The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 25, 2004

The American Dilemma on passing

I pondered yesterday why the author Charles W Chesnutt - who, from his photo, could certainly have passed for white - had not done so.

Having fished out Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma [1] for enlightenment, I find it not to be lacking!

There are a couple of pages on passing starting on p129 (Ch 5 Sect 7), mentioning the difficulties of quantifying the extent to which passing had taken place; and a longer section (p683ff - Ch 31 Sect 4), looking at the practice in more detail.

He considers what is needed for a Negro to be able to pass; and suggests that physiognomy alone is not determinative: he quotes the example (p683n) of his Negro assistant who travelled with him in the Deep South. Naturally, on the road, the assistant lodged in the Negro quarter of the town; but he would come to Myrdal's hotel room to work with him.

Myrdal says that his assistant, though he had
some unmistakeable Negro features
was able to enter the hotel and go up to Myrdal's room without being stopped: Myrdal surmises this is because the white hotel staff do not believe their own eyes. The cognitive dissonance [2] between the actions and the race of the actor left them stunned.

He points (p685) to a group of Negroes who pass professionally - but stay within the Negro world socially. (Passing, he says, is much less likely in the South than in Northern and Border states, on account of the consequences of discovery.) Even in the North, lots of desirable jobs were effectively closed to Negroes. The logic is clear.

He says that
Professional passing often seems to be a transitional stage of life.
Given the quantification difficulties noted above, this is clearly more or less of a personal impression. However, it's sometimes a stepping stone to full passing.

He then (p686) turns to the question of why not all Negroes able (by their faces, abilities and circumstances) to pass actually do so.

He cites a Negro who passed to get into a white college, graduated but went to teach as a Negro [3]. The man cites four reasons for returning to the Negro world:
  1. He thereby avoided the strain of keeping up his fictitious existence in company.

  2. His job and looks gave him high status in the Negro community that they would not had given him in the white community.

  3. Because there were fewer qualified Negroes in his line of work, he got his job more easily than if he'd been competing for the same type of job in the white world.

  4. Social life in the Negro community was pleasanter; the guy (rather than Myrdal) said he thought this was a reaction to segregation: DIY was the only option!

Following through on the notion that Negroes preferred to be the big fish in the small pond, Myrdal says (p687) that
Light-skinned and "good-featured" Negro women are preferred as marriage partners by Negro men, while their chances on the white marriage market as lonely [4] women without a known or presentable family must be slight.

He suggests that there is often a sort of conspiracy of silence between Negroes who have passed and their Negro friends and acquaintances, with the latter taking pleasure in the deception of the white man. Others, envious, have a
compensatory feeling of race pride

To finish the section, he touches on the tragic mulatto myth, and suggests that there might be some truth in it; though, given the lack of information on the whole business,
the picture of their difficulty is hard to define.

Finally, in Ch 31 note 26 (p1380), he touches on the question of whites passing as Negro. He says he came across two examples of white women who passed to enable them to marry Negroes. In Research Memorandum on Minority People in the Depression by Donald Young, it's suggested whites might pass
because of a preference for Negro associations and for employment opportunities, as in a colored orchestra.

And Myrdal mentions white orphans, brought up in Negro households (dealt with in Wirth and Goldhammer's piece in Characteristics of the American Negro.)

Thus spake Myrdal. I'm not clear how the state of knowledge about passing has progressed in the last sixty years. As the Sharfstein piece noted on January 20 made clear, there was a conscious attempt in the South at communal amnesia on racial origins over the period (the couple of decades either side of 1900) during which passing was liable to be at its height.

And, in the North, there was no general public legal imperative to take cognizance of racial status.

The Negro student's reasons for not passing made sense to Myrdal - and seem reasonable to me. The option, for a Negro who could, of refusing to pass is not - in the game theory sense - a dominated strategy. There were significant pros and cons either way.

One thing that the matter does highlight is the peculiar loss suffered by the Negro community when Jim Crow was dismantled. The big fish in the small pond was (though scarcely suddenly) netted and placed in the big pond with all the other fish. And, next to them, he wasn't quite so big.

Another complicated topic for another time...

  1. The copyright notice (1944) gives no sign it's not a first edition. But I have in mind that other early editions are in two volumes, rather than my singleton.

  2. I believe is the phrase - caveat lector!

  3. It's not clear in what area of the US his teaching post was. And there's the question of his reconciling to his employers the fact that, though presenting himself as Negro, he has a degree certificate to a white college! I infer from what Myrdal says about him that he's teaching in an all-Negro institution.

  4. I think he means single.


A couple of pieces that might be worth following up, whilst the URLs are to hand: a 1944 review by Ralph Ellison gives a contemporary Negro perspective; and a 2000 piece by Paul Craig Roberts (Who he? Ed) blaming Gunnar Myrdal for putting the idea in his mate Felix Frankfurter's head that lead to Brown v Board of Education (of Topeka, natch) being a second Dred Scott, rather than something more judicially becoming.

(I have a counterfactual simmering on the back-burner to the effect that Brown was the equivalent, in the 1950s, to the Fugitive Slave Act - as a sine qua non of the minor race war that ensued over Jim Crow. Needs a lot more meat before it's advanced to the front-burner, though...)


The full US Supreme Court opinions in the Dred Scott case available here - the dissents of Justices McLean and Curtis (oops, I feel another trivia treasure-hunt coming on...) as well as the opinion of the court from the Founder of the Feast Chief Justice Roger Taney (pronounced tawny - as I learnt first watching Ken Burns' Civil War series - Commager's Documents of American History had left that embarrassment-avoiding detail out).

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