Recognizing Racial Privilege: White Girls and Boys at National Conference of Christians and Jews Summer Camps, 1957-1974

Article excerpt

Civil Rights histories have focused appropriately on the actions of non-White Americans to claim equal rights as Americans and to assert long-denied claims to freedom. The African-American community sparked the earliest postwar actions and its size and historic complaints made it a model for organizing in other racial minority communities. The courageous actions of African Americans who mobilized to change the country's politics and values have been well documented, and the stories of other racial minority activists are now filling out the picture.(1)

Scholars have documented three primary patterns of Whites' varied responses to the racial liberation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s: White resistance, White support for and/or participation in actions for racial equality, and White liberal accommodation.(2) "Massive resistance" to school desegregation in 1950s Virginia, opposition to integrated neighborhoods during the postwar suburban building boom, and anti-busing demonstrations in Boston exhibit a range of White hostility to African-American demands for changes in racial norms and resources.(3) Some scholars have examined White supporters of Civil Rights struggles, the allies who provided money, time, political access, and meeting places, or who joined the struggle as active participants.(4)

The mass of White response has been labeled liberal and faulted for its limited goals, unresponsive methods, and inadequate outcomes. According to these critiques, liberals, following Gunnar Myrdal's conclusions in An American Dilemma, saw the problem of race as prejudice among Whites and saw prejudice reduction as its solution; to incorporate Negroes into mainstream life simply required changing White attitudes through unlearning stereotypes. Sociologist Stephen Steinberg, like many critics, charges that this focus on personal beliefs ignored the actions of powerful institutions and ongoing systems. "The essence of racial oppression" he concludes, "[was] not stereotypes; these are the culture of oppression." The core of oppression is the racial division of labor and consequent job and wage discrimination.(5) White liberal professions did not challenge the unfair accumulation in wealth in home ownership that Whites gained through government and banking support of racially segregated developments in the great postwar building boom, according to historian George Lipsitz.(6) Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant see the outcome of ineffectual liberal change by the 1980s as White adoption of a principle of "color blindness," which advocates ignoring racial differences in skin color and group history, a stance that precludes analysis of ongoing structures of racial inequality. Thomas Sugrue illustrates the limits of the liberal position as it was articulated by White ethnic Detroit homeowners protesting open housing policies in the 1960s: "rights for blacks [were] okay in the abstract, so long as blacks remained in their own neighborhoods and kept to themselves."(7)

In this paper I posit a fourth position that evolved gradually in the changed circumstances and moral climate brought into being by the Civil Rights and racial Freedom Movements: efforts to unlearn practices and tenets that sustained White dominance. I label these efforts "interracial," following the distinction drawn by historian Tracy K'Meyer from her work on the Christian interracialists of Koinonia Farm, who, as interracialists, sought to create environments for people to "work together and appreciate each other ..." The Koinonians contrasted their position with that of integration, "a coercive political and legal process" that did not necessarily lead to changed racial consciousness.(8)

As part of a larger project to investigate organizations that worked for interracial connections in the postwar era, I have examined the work of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) in raising funds for and running summer camps that recruited teens from various racial groups to live for a brief time in a democratic, racially egalitarian community. …