A Reappraisal of the Role of Voluntary Associations in the African American Community

By Watkins, Ralph | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1990 | Go to article overview

A Reappraisal of the Role of Voluntary Associations in the African American Community


Watkins, Ralph, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


A Reappraisal of the Role of Voluntary Associations in the African American Comunity

The proposition advanced here is that the role of voluntary and common interest associations in the African American community has been too narrowly defined. Influenced greatly by the research of contemporary anthropologists who assert that voluntary and common interest associations function as adaptive mechanisms that facilitate adjustment to social change,(1) I argue that these groups and organizations are, an extremely important part of the African American community. This perspective is especially relevant for the period 1890-1930 when the forces of migration, urbanization and industrialization had an unusually great impact on the black population of the United States. This point of view, however, is at odds with the assessment of voluntary and common interest associations that has been made by Gunnar Myrdal, E. Franklin Frazier and others who saw them as an impediment to the progress of the African American community.

Gunnar Myrdal's contribution to the negative critique of black associational life can be found in his, An American Dilemma. There, he repeated the reports of other foreign observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Max Weber who had noted that the citizens of the United States participated in what seemed to them to be, "an unusual proliferation of social clubs, recreational organizations, lodges, fraternities and sororities, civic improvement societies, self-improvement societies, occupational associations, and other organizations which may be grouped under the rubric of `voluntary association.'"(2) Myrdal commented that black Americans, "seemed to have an ever larger relative number of associations," and concluded that since upper and middle class people tended to be more inclined to join associations than lower and working class people, black Americans were, in his words, "exaggerated" Americans.(3) He also asserted, borrowing from Max Weber, that the numerous social clubs were a means of helping most Americans to gain business, political and social success. But for African Americans he stated that:

Membership in their own segregated associations does not help Negroes to success in the larger American society. The situation must be seen as a pathological one: Negroes are active in associations because they are not allowed to be active in much of the other organized life of American society.(4)

E. Franklin Frazier's analysis of associational life in the African American community paralleled Myrdal's. Frazier wrote:

What may appear as distortions of American patterns of behavior and thought are due to the fact that the Negro lives on the margin of American society. The very existence of a separate Negro community with its own institutions within the heart of the American society is indicative of its quasipathological character, especially since the persistence of this separate community has been due to racial discrimination and oppression.(5)

Two other influential black intellectuals, Ralph Bunche and James Weldon Johnson, took similar positions. Bunche, in the late 1930s argued that, "Minority groups, such as the American Negro, inevitably tend to become introverted in their social thinking. Attention of the group is so firmly riveted on the struggle to attain release from suppression, that its social perspective becomes warped."(6) Johnson viewed the proliferation of voluntary associations in the form of small churches as inefficient, redundant, and enervating. In Black Manhattan he commented that:

Doubtless some of the founders of these excess churches are sincere, though ignorant; but it is certain that many of them are parasitical fakers, even downright scoundrels, who count them selves successful when they have under the guise of religion got enough hard-working women together to ensure them an easy living. This little-church movement has also given rise to many cults and much occultism. …

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