Lipset's American Creed
Liberty. Egalitarianism. Individualism. Populism. Laissez-faire. These five concepts embody the "American creed" as described by author Seymour Martin Lipset. Lipset feels that this "American creed" is representative of an ideology that all Americans share. Lipset's argument is on shaky ground, however, when scrutinized under the microscope of race. Racial relations in this country do much to undermine the validity of Lipset's argument, especially the concepts of egalitarianism and populism.
Take, for example, The Deforming Mirror of Truth, the introduction to a book by Nathan Huggins entitled Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery. This introduction focuses on how slavery fit into the national consciousness. Without a doubt, there is a powerful abnormality in the founding of America. The documents establishing a country where all men are created equal neglect to address, or even mention by name, those people whose lives were "merely the extension of the master's will" (Huggins xiv). Indeed, this suggests that the Founding Fathers had an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality towards the issue of slavery.
While Huggins understands why the Founding Fathers may have elected to ignore the issue, he hardly thinks that it was a good idea. "It encouraged the belief that American history-its institutions, its values, its people- was one thing and racial slavery and oppression were a different story" (Huggins xii). He reinforces this idea by looking at the historical perspective that was prevalent in America until only recently. "American historians, guarding the ideological integrity of the center, have wanted to treat race and slavery as matters apart from the real, central story of American history" (Huggins xvi). Race and slavery. Two concepts that most people would agree are forever linked in America. To assume that blacks and white became equals after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War is ludicrous. The South immediately began establishing what came to be known as Jim Crow laws. Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, wrote in a court document that "black" Americans (which is to say any American of African decent) had "no rights a white man need respect". This statement included those blacks who were not slaves. Furthermore, it was only in the latter half of this century that the nation became integrated, and there are still Affirmative Action laws in place to ensure fair consideration of all individuals on the job market. Is this a country of equality? Is egalitarianism a value embraced by all Americans? It is obvious what Nathan Huggins thinks of the matter.
The concept of populism also falls under fire when considered from a racial standpoint. The idea is rooted in the our lack of an aristocracy and our belief in social equality and common rights. Social equality and common rights for the white majority, that is. Minority groups have been fighting for these for quite some time, and it is arguable whether or not they have been attained. Consider The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson. Through his use of statistics, Wilson paints a grim portrait of black ghetto life, a life we only get a glimpse at through the media. From the violent life of the Boyz in the Hood to the comedic plights of the Evans family on the TV show Good Times, most people have only a dim understanding of what life in the ghettos and housing projects of major cities is really like.
Social equality does NOT exist in these places, and Wilson provides a multitude of examples to prove it. 1/9th of the American population is black, although they made up nearly half the total number of people arrested for murder and nonnegligent manslaughter in 1984. In the Robert Taylor Homes project in Chicago, where only .5 percent of the city's population lived in 1980, "11 percent of the city's murders, 9 percent of its rapes, and 10 percent of its aggravated assaults were committed in the project" (Wilson 25). In 1983 all of the households in the project registered with the housing authority were black. People are dying in places like this, and most often it is young men. Women are increasingly becoming the head of the household. IN 1965 25 percent of black families were headed by women, and this was an alarming figure. By 1984 the percentage had increased to 43. Only 13 percent of white families were headed by women in 1984, an imbalance that can hardly be attributed to chance.
Violence and family breakdown are not the only issues which show gross inequality between whites and blacks. Consider family incomes. According to the US Bureau of Census, in 1978:
15.9 percent of all black families had an income of under $4,000
85.1 percent of black metropolitan families with female heads earned the same.
4.3 percent of all white families had an income of under $4,000
51 percent of white metropolitan families with female heads earned the same.
13.4 percent of all black families had incomes of over $25,000
29.5 percent of all white families were in that income bracket.
Such figures cannot be ignored, nor can they be attributed to anything other than inequality. "Discrimination is the most frequently invoked explanation of social dislocations in the urban ghetto" (Wilson 30). Blacks simply do not have social equality with whites, and without it, populism does not exist in any real manner.
The writings of Nathan Huggins and William Julius Wilson do much to discredit Lipset's claim about the "American creed". Huggins' piece shows that the "American creed", from its beginnings in the birth of our nation, overlooks the effects of slavery and racism on American culture, while Wilson's work completely refutes the idea of populism. Lipset's argument is flawed, to be sure; perhaps if he considered race more of a factor is claim would stand on firmer ground. I think both Huggins and Wilson would agree on that point.
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