Saturday, May 04, 2013

My Problem With Podhoertz's "Negro Problem"

Norman Podhoertz has a retrospective commemorating the 50th anniversary of his famous essay "My Negro Problem-and Ours". The original essay I may have read and forgotten -- I've certainly heard of it. This reflection is certainly interesting as a historical artifact -- it's always interesting to know more about the circumstances around which such a piece is written. But at least judging by how Podhoertz talks now, it's difficult to think he's really got a good insight into the "negro problem." I'm dubious, for example, that there exists a single Black person (well -- I take that back -- if I've learned anything from Jewish politics, there's always one) that really thinks racial relations have actually deteriorated since 1963. And whether or not the rise of out-of-wedlock births in the black family is having some antisocial effects, to declare it "the root cause of all the ills that plague the black community" smacks of someone who really doesn't want to think hard about this question anymore.

I've never quite understood why the nonracist wing of the conservative movement didn't embrace the black power agenda, and reading this essay just deepens the dilemma. Podhoertz gives their actual ideology the short shrift -- the black power movement thought that whites were incorrigibly racist, but their solution was simply to be left alone. Blacks get to run their own schools, blacks get to run their own communities. White racism was only a problem insofar as it was coupled with whites dominating blacks. This is easily compatible with conservative views of federalism, individual liberty, and community control. It is not easily compatible with conservative views of racial supremacy, the need to civilize the savage man, and the sense that white freedom included the freedom to dictate terms to blacks. In that respect, Podhoertz's protests to the contrary notwithstanding, the modern GOP really did take on a healthy dose of John Calhoun.

Of course, this "dilemma" is easily resolved in the descriptive sense: Nonracist Republicans didn't promote the ideology of black power because they preferrred to make a successful run at the votes of Southern racists. That's what the southern strategy was all about. But it's still a bit surprising that there wasn't at least a little more pushback. One gets the since from reading Podhoertz that even the Republicans who friends with Black intellectuals at the time weren't really invested in the struggle, and today they're so alienated that they just don't care about it at all.

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