James Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren, and the Politics of Southern Multiculturalism

James Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren, and the Politics of Southern Multiculturalism

Separate and Unequal

Black and white intellectuals and the politics of multiculturalism.


Many Americans think of the South only in terms of two events: the Civil War and the civil-rights movement. This has also been buttressed, since the 1960s, by an interest in the “Southern strategy” that the Republican Party began to pursue with Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and that reached an apex with Richard Nixon’s mastery of racial code words (“states’ rights,” “law and order”) in the 1968 presidential campaign. A new history by Anders Walker, The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America, touches on many of these events and their lingering legacies, but Walker directs our attention elsewhere: to those intellectuals who, in the second half of the 20th century, sought to save some of the unique qualities of Southern culture.

The South, Walker argues, did more than offer heroic moments of black auto-emancipation and shameful moments of white supremacy; it also served as the arena for an ongoing debate over multiculturalism. This might seem like a strange assertion at first, as the politics of multiculturalism are usually framed in the context of the late 20th century, when conflicts over how to define a country’s cultural identity exploded in Europe. But Walker’s provocative thesis is this: Beginning in the 1940s, black and white writers—from Zora Neale Hurston to Robert Penn Warren—began to worry about what might happen to the South’s culture in the wake of integration. These writers were not defenders of segregation; in fact, most were active in helping tear it down. But they feared that the region might also lose some of its cultural heterogeneity: In particular, they worried that it might lose its distinct white and black cultures and become flattened into the more homogeneous culture found in the rest of America.

One might argue with this thesis on a variety of accounts. Thinking of the South as having two distinct cultures, one white, one black, as opposed to one culture that was a mixture of the two, is already highly questionable. For that matter, it is unclear if the rest of the nation was truly as monocultural as some of the intellectuals in Walker’s book seem to believe. The work of historians like Jon Lauck, for instance, reminds us that the Midwest has its own rich literary and cultural heritage—to say nothing of the significant racial and ethnic cultures that permeated other regions of the United States outside the South.

Even so, Walker has opened up a fresh way of thinking about the intellectual history of the South during the civil-rights movement, and he also asks some tough questions about how we should remember its legacy. A professor of law at Saint Louis University, Walker focused his first book, The Ghost of Jim Crow, on the white Southern moderates who, under the guise of promoting gradual progress and “respect” for African-American culture, tried to slow the implementation of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the late 1950s. In The Burning House, we get a different set of ghost stories about the afterlife of Jim Crow, but it’s a book that follows the same line of reasoning, showing how the multicultural arguments made by intellectuals who wanted to sustain the South’s cultural heterogeneity had their own unintended consequences, ending up being used by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in his effort to undermine affirmative action’s constitutional standing.

To tell this story, Walker gives us a wide-ranging intellectual and literary history, beginning with the rise of the Southern Agrarians in the early 1930s. Hurston and Warren, as well as James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Stokely Carmichael, all make appearances. Not all of these people were from the South—Baldwin and Carmichael grew up in New York, for instance—but nearly all of them spent much of their lives fighting against or writing about the region’s segregation. For these writers, culture and politics were never far apart. This was particularly true for Warren, who saw the cultural strength of the South as proof that the region needed nothing more than to reform its Jim Crow system—as opposed to a wholesale revolution overturning it. Other writers discussed in the book, such as Faulkner, promoted a similar ideology of the South being culturally superior to the rest of the nation due to the biracial and bicultural system arising from Jim Crow.

Walker doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to these white intellectuals. Their arguments for a biracial culture ultimately served to empower white Southerners, not black ones, and Walker’s story is very much about the untenable nature of their position. White Southern liberals had to choose between civil and human rights, on the one hand, and white-supremacist regimes, on the other; there was no middle ground. Seeking to preserve the South’s biracial character, in a context in which black Americans and their culture were not treated equally, figures like Warren ended up only helping to reinforce African Americans’ unequal status in the South. And so it is not surprising that many of these arguments were later invoked by people like Powell.

Walker’s argument becomes trickier when it involves those black writers who also expressed trepidation about the future of the South’s black culture and wanted to find a way to preserve it. In particular, many of these black intellectuals and activists worried about what would happen if, as Baldwin put it, black culture was integrated into the “burning house” of the United States. For Walker, this is what makes this generation of black writers so historically intriguing. They found the moderate position taken by white Southern liberals like Warren baneful, and they frequently challenged it. Yet they also questioned the bleak, materialist ethos of modern American culture and hoped that black culture might be able to preserve some of its unique characteristics—especially black culture as it existed in the South.

In one of the more eye-opening sections of The Burning House, Walker explores Warren’s interview with Carmichael just as the latter was beginning to enter his more radical phase in the mid-1960s. Warren initially expected Carmichael and other young black activists to support the integrationist drive not only in civil society and legal institutions, but also on questions relating to culture. So he was surprised to find Carmichael embracing a view of African-American cultural separation. When the two met in 1964, Carmichael had not yet made his complete turn to Black Power. But the ideas that formed the basis of the movement—self-reliance and a pride in African-American culture—were already there for Carmichael to adopt. In the interview, Warren asks Carmichael why nonviolence mattered. Carmichael explains: “I never took the approach we’ve got to teach them to love us…. I thought that was nonsense from the start. But I was impressed by the way [the demonstrators] conducted themselves, the way they sat there and took the punishment.” For Carmichael, the compelling feature of the civil-rights movement’s nonviolence wasn’t its ethical appeal, but that it represented an act of black resolve, a symbol of independence and black Americans’ power on their own.

For Warren, Walker notes, this “incipient iteration of Black Power proved a coup…enabling him to demonstrate that pluralism reigned even among young black activists, who demonstrated little interest in joining white society or culture.” But it’s hard to ignore the cynicism operating here. Warren and other white Southerners who wanted to see Southern white culture preserved had found few allies within the civil-rights movement; with figures like Baldwin and Carmichael, Warren wanted to show black Americans were making a similar argument. Baldwin and Carmichael, on the other hand, felt they had little in common with someone like Warren. Between them was a large gulf: Warren was in pursuit of a cultural pluralism for the sake of a once-dominant culture; Baldwin and Carmichael wanted a pluralism that might help emancipate and protect a culture that for centuries had been violently suppressed.

Walker picks up some of these ambiguities in the second thread of his book, which chronicles the story of Lewis F. Powell Jr. A Virginia-born lawyer who served as a Supreme Court justice from 1972 to 1987, Powell is infamous among progressives for the so-called “Powell Memo,” which he wrote in 1971 to the US Chamber of Commerce, arguing that American business should become more involved in politics. What is less known—but for Walker is of immense importance—is the role that Powell played in defining a conservative idea of “diversity” in several Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s concerning school segregation and affirmative action in college admissions.

In Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973), Powell wrote a concurring opinion insisting that local community control of schools—and therefore de facto segregation—was constitutional. If, for example, various government programs had pushed African Americans into lower-income areas with fewer sources of funding for their schools, then so be it: The federal government, in Powell’s view, had no power to change such conditions, because to do so risked damaging the cultural autonomy of local communities. “As Powell saw it, Brown demanded an end to overtly segregationist law, nothing more,” Walker writes. Integration was a laudable goal, Powell claimed, but it could not be administered by the federal government, only by local school districts. More importantly, however, this opinion was an example of Powell arguing publicly that the South was, in Walker’s words, “no more guilty of racial injustice than anyplace else.”

One can begin to hear how Warren’s multicultural argument intersects with Powell’s defense of segregation in the Keyes concurrence. But Powell’s biggest contribution to the modern history of race and law came in the Court’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), when he argued that diversity could be taken into account as a factor in college admissions, but not to respond to historical injustice against African Americans. Instead, Powell thought that the only reason diversity could be taken into account was when it was designed to promote “academic freedom.” As Walker notes, this kind of argument, like the Southern moderates’ position examined in his first book, purportedly seeks to protect the “diversity” of cultural institutions but is, in fact, “hostile to aggressive government efforts aimed at achieving equality.” Like Warren, Powell made a case for multicultural pluralism that ultimately weakened the idea of social, as well as cultural, integration.

It is no coincidence that Powell’s rise to the Supreme Court in the early 1970s came just as the nation was attempting to reckon with the meaning of “Southernness.” Scholars like John Egerton, who wrote The Americanization of Dixie, and politicians like Jimmy Carter had started to ask serious questions about what it meant to be a white Southerner after the successes of the civil-rights movement. As a result, Walker argues, it was not only Powell and his fellow conservatives who found in cultural pluralism a means to enliven Southern identity; it was also liberals like Carter, who argued during his 1976 presidential campaign that “people have a tendency—and it is an unshakable tendency—to want to share common social clubs, common churches, common restaurants,” an argument that runs very closely to the one being made by those in the North and the South who sought to resegregate schools and neighborhoods.

Had The Burning House’s sections on the 1970s included Albert Murray, Walker would have found a fascinating foil for the arguments made by the likes of Warren and Powell. While offering glowing portraits of black culture in the South, Murray also argued in his 1970 The Omni-Americans that it was through these different cultures that a national American culture would emerge. “Ethnic differences,” Murray wrote, “are the very essence of cultural diversity and national creativity.” One could have a cultural pluralism while also not giving way to Warren’s vision of a dual Southern culture, or Powell’s use of “diversity” to defend de facto segregation and racial inequality. That Murray’s argument never gained a larger audience in his time was a symbol of the dominance of an American culture that, in the 1970s, wanted to move beyond concern about the antiblack racism associated with images of marches in the South. Threading the needle on race, culture, and diversity would be a bit easier if more intellectuals had wrestled with Murray’s example.

Scholars and historians of the South have, in recent years, started to reflect on the diversity of thought in the region. Zandria Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago makes a compelling argument for the differences between African Americans in the North and the South. Jason Sokol’s There Goes My Everything attempts to unveil the reactions of white Southerners to the revolution taking place around them. The Burning House fits well within the growing literature about the modern South, a literature that does not assume “Southern exceptionalism”—the view that the South’s history and culture are radically different from the rest of the nation—but, instead, attempts to understand the region from a variety of different viewpoints.

Even so, one weakness of The Burning House is that it’s not entirely clear that Powell was directly influenced by the Southern writers profiled in the first two-thirds of the book. It would be easy to assume that he came from the same ideological tradition as most of the white writers in Walker’s book, an ideology that criticized the worst excesses of Jim Crow while also remaining uncomfortable with integration. But there’s never a “smoking gun” to indicate that Powell gave credit to Warren for his Supreme Court rulings. Likewise, as Baldwin and Carmichael would have noted, there’s a world of difference between the cultural pluralism of black writers seeking an independent African-American culture and white ones seeking some continuation of the “Southern way of life.” After all, the Southern way of life for much of America’s history meant a world of slavery and racial hierarchy. That was hardly the kind of Southern culture that black intellectuals were calling for.

Nonetheless, The Burning House is a worthwhile book for anyone interested in the continuing importance of the South to the nation’s culture and politics. The recent off-year election in Virginia and the Senate special election in Alabama have proved that the road to a progressive future for the United States goes through the South. The Burning House reminds us that this road will be marked by twists, turns, and hazardous pitfalls. “Ethnic differences are the very essence of cultural diversity and national creativity,” Murray wrote in the introduction to The Omni-Americans. Understanding the fraught relationship between diversity and power—whether economic, political, or social—is something that still eludes most Americans.

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