During the LES Studies course this semester, we have started talking about whether or not Lillian Smith deals with class in her examinations of the psychological effects of racism. We have talked about Smith’s commentary on the wedges that wealthy whites, those in power, drive between individuals beneath them and the ways that these wedges, coupled with the rhetoric of demagogues, serves to sustain white supremacy. We’ve talked about the aid she provided to individuals, both Black and white, in the community where she lived and beyond. However, we also notice that she sees racist thought as an individual and moral problem. In order to build a better world, for Smith, one must cure the individual and the system will follow.
Writing about Smith’s work with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), and notably her falling out with James Dombrowski and the organization, Randall Patton notes that “Lillian Smith advocated an intensely psychological view of the race problem.” Smith served on the SCHW’s board of directors, but in 1945 she resigned, arguing that the organization did not have adequate representation on the board and elsewhere. Patton delves into the split within American liberalism during the mid-twentieth century, and he argues that Smith’s departure from the SCHW, along with others events, highlights this spilt. Patton notes that both sides of the split “agreed that racial discrimination was wrong and that southern poverty had to be addressed.”
However, the two sides differed on which one they should focus on as they moved forward. The SCHW believed that in order to eliminate racial discrimination a concerted focus on the “fundamental issues of poverty” must be addressed first. Smith, on the other hand, argued that instead of politics a focus on the individual, specifically touching the individual’s heart and mind must be the focus. As she wrote in Killers of the Dream, “I believe individuals not connected with politics can do far more than politicians can do. It is more urgent to change men’s beliefs than to pass legislation though I think both necessary.”
Twenty three years after the quote from Killers of the Dream, Smith wrote the introduction for James Peck’s Freedom Ride. There, she reiterated her position that the individual, not legislation and politics, should be the focus. She begins the introduction by writing, “Racial segregation is not basically an economic or a political complex, except for its exploiters. It is a symbol and a symptom of a deep illness that affects everywhere: the creeping, often invisible deterioration of man’s spirit which we call ‘dehumanization.'” Here, Smith recognizes the politics involved in the perpetuation of white supremacy, specifically in the rhetoric and the language used to maintain it, but she focuses on the individual, not the system, in her discussion of ending it. For Smith, the building of bridges trumps focusing on the systematic issues.
Smith continually uses the metaphor of disease when talking about white supremacy. In “The Right Way is Not A Moderate Way” from 1956, she compares it to the cancer that attacks her own body, “The tragic fact is, neither cancer nor segregation will go away while we close our eyes. Both are dangerous diseases that have to be handled quickly and skillfully because they spread, they metastasize throughout the organism.” Again, Smith labels racism and white supremacy as a disease, and I tend to agree with her on this. However, I disagree with Smith on the idea that the we should solely focus on the individual.
As I work my way through these issues in my own head, I think about the use of the words “disease” and “illness” when describing racism. I think about what those words mean, and for me, they refer to something that attacks the psyche and the body from the inside. The disease did not just spring out of nothingness. It has a root, and origin. The disease enters the individual through various avenues: laws, culture, education, etc. Once it enters, it begins to eat away at the individual, and this is the point where we must work to cure the infection before it destroys the person. This is where Smith focuses, on the eradication of the disease within the individual.
Yet, what happens when we cure the individual? That person, and the interactions that that person has with others changes, yes. But, the system remains, and the system continues to exert oppression onto individuals either through legal means or cultural means. Now, the cured individual can work to change the system: increasing representation in media, drafting legislation that dismantles racist policies, etc. In that manner, the system will begin to change; however, it will fight tooth and nail to maintain itself, because, as Smith put it, “the exploiters” who rely on it will do everything within their power to keep it in place.
The system causes the disease. It infects the individual. When we cure the individual we do not eradicate the disease. It remains. So, we must eradicate the cause in order to end the risk of individuals getting infected. When we eliminate the cause, though, does the individual change as well? Or, does the disease move from person to person, maintaining an existence outside of the system? I’d say the latter. We cannot completely get rid of the disease.
We must address both the causes of the disease and the infected individuals as well. We must work to show individuals that they are sick, whether they know it or not, and we must educate them on the symptoms. We must help them build bridges between one another, from one person to another. At the same time, we must also work to change the systems that cause the disease. We must create systems that benefit everyone, not just those who wish to exploit others by maintaining white supremacy. The two-pronged approach is necessary to change the world. Once the individual changes, then the individual fights to change the root cause of the disease, working to help cure the individuals around her.
Even with this two-pronged approach, though, the system, both culturally and legally, are so deeply rooted that eradicating them will take time. It seems overwhelming to even think about how engrained they are within the psyches of individuals, how deep the infection runs. Yet, we must work to end the disease. If not now, then when? If not us, then who? Too many generations have kicked the can down the road in the belief that they can’t do anything. Those actions have caused the disease to spread even more.
We need individuals who focus on infected individuals and on the causes of the disease. We need both because only in that manner can we make sure that when we defeat the causes the disease will end with it. It’s like a vaccine. The vaccine protects you from an infection, even though you have a chance to get it. However, the more people that get protected the harder it is from the disease to spread from individual to individual, ultimately leading to the disease’s demise.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.