The Moral Bankruptcy of the White Figure in America
Updated: Jun 7
An analysis of white liberalism through the works of James Baldwin.
White liberalism is a supposed method for the white figure to create reform and establish racial equality within America. However, this white liberalism diverts from the reality of the black man in America. James Baldwin notes the intent behind white liberalism as “bankrupt morality” – the white man simply wants to ease his own moral due to his corrupt past. Through his theories of protracted adolescence and historical innocence, Baldwin delves into the truth behind the white man’s justice for the black man in society; there is an underlying fear that diverts them from the contradictions within the history of America. The country, though, must confront these contradictions in order to reach maturity.
The construct of white liberalism manipulates the origins of the black man in America. Through “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin’s analyses of American cinema exploit the use of the black figure in films. In his essay, Baldwin suggests that “the inclusion of this figure is absolutely obligatory–compulsive–no matter what the film imagines itself to be saying by any means of this inclusion…She is Dilsey, she is Mammy, in Gone with the Wind, and in Imitation of Life, and The Member of the Wedding” (Baldwin 533). This distorted image of the black figure alters the interracial relationships during that era. These characters, especially Mammy, provide a sense of comic relief and a notion that they choose to work for their white owners. Although this portrayal may express a bond between black and white, it is a false representation of how the black figure was treated in society. These figures were neither free nor the white figure’s equal, they were trapped. The “buddy” narrative, a term referring to an interracial friendship, also veers toward the delusion of white liberalism. In the film, The Defiant Ones, the titular characters serve “as a metaphor for the ordeal of black-white relations in America, an ordeal, the film is saying, which has brought us closer together than we know” (Baldwin 527). The film allegedly attempts to display a version of integration in America; the tensions between the two races from the past simply creates a stronger connection as a result. In reality, the film suppresses the barbaric nature of the white man towards the black figure; it attempts to erase this black history.
These legends portrayed in American cinema are not a form of racial progression, but rather a harmful image of American history. In “‘Enough Force to Shatter the Tale to Fragments’: Ethics and Textual Analysis in James Baldwin’s Film Theory,” Ryan Jay Friedman argues that these films “pose this ‘danger’ because they promote a falsely intimate relationship between the viewer and the human image on screen…an ‘escape personality’, ego-deal for the viewer: The film encourages the viewer to identify with a fantasy image of him – or herself” (Friedman 399). The films that include race in their narrative promote an artificial equality to benefit America’s own self-esteem. The white savior trope is not accurate nor meant to redeem justice for the black figure; its role is to ease the conscience of the white figure for their past actions.
Therefore, white liberalism is a disguise for white masculinity to prevail in America. In “The Gangster in ‘The Devil Finds Work’ as a Template for Reading the Parisian ‘Banlieues,’” the films that Baldwin critiques in “The Devil Finds Work,” “insofar as they are controlled by the ideologies of white American supremacy, can claim to present racial progress in their narratives” (Craven 576). The white man in America would never detest the unrealistic relations between black and white because they are deemed the “white savior” in most of these scenarios. White liberalism consequently poses a threat to the true origins of the black man since society is not confronting the contradictions in America’s history. By convincing America that these scenes will achieve racial equality, “society as a whole will become trapped in despair and myth: It will be without hope and unable to assess or to use the past” (Friedman 403). Society will drown in this facade they created for themselves; in the end, no one will be free. Without accepting the truth of the past, these legends will become the foundation of America.
White liberalism not only occurs in films, but in American events as well. During the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, America permitted Dorothy Counts and The Little Rock Nine to attend white schools. This action, however, “had apparently to do with the question of integration or education of black children–integration and education are not synonyms, though America appears to think so” (Baldwin 389). To whom was this equality for? This integration of the education system alludes to this false belief that the black figure wants to become the white man. The white man therefore continues to avoid the racial issues that must be addressed.
The assumption from the white figure that they must save the black figure is – as Baldwin phrases – “bankrupt morality.” According to Baldwin in “The Devil Finds Work,” “the blacks have a song which says, I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do” (Baldwin 522). Despite the white man’s claim that they wish to achieve equality in America, their gestures are not genuine. The black man cannot accept white liberalism because they comprehend what lies underneath these acts – this foolish, romanticized American dream that does not include the black man’s history. In addition, moral bankruptcy is dependent on white liberalism because white liberalism projects these myths. “The consciousness of white America is controlled by a ‘myth or a legend’…These myths and the ‘provisional’ serves that they sanction have proven so historically intractable because they provide a protective covering” (Friedman 385-386). This protective covering is meant for the white man himself, not his fellow race. By avoiding the roots of the black man in America, the white man continues to convince himself that he is not a dangerous person. However, these myths and legends only feed this ego of unreliable information, creating further conflicts for the relations between the black and white figures.
Without accepting the violent actions in history, the country continues to consolidate whiteness instead of maturing. In “No Name in the Street,” the reality is that “all of the Western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority” (Baldwin 404). America has no right to take responsibility for anything if it cannot even accept its own history. This certain lie in Baldwin’s “No Name in the Street” is directed towards the black man’s position in society. The country must understand that the black man in America is a part of its history, and that avoiding this identity will only make itself more unstable.
In order to prevent falling victim to moral bankruptcy, society must perceive these lenses of white liberalism as erroneous. In American cinema, “the film viewer can make a difference” since his rejection of these types of films “is a rejection not only of its messages but also its sense of history” (Craven 582). Witnesses of these events of “equality” can also view them as a parasitical nature that solely benefits the mythic structures of America. The refusal to slip into the void of white liberalism will unveil this maturity, as well as the logic of radical reconstitution for the black man in America.
However, the white figure struggles to confront these truths about America due to their own fears. In Baldwin’s “Freaks and American Ideal of Manhood,” the inferior beings of society are dubbed “freaks” and are “treated as they are treated–in the main, abominably–because they are human being who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires” (Baldwin 828). White masculinity masks the insecurities of white Americans, particularly through hatred and ignorance. They evade their own deviances by degrading or avoiding these figures, such as the black man in America. “More often than not, whoever it is that makes us see this other side of ourselves becomes a convenient scapegoat of our anxieties–as if by killing the messenger, the message would somehow read differently. The freak is called a freak out of this very condition of desperation” (Lombardo 44). The private stance of the white man is the cause of this prejudice towards the black man; their inhibitions lead to the “Negro problem.” Even though they seek reform, the white man believes that merely ignoring the conflicts they implemented in society will appeal to their former actions.
This is the motivation of the white figure to turn to white liberalism; it acts as a formality to suppress their insecurities. This practice, though, does not resolve the issue since “privilege, specifically white privilege, or whiteness, is for Baldwin nothing other than the arrogant presumptions that there can be ‘change’ without any effective change to the power arrangements of ‘the world’” (Williams 51). The white man assumes that with his power in society, they are embracing the black man by assimilating them into their culture. This lack of understanding leaves them in a state of protracted adolescence; the black figure does not want to become white, they want their identity to be accepted.
No changes can occur without dissecting this aspect of America, and generations will continue to remain immature. Baldwin’s referral of the “flower children” emphasizes this undeveloped mentality since “the people so dependent on psychiatric formulas were unable to give their children any sense of right or wrong…What happened to the children, therefore, is not even remotely astonishing. The flower children–who became the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Manson Family–are creatures from this howling inner space” (Baldwin 827). A reverted conscience derives from the inability to acquire any sense of the truth. These flower children are fallacies that impair their judgements of society’s relations, including sexuality and race.
Furthermore, the white figure is incapable of overcoming their “bankrupt morality” because they still latch onto this idea known as historical innocence. America preserves an identity without involving its trauma. Marc Lombardo reiterates in his work, “James Baldwin’s Philosophical Critique of Sexuality,” that “the American ideal of masculinity is a refusal to take experience seriously. What it names is something that simply cannot be attained or obtained by anyone” (Lombardo 45). The black man is a continual reminder of the actual past; they expose the violence and genocide that America was constructed from throughout history. The white man attempts to strip away this identity by concealing the black man’s presence in misconceived imagery and forms of integration. The white man’s incapability to embrace the black man makes it impossible for them to accept themselves. They manipulate their own identity by allowing this impoverished action to represent America.
William Faulkner’s ideals of race reflect this concept of historical innocence. In “How Faulkner Means Everything He Says: An Essay of James Baldwin’s Politics of Intentionality,” Tyler Williams insinuates from Baldwin’s interpretation of Faulkner, “Baldwin’s hands ‘Faulkner’ generically stands for a privileged white authority, a ‘world,’ which systematically perpetuates normalized racial inequality via white deferrals of black ‘salvation’” (Williams 51). A white Southerner cannot preach the destruction of segregation while simultaneously defending white innocence. This is simply another tactic to avoid confronting the monstrous self that caused the oppression of another race. Faulkner embodies the phrase, I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do. In other words, his “political positions can be boiled down to the fact that a white world unwilling to confront the terms of its privilege thus retains an intrinsic misidentification with the integrity of black humanity” (Williams 57). Faulkner fails to challenge segregation because of his own origins. His Southern roots personify this moral bankruptcy, and the lingering urge to make excuses for the injustice the South created by enslaving the black man. Faulkner loses his credibility of his stance on desegregation by involving his white privilege and retaining a somewhat “moral good” of the Antebellum South.
If America truly desires equality, then the country must grow up. In “God’s Black Revolutionary Mouth: James Baldwin’s Black Radicalism,” Bill Lyne asserts that “the American integrationist ideal is bankrupt, and a new, more ‘tough and universal’ love must take its place” (Lyne 27). Love requires the individual to explore their identity, which will enable them to find a human connection. If this individual is unable to accept oneself, he or she cannot empathize with others; the void remains within them. The white man therefore needs to exercise love instead of white liberalism; this will allow them to interpret the realities of history and themselves. “Just as the hermaphrodite makes us uncomfortable by disclosing the precariousness of our engendered identity, so it is that the mulatto or the mestizo forces us to question the myth of racial purity” (Lombardo 43). Although it will be difficult for the white man to welcome their humility, these “subordinate” figures eradicate the legends that pollute America’s identity.
The “freaks” force the white man to address the idea of androgyny as well. According to Baldwin, humanity is “all androgynous…male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it” (Baldwin 829). Humiliation and acceptance is the political reality that the white man must endure. Both the black man and white man are connected in certain ways due to the history they descended from, and it is pointless to diminish this truth. In regards to the race matter, the black man in America is the key to exploring the characteristics that defined this country. “Blackness is not ancillary to the category of labor, it is constitutive and essential to the history of Western exploitation and violence” (Lyne 16). The white man can no longer conserve this historical innocence because the country will never mature; the old world order should be in decline. If society recognizes the persecution it bestowed upon the black figure, it will not be trapped in this horrifying history.
The utilization of white liberalism ultimately leads to a hollow outcome. The events of segregation are tainted through unrealistic portrayals of the black man in America in films, and the assimilation of this figure into white culture is not the solution. This moral bankruptcy feeds into the protracted adolescence and historical innocence that lingers within the white man. Their protracted adolescence avoids any confrontations between right and wrong, while the concept of historical innocence sequester them in a deniability of the truth – they latch onto this legend. The white figure must focus on maturing in order to receive a form of black forgiveness. They cannot conceal the black man in false history, but confront America’s past to achieve a sense of equality.
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Photograph by Richard Avedon / © the Richard Avedon Foundation