Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/October 1913/The Psychological Factor in Southern Race Problems

Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 October 1913 (1913)
The Psychological Factor in Southern Race Problems by James Bardin
1580079Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 October 1913 — The Psychological Factor in Southern Race Problems1913James Bardin




WITH the increasing complexity of society in the southern states, the Negro problem is taking on a correspondingly complex character, and is coming more and more into the foreground of southern consciousness. Immediately after the civil war—in fact, during the entire epoch in which the south was in the grip of reconstruction—the Negro did not give rise to the same problems that he does to-day; that is to say, the fact that he was a Negro was not the fundamental element in the situation; at that time, the problem most in the minds of southerners was the presence of the reconstructionists and the reconstruction governments, and the Negro was feared only because he was the tool and the weapon of the latter. But with the gradual rehabilitation of southern political liberties and the reestablishment of stable local governments, the period of economic and social expansion began in the south, and southern men, freed from the necessity of combating ceaselessly for political life and social integrity, set about developing the long neglected natural resources of the country. With this change in conditions and this alteration of profound interests there came a change in the status of the various groups forming the southern social organism. And the Negro, no longer a political bête noire, began to come to attention in a more normal way as an organic member of society; and southerners, secure in their hard-won political and social ascendancy, began to be interested in him as a Negro and to attempt to bring about his better adaptation to southern social institutions. This attempt on the part of southerners to help the Negro adapt himself to southern social conditions has a peculiar significance to the average southern man; it implies an attempt to increase the social efficiency and the economic value of the Negro rather than his elevation to a higher social rank. Thus, in the thought of the average southerner, the uplift of the Negro has a radically different significance, usually, from that which it has in the thought of those living outside the south, who do not altogether understand southern social conditions.

First and foremost, the southern man is interested in raising the economic value of the Negro. To accomplish this various means have been adopted, all designed to train the Negro in things of practical usefulness. Concomitantly, the churches and philanthropical institutions are working toward the same end by attempting to teach the Negroes how to live better, and thus increase their efficiency and insure their status as self-supporting, independent members of society. The Negroes themselves are working to accomplish this end in practically every institution maintained by them throughout the south. This view of the Negro problem, practical in the extreme, is the one generally held at present in the south. The ideal seems to be to force the Negro to earn a better place in society and political life by the sweat of his brow and the toil of his hands; which toil, it is confidently hoped, will be guided by a constantly increasing intelligence, itself the indirect fruit of his labor.

On the other hand, outside the south the Negro problem is generally viewed as not primarily an economic, but as a political and "social rights" problem. The aim of many, if not most, of those living outside the south who take an active interest in the Negro is to secure for him fuller political rights and wider social opportunities, believing that as restrictions are removed, the Negro's position will improve in every respect, and he will ultimately take his place side by side with the whites, on an equal footing and possessing an identical cultural equipment.

Whatever be the theoretical merit of these views, whatever be the results of their trial, whatever be the advantage of one over the other ethically, it can easily be seen that although they advocate almost exactly opposite methods, those who advocate them are striving to reach the same goal. Each group is attempting to help the Negro to attain a more complete civilization; and each is attempting to do this by trying to make the Negro absorb the white man's civilization and come into complete accord with the profound moving-springs of the white man's social sanctions.

Many writers have contributed to the elaboration of these prevailing views of the problem. Admittedly, all of them have as their ideal the creation through evolutionary processes of a state in which the whites and the Negroes live side by side, each group partaking of the same civilization on a basis of ethical equality, and each playing its part in government and society according to its ability. This bi-racial state, theoretically, should have a single civilization, common to and understood similarly by both peoples; this civilization—and here is the vital point—will be the civilization of the whites, which, it is assumed, will be inculcated into the Negroes and which the Negroes will absorb without sufficiently modifying it to impair its usefulness as a foundation for a complex, though organically homogeneous, society.

Underlying the conception of a state such as has just been described lies a more fundamental conception which is seldom formulated, but upon which the whole structure of theory about southern race problems is based. This conception may be stated in various ways; its boldest, most general, and most erroneous form is the hypothesis that "all men are equal"; a more moderate form is "equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none"; but the most comprehensive form, which contains by implication very nearly all that is included in our thought upon the matter, is that "all men, when normal, possess the same capacity for intelligence and the same ability to absorb culture and to become civilized"; in other words, that all men are essentially alike mentally and morally, when viewed in the large, notwithstanding physical and physiological differences. The culture of any group of men, it is assumed, may be adopted by, or forced upon any other group of men, without effecting any revolutionary change in the culture. It is tacitly thought that while the processes of evolution have given one race a white skin and another race a black skin, have made one race relatively resistant to tuberculosis and the other relatively susceptible, and so on, the minds of both are alike—have not diverged as their bodies have in the evolutionary series—and that the mental processes of one may become, by proper direction, the mental processes of the other.

On conventional ethical grounds, the hypothesis of human equality can not be assailed. The Christian world, particularly that part of it which really thinks, is essentially altruistic, and this altruism demands that all men be given the fullest and most equal opportunities to get the best out of life. But it is seldom realized that this is an ideal, not a working formula; that it is, further, an ethical ideal, not a scientific one. Out of this misconception of the ideal of human equality have sprung many grievous and oftentimes dangerous fallacies, chief among which are two: (1) that all men possess the same potentialities for culture; and (2) that a so-called "higher culture" may and ethically should be substituted for a so-called "lower culture" whenever opportunity presents itself.

As has been said, each of these ideas has a basis in ethical principles. But both are fallacious when scientifically considered. Each assumes too much, and each tries to make out of an ethical ideal the scientific working formula for the uplifting of backward peoples. Neither takes into account that culture and civilization are as much the products of evolution as a-white skin or a black skin.

Culture, in its broadest sense, is a phenomenon of race. Even in our more or less homogeneous western European and American culture, racial differences are to be observed; if this were not true, why should we take the trouble to call some people Germans and others Spaniards, some Danes and others Italians? Yet, despite these evident differences, western European and American culture is a definite, characteristic thing, and underlying it we recognize a common stock of traditions and general ideas which have come down through the ages "in the blood," so to speak. The white-skinned peoples of western Europe and America all have approximately the same origin, in that through the remote mixing of a few strains of blood the modern racial types were set; and since then the peoples of western Europe have given evidence of their biological kinship by displaying approximately similar reactions to similar environmental conditions and to the influence of general ideas and movements of thought. Whatever variations have appeared in the physical and psychical types among the various peoples are due to differences in the mixtures of the original strains of blood, with the accompanying differences in the contributions of hereditary mental predispositions received by the respective peoples, plus subsequent adaptations to environmental conditions. But behind all the differences lies a common kinship of blood and of tradition, which has operated to produce the unit we call western European culture; and this racial kinship is the principal reason why it is not difficult for one group of western Europeans to adopt without revolutionizing it the culture of another group. Furthermore, as a powerful factor assisting in the formation and growth of this western European culture, and aiding constantly in keeping it homogeneous, is the fact that the several strains of blood, particularly in the higher levels of society where most of the productive thinking is done, are incessantly mixing, and there are being interchanged incessantly, through heredity, the mental predispositions peculiar to the groups thus crossing. The people of western Europe and the white portion of American population, for the most part, are a sort of "blend" of similar racial stocks, presenting similar though not identical biological characteristics; and the varieties of this "blend," expressed in such terms as "English," "Dutch," and so forth, are due to differences in the numerical relationships of the contributing stocks forming these peoples. So, too, western European culture is a sort of "blend" of cultures, and the varieties of this "blend" parallel the varieties in the physical characteristics of the various peoples.

The same statements apply to any other group of people presenting a special, characteristic type of culture. The Chinese are an example; they differ among themselves in certain respects; they are a "blend" of races and their present culture is a "blend" of cultures. Yet Chinese culture is definite, peculiar and recognizable, and it is essentially Mongolian, just as our culture is essentially European. Behind the differences among the various groups in China lie their common Mongolian blood and their common store of traditions, the influences of which have moulded them into what they are to-day. Exactly the same statements apply to the Negroes. They have, physically and mentally, definite and easily recognizable characteristics, indicative of a common origin different from our own, and expressed in a similarity of Negro cultures throughout the world.

The fact of race as a physical and mental phenomenon is evident to every one. The peoples of the world differ, and often differ fundamentally; and these differences are ineradicable as long as the strain of blood remains unimpaired. On the physical side, this principle has long been an axiom. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin?" asks Jeremiah. We can not, do what we will with environment, change to any appreciable extent our anatomical make-up, A Chinaman's skin will remain yellow, a Negro's skin will remain black, no matter what we may do to alter them, so long as the races remain pure. The only way we can modify the color of the skin or the facial angle or the texture of the hair in any great number of individuals is by crossing with another race. And the product of this crossing, should it become permanent, is a different race.

From the point of view of psychology, on the other hand, we have assumed that this principle is not true. We know that we can not change a Negro's physical characteristics, so as to make him like ourselves, by bringing him to live among us. But we believe we can change his mental characteristics. In other words, while we are certain that we can not change the Negro's facial angle, we are equally certain that we can change his mental angle and make it like our own; while we consider it absurd to think that we can do anything to make the Negro's physical skin become white, we believe firmly that we can make the psychical analogue of his skin exactly like our own.

But is this a fact? Racial psychology says no. Mental characteristics are as distinctly and as organically a part of a race as its physical characteristics, and for the same reason: both depend ultimately upon anatomical structure. Racial mental-set, racial ways of thinking, racial reactions to the influence of ideas, are as characteristic and as recognizable as racial skin-color and racial skull-conformation. This does not mean that mental characteristics and superficial anatomical characteristics necessarily bear any relationship to each other, as has sometimes been assumed; that is to say, the shape of the head, the weight of the brain, the cranial capacity, the length of the arms, the arrangement of the muscles in the calf of the leg, do not determine mental characteristics: physical and mental characteristics are, however, parallel expressions of the particular evolutionary process which has resulted in the formation of a race; each set of characters is the specific result, in different structures, of the evolutionary process. Ultimately, mental differences must depend upon anatomical and physiological differences; but these differences are differences in the structure of the brain itself. If we are to assume any relationship whatsoever between brain and mind (and such a relationship, whatever it may be, certainly exists), we must assume some anatomical and physiological differences in brains if we are to account for mental differences.

The more the races of men are studied, the more certain becomes the evidence to show that races have characteristic mental peculiarities, which would serve to distinguish species and varieties almost as well as physical characteristics. In practical life, in jurisprudence, in language itself, we empirically allow for these racial mental differences. But we have never taken the trouble to study them nor to understand their nature from a scientific point of view, and almost nothing is known about their potentialities.

Taking as a fact these mental differences, let us for a moment consider the possibility of their modification. It has been pointed out that mental differences must ultimately depend upon material anatomical differences in brain-structure; if we deny this, we instantly remove racial psychology from the field of science to that of metaphysics, and controvert all the observed data of physiological psychology; there must be some structural differences between the brain of a Negro and that of a white man, though such differences are admittedly very hard to detect by present methods. We know that it is impossible for us to modify anatomical structures at will; we can undoubtedly change them (within narrow limits, by selection of characters already present and the accentuation of these), but we can not make any two differing anatomical characters become exactly alike. Why, then, should we assume that we can modify at will the mental processes of a race, since these mental processes are expressions of a certain definite anatomical and physiological organization, which we know can not be altered save by the crossing of bloods or by the laborious and infinitely slow processes of evolution?

Yet, north and south, we wish to do this very thing, and to do it in its extreme form. For we are not merely trying to change the direction of the Negro's peculiar mental characteristics, and to improve them by selection among the elements already present—we are trying, on the contrary, to deprive the Negro of his own racial mental characteristics, and to substitute our own in their place, at the same time keeping him anatomically a Negro. That this is an impossibility follows after the former argument.

It will undoubtedly be said, by way of refutation, that the Negroes of the southern states have advanced and advanced considerably since they have been in this country. This is unreservedly true. But it is often forgotten that they have advanced as Negroes, not as anything else. They have adopted the form of our civilization and to a certain extent (due principally to the influence of language), the mould of our thought. But however much the form of the civilization and the mould of the thought resemble our own, the substance of both is different. The Negro has received much from us, and has profited greatly therefrom; but all that he has received he has modified in accordance with his racial mental-set, and his psychical reactions to the influences of our civilization are entirety different from our own, and will necessarily remain so as long as the Negro is a Negro. No matter how much we educate him, no matter how much we better his position in society, he will remain a Negro psychically as long as he remains a Negro physically. We may cause him to absorb the full, rich store of our cultural elements, but by the time these elements have gone through the channels of his thought they will be profoundly modified, and they will take on a different meaning in the Negro's consciousness from what they have in the white man's consciousness. Concomitantly, these cultural elements will modify the brain of the Negro; but this modification will not follow the same pathways and will not give the same results as it would in the untutored brain, say, of a white child. The modifying forces acting upon the Negro's brain will have to start with an anatomical structure already formed and set by heredity, an anatomical structure different from that of the white race, which produced the modifying forces in question, and the final result in the Negro's brain will be determined and directed by this preexistent anatomical make-up. So that the brain and the consciousness resulting from the absorption of our culture by the Negroes will be a brain and a consciousness different from our own to the same extent that the Negro differs from us in other respects, and both will be characteristically Negroid in nature, not European.

It follows, therefore, that present ideals in regard to the "solution" of our Negro problem (ideals, as has been pointed out and which it is well to reiterate, resulting from the confusion of ethical and scientific principles) are biologically fallacious, and impossible of attainment. We can never make the Negro like the white man mentally. We can never have a bi-racial state based upon an identity of ideas and political philosophies in both races.

The Negroes will continue to progress, undoubtedly. But they will progress along the lines laid down by their evolutionary history. They will take our cultural elements and make them part of themselves; but they will modify these elements according to their nature, and when they have assimilated them, they will be our cultural elements no longer, but will be profoundly and permanently modified. The two races will continue to develop side by side, but the development can never be parallel—it must be divergent, even though its successive steps may perchance maintain approximately the same level, as long as the races remain pure. It will be like two men, thrown together by fortuitous circumstances, who start walking up the same slope toward the same hill-top; but because of differences in the nature of their interests, one goes east while the other goes northeast; each step will carry them closer to the top of the hill, but further and further apart.

This fact, rather than ethical theory, should form the foundation of American thought in regard to the Negroes and the Negro problem. The Negro as an intellectual being should be studied as a Negro—not as a potential white-man; and if we wish to help him, we should at least try to be sure that he is allowed to develop as a Negro in the freest, broadest manner possible, and to the full extent of his racial potentialities.