Matters of race and color are not actually more important in world affairs now than they were, say, a generation ago; only the thrust and direction of their importance have changed. This has been, of course, quite a change. The world of the 1940s was still by and large a Western white-dominated world. The long-established patterns of white power and nonwhite non-power were still the generally accepted order of things. All the accompanying assumptions and mythologies about race and color were still mostly taken for granted, hardly as yet shaken even by the Japanese challenge to Western primacy in Asia or by the attempt of the Germans to make themselves masters of the master race. The world of these late 1960s is a world in which this white dominance no longer exists, certainly not in its old forms. The power system which supported it has crumbled. Its superstructure of beliefs about the superiority-inferiority patterns of races and cultures lies in pieces amid the ruins. While some people cling to chunks of the debris and stand defiantly in the door-openings of their shattered towers, most of us are stumbling blindly around trying to discern the new images, the new shapes and perspectives these changes have brought, to adjust to the painful rearrangement of identities and relationships which the new circumstances compel. This is now the pressing business of individuals, nations and whole societies, and in the cluster of matters with which they must deal, hardly any is more nettling and more difficult to handle than the matter of race, especially as symbolized by differences of physical feature and color of skin. Of all the elements involved in this wrenching rearrangement, race or color is surely one of the most visible, more important in some cases than in others but hardly in any case not important at all.

Taking it in perhaps its largest aspect, we begin with the fact that the entire cluster of some 70 new states carved out of the old empires since 1945 is made up of nonwhite peoples newly out from under the political, economic and psychological domination of white rulers. Our legacy from the fallen empires is a world now often seen as divided between the northern and southern hemispheres, between have-nations and have-not-nations, and in this picture all the haves, except the Japanese, are white, and the have- nots are all nonwhite, each bearing the heavy burden of the carryover of the past with its experience of subjection or of mastery. To the political and economic tensions and conflicts that divide the world along these hemispheric and class lines, race differences and the recent history of racial behavior by whites add their own special quality of greater explosiveness. Indeed, among those who feel these differences most strongly—usually the angriest nonwhite radicals or the most frightened white conservatives—many are prone to put the race issue at the front and center of all current and prospective world conflict. Their prime threat or prime fear is the approach of a series of racial confrontations leading to a universal race war that will drive the line of color across all the other fields of conflict that now crisscross the globe. This is commonly foreseen as an apocalyptic collision between what Sukarno used to call the OLDEFO (old established forces) under the leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union brought together by their common whitism, and NEFO (new emerging forces) led by China, mobilizing behind it all the peoples of the Third World united by their nonwhitism and their shared hatred of all whites. It would come as a crushing and catastrophic fulfillment of the famous prediction of W.E.B. DuBois of nearly 70 years ago, that the problem of the twentieth century would be "the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter men in Asia and Africa, in America, and the islands of the sea," bringing a terrible time of reckoning for the white man called to account for his sins.

This may seem an unnecessarily feverish view of a world whose prospects under the plainest light just now are lurid enough. But it will not do to dismiss it just because it is usually held in this form by racial extremists of one kind or another. This would be like dismissing as wholly implausible the notion that the United States would not have dropped on Germany the atom bomb it did drop on Japan, or speculation over the possible reasons having to do with race why a mercy airlift to rescue a handful of Europeans in the Congo was feasible while a mercy airlift to bring succor to thousands of dying Africans in Biafra is not. Even the most cogently argued explanations in both these matters could not entirely ignore their racial components. In any case, it takes only a slight jog of the kaleidoscope to produce a view of the future held by some quite sober citizens who believe that the necessary power arrangement to come—and possibly the ultimate nuclear showdown as well—must be a Russian-American combination against the Chinese, a prospect not as far removed from the race-war view as some of these sober citizens might want to insist it is.

But it is not necessary to be overcome by overheated visions of an oncoming race war to see that issues of race and color are in some degree almost universally present in the great issues and problems that dominate this hemispheric set of confrontations. These are in the main issues of resources and development, population and the shaping of the political institutions—more open or more closed—that will govern the great majority of men for the next long while. Wherever the racial element is added to national, class, religious, ethnic and tribal lines of cleavage, it brings its own peculiar accretion of greater glandular involvement and emotional violence to all the other elements of conflict in which we are now entangled.


Race or color does not often appear as the central or single most critical factor in conflicts affecting international relations. As an issue of identity or relationship it is more usually present as one element among many. There are, however, some countries and situations where color does in fact figure as the core issue making for both internal and external conflict. Of these the most obvious and most important is the Union of South Africa.

The maintenance of white power by brute force in southern Africa—taking in Rhodesia and South West Africa—probably supplies the main source in current reality for the vision of a world eventually engulfed in a race war. If the actualities of power in southern Africa and in black Africa have so far belied the frequent predictions of explosive racial conflict there, this hardly means that it will not come to pass at all. The chances for that depend on whether the whites of southern Africa do finally come to their senses before it is too late, or whether the black peoples of those countries will submit indefinitely to their condition of total subjection. There is no present sign of the first outcome and no basis for expecting the second. An ultimately bloody confrontation of black and white in South Africa, with all its possible, predictable or imaginable consequences in the rest of the world and especially in the United States, is by no means the least certain of all the grim possibilities that lie ahead for us all. It may be a nightmare of a prospect, but as so much of our recent history has shown, nightmares are a good deal more likely to come true than any of our sweeter dreams.

But it is not only the possibility of future eruption that counts in this measure of things. White power in southern Africa is right now probably the sharpest of all the wedges that separate the newly emergent nonwhites of the world from its whites. It continuously mobilizes the emotions, if not yet the effective action, of the new nonwhite nations, especially in Africa, which figure so prominently and yet so insecurely in the world's politics. It may very well be that the South African mote helps them not to see their own assorted beams with respect to racism or oppression of minorities, but the fact remains nevertheless that the survival and blatant exercise of white supremacy in South Africa keeps their own experience with white racism alive and vivid. It provides them—and the communist powers who are happy to be handed an additional weapon—with a set of issues and emotions on which they can all join despite so much else that divides them. Colonialism, often used to serve the same purpose, may indeed be a dead horse-except, to be sure, in Angola and Mozambique-but there is nothing dead about white power as it is wielded in southern Africa. It has figured on the United Nations agenda every year since 1952. Pushed by the nonwhite newcomers, often to the acute discomfort especially of the British and the Americans, U.N. majorities have repeatedly denounced South African apartheid, pressed the South West Africa issue, handed down detailed indictments of oppression of blacks and Indians, and demanded international action to put down the South African and Rhodesian white racists.

The dragging reluctance of Britain and the United States to join in these indictments-much less to take the actions voted-has served as a measure in the minds of many nonwhites (American as well as others) of the value of the commitments which these governments always make on the issues of equality and justice in general. Those winds of change which blew away the British Empire have by now largely also dissipated the sentimental-romantic fog that for a while overhung Britain's relations with its ex-colonies. The influx of black and brown immigrants from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan has produced a full-fledged white backlash in England, complete with riots, liberal dismay, civil rights legislation and restrictions on immigration. This new state of affairs was dramatically underlined when the British Government recently reneged on its promise of an open door for passport- holding Asian British subjects fleeing, ironically enough, from black nationalism in Kenya. Britain's temporizing response to white Rhodesian defiance has undoubtedly been due mainly to Britain's post-imperial weakness, but African blacks and Asian browns could quite reasonably interpret Britain's behavior as not so much weak as white. In the case of the United States, the equivocation over white racism in Africa helped to cancel out the flickering sympathy the United States commanded at times during the last ten years or so for its own turbulent and only half- successful effort to do away with the survivals of white racism at home. Into this equation must also go the size and weight of Anglo-American investments and strategic-military interests in South Africa, not to speak of the demonstrated over-readiness of American power to intervene forcibly elsewhere when its vital interests were thought to be involved. The overall effect has been to reinforce in a general way the communist, radical nationalist and radical racialist views of Anglo-American realities.


Race or color is also a central or even governing factor in a number of other places and situations which may have less weight in the balance of world affairs but can hardly be seen as negligible in the working out of the next chapter of the human story.

Of these only Portugal's stubborn effort to keep power in its African colonies carries over what we might now call the old colonial pattern of things, although the Portuguese style of handling the color issue is several shades more ambiguous than that of its ex-counterparts elsewhere. Somewhat like the French colonialists, the Portuguese like to insist that they are a good deal more flexible in such matters, especially with nonwhites whom they coöpt as willing instruments of white power, whether in bed, in politics or in business. It is rather striking to note that the colonialists who have insisted most strongly on their paternalistic or racial flexibility as masters have tried the hardest or fought the longest and bloodiest wars to hold on to their colonies: the Dutch, the French and lastly now the Portuguese. On the political side, no enduring vitality appeared in the methods and institutions by which they gave some limited voice to their colonials in their own affairs. On the racial side, there is little to support the claims of greater humanity that have often been made for themselves by the French, Dutch and Portuguese colonialists as compared, say, to the British. The differences are more a matter of style than of substance. Taking it in its most literal aspect, much waits to be learned about these differences from a comparison of the experience of the varieties of Eurasians and Eurafricans produced out of some of these colonial relationships. None of it seems likely to put any higher gloss on the picture we already have of this past. It is a matter of some suggestive relevance to our present theme, however, that the nationalist movement in Angola is reportedly split between at least two groups, one of which is said to be led by blacks, the other by mulattoes.

The other examples that fall into this category are in quite a different way part of our legacy from the colonial era. They all arise from the effort to create nations out of the often disparate and mutually hostile population groups which made up the former colonies where, as the saying went, division generally made for easier ruling. These differences are usually regional, tribal and in highly varying degrees "ethnic" or "racial," two vaguely defined terms used, for lack of more precise definition, to mark out some blurry lines between distinctions and differences that are sometimes physical, sometimes cultural, often both. Almost every "new" nation—and not a few "old" ones—is now more or less painfully hung on this kind of centrifuge.

Probably the bloodiest of these new confrontations where the difference is most distinctly racial is going on in the Sudan. Here a civil war has been under way since 1962 between the predominantly lighter-skinned Arab rulers in the north and the black non-Moslem people of the south, a clash in which this difference plays a paramount role. Another example was the heavy bloodletting between the tall Hamitic Watusi and the short Negroid Bahutu that accompanied the creation of the two small states of Burundi and Ruanda. Other situations with similar elements exist in several West African countries, like Sierra Leone, Gambia, Liberia, where coastal "creoles" of varying degrees of racial mixture or foreign origin confront indigenous tribes in contests to hold or win power. There are north-south divisions in India which are divisions of culture and language but also, to no small extent, divisions between light-skinned northerners and dark-skinned southerners with strong feelings about their lightness and darkness. Some of our "new" situations are filled with "new" anomalies that in some cases have a strong racial cast, as in the encounter between European and Oriental Jews in Israel, Arabs and Berbers in the Maghreb, Hindus and Nagas in India's northeast, Hindus and Singhalese in Ceylon, the "black" Khmers and the "yellow" Vietnamese. Also on this list must appear the bizarre reproduction of older imperialist patterns by the neo-imperialist brown Indonesians in the imposition of their rule on the black Papuans in West New Guinea.

If we were to extend this catalogue from the more distinctly "racial" to the more vaguely "ethnic" or "tribal," it would obviously be possible to multiply examples almost indefinitely. In cases where the colonial boundaries have been retained as national boundaries, again without regard for population groups, conflict has been revived or ignited, both internally and across borders, between peoples whose physical or racial differences may be much less marked but between whom the ethnic or racial clash is hardly any less intense. Consider on this score Nigeria, the Congo, India in Assam and Nagaland, Indonesia in Borneo, the Ethiopian- Somali-Kenyan irredentisms, the high permeability of the frontiers of all the countries of the Indochina peninsula, to say nothing of the presence of this factor on both sides of the lines which arbitrarily divided North and South Korea and North and South Viet Nam, with rather notable effects on American and world affairs.

Nor can we entirely fail to mention here-despite the absence of the color factor as such—the long-vibrating hostility that separates such European tribes as the Czechs and Slovaks, Serbs and Croats, Flemands and Walloons, Welsh and Scots and English, Bretons and French, French and English Canadians, Spaniards and Basques, etc. The failure of so many political systems—national, imperial, international—to satisfy the identity needs of people in these many groups has led to the powerful resurgence of their feelings about their special separateness. Some of these tribal differences have been bloodying the world's fields for ages and we are plainly not done with them yet. However else they are caused and defined, almost all are rooted in or reinforced and rationalized by those physical and cultural differences which they themselves often see as "racial" or "ethnic" and which, despite all the mixing that has been done, manage somehow still to dominate so much of man's affairs.

There is, however, one group of "new" nations crippled by divisions of this kind which are in a peculiarly special way the most direct legacy from the colonial era. The largest and most internationally important of these is Malaysia, whose bi- or tri-racial character and consequent political and social fragility are mirrored in such smaller new states or microstates as Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius, Fiji (all former parts of the British Empire) and in Surinam, which is still a Dutch dependency. These are countries into which the colonial power deliberately imported working populations, either enlarging on older migrations or organizing new ones by large-scale contract labor, indenture or semi-indenture, in numbers large enough to become, in two or three generations, a significant minority, a plurality or even a majority of the entire local population.

In one territory where this took place, Hawaii, a political solution was ultimately found in statehood within the developing framework of a new and uniquely American pluralism. In other areas, the option has had to be for nationhood, generally with much less hopeful results. In the Caribbean this process began with the slaves brought from Africa, ultimately displacing the indigenous Amerindians with a predominantly black population. When slavery was abolished, the freed blacks largely abandoned the land for the towns. The colonial rulers then brought in shiploads of more docile laborers for their plantations, in the main drawn from some of the lowest strata of the peasantry in India. The result today, in Guyana, for example, is a society composed of nearly equal parts of black Afro-Guyanese and brown East Indian Guyanese, whose differences, mutual antipathies and conflicting interests have erupted in outbreaks of cruel violence as each group sought the uncertain prize of power in their rickety new national home.

Of considerably greater importance in world affairs, however, is Malaysia, a country of some eight million people at the tip of the Southeast Asian peninsula where the Indian Ocean meets the South China Sea at one of the world's major interoceanic crossroads. Here under the uncomfortably ill- fitting mantle of nationhood is a population made up of close to equal parts of Malays, who see themselves as the indigenous "sons of the soil," and Chinese, some of whose families have lived in the region for centuries but most of whom are products of the immigration begun in the last century when the British began to need workers more energetic than the pastorally inclined Malays. They also brought in workers from India for the rubber plantations, and Indians now comprise about 10 percent of the population. The bulk of the Malays remained poor farmers and fishermen while the Chinese came, in a generation or two, to control all sectors of the economy not dominated by the British. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, the Malays welcomed them and the Chinese resisted them, a difference that erupted in Chinese-Malay bloodletting just after the war ended. The communist-led uprising that kept the country in turmoil for about five years thereafter was a virtually all-Chinese movement. When the assorted Malay states and sultanates were put together for the first time in their history in 1957 as the new state of Malaya, the Malay princes and other leaders negotiated Malay political dominance with the willing British. The Chinese, most of them uncertain or ambivalent about their hitherto firm political ties to their homeland, now a communist power, found themselves insecurely relocated as second-class citizens, accepted as nationals of the new state only under certain limitations and restrictions.

When Malaya was enlarged to become Malaysia in 1963, taking in the predominantly Chinese city of Singapore and the North Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, the population also acquired sizeable minorities of Dayaks and other tribes who shared an immense lack of any affinity—racial, cultural or political—with either the Chinese or the Malays. The Borneo territory was brought in partly to offset the threat of an ethnic Chinese majority produced by the inclusion of Singapore. The mutual mistrust and hostility between Malays and Chinese forced the withdrawal of Singapore in 1965, with Singapore becoming an independent city-state on its own, leaving Malaysia still with a 40-percent Chinese minority. The cleavage between Chinese and Malays here is deeply cultural, having to do with history, language, religion, philosophy and style of life. These are accented all the more by the racial and physical differences, including color, which mark them off from each other and which provide, as always, the handiest and most explicit basis for expressed hostility between individuals. On some satisfactory resolution of this conflict depends the viability of the Malaysian nation and on this viability depends much that has to do with the bigger politics, the power alignments and positions, and the issues of war and peace among the larger powers whose interests meet or clash in that strategic corner of the world.


Running far out beyond these small and localized blots of detail, changing color patterns are staining and rearranging the look of much larger areas of the new power-political map of the world. Besides the new and highly fluid patterns created by the north-south hemispheric view of the world to which we have already referred, there are also the triangular shapes created by that other hemispheric arrangement—East and West: the U.S.- Russian, Russian-Chinese and Chinese-U.S. cleavages. In each of these combinations and often spreading through and across all of them run the feelings that have to do with race and all the attitudes, fears, self- perceptions and mutual perceptions that go with it.

The Soviet Union has long had to deal with race and color problems in its effort to create a successful federation of many diverse peoples, including the many nonwhites who make up the populations of the Soviet east. The dominance of the Great Russians in Soviet affairs has often had a racial as well as national character. More recently the most visible outcropping of this kind in the Soviet Union has been the appearance of its own set of "yellow peril" fixations around its power conflict with China. The Russian-Chinese conflict has deep roots in the geography and history of these two huge continental powers. As in all such cases, mutual fears and hostilities are fed by racial differences which serve to reinforce or to rationalize politically dictated behavior. In recent years Russians have more and more openly expressed their feelings about Chinese in these terms. In conversations with Americans and Europeans, they frequently promote a common cause against the prospective Chinese threat in terms of a common "whiteness" united against Chinese "yellowness." They endow the latter with full-strength versions of all the most negative and fearsome stereotypes, bearing on numbers, limitless energy and endurance, fiendish cleverness and cruelty, deviousness and inscrutability. These are all images they already hold in common with other Westerners, especially Americans, who get them from the same sources, indeed, from the same historic experiences. That Russians also share other varieties of "white" attitudes and behavior patterns toward nonwhites is amply indicated by the testimony of African students in Russia who met with discrimination, hostility and violence at the hands of their Russian hosts and fellow students. Chinese students in Russia had similar experiences. However one might balance out the "facts" of these episodes, it is clear that some of this Russian "whiteness" is at least part of the story of the Russian failure to win allies and keep influential friends both in black Africa and yellow China.

In the case of China, its racial chauvinism has been a factor of great weight in communist Chinese political behavior, as it indeed has been in all of China's history. Chinese pride of place in the history and culture of the world is not always easily separable from pride of race in its most literal physical form. Chinese feeling about the inferiority of all non- Chinese is almost always expressed in physical terms; outsiders are often portrayed as animals or animal-like demons, or are otherwise denied the status of human beings. It took a good deal of Chinese self-pride to sustain these convictions of Chinese superiority during the last century or so of repeated humiliation at the hands of foreigners. Repairing this damage to the Chinese ego and restoring the Chinese sense of greatness to its fullest luster are among the prime purposes and driving motivations of the present communist leadership in China. Although racism, at least crude racism, is anathema in communist ideology (as it is in the American credo), the Chinese, like the Russians, play heavily on its themes. They do so mainly negatively, charging their foes with its evils. Peking's heavy-handed and largely unsuccessful efforts to whip up support for itself in Africa and in the Third World movements associated with Bandung, Cairo and Algiers were deeply—if informally—larded with racial arguments. In open propaganda the Third World formula became a code for "nonwhite world" counterposed to the white world of the United States and the Soviet Union. In their private man?uvring, it was specifically on racial grounds that the Chinese moved to keep Russia out of the councils of the Third World and to create an all-nonwhite international trade union movement which they could dominate.

The failures of this Chinese effort were, again, due to many causes: the actuality of Chinese weakness; the marked lack of enthusiasm among a great many Afro-Asians for Maoist extremism or for becoming tributaries to a new celestial empire; the counter-pulls of Western strength, resources, influence; or, often most powerfully of all, their own nationalism or their own values. But to judge from a variety of accounts, they also came about in part because the Chinese involved in these encounters could not help conveying their strong belief that, if Western whites were not superior to Africans and others, the Chinese were. We are far from through with Chinese chauvinism or with its racial component.


For the United States most of all—more than for any other nation, new or old—the element of race and color has finally become a matter of central and crucial concern. Its importance cannot be separately assigned or portioned out between our internal or our external affairs. In the fundamental sense that the role of the United States as a world power will be determined by the nature and quality of the American society, the United States itself has now become the principal arena of our struggle to shape the future. In that arena the principal issue, plainly put, is whether our partially opening society will open enough to include Americans who are black on the same common and equal basis as all others.

This is not to suggest that race and color did not figure importantly in our foreign affairs before this. Until 25 years or so ago, white supremacy was a generally assumed and accepted state of affairs in the United States as well as in Europe's empires. It did not begin to give way seriously in the United States until it had clearly begun to give way in the rest of the world. Up until that time, the notions of white supremacy and superiority and the subordinate position of blacks and other nonwhites in American society had been duly refracted in American affairs abroad. It showed up mainly in American relations with Asia, where in the middle of the nineteenth century we joined Europe's freebooting imperialist system, acquiring our own "little brown brothers" in the process. Our behavior in these affairs was marked by that uniquely American combination of benevolence and rapacity, attraction and repulsion, virtue and cynicism which, for a great many Chinese at least, became our special national hallmark. At home in the United States in the same period we moved into an era of remarkable bigotry and violence against nonwhites. This was in the post-Reconstruction decades when nominally freed blacks were driven into new and even deeper pits of debasement.

It was a period marked by the exclusion acts aimed at the Chinese beginning in 1882 and then against the Japanese, and not long thereafter similar restrictions on all further immigration from anywhere except Anglo-Saxon northern Europe. The restrictions on Chinese and Japanese, including denial of the right to citizenship by naturalization, were continued until as recently as 1946. On the political side, we did not yield our extraterritorial position in China—won for us by European armed conquest a century earlier—until 1943. We are obviously not dealing here with matters of ancient or remote history.

The direct role of racism in these relationships and its effect on Asian- American relations during the last hundred years are almost always more or less consciously underplayed in American historical accounts. But there it is, barely out of view beneath the surface of most versions of our experience in the Philippines, where we were, to be sure, enormously benevolent, but where our soldiers sang about the monkeys who had not tails in Zamboanga. It is seen in the lynchings and other mob violence against Chinese in America; in the first anti-foreign boycott in China in 1905, which was directed specifically against U.S. maltreatment of Chinese there; in the practice of discrimination against Japanese in the United States and its effect on Japanese-American relations before and after the First World War and particularly in the negotiations at Versailles; and in the heavily race-tinted propaganda used by Japan against the United States before and during the Second World War.

Today this part of our past continues to dog us, mutedly in Japan just now, but quite explicitly in China, where communist propaganda against the United States makes heavy use of racial themes and images, not just because the Chinese are themselves racial chauvinists but because this kind of crude racism is no small part of what they had to take from us in the years of their weakness. It is still not easy for many Americans to understand that we are now simply getting quite a bit of our own thrown back at us, whether from China or Japan, from Latin America where the gringo syndrome carries its own special racial ingredient, or from Africa, in whose darkest experience of human enslavement we played such a prominent role.

But now the worms—and the wheels of history—have turned. The end of the system of white supremacy in the world, except in southern Africa, has forced the quickening of the end of white supremacy in the United States. The changes that have taken place in this country in the last twenty years have come about for many reasons and as the outcome of many slowly—oh, so slowly—converging forces and circumstances. But surely not the least of these was the sudden American need to deal as a great power with a world in which long-subordinate, submissive races had ceased to be subordinate or submissive. The racial facts of American life abruptly became vital to our success as leader, whether in pitting our claim of democratic freedom against the challenge of communist totalitarianism or in winning the trust, not to say the alliance, of the new nations. It is hardly necessary to belabor this point at this late hour in the proceedings. It does not require too much distortion by our enemies to depict our destructiveness in Viet Nam as a product of our disregard for nonwhite Asian lives. It does not require much imagination to guess how much more hopelessly untenable our position in Viet Nam would be if we were claiming to fight there for Vietnamese democratic freedom of choice with an army that was still as racially segregated as it was when we fought for democracy and freedom in World War II, and as it remained until harsh military necessity imposed battlefield integration in Korea in 1950.

Through the 1950s and early 1960s, these issues were dramatized by repeated incidents in the United States involving newly arrived black and brown diplomats from the newly independent nations, who were constantly being caught in the still-prevailing patterns of discrimination and exclusion in hotels, restaurants and other public places as well as in housing in New York, Washington and elsewhere. The embarrassed apologies to the diplomats involved and the exhortations addressed to recalcitrant white Americans about these episodes must fill a large file at the State Department and at the headquarters of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. It is not far wrong to say that the desegregation of many of these places was largely won in the first instance because nobody could ever be sure any more that a reasonably well-dressed dark-skinned man who came seeking service was not the Ambassador from Ghana or India, an outcome that served only to deepen the humiliation and anger of dark-skinned men or women who happened to be just ordinary Americans who wanted that service too.

Much more dramatic was the turmoil set in motion by the Supreme Court decisions and the early racial clashes in the schools and universities, at the lunch counters, in terminals and other public places. The events of this period commanded the fascinated attention of a world that had never seen anything like it: the Negro rebellion launched by Martin Luther King's walkers in Montgomery in 1955; Federal soldiers and marshals enforcing compliance with the law on southern white racists at Little Rock, Tuscaloosa and elsewhere; the sit-in movement and the freedom rides; the civil rights laws finally pushed through a reluctant Congress; the climactic confrontation at Birmingham; and the tardy but unmistakable commitment of the Kennedy Administration in 1963 to see the issue through. All of this on balance offset the uglier scenes that even then were cast so widely on all the world's screens. There remained the image of a society finally moving to cope with some of its most deep-seated problems, and doing so more boldly and more openly than any other nation in a world where scarcely anyone was free to cast stones.

In the last five years, the picture has cruelly changed. Belief abroad in the relative virtue or morality and—perhaps even more decisive—even in the intelligence of American behavior as a world power has been largely shot away in Viet Nam. At home, the civil rights revolution, having cleared the barricades of legal segregation, came up against the much more difficult problem of achieving a decent existence freed of the shackles imposed by poverty, of overcoming the rot of our inner cities and the persistence of strong racial attitudes and behavior in large sections of the surrounding white population. Negro hopes of change raised by the swift victories of the civil rights revolution have given way to deep frustration that often seeks an outlet in bristling ultra-militancy and a profound skepticism about the society's good intentions. Hopes of many Negroes in the promises of integration have given way to despairing impulses toward some new kind of separation. For large numbers of white Americans, especially among the young, much of the same faith has been buried in the Viet Nam morass, while in other large sections of the population a nascent readiness to accept change in race relations has been obscured by the angry and fearful resurrection of old racial spectres spurred by outbreaks of violence in the ghettos. The crisis now wide open in American life is a concatenation of long-unsolved problems of poverty, the cities and race, each set formidable enough in itself but woven all together now in a single massive tangle of issues, demands and circumstances.

Of the three, the most critical is clearly race. To see that this is so, one has only to imagine what our present national condition and state of mind would be if our poor, especially in our city slums, were not so largely black. Without the problem of race, we would be facing demands of the kind this society has shown itself matchlessly able to confront and solve. It is the demand that we finally resolve the place of the black man in the American society that makes this the potentially mortal climax of an issue that has been with us since the founding of the Republic. It bears on what our society is and on what we say we think it is or want it to be—namely an open society offering freedom of choice and growth and well-being to all its citizens regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.

There has been no such society on earth and the American promise of it is in fact the unique substance of the American alternative to the claims of the communist totalitarians. It is the difference between the promise of our open society and the closed society of the communists that makes the world power struggle something more than a matter of deciding an issue of brute force. It can of course be argued that American power will impinge heavily on the world no matter what is done about the place of the black man in American society. This is no doubt so. But the proposition here is that the world power role and impact of an American society on its way to becoming an open, humane society for all its members is one thing. The role and impact of an American society moving toward new forms of racial separation in a garrison state will be quite another.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now