Sunday, September 6, 2009

Brief: When did elite whites start obsessing over blacks?

It's routine nowadays to hear well-to-do white people casually slipping into conversation that their best friend is black, or worrying out loud about how we can improve the lot of blacks in a discriminating society. Clearly that wasn't so at some point -- blacks were out of sight, out of mind. So when did the shift take place? The story we're told in school is that it took the Civil Rights movement to wake white people up. Let's look at the Harvard Crimson archives to see.

Here we have a group of New England white elite college students -- just the group who first paid attention to black causes. I simply searched the Crimson for "negro" and plotted this number as a percent of articles with the neutral word "one," using 5-year moving averages to smooth out the data. Here is the result:

The sharp drop at the end is obviously just an artifact of the word "negro" becoming taboo after the Civil Rights movement. The peak year is 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech during the March on Washington. Also not very surprising. But it's not as if whites were unaware of black issues before then, and were suddenly awakened or caught off-guard by the events of the mid-1950s and after. Far from it: the sustained upward trend begins immediately after the Great Migration of blacks from the southeast into the northeastern US and California. There is another jump around 1940, with greater growth afterward, probably reflecting the Second Great Migration of blacks out of the southeast.

There's also a small rise-and-fall in interest that peaks around 1900, but this could be due to the smaller sample size during these early years. A graph (not shown) of the raw count of "negro" articles shows no hump there, although the swing upward after 1920 or so is apparent.

When you see the graph, it may not seem very surprising -- as blacks came into more frequent contact with Northern whites, it seems natural that Harvard undergrads would start paying more attention to them. This cannot be due to the perceived economic threat that the newly arrived blacks posed, as with the string of race riots that erupted when working class whites saw blacks as labor market competition. Poor blacks from the south were not going to get into Harvard. So, this attention must reflect some combination of paternalism -- "how can we take care of these new people?" -- and cultural, if not economic, anxiety -- "what does this migration mean for our way of life?"

But the graph is very surprising if you only relied on what you were taught in school -- i.e., that whites were lulled into complacency for a long time, thinking that their poor treatment of blacks wouldn't come back to bite them, only to be shocked out of their slumber by Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. That story is wrong, as the data show. The steady increase began decades before the Civil Rights movement, which was more of a culmination than a beginning. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were jumping on a bandwagon that had been picking up speed for decades. It was the Jazz Age, not the Civil Rights era, that woke whites up to black culture.

This serves as a reminder that sea changes in society are rarely due to the actions of single, charismatic individuals, but rather reflect interactions among people at the grassroots level, as Tolstoy believed. The individuals who get holidays named after them are just celebrities that we single out, not the ones who got the bandwagon going in the first place. We can't know their names because it rarely starts off as a concerted movement with planners or leaders.

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