Culture and politics shape race relations

“…we are bound to suffer increasing polarization in our nation that tears at the very fabric of our Constitutional covenant.”

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” (Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-NY).

Someone recently asked me to explain what I thought this quote, made in 1998, meant.

Sen. Moynihan earned an undergraduate degree in sociology and a Ph.D in history, and served in the administrations of Democratic presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Republican president Richard Nixon. He was U.S. ambassador to India and the United Nations under President Gerald Ford before being elected as a Democratic senator from New York for four terms. He lived 76 for years, from 1927 until 2003.

Race was a key issue for Moynihan. If we look at the above quote in the context of race relations we can gain insight into contemporary American culture.

“It is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.” Note that the conservative goal is success – how to get it, in this case, for minorities. According to conservatives, attitudes learned from culture shaped whether people could succeed, not politics. Bringing about economic change for racial minorities depended on changing their cultural attitudes. The responsibility for change lies with minority communities, not the changing of laws.

Moynihan stated, “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of the Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.” Moynihan believed that single mothers raising their children, especially their sons, without fathers helped to cause much of the economic distress that minorities face in this country today. So, Moynihan seemed to be agreeing with the conservatives: no new laws would see much improvement in the status for blacks and other minorities until family structure was altered.

On the other hand, Democrats took the opposite position: “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” The example of Martin Luther King Jr. proves this point. He changed the white culture’s attitude toward minorities, at least in the North, because of his brilliant use of media; his marches and demonstrations were designed to show white bigotry and prejudice in the South to Northern whites. That change in Northern attitudes brought about a constitutional amendment to end Jim Crow segregation laws, the poll tax and created the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.

The process of changing Northern white cultural attitudes became the “salvation” of the nation.

Rather than having a race war, cultural change brought about greater acceptance of racial differences and attempts to raise up oppressed minorities. From this perspective, the only way to gain success for oppressed minorities was to change white cultural attitudes – and not to put all the responsibility for change on the minorities.

So, we have these two differing perspectives, conservative and liberal. Which is right? Both were right in 1998 and both are right today. As is often the case, both sides have rational reasons to believe the way they do. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.

Sen. Moynihan understood the complexity of race in America. That’s why he was asked to serve in both Democratic and two Republican administrations. He was a complex thinker who could live with two contradictory thoughts at the same time. The ability to live with this kind of mental and emotional tension requires a great deal of maturity and training. Our culture today does not have many public figures who seem to do this.

Until we can find such leaders, we are bound to suffer increasing polarization in our nation that tears at the very fabric of our Constitutional covenant.


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