CHAPTER 7. THE IMPACT OF RACISM ON AMERICAN CULTURE AND VALUES
In recent years there has been a campaign to educate Americans as to the nature of physical addictions to chemical substances, such as alcohol. For those who have to deal with an alcoholic family member, one commercial asks "You can see what alcoholism is doing to the alcoholic, but can you see what alcoholism is doing to you?" Most family members, of course, cannot see what alcoholism is doing to them. Indeed, family members often deny that the alcoholic member is even an alcoholic. It is too painful to admit the truth of the situation because they would have to confront the ugly reality. Rather than face reality, often one of the children is deemed an incorrigible child and blamed for all the family's problems.
The alcoholic family model can help us understand the denial of the impact of racism on the United States. Of course, an entire society cannot be directly compared to an individual family. In the larger society, special interests are involved in the promotion of racism either directly through various economic and political measures or indirectly through the promotion of racist values. Nevertheless, an entire nation can be involved in the process of denial. Many people in the United States deny that there is a racial problem or, if they admit it, engage in scapegoating, saying that blacks themselves are the source of the problem. What is worse is that most white Americans find it impossible to see that racism has had a serious impact on white America itself. One can see what racism has done to the direct victims of racism, but it is much more difficult to see what racism has done to American society as a whole. And this subject has been a relatively neglected topic in the social sciences.
American society deludes itself constantly by refusing to discuss race, except as an isolated social problem or an American dilemma. This social pretense is maintained in all American civics classes and at Fourth of July orations. The emphasis is always on how great the country is, while it virtually ignores the corruptive influence of racism in the nation's history and society. It is as if the entire society has agreed not to see the real role of race in the nation's structure and values. The dominant theory of stratification, that of the equality of opportunity, helps continue the delusion by maintaining that the economic game is a fair one.
The attractiveness of pretense is that most American citizens so fully internalize it that they have no awareness that by their beliefs and actions they continue the racial system. In fact, among many Americans there is no real pretense because they have fully internalized the social values. Nevertheless, those responsible for enforcing the system and those who feel more socially insecure (seeing themselves as threatened by the possibility of falling into the lower class) are much more aware of the situation and will use any means available to enforce the racial order.
The so-called American dilemmas or paradoxes become very explainable once we drop the pretense of the limited impact of racism. This chapter delineates the system of values and culture developed by Americans under the influence of racism. These values are those of only a slightly modified capitalism backed up by moralism and conservative religion. The moral code Americans set up is often summarized as the "American way," which, of course, means many things to many people. But we can define it as the belief system of a democracy without hereditary nobility that believes in equality of opportunity backed by a religion based on modified Puritanism, which in turn is an expression of capitalism in religious clothing.
Values Associated with Capitalism
Equality of opportunity is the central value of the American system because it is the theory used to explain the distribution of wealth and income in the society. It accepts an only slightly modified capitalism as its model for the good society. This is a very conservative doctrine because it declares basically fair the current distribution of income, even though there may be a few inequities remaining. But, because the equality-of-opportunity thesis sanctifies the larger racist society, it is itself an expression of racism.
Tocqueville argued that in a nation without a nobility, each citizen is very insecure because he or she is not as able as the European to blame an undesirable position on an unfair system of economic distribution. One who does not hold a high position is fearful that this is due to personal weaknesses. The level of anxiety over one's social position is compounded when status distinctions in a society are not clearly delimited. Insecurity increases because no one clearly knows the relative status of the other. The Frenchman also noted that this insecurity isolates Americans and makes them more individualistic as they are thrown on their own devices to work out who has high status and who has low status. This results in a constant jockeying for position and constant self-praise as people tell each other that they are worthy of respect. (At the same time, Americans tend to see comments favorable to oneself as evidence of arrogance or conceit. Americans like their heroes to be humble. Hence the importance of material wealth, which lets others know one's accomplishments without actually having to tell people directly.)
Contained in Pessen's (1976) book of essays on the Jacksonian era are social commentaries of various European observers on different aspect of life in America. Among the characteristics ascribed to the Americans are insecurity, boastfulness, thin skin, rudeness, evasiveness, pushiness, and many other negative characteristics. All these stem from a basic insecurity bred by the emphasis on equality of opportunity.
Associated with being capitalist is the value of materialism. Americans stress materialism; they measure people's worth in terms of their wealth or position. This emphasis ties in with the importance of money in American society. And if one's social position is dependent on one's own efforts, then it becomes very important to have a high economic position. After all, wealth is the most objective and most obvious measure of success in the equality-of-opportunity competition.
Another measure of economic success and well-being is the way one looks physically. Americans are extremely health conscious and place great emphasis on physical attractiveness. Physically heavier people are often made to feel socially and personally inferior. (This ties in with American moralism. According to this thesis, there is "something wrong" with anyone who cannot use their willpower to solve a problem.)
Unfortunately, the stress on winning the equality-of-opportunity game measured in terms of money and physical attractiveness reinforces personal insecurity. Wealth and beauty, after all, can be very fleeting. Americans usually deny that they are motivated by money and physical attractiveness, but there is obviously a huge gap between what they say and how they act.
The push for equality of opportunity and the pursuit of money also lends itself to a high level of crime in the United States. It becomes so important to be thought wealthy that many people will do anything, legal or illegal, to obtain wealth (see Bell 1965). Here criminal activity includes not only crime committed on the streets but white-collar crime as well. Moreover, a particularly demoralizing effect of economic insecurity is to increase the amount of political corruption, as many government officials, usually underpaid compared to private-sector employees, accept bribes and other offerings.
Being would-be capitalists, the American people have built their society on the profit motive. In other words, their institutions tend to judge what is good in terms of what makes a profit. The mass media offers one example. Successful programs on television or radio in America are those that get the highest ratings, that is, those that produce the greatest profits. The only modification of this is when a program gets a high rating but offends the moralist values that underlay the racist system. The end result is that almost all Americans, conservative or liberal, feel the mass media are unfair and mediocre. Nevertheless, the system does favor the white middle class because this class outnumbers any other group and hence virtually dictates the contents of mass media. This is just one of many reasons why there is actually very little freedom of expression in the United States. The system of measuring the value of ideas by their profitability enforces a dulling uniformity of opinions on Americans.
In 1958 Norman Mailer's essay "The White Negro" asserted that American culture encourages psychopathic personalities. Mailer noted the series of contradictions (so-called paradoxes) in America, such as an idolization of violence and the work ethic, a glorification of sexual prowess and the Puritan demand for repression, and a compulsion to be "successful" and a belief that the good person should be humble. Mailer believed that such contradictions could produce a new generation of psychopaths as "the psychopath is better adapted to dominate those mutually contradictory inhibitions upon violence and love which civilization has exacted of us" (quoted in McCord 1982:89). Mailer noted that in American society many artists, politicians, and businessmen actually are psychopathic.
Michael L. Glenn (1967) and Alan Harrington (1972) wrote that the hero of our age is the psychopath. Our society glorifies the victor and who is more likely to be the victor that the psychopath (McCord 1982:89-90). Urie Bronfenbrenner (cited in McCord 1982) did a number of studies on children's attitudes in America, Russia, and western Europe. He found that American children were more likely to exhibit psychopathic-like characteristics. He found that Russian children were the most likely to express mutual concern for others. American children were more willing to engage in antisocial behavior and were more responsive to peer pressure.
The fact that most white middle-class Americans see themselves as minicapitalists has ensured an economic system in the United States that is out of step with current reality. While other industrialized countries, except South Africa, have been able to modify many of the inequities of pure capitalism, the United States has failed to do so. This failure has meant an antiquated form of capitalism with a factory mentality dominating among American business managers. The world has moved into a new age of managed capitalism, but the United States has been so divided by racism that it has been unable to follow suit.
Values Associated with a Pseudo-Democracy
A society controlled by a racist white middle class, is not really a democracy at all in the Jeffersonian sense of balanced government. This lack of balance shows itself in many local and state governments actually taking votes on basic civil rights. For instance, the state of Colorado actually passed a law denying basic protection for gay people. The New York City school system voted to fire its superintendent for trying to teach tolerance of gays in the schools. A society that allows citizens to vote on whether various groups should or should not have basic human rights, is a society where civil rights are always at risk for everyone.
Many Americans argue that local communities should have the right to vote on what kind of curriculum the schools have. A society that puts science and social science to a vote, is a society that does not have much respect for any kind of science.
Pseudo-democracy is also expressed in the schools in the tendency to encourage students to "express their feelings" about subjects, rather than to master a body of knowledge and then apply principles of logic to analyze the subject matter. The end result is a nation of poorly educated students, who cover their ignorance with vocal bravado.
Moralism and Civil Religion
Americans say they believe in the separation of church and state, but this is actually a very poor reflection of reality. Americans are fond of placing "In God We Trust" on myriads of state objects. They are also fond of intoning God at public functions and offering public prayers.
Tocqueville argued that in a democratic country without a nobility, religion becomes extremely important. Without a religious emphasis, unbridled materialism and selfishness would completely take over the nation's values. For Tocqueville, this was why Americans were so religious. To counteract materialism, and to create moral unity, Americans created a civil religion based on a slightly modified capitalism in puritanical clothing. (It must be emphasized that Puritanism was itself primarily a restatement of capitalism.)
Tocqueville missed the main reason for America's emphasis on religion: racism. Racism is a terribly destructive social force. Constructing a system based on racism reinforces whites' fears of blacks and establishes the need for constant vigilance to maintain the system. The dominant groups not only have to ensure that the social order is maintained but that the society's values are strictly followed. America's civil religion sanctified this racist system and provided it with the strict moralistic code needed for its enforcement.
The civil religion the Americans developed was a very moralistic one. Moralism sees humanity as primarily motivated by ideas and ideals and, consequently, harshly and unfairly judges human conduct. The moralist qualities of Puritanism proved ideal for America's civil religion, for they had that constant vigilant perspective for moral transgressions needed for the enforcement of a racist value system. This section first discusses American moralism and then focuses on the need for enforcement of this moralism.
Moralistic attitudes pervade American society; they influence virtually every decision and public discussion taking place in the nation. In fact, we can say that moralism is the backbone of racism. Moralism does not apply only to racial norms but to many other norms as well. For instance, compared to Europe, America is especially harsh on all aspects relating to sex: prostitution, abortion, birth control, sex education, and many more. This obviously stems from Puritanism, but it was given sustained life because it is a valuable enforcement mechanism for ensuring that all groups follow the "American way."
A perfect illustration of how deeply ingrained the racist value system is in America, and the extent to which Americans will go to support this value system, is provided by the AIDS crisis. Moralistic groups in America are so powerful that they can block any attempts to discuss scientifically how the disease is spread. Advertisements that mention the disease only hint at what actually is happening. Medical references are so vague as to be useless as information. Without this scientific information, many more people will die than would have been the case under a less harsh moral code. Moralistic forces, however, feel it is of greater benefit socially to let people die of AIDS than to question the moralist value system regarding sex in the United States. To many liberals, this way of reasoning seems close to insanity. Yet it is perfectly sane when seen from the point of view of the role of moralistic values in backing the racist system in America.
Another illustration comes from the court system. Americans emphasize the concept of free will and stick to it unerringly largely because they want to blame the lower class for not improving its own situation. The logic of the insanity plea reflects this moralism. With a few exceptions, the law asks only whether a person knew that what he or she did was morally wrong. This moralistic approach to psychiatry completely ignores the role of such forces as compulsions, obsessions, phobias, and addictions. To consider less exclusive definitions of insanity would, moralists feel, weaken the basis for American values: moralism itself. This moralistic value system also explains why the United States is the only advanced industrial society that retains the death penalty. After all, how can moralists be lenient on murderers when murderers freely chose to murder even when they know it is wrong?
The moralistic outlook also explains why many Americans tend to condemn the unfortunate and poor for not living by middle-class standards. After all, they argue, given the obvious equality of opportunity in the society, the lower class freely chooses to stay in its present condition.
With this moralistic outlook on society, it is no wonder that many Americans are naive about the world. They, after all, live in a world of moralistic ideals. Indeed, in a defensive system there is a premium on maintaining a belief system that is one of high ideals. It is much better and more legitimate to say one's society is based on equality than on racism. Of course, to maintain this belief, one has to engage in a great deal of myth making about the social order. For instance, Americans refuse to consider the impact of social class on their society, romantically insisting that they treat everyone equally, regardless of class. It is as if they deny reality by sticking to the pollyannaish belief that equality of opportunity makes the society a fair one, when obviously it is not. In fact, racism is the most important reason for the egalitarian emphasis in white America.
Many other once-puzzling aspects of American life could be cited to illustrate America's moralism. But the argument must move on to the need for enforcement of the moralistic code and the values associated with this.
The need for moral enforcement explains why Americans historically have been harsh toward atheists. Indeed, former President George Bush expressed a common feeling when he questioned if atheists were even American citizens. Given the religious backing of the "American way," atheists are seen as a threat to the social order.
A key characteristic of the civil religion and the enforcement system is the overemphasis on patriotism with its stress on saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. For instance, one often hears the meaningless phrase that the United States is the greatest nation on earth. The intent of America's exaggerated patriotism is to force people to agree with the "American way." Disrespecters of flag or anthem can expect harassment, violence, arrest, or all three. The moralistic code and the need for its rigid enforcement limits the amount of personal freedom American citizens really have. To challenge the precepts of Americanism leaves one open to charges of being unpatriotic, atheistic, or siding with communists.
It takes a great deal of coercion to maintain a racially tripartite system, and this helps explain America's high level of violence, which is apparent not only in high levels of personal crime but in racial and ethnic assaults. Studying these high levels the final report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1970:ix) noted that violence was as great a threat to the nation as any combination of external dangers. Related to this is America's high tolerance for personal violence between individuals. After all, it takes a great deal of violence to maintain a racial caste system. Just one example of this tolerance is seen in the classic American way for children to deal with a bully. Instead of the school's taking an activist stance against bullying, the person being bullied is advised to be courageous and confront the bully physically. The proper way to deal with a bully is ultimately confrontational, but it certainly does not have to be a violent confrontation.
The need for enforcement of the system of racism explains another characteristic of American culture: paranoia. The racial system in the South and North left the American character constantly vigilant for moral transgressors and other possible threats to the social system. (For descriptions of paranoia in American life see Hofstadter 1965 and Levin 1971.) Witness the society's hostility to any radical ideas, especially socialism and communism. These ideas are seen as threatening the social order. This trait is also closely linked to condoning the use of violence against transgressors of the "American way." For instance, Americans used considerable private violence against socialists, such as the Wobblies (International Workers of the World, or I.W.W.), when they tried to organize workers in the American West.
America's paranoia also extends to foreign policy. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was more concerned than western Europe about a possible Soviet invasion of Europe. Two other examples of American paranoia are the Palmer raids and McCarthyism (discussed in the history section).
Another characteristic related to paranoia is anti-intellectual- ism. All too many Americans see intellectuals as potential threats to the racial tripartite system because these people are the most likely to challenge the system's validity. Therefore it is important to belittle intellectuals as ivory-tower dreamers, idealists, undemocratic, and nonpragmatic. During Richard Nixon's presidency, Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew vented this theme with particular vehemence when he viciously attacked intellectuals in the news media and universities.
Accompanying the role of anti-intellectualism is the importance of disinformation in the United States. Disinformation is spread in order to back up the racist system in all its ramifications. One prominent example of disinformation is the failure of most Americans to understand the difference between socialism and communism. Many so-called socialist governments are primarily capitalist countries with strong government intervention. But many Americans refuse to make any distinction between these countries and communist ones. Another example is the apocryphal stories about welfare recipients driving around in Cadillacs. These stories are deliberately spread because the white middle class wants to believe them, and they want to believe them because they want to maintain the existing racist system of the distribution of scarce resources.
If one tells Americans that their moral code, compared to other advanced industrial nations, is too strict and punitive, they usually respond by saying that Americans are "more moral" than the other countries, or that America has higher standards. The truth, however, is that they actually have lower standards because their standards are racist in nature.
The culturalism of Americans is also expressed in their world history texts. These texts are really western history texts. The stress is on Egypt as the cradle of civilization, and how from this great civilization the mantle of leadership traveled through the Near East to Greece, then Rome, up to Great Britain, and over to the United States. In essence, in this culturalist view, America is the climax of thousands of years of advanced civilizations. This is a completely biased approach because it says that western culture is superior to other cultures. To be non-culturalists, historians should insist on separating western history from world history. World history should be truly world-wide with an equal emphasis on all the major areas of the world. This idea, however, is opposed by racist moralists, who fight to maintain their vision of racist America as the greatest nation in the world.
Characteristics Related to a Weak Government
As we explain in the history sections, the split between the primarily slave economy of the South and the more mercantile economy of the North resulted in an emphasis on states' rights that saddled the United States with a very weak government. Many aspects of American culture stem from this lack of effective government. To take one example, many people are amazed that the United States has close to three-quarters of the world's lawyers. A partial reason for this is America's moralistic attitude, which places heavy criminal penalties on private vices, with an emphasis on punishment, not treatment. Another reason is that in a society that places such importance on material success, there is constant jockeying for position which leads to conflict. But a more serious source of the need for lawyers and constant litigation in the United States is that the government is simply not effective. Compared to other nations, the United States currently does not have effective policies protecting employees or adequate welfare policies helping people in need. The victims of injustice and poverty, or even accidents, have to turn to the legal system for redress because the political system simply is inadequate.
Another area in which the United States lacks competent government is in having effective agencies to check on corruption and crime in both business and governmental agencies. With few government employees checking on business crime, Americans find themselves at the mercy of business ruthlessness. One example comes from the VCR repair business. It has been estimated that in this field the consumer has a 50 percent chance of being cheated. A society that takes the motto "Let the buyer beware" as a guiding principle is one that the average citizen cannot trust. An example involving consumer deaths comes from eating meat contaminated with the E. colli bacteria. The government provides too few meat inspectors and does not supply them with equipment adequate enough to detect spoiled meat.
In the vacuum left by the absence of government, the mass media have had to take the role of uncovering business misbehavior. Several hour-long television programs devote themselves primarily to disclosing business and governmental abuses and cautioning viewers to be watchful.
A recurring tendency in American politics is political scapegoating. Popular analysts never question the system itself (they would be fired if they did), but merely attempt to find ephemeral causes. A common theme in America is the tendency for the public to blame elected officials for any problems with the system (see Sussman 1988). It is much easier to blame politicians than to accept, for instance, that at times the nation itself becomes politically paralyzed between opposing groups. Voters blame the politicians for not carrying out the wishes of the people or for working for their own personal advancement. This was certainly the rage in 1992 in the United States. This, of course, ignores the real paralysis arising from a racially divided nation and a largely conservative middle class.
American social scientists, who basically accept the American system, have for decades been trying to discover why Americans have one of the lowest voting proportions of any industrialized nation. The real answer is that although Americans love to praise their country and the "American way," they really know the system does not work well. What Americans will not admit is the extent to which the political ineffectiveness is the direct result of the inadequate governmental system that the white middle class itself created. And they certainly will not permit themselves or anyone else to acknowledge the role of racism in this self-defeating cycle. American social scientists have not yet fully realized just how much self- delusion is taking place in American society. Nor do they realize just how little truthful information American voters provide pollsters, especially on such key issues as race. American social scientists continue to use faulty and biased data to reach faulty and biased conclusions about American attitudes toward the racial issue.
Back to Main Page Table of Contents
Return to Home Page