This episode of World of Ideas featured part two of a discussion with author, sociologist, and civil rights commentator Anne Wortham. They discuss her views on “social determinism” and her fears about civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision. She also explains her refusal to take part in the Civil Rights Movement and her reasons for doing so, as well as the “authenticity of the self” crucial to her philosophy and how it remained separate from civil rights activism.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. Twenty five years ago this summer a young black woman stood apart and watched a quarter of a million Americans March on Washington in a demonstration that marked a turning point in the modern civil rights movement. Anne Wortham could not bring herself to join that mass movement; it violated her own story, her particular individuality. So she stood apart ever since, a lonely and controversial scholar in contrary posture to the civil rights movement. In the first part of our conversation last night Anne Wortham talked about growing up in the South and coming of age in the North. Tonight she talks about the political options she has drawn from her life’s experience.
[voice-over] Anne Wortham is like nobody you’ve ever met, and that’s a distinction she’s proud of. It’s the basis of her political philosophy, her scholarship, and her self-esteem — that nobody exactly like her ever existed before, or will again. She is an individual, standing apart. But standing apart, she is not silent, and her writings have made her a controversial figure, one who criticizes the civil rights movement, and its leaders, for promotion reverse racism and the welfare state. Born in Tennessee in 1941, Anne Wortham graduated from the all-Black Tuskegee Institute. She went to Africa with the Peace Corp, was the first black to work for Esquire magazine, became Chet Huntley’s research assistant at NBC, went on to earn her PhD at Boston College, and teach at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She published a book called The Other Side of Racism, and is now a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution, in Stanford, California. That’s where we talked.
[interviewing] You have yourself acknowledged that, with the exception of the American Indian, no ethnic group has suffered more injustices at the hands of government, or at fellow citizens, than black Americans. But, you say the debt’s been paid. “The protection and preservation of the human rights and liberty of Negroes,” as you wrote, “is no longer a dream deferred.” You really believe that’s so?
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes, in so far as the relationship of blacks to the state is concerned.
BILL MOYERS: You mean the state no longer says, “You cannot.”
ANNE WORTHAM: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: You cannot vote. You cannot eat here. You cannot go to school. You cannot do these things.
ANNE WORTHAM: In fact, the state has gone beyond that to oppressing us in different ways.
BILL MOYERS: How?
ANNE WORTHAM: Having given us all that, I think, any just and moral government, or liberal state, can give to its citizens; that is the equal rights before the law. This is sort of one of the paradoxes of democracy and one of the gambles that we take is that when citizens then have the freedom to redefine their situation, if the situation is defined as such that blacks, or historical victims, that the state owes them more than just simply what it gives — not, gives actually — acknowledges. I don’t hold to the view that the state gives rights, it simply acknowledges rights that already exist and institutionalizes those, but it doesn’t give them. But, if rights are bought that way and rights now become privileges, things that the state bills out to people, then blacks can claim, “Well, we are in need of the most.” Certainly, historically so, we are behind the most, etc. To make those claims against fellow citizens who have their own lists of claims, the life of the black community has to become almost totally politicized and the individual life of a black has to become politicized.
BILL MOYERS: So, you are opposed to affirmative action?
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Bussing?
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Employment quotas?
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: On the principal that?
ANNE WORTHAM: On the principal that, first of all, to institute such things requires that the state violate the rights of all its citizens, including those who advocate such policies. That’s my principal disagreement, simply that it is unjust both to those who oppose it, who are beneficiaries, and those who promote it. Secondly, that even if one disagreed on the philosophical reasons, doesn’t work, can’t work, it overlooks or obscures, ignores, evades the fact that blacks and other minorities make choices which are not always consonant to the statistics.
BILL MOYERS: What does that mean?
ANNE WORTHAM: There are not always enough, in certain situations, blacks in the population to meet a quota, say, in a given police department, or a given sociology department, or a given university.
BILL MOYERS: But that hasn’t been a problem. The problem has been that the police departments, universities didn’t hire, wouldn’t open the doors.
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes, that’s right. I must say that my opposition to affirmative action and quotas is in the private sector. And, so far as the public sector is concerned, the government should make sure that it has equal opportunity operating at all levels.
BILL MOYERS: Then why do you say it’s all right to discriminate in the private sector?
ANNE WORTHAM: If the only way to, say, have opportunities available for blacks in government, in all levels of government, is to make sure, for instance, that you recruit people who are interested in such occupations in those communities, which is, in fact, to give some preferential attention to them.
BILL MOYERS: So, there is a pertinent rule for government? In government employment?
ANNE WORTHAM: Only at this level. I don’t say that the government should make sure that it hires these people. That it is unjust if it doesn’t. I don’t think that is the case. I think it is unjust if it refuses to let these people in or doesn’t make an extra effort to make sure that those who want to be policemen or firemen can be. I think that is important. I don’t think that the private sector can afford to do this. It is a misuse of its funds to do so. I think it ends up setting up stereotypes looking for people who don’t want to be in these positions who sometimes are not qualified to be in these positions — we are finding this in academia — who are only wanting to take positions because they provide them with an income but who have no sense of commitment to these jobs. Who would rather be doing something else, in fact.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a harsh judgment. That’s a harsh judgment.
ANNE WORTHAM: It is a very harsh judgment because, you know, there are backstairs stories, horror stories going on, especially in academia, of some of the effects of affirmative action and there is a lot of mismatching going on — the pressure to find a career, to be placed somewhere; the pressure of the university to have an affirmative action program. Why? Because it needs to show the government that if it does not have so, it is thereby discriminating — and many times this is not necessarily the case — and this relationship of university to government I would see abolished totally, you see, and the relationship with business and government I would see abolished. So, I can’t be for affirmative action. It simply cements that relationship, and it makes us minorities pawns in this game.
BILL MOYERS: If you say to a young black in the ghetto, “You’re free to get a job,” and there are no jobs. If you say to the single parent family in the ghetto, “You’re free to get a house,” but there is no affordable housing, are you not perpetuating — are we not perpetuating a cruel hoax on them?
ANNE WORTHAM: No, I think then you are being realistic. If you are an American government, I mean, we have what we have. If we want to be, you know, a goal directed government rather than a government that is a rule of laws — which we’re becoming more the former than the latter — then fine. But, our ideal is that we are a society, a government, that wants to respect the rule of law. If that is the case then we cannot at any point ever justify violating the rights of members of the majority for the sake of the well-being, let’s say, of members of minority. Once I, a black, have the right to vote, I can try to persuade with my right to vote, as we have. I have the freedom to try to persuade my government that my fellow citizens who are white should not have the freedom to deny me entry into their restaurant. I have the freedom to do that in America.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have the freedom to try to persuade —
ANNE WORTHAM: But, he also has the freedom to say no.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have the freedom to try to persuade your government to set up an economic program that will give advantages to young black kids in the ghetto who need help who have fallen through the crack, through no fault of their own, who do need a boost, who do need a helping hand?
ANNE WORTHAM: I have the freedom to do it, which is not say to say, I approve of the freedom of the right to do it. I do not approve of that particular strategy.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ANNE WORTHAM: I think that one of the unfortunate consequences of the civil rights movement was that the economic destiny, economic advancement of the black community and other minorities, was defined as being outside the national economy. And, I want to tell you, it pained me so much one day to hear President Reagan trying so hard to make this point. He never did. I read some newsweekly not long ago that Reagan had a statement, a message that he could have taken to the minorities and to blacks which would have been a direct extension of his own basic philosophy — which he’s betrayed all over the board, but that’s another story — but, he never was able to make the point. The point is this: you cannot save the minority community by destroying America. You can-not do it. You cannot save those young black kids in their ghetto who don’t have jobs by destroying the American economy.
BILL MOYERS: A jobs program for ghetto kids is destroying America?
ANNE WORTHAM: I’m not-that is not the connection I’m making. I’m not saying that by doing so you destroy America. I am saying that you should not see their fate as being outside the larger problem of what do we do about our budget deficits, about over-spending, and so forth. We won’t look at how we help them in the correct light, as we well know from a lot of the programs from the ’60s which not only did no good but they cost us a lot of money.
BILL MOYERS: How do we help these kids?
ANNE WORTHAM: You see, I think, for instance, I don’t have a huge sort of agenda. There are people who are much more capable of analyzing the practical elements here than I am: but I’ll name two programs which do not address the individual but more or less the community. One is to repeal, as much as we can, the minimum wage laws which have not only frozen these young people out of the market but have eliminated for all America’s young children a whole range of jobs. They just are no longer there. They can’t be there. Those jobs are too expensive.
BILL MOYERS: If racism is not a problem anymore, legal racism is not a problem, why are blacks poorer than whites on the whole? Why do they have less political power? Why do they have fewer job opportunities?
ANNE WORTHAM: Why, that’s not an easy question. Any way I say it will be inadequate. The coming of political rights, and economic opportunities that flow from political rights, arrived at a point when the American economy was changing.
BILL MOYERS: Blacks were going free as the economy was really changing — turning global.
ANNE WORTHAM: And so we have a huge labor force of unskilled and skilled laborers for whom there are not just no jobs. You see, that is one layer of analysis which you can stop but it doesn’t — it somehow doesn’t make the story human. But, when you talk about a man who’s willing to work but who cannot work, not simply because of prejudice, yes, that is a factor, but far more important is the fact that the job no longer exists. You see, my father had his high-school education and built every house we lived in and so forth and so on because the economy, even under segregation, the national economy, was different. So, in a way, my father was economically freer although he couldn’t vote. But, he sent me to college. I can vote. I can’t send any kid to college. And, I certainly can’t buy a house as my father did. I just make enough to keep going. I have all the things that he thought he was giving to prevent just the sort of bind that I’m in. It says nothing about prejudice and racism — and I don’t mean to say that those things don’t exist — it’s just more complicated, and I think if we allow that complication then we truly appreciate and understand the plight of blacks, black poor and all poor.
BILL MOYERS: You said that minorities could indeed change the direction of American politics for the better by breaking their alliance with the government.
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: In what sense?
ANNE WORTHAM: In the sense that the government would first of all be seen not as a savior. Inherently it is not a savior. That the American federal government acted as a liberator was no great favor, for Christ sakes. This is what they should have done. It was doing what it should have done 200 years ago. I would wish that out of that movement we would have retained the kind of skepticism of the state that my father had, and a lot of ordinary black people always had. In fact, a lot of southern blacks always had. Our view of the state was always skeptical, as opposed to northern blacks who tended to be more trusting. Ironically, although the civil rights came out of the South, it begins to take on the northern view of the state as being a benevolent institution. It isn’t. It can’t be, ultimately. You can hold it, bend it and be vigilant over it and our founding fathers, of course, knew this. Blacks have had the most, in our country perhaps next to the Indians, the most extreme example of this. You would think that from a history such as ours that we would have understood two things; first of all that the government, while we need it, ultimately cannot be our friend, and also that we don’t need it to be our friend, really. It is just an instrument.
BILL MOYERS: So, what would black minorities do if they broke the alliance with the government?
ANNE WORTHAM: If they broke the reliance they would depend more on themselves. We would acknowledge the legacy of Booker T. Washington, which is slowly coming back to legitimacy now. That Booker T. was very right about a lot of things. You see, this is nothing extraordinary. You don’t need to have a degree in sociology to know these things. We should have kept that side of our story, which some today will call the conservative side of black history and black culture.
BILL MOYERS: Well, they were very self-reliant for a long, long time there.
ANNE WORTHAM: You see, the thing is we would not be here were it not for our own efforts. That is, most of our history has been in relationship to a government that has not been very kind —
BILL MOYERS: But there is a paradox —
ANNE WORTHAM: — to say the least.
BILL MOYERS: There is a paradox in what you just said because your own efforts brought a change. The efforts of the civil rights movement, which you didn’t join, brought a change in the attitude of government.
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes, but you see the curious thing that happened was that there was a shift in perspective. I’m not questioning the historical fact. What I’m saying is that the definition of what was done has undermined further movements toward freedom, you see. What was thought to have been done was not that this was an outgrowth of self-reliance. It wasn’t like this. It was started with those N.A.A.C.P. guys and all those intermediaries who got with those Washington folk. That’s what was thought. And they encouraged it. And so we now have the state and all of its service delivery people who are standing between the black community and the state, and we have very little change going on and everybody is throwing up his hands and saying what do we do? What do we do? No one says, “Why don’t you do it for yourselves? You’ve known for 200 years how to do it. So, why don’t you do it?”
BILL MOYERS: So, it’s all right in your scheme of things for blacks to organize to achieve social equality.
ANNE WORTHAM: No, that’s not what I said. I don’t believe in social equality. I believe in equality of the law. I don’t believe in social equality.
BILL MOYERS: All right, to gain social advantage. Is it acceptable to organize politically to gain social advantage?
ANNE WORTHAM: I would say that it’s acceptable but I would not think that political organization would be the way to go at this point. I think that what we need is economic advancement and I don’t think that economic advancement, in the end, can be very substantial if it is done through politics.
BILL MOYERS: You’re obviously aware that you’re criticized by blacks for making all the — many blacks — for making all the worn-out arguments in behalf of racism that whites used to make. Let them do it their way. Let them work it their way. Let them —
ANNE WORTHAM: Well, you see, that was interpreted as benign neglect, or just out-and-out racism, but in recent years it’s called benign neglect. I have only this to say about that. Because of my views I’ve had difficulties getting jobs, finding a job. Fortunately, I will go to Washington and Lee in January and, I hope, that that phase of my career is now over. But, prior to now it’s been rather difficult. In one of my interviews, job interviews, two years ago it was asked of me very seriously by the faculty — this was a northern urban university — they were concerned about whether I would in my counseling of the students encourage students to what they call the boot-strap method of mobility. Would I encourage this among students? They were concerned that I would, not that I wouldn’t.
BILL MOYERS: And your answer?
ANNE WORTHAM: Of course I would. I said that I don’t have any particular ideology. I come here to teach my subject. But, in talking with students about their careers I will always tell them, “Look at your assets. Look at what you have and try to do with what you have. Don’t first begin thinking what you can take from the other fellow. That’s not a way to go because in the end you will lose, especially if what the other fellow has got is a great deal of power.” But, they were concerned that I would come to their school and teach their black students. These are white, Northern liberals who would say that I am advocating benign neglect. They would want me to neglect black students by encouraging them not to, you know, pull themselves up by the boot straps, which is the very thing that white Americans have done. You know, I don’t understand this. What kind of friend is this? What kind of friend? I mean, I’m only saying what they do for them-selves, I am saying that we blacks should do. But if I say it I am encouraging something that is against my race, and so forth and so on. I don’t need friends like these. The black community doesn’t need friends like this who tell us to deny the self-sufficient, self-help element of our heritage. No. My father feels that he’s been totally ignored in all of this. He’s very angry.
BILL MOYERS: Angry?
ANNE WORTHAM: Yes because no one gives him credit for having raised his five children on his own and put all of them through college without any help from Uncle Sam. It’s not in the books and he’s very bitter. He’s very, very bitter.
BILL MOYERS: Are you bitter?
ANNE WORTHAM: No, I’m not bitter. I understand it. He is very bitter. He feels they are saying we don’t do anything on our own. They say that we always need the government to come in and help us do things. This is the sort of thing they’re saying about us. This is what he says. And he wanted to be known as the man who raised the five kids and sent them through college and nobody knows about it.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote an essay once called “Silence,” and you said that, “All these people have identity. They have a place. They know a fear, anger, anxiety, sadness, graft, hate, inferiority, superiority. I know only of contempt for them and loneliness for myself because I could not belong. I could never belong.”
ANNE WORTHAM: Where did you find that? Ah, yes, that essay was written the summer of 1963 when I was, I don’t know, 20, I guess. And there is something wrong with that statement. I did feel very much so then that I didn’t belong. I saw everyone was gearing up for the march in Washington that summer. I was in Washington preparing for my Peace Corps orientation training at Syracuse, and everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing that summer. There I was feeling that I couldn’t do what they were doing and that I was very much alone. I don’t feel that now. I didn’t know at that time that the ideas I had, which were really more or less snatches of thought and floating abstractions and, you know, longings, that there had been people long ago who had had the same sorts of sentiments and ideas. That I could find them in the founding fathers, that I could find them in the Greeks, I could find them all over the place, that I could find them in literature. I didn’t know where to go. So, I did feel that. I now know, and I don’t feel alone at all. I also don’t have contempt. I was then someone who knew that she disagreed but who didn’t want to pay the price of disagreement. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood that if I was going to disagree there was a price to pay. And, I don’t like it, but I’ll pay it.
BILL MOYERS: From the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, this has been a conversation with Anne Wortham. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 25, 2015.