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Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (44)

The notoriety of this book rests on two pretty shaky pillars: first, the initial section of the book is supposed to reveal the effects of segregation and desegregation battles on children, mainly through their drawings, which have become almost iconographic; second, the book was the first major effort to look at segregationists as if they were normal human beings and not vile mutants. But the child studies seem dubious and the novelty of the even handed treatment of white Southerners is more of an indictment of the prevailing intellectual hegemony of the 60's than a recommendation for this book in particular.

The pederastic preschool hysteria and recovered memory of Satanic rituals scare have amply demonstrated (if Freud himself hadn't) that child psychologists/psychiatrists tend to find whatever they expect to find when they head into child interviews.  So I think we have to question the validity of Coles child research.

As for examining segregationists fairly, while it may have been revolutionary at the time Coles wrote, we now live in a political culture that is so thoroughly racialized that the attitudes of segregationists seems fairly unremarkable.  After all, how different is the Alabama parent of 1956 who wanted his kids to go to an all white school from the 1990's inner city parent who wants her kids to go to a Black Muslim school?  How different is the all white police force from the force that has to meet rigid racial quotas?  Race is still the determinative factor in these distributions of power, we've just tweaked the distributions a little.

I suppose Coles deserves some credit for undertaking such a project, which clearly ran counter to popular perceptions of his day, but the most important conclusion in the book is the following:

    We all have our hates, but most of us do not get them involved with social and political issues to a
    degree that becomes frantic and all consuming.  It is remarkable and almost frightening to see how
    quickly a new generation can abandon the ruthlessly indoctrinated and maintained ideology of its
    predecessor.  In the South, as segregationist customs have collapsed, most white people have
    yielded to what they once said they could never accept.

Duh!  Whites fought tooth and claw to keep power in the South, but when they lost, they accommodated to the new reality.

For some reason, race and sex have the capacity, like The Shadow, to cloud men's minds.  It should be, and should have been, perfectly obvious that segregation was simply a political arrangement whereby one group sought to maintain their own power.  Take power away from the Southern Whites, as the Federal government did, and the need for a racial theory to support that power disappears.  (Books like C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), had amply demonstrated the fundamentally political background of segregation.)  But somehow the focus on race gave the whole deal a peculiar resonance that made logical discussion nearly impossible and still affects our ability to consider these matters, even with historical perspective.

A great book is waiting to be written about Desegregation; one that combines Woodward's understanding of the historico-political roots of segregation, with the epic scope and mundane detail of Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, and with the intellectual honesty to examine the consequences of race based solutions to race based problems that authors like Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray have demonstrated.  This is not that book; it succeeds only on the very limited terms that it sets itself.


Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW: Love in a Cold Climate (EDGAR Z. FRIEDENBERG, NY Review of Books)
    -Ruby Bridges
    -The White Northerner: Pride and Prejudice (Robert Coles, M.D., The Atlantic, 1966)
    -Stories and Living a Life by Robert Coles
    -The Work of Robert Coles A bibliographic essay (Scott London
    -Biographical Sketch of Robert Coles (William Coleman, , AAP)
    -Robert Coles Wins Medal of Freedom (William J. Cromie, Harvard Gazette)
    -Online NewsHour feature: Authors' Corner
    -Can Public Schools Teach Character? (Perry Glanzer, Ph.D., Citizen Link)
    -Tie a yellow ribbon 'round the old TV AMERICA HELD HOSTAGE BY ANTI-TELEVISION ZEALOTS! ( Joyce, Millman, Salon)
    -The Coles vision: Robert Coles' life is worthy of its own documentary (SUSAN KAUFFMAN, News Observer)