Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power

330458Kenneth B. Clark ([1967] 1974) Wesleyan University Press

A powerful book that establishes the bar, the place where anyone writing about the ghetto needs to start as they move from the mid-60s when this was written through the ever-deepening horror of the 70s onwards through the crack epidemic and into the present. But most I have read never even come anywhere close to his reach—much less build on his work. I’ve always had doubts about the usefulness of someone coming into a society and spending a little time there and writing about it as an expert…I try to keep something of an open mind on this, but Clark is originally from the Harlem he describes, and that really is where the depth and powerful insight come from in addition to the study and the scholarship, that and the love he has for his home and the people who still live there.

He starts with what it means to grow up in a place like Harlem, to get out, and then to come back. The studies that form the basis of the book were carried out to establish a youth program, a fully federally funded attempt to break the ghetto. Clark is open about his worries about being an ‘involved observer’. His lack of distance. He confesses to the gnawing self-doubts, the pain and rage and desire to escape once again that being back in Harlem raises in him. I love him for this, and so much admiration for his strength in sticking it through, in writing such an incredible book as this, and in being honest about himself as part of this process in a way that helps everyone else who might be going through some of the same things. It does not surprise me that this is the book that I have read best able to see those living in these neighbourhoods as full human beings with all of their bad and their good, their addictions and their violence and their love and their hope. They are never one dimensional, either as victims or victimizers. Agency and structure always and everywhere work together.

The first chapter is simply a collection of quotes and stories from those interviewed about what they feel the ghetto is, what home means to them, what has destroyed their lives, what they look forward to, what they dream…anything and everything that they wished to tell the world. Respect.

The second chapter: The Invisible Wall.

The dark ghetto’s invisible walls have been erected by the white society, by those who have power, both to confine those who have no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The dark ghettoes are social, political, educational, and—above all—economic colonies. Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters (11).

He handily disposes of white liberal rhetoric you still hear today, fifty years after the time of writing:

At times of overt social unrest, many white persons who claim to be in favour of civil rights and assert that they are ‘friends’ of the Negro will admonish the Negro not to engage in disruptive and lawless demonstrations lest he incite racism and reverse the progress made in his behalf. These often well-meaning requests may reflect the unconscious condescension of benign prejudice (16) …Even well-meaning whites continue to see and talk of Negroes as ‘they,’ clearly differentiated from ‘we,’ the ‘outgroup’ from the ‘ingroup.’ As long as this alienation remains, the masses of whites will be irritated and inconvenienced by any meaningful activity by Negroes to change their status. No real revolt can be convenient for the privileged; no real (17) revolt can be contained within comfortable bounds or be made respectable….The Negro cannot be asked to prove that he ‘deserves’ the rights and responsibilities of democracy, nor can he be told that others must be persuaded ‘in heart and mind’ to accept him. Such tests and trials by fire are not applied to others. To impose them on the Negro is racist condescension. It is to assume that the Negro is a special type of human being who must pass a special test before admission to a tenuous status worthy of governmental protection. It is to place upon the Negro a peculiar burden reflecting and exploiting his powerlessness, and it is, paradoxically, to deny him the essential human rights of frailty and imperfection (18).

The Social Dynamics of the Ghetto: ‘The poor are always alienated from normal society, and when the poor are Negro, as they increasingly are in American cities, a double trauma exists’ (21). The meanings of white racism: ‘It is not the sitting next to a Negro at a table or washing at the next basin that is repulsive to a white, but the fact that this implies equal status’ (22) . These he finds true both North and South, just as the truths of Harlem are seen as truths for ghettoes in all American cities. The Blacks interviewed by Clark and his team widely saw a universality of black experience involving discrimination, racism, and severe limitation of opportunity. The exploitation of the black ghetto by whites is a key part of this, where most businesses – from Harlem’s one department store to all but one bank and Savings and Loan right down to the numbers rackets were owned by whites living outside the community. Landlords also, primarily live outside the community even as housing decays and 100 people per acre crowd into dilapidated rooms with high rents. Clark is hardly the first to indicate the severe health as well as social and psychological problems generated by this. But he well understands that ‘If his home is clean and decent and even in some way beautiful, his sense of self is stronger. A house is a concrete symbol of what the person is worth’ (33).

He notes the lack of jobs and high levels of unemployment. The racism within unions and what that means for workers’ movement ‘The white worker has felt much less a proletariat psychologically than his counterpart in Europe because of the existence of a black proletariat in subjugated status beneath him’ (41). That ‘Unions are seen as escalators to management, not just as the protector of the workingclass. The presence of Negroes on the American scene has given some objective support to this belief…’ (42). He outlines the various unions in the area and their racial divisions. He looks at the cycle of familial instability. And intervention? Nails it: ‘patronage is not enough. They must have imagination and daring, and the must assume the risk of demanding real social change’ (54). And this: ‘There is harnessable power to effect profound social change in the generally repressed rage in the alienated’ (54). He looks at Black social mobility, and attempts to escape the ghetto into the middle class.

But though many middle-class residents of the ghetto do have a constant wish for physical and psychological escape, the ghetto has a devouring quality and to leave provokes a curious struggle. Those who do not try feel that those who do try should have some feeling of guilt and a sense of betrayal. They demand allegiance to the pathology of the ghetto, to demand conformity to its norms…That Negroes continue to seek to imitate the patterns of middle-class whites is a compliment, not the threat it may seem, but a compliment in large part undeserved, and the scars inflicted upon Negroes who are constantly confronted by the flight of those they encounter are deep and permanent. The wounded appear to eschew bitterness and hatred, but not far below the often genial, courteous surface lies a contempt that cannot easily be disguised. (62)

He moves from social dynamics – the more structural aspects – to the psychology to the pathology. My principal critique – as always I feel of books of this period – is a feminist one. I am always troubled by sub-headings like ‘The Negro Matriarchy and the Distorted Masculine Image’ and such, but Angela Davis, June Jordan, Patricia Collins and others have written extensively and brilliantly about this. But the examination of violence, delinquency and addiction are very good, and consist in great part of extensive quotations from those interviewed and their own views of their situation. More respect.

The section on school was to me one of the most eye-opening – even though I felt well-versed in this stuff. His study was able to show that kids’ IQ scores actually went down, far down, over the course of their time in school – no more damning indictment of a school system is possible, even with every reservation in the world about IQ testing in general. And few would write this now days:

’The clash of culture in the classroom’ is essentially a class war, a socio-economic and racial warfare being waged on the battleground of our school, with middle-class and middle-class aspiring tecahers provided with a powerful arsenal of half-truths, prejudices, and rationalizatipons, arrayed against hopelessly outclassed workingclass youngsters. This is an uneven balance, particularly since, like most battles, it comes under the guise of righteousness.

And finally a look at power structure in the ghetto, the rise of charismatic leaders like Adam Clayton Powell, the power of the Black press and church, the social services systems. An insight into the reach of the non-violent civil rights movements into the ghetto – which is too say, the non-reach. While all respected M.L. King and groups like CORE, there was not much support for loving the enemy, turning the other cheek. Clark also identifies a key difference between struggle against de jure segregation like Jim Crow and de facto segregation. He writes ‘In the North, the object is the entrenched bastions of political and economic power, and therefore the most effective instrument of change is direct contact with leadership, not sit-ins and other forms of mass protest’ (184). I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion, but it is certainly a point that always required more thought and discussion.
But this I agree with wholeheartedly:

Stagnant ghettoes are a monument to the dominance of forces which tend to perpetuate the status quo and to resist constructive social change. If the ghettoes are to be transformed, then forces superior to those which resist change must be mobilized to counteract them. The problem of change in the ghetto is essentially, therefore, a problem of power—a confrontation and conflict between the power required for change and the power resistant to change. The problem of power is crucial and nuclear to any nonsentimental approach to understanding, planning, and predicting. (199)

He notes about the 1963 March on Washington that arguably resulted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that:

Of utmost significance is the fact that the term ‘white backlash,’ a popular phrase for intensified white resistance to integration, became a part of the colloquial language within the year immediately following the march (202)

And these words which provide food for much thought:

The problem posed for Negroes and those whites who are committed to actual social change as a reality and not a mere social posture is that of identifying, mobilizing, and using that power necessary to translate laws into meaningful changes in the day-to-day lives of those whom the laws are intended to protect. This problem of power is one of the more difficult ones to resolve positively because masses of white believe that they stand to gain by maintaining the Negro in his present predicament, because some whites and a few Negroes actually do gain economically and politically by maintaining the racial status quo, and because energy must always be mobilized to counteract social inertia (203)

I also thought his attempt to categorize the kinds of strategy most in dealing with racial injustice very interesting – and of course the caveat that groups use multiple strategies, not simply one:

– The strategy of prayer;
– The strategy of isolation (aristocratic and wealthy Blacks isolating themselves from the rest of their community);
– The strategy of accommodation;
– The strategy of despair (‘Despair does not seem properly identified as a strategy and yet, in a real sense, it is; for to abandon hope – to withdraw—in the presence of oppression is to adjust to and accept the condition’ (220));
– The strategy of alienation (advocated by the Communists in the 1930s, with the establishment of a separate black republic, also Black Muslims);
– The strategy of law and maneuver (NAACP and National Urban League)
– The strategy of direct encounter (sit-ins, picket lines)
– The strategy of truth (method of the intellectual)

I’m still thinking through these things, as I am this: ‘Negroes alone cannot abolish the ghetto. It will never be ended as long as the white society believes that it needs it’ (225).

Almost fifty years ago, Kenneth Clark wrote ‘The truth is that every Negro has a racial problem, repressed or otherwise, and that no American social institution is color-blind—to be color-blind in a society where race is relevant is not to be free but insensitive’ (226). How long have we been fighting that?

It is also a key insight since developed by multiple academic volumes that ‘The difference between these crusades [ie struggle to abolish child labor] and race is that in race one’s own status needs [as a white liberal] are at stake. No significant minority of white liberals can work in a totally committeed manner for racial justice for long without coming in conflict with conscious or unconscious anxieties’ (229). And this is still true:

The liberal position, when applied to race, has been, for a multitude of reasons, somewhat tainted. In those areas of life where liberals are powerful—labor unions, schools, and politics—one is forced to say that the plight of the Negroes is not significantly better than it is in areas where liberals are not dominant. Labor unions are not ‘better’ than management (230). … Loren Miller…points out that because the liberal’s historic concern has been with individual rights, he sees progress in the admission of a few Negro children to a hitherto white school; while the Negro, who also wants individual rights, nevertheless regards the raising of status of the group ‘to which he has been consigned’ as his own immediate problem and spurns the evidence of individual progress as mere tokenism (231).



2 thoughts on “Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power”

Leave a Reply