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From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America

reviewed by Charol Shakeshaft - October 18, 2016

coverTitle: From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America
Author(s): Leah N. Gordon
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022641941X, Pages: 288, Year: 2016
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Leah N. Gordon's From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America traces the scholarly and activist debates on the race problem that occurred between the 1920s and 1960s. She examines the conditions that moved the discussion of racial discrimination from institutional, economic, and societal solutions to one that privileged racial individualism. Gordon argues, “racial justice could be attained by changing white minds and protecting African American rights” (p. 2). While not the only discourse, racial individualism became the dominant paradigm for understanding racial conflict in the United States during the heyday of this movement that spanned the years from the publication of An American Dilemma in the 1940s to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Unsurprisingly, in the first decades of the twentieth century, those who cared about racial justice had contrasting ideas about how to achieve it; however, the dominant discourse focused on structural and political power as explanations for inequality. For example, one scholarly and activist framework explains the race problem through a legal lens where discriminatory laws and legislation are barriers to full citizenship. A social structural analysis problematizes racial conflict as an outgrowth of migration and other forces, which produced intergroup resentment. A third account points the finger at the political economy, which suggested that challenging the structures of capitalism was the way to relieve power, exploitation, and oppression for Black Americans. Racial individualism was also among these competing theories.

The core of From Power to Prejudice is how scholars and activists moved from multiple theories and approaches for achieving racial justice to the ascendancy of racial individualism as the alpha belief. It combined “psychological individualism, rights-based individualism, and belief in the transformative power of education” (p. 2) to declare that prejudice and discrimination were the root causes of the race problem and the solution was changing white minds through education.

Using her extensive collection of archival sources, Gordon illustrates how a complex storyline of the roots of racial injustice became a simple explanation that required little disruption of white society to achieve racial justice. She provides detailed institutional case studies of The Rockefeller Foundation (RF), The University of Chicago’s Committee on Education, Training, and Research in Race Relations (CETRRR), The American Jewish Committee’s research on prejudice, Fisk University’s annual Race Relations Institutes (RRI), and Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education (JNE) to trace the ascendancy of individualistic theories. This shift did not occur in all organizations, nor was any organization entirely homogeneous, but themes of acceptance and resistance run through all of her cases.

Gordon documents a convergence of events to explain the acceptance of individualistic theories primarily in white institutions. One is what I call simplification. Nearly all scholars and activists agreed that working to eliminate white prejudice was probably a lot easier than shifting and rebuilding political and institutional structures. For many, “translating systematic and relational theories into reform agendas that seemed realistic” was complicated (p. 181). Attributing the conditions of Black Americans to white prejudice was less so and education was the obvious solution to this formulation. This was a research agenda and solution that ruffled no feathers and seemed sensible. For most, it seemed more reasonable than questioning the economic and political structure of power that kept most Black Americans from jobs, housing, and participation in democracy through voting. Believing that white attitudes were the cause of inequality was a seemingly easier nut to crack than political oppression and labor exploitation, whose solutions appeared overwhelmingly complex and difficult to conceptualize. Again, the antidote for prejudice was education, the all-purpose answer for individual and societal problems. The remedy for political oppression and economic exploitation was too difficult to organize.

A second influence on the shift was related to the movement in the social sciences to become a more legitimate science. To do that, research needed to be objective and break the connection to activism and action. In the early twentieth century, progressive reformers collected and distributed data that could be used to fight discrimination and oppression. At this time, both Black and white academic and activist organizations were united in a comprehensive understanding of the causes and effects of racism and the need for institutional and economic reform. As the movement toward more rigorous research gained traction, activism became associated with soft science, something social scientists distanced themselves from in their bid to be taken more seriously. On a related note, there was a push to broaden the definition of science and include social science within The National Science Foundation’s mission and funding. The rise of the social sciences, with the desire for it to be seen as real science, moved away from reformer research towards objective science or scientism, which meant theory development, experimental studies, and quantitative data.

Both then and now, funding influenced the arc of research. Foundation and federal research support were more readily available to those scholars who were believed to have separated politics from science. At the same time as this early shift, research funding by the military during World War II relied upon studies of attitudes and beliefs based on data gathered through the use of surveys. Other funding sources followed the lead of federal support and moved from supporting case research towards more quantitative studies, particularly survey research. Studies in Prejudice by the American Jewish Committee made heavy use of survey research to focus on the individual as did CETRRR.

Even scholars who might have continued socioeconomic case research were pressured to adopt these supposedly more scientific and objective methods. For instance, there was a push for Black scholars to prove they were objective since there was a belief that they were inherently biased. This response in the early 1950s remains present in 2016. For example, many women who study women or African Americans who study race are still expected to defend their research as objective.

The push for legitimacy and the competition for funding led to research questions that were appropriate for survey methods. The theory that white attitudes explained the condition of Black people in the United States fit hand in glove with large-scale population questionnaire studies. The institutions that embraced this approach were primarily white; those that were powerful and would likely receive funding if they got on board. But as Gordon argues:

While survey technologies created exciting new methods for studying the attitudinal causes of racial injustice, these tools provided little help for scholars seeking to measure the systematic or relational causes (as opposed to the extent of) racial conflict or inequality. (p. 183)

The political climate pushed scholars further away from economic and political examinations of racial inequity. The rise of anti-communist sentiments which led to the search in the early 1950s for subversives who were conducting economically or politically motivated research (read anti-American) discouraged many who feared they would be labeled, at the very least, as communist sympathizers and removed from the academy.

Through all of this, Black institutions such as Fisk’s RRI and Howard’s JNE continued to believe that economic and structural factors were more powerful influencers on the conditions of the Black population and characterized “prejudice as a rationalization for, not a cause of, exploitation and saw legal segregation and state-sanctioned discrimination as only the most obvious components of more complex systems of racial injustice” (p. 181). Nevertheless, the intellectual and political influences of the time “limited reformist visions in ways that some participants would later regret” (p. 191).

In the book, Gordon provides a historical understanding of the forces that led Kenneth Clark in 1993 to observe the following when recalling the era of the 1920s to 1960s:

I am forced to face the likely possibility that the United States will never rid itself of racism and reach true integration . . . I look back and I shudder . . . at how naive we all were in our belief that the steady progress racial minorities would make through programs of litigation and education. (Clark, p. 191)


Clark, K. (1993). Racial progress and retreat: A personal memoir.  In H. Hill & J. Jones, Jr. (Eds.), Race in America: The struggle for equality. (pp. 3-18). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 18, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21684, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:48:58 PM

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About the Author
  • Charol Shakeshaft
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    CHAROL SHAKESHAFT, PhD, is professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is currently completing a book on educator sexual misconduct.
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