DISCRIMINATION AND THE AMERICAN CREED
Robert K. Merton
The primary function of the sociologist is to search out the determinants and consequences of diverse forms of so-cia1 behavior. To the extent that he succeeds in fulfilling this role, he clarifies the alterna-
tives of organized social action in a given situation and of the probable outcome of each. To this extent, there is no sharp distinction between pure research and applied research. Rather, the difference is one
between research with direct implications for particular problems of social action and research which is remote from these problems. Not infrequently, basic research which has succeeded only in clearing up
previously confused concepts may have an immediate bearing upon the problems of men in society to a degree not approximated by applied research oriented exclusively to these problems. At least, this is the assumption underlying the present paper: clarification of apparently unclear and con-
fused concepts in the sphere of race and ethnic relations is a step necessarily prior to the devising of effective programs for reducing intergroup conflict and for promoting equitable access to economic and social opportunities. . . .
The American Creed: As Cultural Ideal, Personal Belief and Practice
The American creed as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights has often been misstated. This part of the cultural heritage does not include the patently false assertion that all men are created equal in capacity or endowment. It does not imply
that an Einstein and a moron are equal in intellectual capacity or that Joe Louis and a small, frail Columbia professor (or a Mississippian Congressman) are equally endowed with brawny arms harboring muscles as strong as iron bands. It does not proclaim universal equality of innate intellectual or physical endowment.
Instead, the creed asserts the indefeasible principle of the human right to full equity-the right of equitable access to justice, freedom and opportunity, irrespective of race or religion or ethnic origin. It proclaims further the universalist doctrine of the dignity of the individual, irrespective of the groups of which he is a part. It is a creed announcing full moral equities for aIl, not an absurd myth affirming the equality of intellectual and physical capacity of all men everywhere. And it goes on to say that though men differ in innate endowment, they do so as individuals, not by virtue of their group memberships.
Viewed sociologically, the creed is a set of values and precepts embedded in American culture, to which Americans are expected to conform. It is a complex of affirmations, rooted in the historical past and ceremonially celebrated in the present, partly enacted in the laws of the land and partly not. Like
all creeds, it is a profession of faith, a part of cultural tradition sanctified by the larger traditions of which it is a part.
It would be a mistaken sociological asser-tion, however, to suggest that the creed is a fixed and static cultural constant, unmodified in the course of time, just as it would be an error to imply that as an integral part of culture, it evenly blankets all subcultures of the national society. It is indeed dynamic, subject to and in turn promoting change in spheres of culture and society. It is moreover unevenly distributed throughout being institutionalized as an integral of local culture in some regions of and rejected in others.
......Learned men and men in high public positions have repeatedly observed and deplored the disparity between ethos and behavior in the sphere of race and ethnic relations. In his magisterial volumes on the
American Negro, for example, Gunnar Myrdal called this gulf between creed and conduct “an American dilemma,” and centered his attention on the prospect of narrowing or closing the gap. The President’s Committee on Civil Rights, in their report to the nation, and . . . President [Truman]
himself, in a message to Congress, have called public attention to this “serious gap between our ideals and some of ow practices.”
But as valid as these observations may be, they tend so to simplih the relations between creed and conduct as to be seriously misleading both for social policy and for social science. All these high authorities notwithstanding, the problems of racial and ethnic inequities are not expressible as a discrepancy between high cultural principles and low social conduct. It is a relation not between two variables, official creed and private practice, but between three: first, the cultural creed honored in cultural tradition and partly enacted into law; second, the beliefs and attitudes of individuals regarding the principles of the creed; and third, the actual practices of individuals with reference to it.
Once we substitute these three variables of cultural ideal, belief and actual practice for the customary distinction between the two variables of cultural ideals and actual practices, the entire formulation of the problem becomes changed. We escape from the virtuous but ineffectual impasse of deploring the
alleged hypocrisy of many Americans into the more difficult but potentially effectual
realm of analyzing the problem in hand.
To describe the problem and to proceed to its analysis, it is necessary to consider the official creed, individuals’ beliefs and attitudes concerning the creed, and their actual behavior. Once stated, the distinctions are readily applicable. Individuals may recognize the creed as part of a cultural tradition,
without having any private conviction of its moral validity or its binding quality. Thus, so far as the beliefs of individuals are concerned, we can identdy two types: those who genuinely believe in the creed and those who do not (although some of these may, on public or ceremonial occasions, profess adherence to its principles). Similarly, with respect to actual practices: conduct may or may not conform to the creed. But, and this is the salient consideration: conduct may or may not conform with individuals' own beliefs concerning the moral claims of all men to equal opportunity.
Stated in formal sociological terms, this asserts that attitudes and overt behavior vary independently. Prejudicial attitudes need not coincide with discriminato y behavior, The implications of this statement can be drawn out in terms of a logical syntax whereby the variables are diversely combined, as can be
seen in the following typology.
By exploring the interrelations between prejudice and discrimination, we can identify four major types in terms of their attitudes toward the creed and their behavior with respect to it. Each type is found in
every region and social class, though in varying numbers. By examining each we, we shall be better prepared to understand their interdependence and the appropriate types of action for curbing ethnic discrimi- nation. The folklabels for each type are intended to aid in their prompt recognition.
Type I: The Unprejudiced Non-Discriminator or All-Weather Liberal
These are the racial and ethnic liberals who adhere to the creed in both belief and practice. They are neither prejudiced nor given to discrimination. Their orientation toward the creed is fixed and stable. Whatever the environing situation, they are likely to abide by their beliefs: hence, the all-weather liberal.
This is, of course, the strategic group which can act as the spearhead for the progressive extension of the creed into effective practice. They represent the solid foundation both for the measure of ethnic equities
which now exist and for the future enlargement of these equities. Integrated with the creed in both belief and practice, they would seem most motivated to influence others toward the same democratic outlook.
They represent a reservoir of culturally legitimatized goodwill which can be channeled into an active program for extending belief in the creed and conformity with it in practice.
Most important, as we shall see presently the all-weather liberals comprise the group which can so reward others for conforming with the creed, as to transform deviants into conformists. They alone can
provide the positive social environment for the other types who will na longer find it expedient or rewarding to retain their prejudices or discriminatory practices.
But though the ethnic liberal is a potential force for the successive extension of the American creed, he does not fully realize this potentiality in actual fact, for a variety of reasons. Among the limitations on effective action are several fallacies to which the ethnic liberal seems peculiarly subject. First among these is the fallacy of group soliloquies. Ethnic liberals are busily engaged in talking to themselves. Repeatedly, the same groups of like-minded liberals seek each other out, hold periodic meetings in which they engage in mutual exhortation and thus lend social and psychological support to one an-
other. But however much these unwittingly self-selected audiences may reinforce the creed among themselves, they do not thus appreciably diffuse the creed in belief or practice to groups which depart from it in one respect or the other.
More, these group soliloquies in which there is typically wholehearted agreement among fellow-liberals tend to promote an- other fallacy limiting effective action. This is the fallacy of unaniminity. Continued association with like-minded individuals tends to produce the illusion that a large measure of consensus has been achieved in the community at large. The unanimity regarding essential cultural axioms which obtains in these small groups provokes an overestimation of the strength of the movement and of its effective inroads upon the larger population which does not necessarily share these creedal axioms. Many also mistake participation in the groups of like-minded individuals for effective action. Discussion accordingly takes the place of action. The reinforcement of the creed for oneself is mistaken for the extension of the creed among those outside the limited circle of ethnic liberals.
Arising from adherence to the creed is a third limitation upon effective action, the fallacy of privatized solutions to the problem. The ethnic liberal, precisely because he is at one with the American creed, may rest content with his own individual behavior and thus see no need to do anything about the problem at large. Since his own spiritual house is in order, he is not motivated by guilt or shame to work on a collective problem. The very freedom of the liberal from gullt thus prompts him to secede from any collective effort to set the national house in order. He essays a private solution to a social problem. He assumes that numerous individual adjustments will serve in place of a collective ajustments will serve in place of a collective adjustment. His outlook, compounded of good moral philosophy but poor sociology, holds that each individual must put his own house in order and fails to recognize that privatized solutions cannot be effected for problems which are essentially social in nature. For clearly, if each person were motivated to abide by the American creed, the problem would not be likely to exist in the first place. It is only when a social environment is established by conformists to the creed that deviants can in due course e brought to modify their behavior in the direction of con formity. But this “environment” can be constituted only through collective effort and not through private adherence to a public creed. Thus we have the paradox that the clear conscience of many ethnic liberals may promote
the very social situation which permits deviations from the creed to continue unchecked. Privatized liberalism invites social inaction. Accordingly there appears the phenomenon of the inactive or passive liberal, himself at spiritual ease, neither prejudiced nor discriminatory, but in a measure tending to contribute to the persistence of prejudice and discrimination through his very inaction.
The fallacies of group soliloquy, unanimity and privatized solutions thus operate to make the potential strength of the ethnic liberals unrealized in practice.
It is only by first recognizing these limitations that the liberal can hope to overcome them. With some hesitancy, one may suggest initial policies for curbing the scope of the three fallacies. The fallacy of group solil- oquies can be removed only by having ethnic liberals enter into organized groups not
comprised merely by fellow-liberals. This exacts a heavy price on the liberal. It means that he faces initial opposition and resistance rather than prompt consensus. It entails giving up the gratifications of consistent group support.
The fallacy of unanimity can in turn be reduced by coming to see that American society often provides large rewards for those who express their ethnic prejudice in discrimination. Only if the balance of rewards, material and psychological, is modified will behavior be modified. Sheer exhortation
and propaganda are not enough. Exhortation verges on a belief in magic if it is not supported by appropriate changes in the social environment to make conformity with the exhortation rewarding.
Finally, the fallacy of privatized solutions requires the militant liberal to motivate the passive liberal to collective effort, possibly by inducing in him a sense of guilt for his unwitting contribution to the problems of ethnic inequities through his own systematic inaction.
One may suggest a urufying theme for the ethnic liberal: goodwill is not enough to mode social reality. It is only when this goodwill is harnessed to social-psy chological realism that it can be used to reach cultural objectives.
Type II: The Unprejudiced Discriminator or Fair-Weather Liberal
The fair-weather liberal is the man of expediency who, despite his own freedom from prejudice, supports discriminatory practices when it is the easier or more profitable course. His expediency may take the form of holding his silence and thus implicitly acquiescing in expressions of ethnic prejudice
by others or in the practice of discrimination by others. This is the expediency of the timid: the liberal who hesitates to speak up against discrimination for fear he might lose status or be otherwise penalized by his prejudiced associates. Or his expediency may take the form of grasping at advantages in social and economic competition deriving solely from the ethnic status of competitors. This is the expediency of the self-assertive: the employer, himself not an anti-Semite or Negrophobe, who refuses to hire Jewish or Negro workers because "it might hurt business"; the trade union leader who expediently advocates racial discrimination in order not to lose the support of powerful Negrophobes in his union.
In varying degrees, the fair-weather liberal suffers from guilt and shame for departing from his own effective beliefs in the American creed. Each deviation through which he derives a limited reward from passively acquiescing in or actively supporting discrimination contributes cumulatively to this fund of guilt. He is, therefore, peculiarly vulnerable to the efforts of the all-weather liberal who would help him bring his conduct into accord with his beliefs, thus removing this source of guilt. He is the most
amenable to cure, because basically he wants to be cured. His is a split conscience which motivates him to cooperate actively with those who will help remove the source of internal conflict. He thus represents the strategic group promising the largest returns for the least effort. Persistent re-affirmation of the creed will only intenslry his conflict; but a long regimen in a favorable social climate
can be expected to transform the fair- weather liberal into an all-weather liberal.
Type III: The Prejudiced Non-Discriminator or Fair-Weather Illiberal
The fair-weather illiberal is the reluctant conformist to the creed, the man of prejudice who does not believe in the creed but conforms to it in practice through fear of sanc-tions which might otherwise be visited upon him. You know him well: the prejudiced employer who discriminates against racial or
ethnic groups until a Fair Employment Practice Commission, able and willing to enforce the law, puts the fear of punishment into him; the trade union leader, himself deeply prejudiced, who does away with Jim Crow in his union because the rank-and-file demands that it be done away with; the businessman who forgoes his own prejudices when he finds a profitable market among the very people he hates, fears or despises; the timid bigot who will not express his prejudices when he is in the presence of powerful men who vigorously and effectively affirm their belief in the American creed.
It should be clear that the fair-weather illiberal is the precise counterpart of the fair- weather liberal. Both are men of expediency, to be sure, but expediency dictates different courses of behavior in the two cases. The timid bigot conforms to the creed only when there is danger or loss in deviations, just as
the timid liberal deviates from the creed when there is danger or loss in conforming. Superficial similarity in behavior of the two in the same situation should not be permitted to cloak a basic diference in the meaning of this outwardly similar behavior, a difference which is as important for social policy as it is for social science. Whereas the timid bigot is under strain when he conforms to the creed,
the timid liberal is under strain when he deviates. For ethnic prejudice has deep roots in the character structure of the fair-weather bigot, and this will find overt expression unless there are powerful countervailing forces, institutional, legal and interpersonal. He does not accept the moral legitimacy of
the creed; he conforms because he must, and will cease to conform when the pressure is removed. The fair-weather liberal, on the other hand, is effectively committed to the creed and does not require strong institutional pressure to conform; continuing interpersonal relations with all-weather liberals may be sufficient. This is the one critical point at which the traditional formulation of the problem of ethnic discrimination as a departure from the creed can lead to serious errors of theory and practice. Overt behavioral deviation (or conformity) may sigrufy importantly different situations, depending upon the underlying motivations. Knowing simply that ethnic discrimination is rife in a community does not, therefore, point to appropriate lines of social policy. It is necessary to know also the distribution of ethnic prejudices and basic motivations for these prejudices as well. Communities with the same amount of overt discrimination may represent vastly different types of problems, dependent on Whether the population is comprised by a under slight interpersonal pressure or a large nucleus of fair-weather illiberals who will abandon discrimination only if major changes in the local institutional setting can
be effected. Any statement of the problem as a gulf between creedal ideals and prevailing practice is thus seen to be overly-simplified in the precise sense of masking this decisive difference between the type of discrimination exhibited by the fair-weather liberal and by the fair-weather illiberal. That the
gulf-between-ideal-and-practice does not adequately describe the nature of the ethnic problem will become more apparent as we turn to the fourth type in our inventory of prejudice and discrimination.
Type IV The Prejudiced Discriminator or the All-Weather Illiberal
This type, too, is not unknown to you. He is the confirmed illiberal, the bigot pure and unashamed, the man of prejudice consistent in his departure from the American creed. In some measure, he is found everywhere in the land, though in varying numbers. He derives large social and psychological gains
from his conviction that “any white man (including the village idiot) is ‘better’ than any nigger (including George Washington Carver).” He considers differential treatment of Negro and white not as ”discrimination,” in the sense of unfair treatment, but as “discriminating,” in the sense of showing acute discernment. For him, it is as clear that one ”ought” to accord a Negro and a white different treatment in a wide diversity of situations, as it is clear to the population at large that one “ought” to accord a child and an adult different treatment in many situations.
This illustrates anew my reason for questioning the applicability of the unusual formula of the American dilemma as a gap between lofty creed and low conduct. For the confirmed illiberal, ethnic discrimination does not represent a discrepancy be tween his ideals and his behavior. His ideals proclaim the right, even the duty, of discrimination. Accordingly, his behavior does not entail a sense of social deviation, with the resultant strains which this would involve. The ethic illiberal is as much a conformist as the ethnic liberal. He is merely conforming to a different cultural and institutional pattern which is centered, not about the creed, but about a doctrine of essential inequality of status ascribed to those of diverse ethnic and racial origins. To overlook this is to overlook the well-knownfact that our national culture is divided into a number of local subcultures which are not consistent among themselves in all respects. And again, to fail to take this fact of different subcultures into account is to open the
door for all manner of errors of social policy in attempting to control the problems of
racial and ethnic discrimination.
This view of the all-weather illiberal has one immediate implication with wide bearing upon social policies and sociological theory oriented toward the problem of discrimination. The extreme importance of the social surroundings of the confirmed illiberal at once becomes apparent. For as these sur-
roundings vary, so, in some measure, does the problem of the consistent illiberal. The illiberal, living in those cultural regions where the American creed is widely repudiated and is no effective part of the subculture, has his private ethnic attitudes and practices supported by the local mores, the local institutions and the local power-structure. The illiberal in cultural areas dominated by a large measure of adherence to the American creed is in a social environment where he is isolated and receives small social support for his beliefs and practices. In both instances, the individual is an illiberal, to be sure, but he represents two sigruficantly different sociological types. In the first instance, he is a social
conformist, with strong moral and institutional reinforcement, whereas in the second, he is a social deviant, lacking strong social corroboration. In the one case, his discrimination involves him in further integration with his network of social relations; in the other, it threatens to cut him off from sustaining interpersonal ties. In the first cultural context, personal change in his ethnic behavior involves alienating himself from people signif icant to him; in the second context, this change of personal outlook may mean fuller incorporation in groups meaningful to him. In the first situation, modification of his ethnic views requires him to take the path of greatest resistance whereas in the second, it may mean the path of least resistance. From all this, we may surmise that any social policy aimed at changing the behavior and perhaps the attitudes of the all-weather illiberal will have to take into-account the cultural and social structure of the area in which he lives. . . .
Implications of the Typology for Social Policy
. . . In approaching problems of policy, two things are plain. First, these should be considered from the standpoint of the militant ethnic liberal, for he alone is sufficiently motivated to engage in positive action for the reduction of ethnic discrimination. And second, the fair-weather liberal, the fair-
weather illiberal and the all-weather illiberal represent types differing sufficiently to require diverse kinds of treatment.
Treatment of the Fair-Weather Liberal
The fair-weather liberal, it will be remembered, discriminates only when it appears expedient to do so, and experiences some measure of guilt for deviating from his own belief in the American creed. He suffers from this conflict between conscience and conduct. Accordingly, he is a relatively easy
target for the all-weather liberal. He represents the strategic group promising the largest immediate returns for the least effort. Recognition of this type defines the first task for the militant liberal who would enter into a collective effort to make the creed a viable and effective set of social norms rather than a ceremonial myth. . . .
Since the fair-weather liberal discriminates only when it seems rewarding to do so, the crucial need is so to change social situations that there are few occasions in which discrimination proves rewarding and
many in which it does not. This would suggest that ethnic liberals self-consciously and deliberately seek to draw into the social groups where they constitute a comfortable majority a number of the "expedient discriminators." This would serve to counter- act the dangers of self-selection through which liberals come to associate primarily with like-minded individuals. It would, further, provide an interpersonal and social environment for the fair-weather liberal in which he would find substantial social and psychological gains from abiding by his own beliefs, gains which would more than offset the rewards attendant upon occasional discrimination. It appears that men do not long persist in behavior which lacks social corroboration.
We have much to learn about the role of numbers and proportions in determining the behavior of members of a group. But it that individuals generally act differently when they are numbered among a minority rather than the majority. This is not to say that minorities abdicate their practices in the fac e of a contrary-acting majority, but only that the same people are subjected to different strains and pressures according to whether they are included in the majority or minority. And the fair-weather liberal who finds himself associated with militant ethnic liberals may be expected to forgo his occasional deviations
into discrimination; he may move from category II into category I. . . .
Treatment of the Fair- Weather Illiberal
Because his beliefs correspond to those of the full-fledged liberal, the fair-weather liberal can rather readily be drawn into an inter-personal environment constituted by those of a comparable turn of mind. This would be more difficult for the fair-weather illiberal, whose beliefs are so fully at odds with
those of ethnic liberals that he may, at first, only be alienated by association with them. If the initial tactic for the fair-weather liberal, therefore, is a change in interpersonal environment, the seemingly most appropriate tactic for the fair-weather illiberal is a change in the institutional and legal environment. It is, indeed, probably this type which liberals implicitly have in mind when they expect significant changes in behavior to result from the introduction of controls on ethnic discrimination into the legal machin- ery of our society.
For this typeand it is a major limitation for planning policies of control that we do not know his numbers or his distribution in the country-it would seem that the most effective tactic is the institution of legal controls administered with strict efficiency. This would presumably reduce the amount of discrimination practiced by the fair-weather illiberal, though it might initially enhance rather than reduce his prejudices. . . .
A second prevalent tactic for modrfying the prejudice of the fair-weather illiberal is that-of seeking to draw him into interethnic groups explicitly formed for the promotion of tolerance. This, too, seems largely ineffetual, since the deeply prejudiced individual will not enter into such groups on his own volition. As a consequence of this process of self-selection, these tolerance groups soon come to be comprised by the very ethnic liberals who initiated the enterprise.
This barrier of self-selection can be par- tially hurdled only if the ethnic illiberals are brought into continued association with militant liberals in groups devoted to signif- icant common values, quite remote from objectives of ethnic equity as such. Thus, as our Columbia-Lavanburg researches have
found, many fair-weather illiberals will live in interracial housing projects in order to enjoy the rewards of superior housing at a given rental. And some of the illiberals thus brought into personal contact with various ethnic groups under the auspices of prestigeful militant liberals come to modify their prejudices. It is, apparently, only through interethnic collaboration, initially enforced by pressures of the situation, for immediate and sigruficant objectives (other than tolerance) that the self-insulation of the fair- weather illiberal from rewarding interethnic contacts can be removed.
But however difficult it may presently be to affect the prejudicial sentimenfs of the fair-weather illiberal, his discriminatory practices can be lessened by the uniform, prompt and prestigeful use of legal and institutional sanctions. The critical problem is to ascertain the proportions of fair-weather and all- weather illiberals in a given local population in order to have some clue to the probable effectiveness or ineffectiveness of anti- discrimination legislation.
Treatment of the All-Weather Illiberal
It is, of course, the hitherto confirmed illib- eral, persistently translating his prejudices into active discrimination, who represents the most difficult problem. But though he requires longer and more careful treatment, it is possible that he is not beyond change. In every instance, his social surroundings
must be assiduously taken into account. It makes a peculiarly large difference whether he is in a cultural region of bigotry or in a predominantly "liberal" area, given over to verbal adherence to the American creed, at the very least. As this cultural climate varies, so must the prescription for his cure and the
prognosis for a relatively quick or long delayed recovery.
In an unfavorable cultural climate-and this does not necessarily exclude the benign regions of the Far South-the immediate resort will probably have to be that of working through legal and administrative federal controls over extreme discrimination, with full recognition that, in all probability, these
regulations will be systematically evaded for some time to come. In such cultural re-
gions, we may expect nullification of the law as the common practice, perhaps as common as was the case in the nation at large with respect to the Eighteenth Amendment, often with the connivance of local officers of the law. The large gap between the new law and local mores will not at once produce significant change of prevailing practices; token punishments of violations will probably be more common than effective control. At best, one may assume that significant change will be fitful, and excruciatingly slow. But secular changes in the economy may in due course lend support to the new
legal framework of control over discrimination. As the economic shoe pinches because the illiberals do not fully mobilize the resources of industrial manpower nor extend their local markets through equitable wage- payments, they may slowly abandon some discriminatory practices as they come to find that these do not always pay-even the discriminator, So far as discrimination is concerned, organized counteraction is possible and some small results may be expected. But it would seem that wishes father thoughts, when one expects basic changes in the immediate future in these regions of institutionalized discrimination.
The situation is somewhat different with regard to the scattered, rather than aggregated, ethnic illiberals found here and there throughout the country. Here the mores and a social organization oriented toward the American creed still have some measure of prestige and the resources of a majority of liberals can be mobilized to isolate the illiberal. In these surroundings, it is possible to move the all-weather illiberal toward Type 111-he can be brought to conform with institutional regulations, even though he does
not surrender his prejudices. And once he has entered upon this role of the dissident but conforming individual, the remedial program designed for the fair-weather illib- eral would be in order.
Questions to Consider
Have you ever been in a situation in which social, economic, or peer pressure forced you to treat someone from a diferent racial group in an inappropriate way? Robert Merton suggests that individuals who are not prejudiced often act in bigoted and discriminatory ways. How and why does this happen? Is it possible to live our lives in the category Merton calls the "unprejudiced non-discriminator " ?
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