- From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Mid-century America by Leah N. Gordon
In South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved 1949 musical, the scourge of racism in American society is summed up as a problem of personal prejudice, passed down the generations via (mis)education. "You've got to be carefully taught," one character sings to another. "You've got to be taught to be afraid of… people whose skin is a diff'rent shade." The song's suggestion that teaching racial tolerance could combat inequality was a truism of postwar liberal thought.
But such ideas had not always been so dominant. For many social scientists and other thinkers in the interwar period, racism was less an individual sin than a product of a society whose political and economic systems were inherently unequal. By the end of World War II, this view was being eclipsed by a theory that Leah Gordon identifies as "racial individualism," which "presented prejudice and discrimination as the root cause of racial conflict… and suggested that racial justice could be attained by changing white minds and protecting African American rights" (2). How did American social scientists go from explaining racial inequality in structural terms to targeting individual attitudes and acts of discrimination?
Gordon chronicles this evolution in her deeply-researched and persuasive book, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America. She effectively complicates triumphalist narratives of postwar anti-racism, which often obscured the multicausal nature of racial inequality in favour of a focus on the pernicious effects of segregation. While historians of civil rights have noted the shift from complex understandings of inequality to a discourse of individual rights and non-discrimination, Gordon explains how this rethinking was institutionalized in leading universities, foundations, and other centres of knowledge production.
As America's system of racial apartheid received increased attention in the postwar years, and as new quantitative research methods, particularly the individual survey, overtook the social sciences, a new field of study [End Page 381] emerged to discern the underlying causes of racist attitudes. Gunnar Myrdal famously labelled the problem of racist belief the "American dilemma," in which the conflict between the American creed of equality and the reality of racial discrimination "created a mental and moral crisis for white Americans" (26). His study, though grounded in economics, helped inaugurate a new preoccupation with personal racism. Where interwar sociologists and economists had examined inter-racial conflict, now the individual subject was the site of investigation. Psychologists, such as those at the University of Chicago's Committee on Education, Training, and Research in Race Relations, replaced economists in the study of race. In so doing they turned racism into a "personality disorder" that could be explained, and fixed, by education and environment. Groups such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, meanwhile, entreated Americans to see the immorality of prejudice.
The more nuanced theories of the interwar years continued to be nurtured outside the circles of power, at historically Black colleges and universities. But here, too, racial individualism seeped in, as African Americans' faith in legal solutions was buoyed by a series of Supreme Court decisions — culminating in Brown v. the Board of Education — that overturned Jim Crow. At the same time, many Black intellectuals who had once argued for more interventionist state action, such as full employment and other redistributive measures, began to lose faith in the possibility of comprehensive change as the New Deal came under increasing attack in the 1940s.
While Gordon presents an excellent intellectual history, the book could have benefited from deeper contextualization to explain how racial individualism gained such broad traction in the early postwar era. While a chapter on the Rockefeller Foundation offers insight into the motivations of a particular funder — one that had long endorsed "separate but equal" in its support for accommodationist Black leaders in the South — Gordon does not fully analyze why so many universities and...