / The Individual and the “General Situation”: Defining the Race Problem at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Education, Training, and Research in Race Relations Four / The Mature Individual or the Mature Society: Social Theory, Social Action, and the Race Problem at Fisk University’s Race Relations Institutes Five / “Education for Racial Understanding” and the Meanings of Integration in Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education Six / “To Inoculate Americans against the Virus of Hate”: Brotherhood, the War on Intolerance, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews Conclusion Notes Index