Theoretical Building Blocks: The Psychological Basis of Racial Identity and Prejudice
Unleashed by pressing wartime concerns about anti-Semitism and urban doting, and stimulated by the appearance of An American Dilemma, a flood of studies about the psychology of racial identity and prejudice appeared during the years that followed World War II. Whereas the bulk of psychological research on racial issues prior to World War II had been limited to investigating—and frequently verifying—differences in intelligence, postwar researchers cast their net widely, grappling with new topics and promoting a decidedly environmentalist approach (culture over nature) that toppled conventional assumptions about the existence and permanence of white racial superiority. Otto Klineberg's "Tests of Negro Intelligence," a literature review written for Myrdal's project, set the postwar tone. It directly repudiated biased mental testing experiments (beginning with Robert Yerkes's data from the World War I military), challenged the notion that psychological tests could even measure innate intelligence, emphasized education as a key social variable, and identified "rapport" (the racial relationship between investigator and subject) as a central methodological question. It emphasized psychological experts' obligation to go beyond uncovering the facts, making the design and creation of a nonracist social environment the special responsibility of behavioral scientists.
While the scope of their ambitions widened, the subject of behavioral research on race narrowed in the postwar years. It was more concentrated on the antiblack attitudes of whites than it had been during the war or in earlier decades. Although a widely felt compulsion to make the Holocaust comprehensible was responsible for much new interest in the field, research on anti-Semitism eventually slowed to a trickle, and the attitudes of and toward a variety of other racial and ethnic minorities escaped the notice of most researchers until social
movements among Native Americans and Mexican-Americans during the 1960s (to mention only two examples) made the point that the psychology of race was a diverse, even contradictory field. Between World War II and the mid-1960s, black Americans were the chief subjects for psychological investigators interested in race. Research efforts focused either on uncovering white prejudice or on measuring psychological damage and assessing social pathology among blacks. These trends were consistent with Myrdal's conclusions and illustrated the growing symbiosis between racial identity and blackness, and racial prejudice and whiteness.
The tight fit between investigations of race relations and investigations of black Americans only gained momentum in sympathy with the gathering forces of the civil rights movement during the 1950s. Although events like the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott shocked much of the country and grassroots activism among masses of poor black Americans broke the bubble of middle-class contentment and consensus, the movement demonstrated real concern with the issues of psychological freedom and healthy personality development that were, during the 1950s, becoming standard features of U.S. popular and consumer culture. Until the early 1960s, movement leaders, none more so than Martin Luther King, Jr., united behind appeals to the moral conscience of white Americans. While they had taken some cues from Myrdal, their commitment to moral exhortation had other important roots: the traditions of the black church, for one. The enduring impact of An American Dilemma was, finally, as indebted to the spiritual and psychological concerns of the movement as the movement was indebted to the work of liberal social and behavioral scientists.
Personality theory and research were increasingly foregrounded in studies of black and white racial psychology after 1945. A partial explanation, at least, can be found in the widespread influence of The Authoritarian Personality, which had done so much to convince so many that prejudice was determined by deep psychic structures and, conveniently, offered a practical way of measuring the personality's inclinations toward (or away from) authoritarianism. While authors of psychological perspectives on authoritarianism usually stressed the profound roots of prejudice (and the unconscious ones too, if they were psychoanalytically inclined), that did not mean they were pessimistic. Quite the contrary. If the World War II experience had shown them how social arrangements—childrearing patterns, for example—could have momentous, and sometimes lethal, consequences on the level of national character, it also taught them that bold sock l intervention could and should ac-
complish great things. They tended to believe, in Gunnar Myrdal's words, that "the social engineering of the coming epoch will be nothing but the drawing of practical conclusions from the teaching of social science that 'human nature' is changeable and that human deficiencies and unhappiness are, in large degree, preventable."
Prejudice was one of those preventable "human deficiencies" because the personality was reachable, hence reformable, through social engineering. This was hopeful indeed, and echoes the confidence psychologists expressed about manipulating the personality in order to achieve any number of other public policy goals. Since the redistribution schemes of the New Deal were under sharp attack in Congress after the war, education was really the only kind of social engineering that appeared likely to succeed in a politically conservative era. Campaigns to change white attitudes by providing information about and establishing contact between otherwise segregated groups consequently became the core of a flourishing movement known as "intercultural education." These were considered the techniques most likely to eliminate ignorance and fear. The number of organizations working to reduce racial hostilities grew from approximately three hundred in 1945 to almost fourteen hundred five years later, a dramatic increase that brought the concept of prejudice into the lives of millions of Americans for the first time.
If white attitudes were in need of change, black personalities were the proof that change was both mandatory and long overdue. Postwar studies that differed in other ways all agreed that racism did terrible damage to the developing self-image of the child and the mature personality of the adult. The case for psychological harm—to self, to gender identity, and to family relations—was the most effective argument that experts brought to public policy efforts in the postwar period. Gordon All port's attempt to state this case listed the following as characteristic psychological traits in people who were targets of prejudice: ego defensiveness, insecurity, withdrawal and passivity, clowning, slyness and cunning, self-hatred, aggression, and neuroticism. Minority group status and psychological victimization, in other words, were treated interchangeably, as the various examples described in this chapter will show.
Black personalities, like white ones, could be tested and measured. Perhaps, psychological experts reasoned, the damage could be controlled or even reversed. This position was well intentioned and ambitious, based on the World War II doctrine that behavioral scientists had serious public obligations to enlighten policy on matters of social
importance. Neither was it insignificant that many postwar intellectuals had liberal political sympathies, becoming strong supporters of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As early as 1934, the vast majority of "scholars in the field of racial differences" had been all but unanimous in their refusal to recognize racial superiority or inferiority as scientifically validated facts. By 1948 a survey of hundreds of social psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists found that their professional experience and scientific research had convinced almost all of them that legal segregation had detrimental psychological consequences for blacks and whites alike. By the mid-1950s, support for desegregation and federal civil rights legislation had become fixtures of social scientific orthodoxy.
Social Context as the Source of Prejudice
The environmentalist consensus that emerged from World War II generally prevented psychological experts from advocating crude versions of psychological reductionism and encouraged them to incorporate sociological variables into their discussions of the development of black personality or the causes of white racism. This trend was yet another instance of the abstract commitment to a comprehensive behavioral science approach during this period. It was, however, also the case that the institutional realities of race—the elaborate apparatus of legal segregation in particular, but also the legacy of slavery—were so clearly salient and so impossible to ignore. One consequence was a marked convergence between the perspectives of psychological and nonpsychological experts. Some psychologists started sounding like anthropologists, and there were many sociologists who eagerly incorporated the language of psychoanalysis into their research. Not infrequently, research involved interdisciplinary team efforts.
An example of this, which simultaneously illustrates the centrality of the war experience to postwar work in this field, was the research on racial attitudes jointly conducted by emigré psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim and sociologist Morris Janowitz. Both had been indelibly marked by the war. Bettelheim's first-person account of concentration camp survival had confirmed that German national character was severely disturbed and furthered the vision of postwar psychological reconstruction on a national and international scale. For his part, Janowitz had worked as an intelligence expert and "sykewarrior" during World War II. His postwar research on the political sociology of mili-
tary institutions would make him a key player in Cold War behavioral science.
The Bettelheim and Janowitz study was conducted among 150 male veterans in Chicago and was published in 1950 as Dynamics of Prejudice: A Psychological and Sociological Study of Veterans. The effort was funded by the Department of Scientific Research of the American Jewish Committee and was part of the famous "Studies in Prejudice" series that included The Authoritarian Personality, also published in 1950. Bettelheim's and Janowitz's own backgrounds, as well as the source of research support, undoubtedly informed their choice to study both anti-Semitic and antiblack attitudes, a choice of multiple subjects in the study of racism that would become rarer and rarer in later years, as noted above. Their use of veterans as subjects was quite deliberate. They believed that World War I veterans had been an important vehicle of anti-Semitism in Germany, and they were concerned that maladjusted U.S. veterans might contaminate the postwar domestic landscape with similar prejudices.
Their stated goal was very practical: to formulate a "diagnosis" and then "a cure for one of the major disorders in contemporary American society: ethnic discrimination and aggression." This was perfectly consistent with the desire (so evident in Myrdal and in many other contemporary experts) to make behavioral expertise inform government policy and inspire social action. Bettelheim and Janowitz reached the following conclusions about the nature of prejudice. First, prejudice was an expression of fundamental hostility, anxiety, and aggression. Second, it originated in past deprivations (especially in childhood) and anticipation of future deprivations (especially economic threats). Third, it resulted from an absence of ego strength and inadequately internalized controls, which caused aggression to be discharged indirectly and irrationally rather than directly and rationally. Fourth, prejudice was more likely to correlate with downward socioeconomic mobility than to be located on any particular rung on the ladder of the U.S. class structure.
All of these themes were standard fare in postwar studies, with the exception of their final conclusion about class mobility, which rejected the assumption that working- and lower-class individuals were necessarily less tolerant than middle- or upper-class individuals. Equally standard was their view that such theoretical conclusions deserved direct translation into government action, even when that meant radical shifts in public policy. Bettelheim and Janowitz saw fit, for example, to call for programs of full employment, an adjusted annual wage, and a dra-
matic extension of social security benefits. Reforms that would protect people from sliding downward, they argued, would do more than simply offer an economic safety net and insurance against poverty. They would actually insulate people from the emotional hazards and frustrations that resulted in explosions of racial intolerance and ethnic hatred.
In the end, like the experts who have been described in previous chapters, Bettelheim and Janowitz preferred prevention to even the most dramatic of social rearrangements. Because nothing appeared to have quite as much preventive potential as education, "tolerance propaganda" should begin at a very early age, guiding the release of aggression and hostility (which they assumed to be a fixed and universal feature of human psychology) in more socially acceptable directions than racial animosity.
Rearranging personality structures through manipulating the process of parenting and childhood socialization held the greatest promise of all. One of the chief characteristics of the democratic personality was that it incorporated symbols of appropriate authority rather than left social control to the whims of external coercion. Bettelheim and Janowitz had contributed to the theoretical literature that implicated deep personality structures in the production of prejudice, making the manufacture of tolerant personalities the most effective route to eliminating such objectionable attitudes. The reform of childrearing was also attractive for practical reasons: it was more likely to succeed than the radical economic redistribution they had called for. "In any case," Bettelheim and Janowitz pointed out, "it seems simpler, and more feasible, to influence parental attitudes toward children, when compared with the efforts needed for assuring a stable economy free from the fear of war and unemployment." David McClelland had reached similar conclusions in his quest to promote achievement-oriented personalities in developing countries as a method of heading off the violent upheavals that international inequalities and tensions were likely to produce. Mothers, everyone seemed to agree, were an appealing audience because they had an immediate impact on their young children. Moreover, they could be reached, counseled, and tested.
The Gender Problem and the Black Family
Psychological and psychoanalytical approaches to containing and preventing prejudice leaned toward reforming childhood
socialization practices, parenting patterns, and family relations of authority for reasons that were both theoretical and practical, as noted above. Given this bias, the deep concern with gender roles and their development that pervaded the postwar literature on race is not very surprising. Mothers, it was clear, were strategically positioned as cultural architects because families were personality factories. To the extent that the United States succeeded in overcoming its social problems, mothers could be credited. To the extent that social crises remained unresolved, or even worsened, mothers could be blamed. And they often were.
In the case of the black family, however, the gender problem extended well beyond the willingness to identify mothers as agents of socialization and powerful sources of all sorts of attitudes—tolerant and prejudiced, achievement-oriented and fatalistic—in their (male) children. Beginning with E. Franklin Frazier's landmark study of the black family in 1939 and continuing with Abram Kardiner's and Lionel Ovesey's psychoanalytic theory and Mamie Clark's and Kenneth Clark's research in the 1950s and 1960s, "matriarchal" gender relations within the black family were analyzed and discussed as significant defects in their own right, immediate sources of personality and social problems (from warped self-esteem to juvenile delinquency to school failure), and appropriate targets for policy designed to improve race relations by enhancing masculinity and bolstering patriarchal authority. By 1965 a report on the state of young urban criminals that appeared in the New York Times Magazine simply stated that "the welfare world of New York is a fatherless world" in which "people infect one another with the virus of failure." The article continued:
The "unavailable mother"—unwed, indigent or surviving on welfare payments, socially deprived, economically deprived, intellectually deprived, often friendless, depressed, mentally disturbed, lonely, frightened, unable to supply the needs of a newborn child, already burdened with children she has rejected—the unavailable mother produces the unreachable child. This is the woman who needs the attention of the social welfare world. . . . We know that the damage to the [black] infant takes place long before he sees the dirt, the drunks, the drug addicts, the spilled garbage of the slum; the damage takes place when the unavailable mother brings her child home from the hospital and realizes she hates him for being alive.
A good look at gender arrangements, in other words, showed just how deeply the black personality—specially the black male personality—had been damaged.
The emphasis on gender roles was accepted unquestioningly as an essential component of comprehensive research and policy at the time. It was, after all, completely consistent with broad cultural trends, including the widespread popularization of psychoanalysis (still associated with the scandalous yet scintillating taint of sexuality in popular perception), an avid ideology of domestic and dependent femininity in the period after 1945, and the growing interest in the history of black Americans that was sparked by the emergence of the civil rights movement. The antifeminist implications of this emphasis in the psychological literature, however, became infinitely clearer in retrospect, especially in the wake of policy controversies like the Moynihan Report and in the face of a new women's movement prepared to criticize and defy notions of essential differences between men and women, in the family and elsewhere.
E. Franklin Frazier's monumental work The Negro Family in the United States was a touchstone for virtually every subsequent addition to the postwar literature on the psychology of race. His thesis was that the history of marriage, family, and childrearing in the black community had been determined by external and impersonal forces since the Civil War, especially the long march of industrial capitalism. Personal and even cultural factors were, in comparison, relatively insignificant. Considering this fundamentally nonpsychological argument, which consistently attributed causal status to economic over psychological processes, Frazier's prominence in the postwar psychological literature seems puzzling. Perhaps his subject matter—the family—was such familiar territory, to psychological experts, and so readily identified with them, that theorists and researchers in psychology were encouraged to claim at least Frazier's starting point as their own: that the black family was a Pandora's box that had been opened.
As a historical sociologist, Frazier emphasized long-term, macro-social and macroeconomic developments like slavery, mass migration, and urbanization as the hinges upon which the black family's history, and future, turned. He countered the theory that the black family's peculiarities revealed its African heritage by arguing that black Americans were shaped by exactly the same historical forces as white Americans and by describing how the passage from Africa and the experience of the first several generations of black American slaves had wiped out any possibility, of African cultural holdover. Frazier considered slavery to be among the most important factors shaping black families, even long after emancipation, and insisted that many contemporary features
of black gender, sexual, and parenting relations could be traced to its harsh consequences.
In particular, slavery, interfered with what Frazier understood to be the fundamental facts of gender, sexuality, and family economy. Women were naturally inclined toward monogamous and long-lasting emotional bonds. Male sexuality was naturally wild and terribly undiscriminating. The purpose of stable marriages and families was to tame men so that women could accomplish the necessary feats of reproduction and childrearing while being supported and protected by dependable breadwinners. Because becoming dependable breadwinners conflicted with male nature, however, incentives were required. Frazier saw those incentives in capitalist economic relations. For Frazier, ensuring patriarchal black families required an economic guarantee: that black men would be as free as white men to accumulate property, sell labor power, and otherwise function within the marketplace. In other words, Frazier assumed that capitalist patriarchy was the aspiration that made the most sense for black Americans at the moment, even while he criticized it as a historically specific social arrangement and called, at various points in his career, for nationalist and socialist alternatives.
These assumptions were so profound and widespread as to merit little contemporary attention, but they defined the nature of the black family's problem nonetheless. Slavery had interfered with patriarchy by making it impossible for black men to be breadwinning husbands and devoted fathers. This had forced black women into unnatural roles of family authority and replaced the primary family relationship—between a monogamous heterosexual couple—with unusually strong mother-child bonds and little, if any, dependence on the regular economic or emotional contribution of men. Although Frazier described some slaves as heroic in their efforts to maintain loving and loyal families in spite of the inhumanities of servitude, slavery ultimately stripped men of their male prerogatives and put "motherhood in bondage."
New challenges faced black families in the twentieth century, when mass migrations out of the rural South and the increasing pace of urbanization turned gender nonconformity into the kiss of death for black Americans. Frazier argued that the matriarchal family structure had been relatively benign in the rural isolation of Reconstruction, really only a matter of the "simple folkways and mores" of black peasants. Once in contact with the strong patriarchal norms of the dominant white culture, however, the black community started to disintegrate at its core. The "city of destruction" freed the corrosive forces of selfish
individualism among black Americans and the result was a proliferation of "roving men and homeless women," newly equipped to destroy any hope of stable families and communities through exploitative and violent behavior.
Frazier concluded that only by altering the course of those macro-social forces that had so destabilized the black family was there any hope of encouraging more stable (i.e., more patriarchal) families in the future. Including black men in the ranks of industrial workers might be one worthwhile avenue to pursue because gains in economic power and security offered a solid basis for increasing men's power in the family and therefore the viability of the black family itself. In the long run, only the complete integration of black men into the economic life of the United States, and equal opportunities to rise or fall there, would do.
In Frazier's analysis, constructive solutions for the black family were as deeply gendered as the definition of its problems had been in the first place. In The Negro Family in the United States, economics and demography typically preceded psychology. For example, Frazier never suggested (as some others did later) that black families were disorganized because their men were plagued by syndromes of low self-esteem. Offering men an opportunity (such as therapy or another method of individual treatment) to sort out their feelings about themselves or their parents was not considered. Employment was. Postwar research and policy directed at black Americans consistently emphasized male employment, although in some cases psychological failures were implicated as causes where Frazier had seen them merely as painful consequences. As we shall see in the next chapter, policy planners during the 1960s hoped that getting black men into good jobs with decent pay would correct the matriarchal deviations of the black family by allowing men to function as reliable breadwinners and domestic authority figures. Supporting masculinity was, in other words, a preferred method of tackling poverty, illegitimacy, inadequate housing, poor academic achievement, and a host of other community problems, including rioting.
Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey confirmed, with clinical data, the gender- and family-related damages that had been cataloged by Frazier on a sociological level. For Kardiner and Ovesey, however, personality was the primary. source of institutional reform and psychology the crucible of social change. In spite of their significant departure from the direction of causation in Frazier's work, Kardiner and Ovesey's The
Mark of Oppression was deeply indebted to Frazier's study. They took to heart Frazier's cue about the black family and its destruction under the conditions of slavery. They incorporated his concern with the disorganizing clash between black matriarchy and the patriarchal norms of the majority. white society. Finally, they showed how far explanations of U.S. racial identity. and race relations had moved in psychological directions by the early 1950s, and how serious psychological experts were about seeing their theories turned into practical plans for "social engineering" in the area of race.
Based on twenty-five clinical case studies and the results of their subjects' Rorschach and TAT test results, psychiatrists Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey developed a psychoanalytic perspective on black personality development that displayed sensitivity to sociological factors, like class differences, which had been illuminated in the research of Bettel-heim and Janowitz. They treated class differences extensively. They explained why, for example, black middle-class families were more likely to achieve patriarchal norms than their poor counterparts. Nevertheless, the case studies led them to view caste (i.e., racial barriers), rather than class, as the unifying, psychological reality that left a "mark of oppression" on all black Americans, male and female, poor and well off, rural and urban.
Kardiner and Ovesey understood gender and family as the most important vehicles through which the mark of oppression was reproduced. As critics of the looseness and superficiality with which World War II-era experts like Margaret Mead and Geoffrey Gorer had treated patterns of childrearing in their profiles of national character, Kardiner and Ovesey offered psychoanalytic principles as the preferred alternative. They substituted new terms ("basic personality" instead of "national character"), elevated the status of unconscious motivation, and applied the theory to black Americans instead of German or Japanese citizens. The result was a psychoanalytic variation on the environmental theme offered by Otto Klineberg and others during the war years. What had previously appeared to be racial differences in personality were not. If black American personality seemed different, it was a product of shared social circumstances, especially the pressures of institutionalized racism. Discrimination had constructed differences. Aggressive, antidiscriminatory policies could therefore eliminate them.
Among the social variables that produced black personality were black men's difficulties finding and keeping jobs and black women's tendency to "hold the purse-strings" and conduct their affairs indepen-
dently of men. Psychologically speaking, Kardiner and Ovesey noted, this type of family pattern bred disrespect, emotionally and sexually unsatisfying relationships, an unnatural dominance of "loveless [female] tyrants" exerting harsh discipline over children, and an epidemic of social disorganization that flowed outward from the domestic sphere.
In addition to being impoverished, discriminated against, and ghettoized, black Americans led wretched inner lives. Hostility and aggression were, according to the projective tests administered by Kardiner and Ovesey, the most typical traits in their subjects' personalities. Considering the immense frustrations caste threw in the way of the release of black feelings, was psychological damage really such a shocking re-suit? Instead of expressing their rage directly, it was channeled inward against the self, producing oceans of self-loathing that caused more and less severe instances of emotional incapacity. "The Negro," they concluded, "has no possible basis for a healthy self-esteem and every incentive for self-hatred."
Kardiner and Ovesey were straightforward in their expression of sympathy for the plight of black Americans and direct about their anti-racist intentions: "Obviously, Negro self-esteem cannot be retrieved, nor Negro self-hatred destroyed, as long as the status is quo. What is needed by the Negro is not education, but re-integration. It is the white man who requires the education. There is only one way that the products of oppression can be dissolved, and that is to stop the oppression ." "Stopping the oppression" and liberating the black personality clearly involved changing the attitudes of white Americans. It did not, however, involve any reassessment of what normal gender roles or families were like in spite of the fact that Kardiner and Ovesey considered the pressure to conform to white ideals "a slow but cumulative and fatal psychological poison."
It was Kenneth Clark who put the final touches on the equation between the pathology of the ghetto and the destructive "cycle of family instability" in his famous 1965 study of Harlem, Dark Ghetto . Making the same gendered assumptions that Frazier, Kardiner, and Ovesey had made before him, Clark wrote that, because of slavery's legacy, "psychologically, the Negro male could not support his normal desire for dominance." Nothing about this statement—in particular its contention that male domination was "normal"—required any explanation. As we have seen, the disabilities of black masculinity had been a constant refrain since before World War II. Attacking dismal rates of black male un- and underemployment was, for Clark, simply the obvious way to correct what was wrong with the black family.
Kenneth Clark, before and during the 1960s, was always sensitive to the many and complex aspects of ghetto life. In his concern for issues of self-image and identity, he never lost sight of the realities of institutional power, and he had only sharp words for proposals that did not include the redistribution of material wealth and political authority. His view that matriarchy had created a "distorted masculine image," damaging men far more than women, however, reinforced the rationale that men were the primary concern of psychological theory. Women's psychological state was considered only secondarily, and usually as a by-product of the male experience.
By the 1960s, policy's impact on male self-esteem would become a significant and official indicator of government's success or failure, even when social welfare programs specifically targeted women and children. That self-esteem became such an important factor in policy calculations, and in such a gendered fashion, can be attributed to the persuasiveness of the postwar experts reviewed in this chapter, the progress of the civil rights movement, and a social context hospitable to turning psychology into public policy for a variety of reasons, several of which are considered below.