Gene Genovese was for several years a colleague of mine at the
University of Rochester. I had many administrative dealings with him, as
he was Chairman of the history department while I was Associate Dean for
Graduate Studies and hence governor, as it were, of the budget for
graduate student fellowships. But I also would see him at the faculty
club, and in fact we played poker together quite often at a regular game
at his house.
Since I also took an interest in history and social questions I
was naturally an opponent of most of what Genovese stood for in his
Communist sympathies, but I didn't often argue with him, as he wouldn't
argue seriously with people like me. He thought he understood me, as I
thought I understood him, so that it seemed that little needed saying. In
more recent times, however, Genovese has left that cause, and while still
maintaining a Marxist philosphy (as I have been led to believe) he has
become a spokesman for a sort of new conservatism that doesn't really have
a name. I would venture to say that this new point of view is much the
same as that taken up earlier by Genovese's erstwhile enemy at Rochester,
Christopher Lasch, but I might be missing a subtle point here.
When I read Genovese's remarks, reproduced (in part) below, in the
right-wing journal Chronicles, I was surprised to see that even in his
conversion he had apparently continued to miss a point of some importance,
and so I wrote the following letter to explain it. I am glad to say it
received a sympathetic and pleasant reply, a far cry from the sort of ironic
response my comments in the faculty club used to elicit in the old days.
Department of Mathematics
UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER
Rochester, New York 14627
Tel (716) 275-4429 or 244-9368
27 July 1994
Eugene D. Genovese
1487 Sheridan Walk
Atlanta, Georgia 30324
This is what the computer does: I began by making a notation, as
I often do, of things I have read, with reference, just in case I want it
later (not for scholarship, which isn't my thing, but as an idea for
further thought). So I took down the quotation below and began my small
note on why I thought that "political power" line was curious. But the
thing segué'd into a longer comment, and finally what amounted to a letter
to you, for all that you appear in the third person in what I wrote. So I
reproduce it for your pleasure. Call it a fan letter. I have been
following your polemical career with great interest.
Eugene D. Genovese: from The Southern Tradition and the Black Experience,
an article based on his speech of acceptance of the 1993 Ingersoll
Foundation's Richard M. Weaver Award, as printed in Chronicles, August,
[Arguing that the difference between the black and other "immigrants"
makes their problem unique]:
"...its uniqueness emerges from the history of slavery and
segregation, which confronted black people with a raw oppression and
exploitation well beyond that experienced by European immigrants ...
Other peoples contributed much to the development of an American national
culture, but despite acute discrimination, they were not condemned as an
inferior race, and they were able to progress and consolidate their gains
through the steady accretion of political power. Not so for Africans and
What is curious about this passage is the phrase, "to progress and
consolidate their gains through the steady accretion of political power,"
with its casual assumption that the accretion of political power has some
importance in that context. Genovese is talking about the disaster that
has recently taken over the black community, that is, the emergence of an
underclass, not to say criminal, culture, that is preventing their taking
an appropriate place in American, or human, society. But this disaster
has accompanied, indeed followed, on the blacks obtaining a more than
proportional political power. That underclass mentality was not
overwhelming their community in the days of Jim Crow. Did political power
consolidate, or did it prevent, their "gains"?
And to consider other groups: Was it a rise to political power that
caused the progress, and consolidated the gains, of the Chinese, or
Japanese, or (East) Indian groups in America? Or the Jews? Who but the
Irish were the leaders in urban politics in the large American cities
fifty to a hundred years ago? And who (among the whites) but the Jews
were forbidden entry to clubs, suburban neighborhoods, medical schools and
the like? Yet did the Irish become scientists, musicians, movie-makers,
artists and big-businessmen in anything like the proportions of the Jews?
I do not make this comment to denigrate anything else in Genovese's
analysis, for his view of the problem of the blacks -- their problem and
ours, as Podhoretz once put it -- is one I respect. I only call attention
to this remnant of old-left thinking, somewhere in a corner of the
Genovese consciousness, that he really ought to extirpate. Political
power does not consolidate social -- or even economic, or cultural --
gains, such as they are. Liberty does it. Equality of opportunity -- or
at any rate some opportunity -- makes the difference, and that's not the
same as having a friend at City Hall, or in the White House.
Alas, I see this equality of opportunity seriously compromised in
today's USA, and I see the "awarding" of disproportionate political power
to the black community as one sad manifestation of this disease. I do
wish we could stick to the one-man-one-vote principle. Let the blacks
segregate themselves if they like, thereby gaining a majority in some
places (even as the Chassidim have a majority in some places) if they
really want one. But I have never felt unrepresented because my
Congressman was not a Jew. Moynihan and D'Amato, goodness!
I would agree that a largely black school district might want to
impose some disciplinary rules that a largely white district might not,
and I wish all school districts had more freedom from the state than they
have; but I'm afraid that compulsory Christian prayer sessions is not in
the cards, even if Christianity is a good discipline. I find it hard to
see what "autonomy" can mean, for the black community, beyond what it has
now. We all have it, in fact, to a large degree; but private and voluntary.
We can send our kids to Cheder, but we must not ask the state
to build some because we can't afford enough of them. What is public has
to be neutral as among definable subgroups, be they men (as against
women), homo (as against hetero)(sexuality), Jew against Christian, or
black against white. Inequality in the law instantly leads to
manipulation, with "all the advantages that theft has over honest toil."
That's what started this all.
The white put-down of the black, from slave times to today, has been
indefensible; but it was not the cause of the collapse of Christian
morality, parental responsibility, and the work ethic among blacks, which
is quite recent and is seen enough among whites to deny the racism, or
former-slave, thesis right there. What we are doing now is also terrible,
and a most terrible irony that it is being done in the name of reparations.
If I were to make a rough and ready prescription, I would say that
in the time of the Messiah we shall beat our social workers into
policemen, and then shall the lion eat straw like the bullock.