LIFE was the most popular magazine in the country during its original 1936-72 run, pharmacy and its attempts to reflect and shape the nation’s attitudes provide an invaluable historic survey of post-WW2 “mainstream America, for sale ” both aspirational and actual.
The slant was both fiscally conservative and socially liberal in keeping with the old school, page pre-Goldwater ethos of the Republican establishment, with special attention given to Henry and Claire Booth Luce’s obsessions with the three C’s — Catholicism, China, and Communism. Its publisher’s concept of the “American Century” was a vision of a world of productive prosperity for all, guided by God’s hand as delegated to the United States as his chosen steward.
It was fairly inclusive for its era, advocating for a time when all races and creeds could live together in harmony. In practice, however, these ideals were inevitably couched in the most gradualist terms possible — “in time,” “someday,” “perhaps our children’s children.” While it’s perfectly understandable to take a long view when it comes to social progress and acknowledge the entrenched obstacles to making it happen, it’s wise to give the side-eye when such arguments come from those who aren’t being jabbed with the sharp end of the socio-political stick.
Even if LIFE‘s position on racial reconciliation matched my attitude towards cleaning out my garage, their heart was in the right place…and then the riots began. Harlem, Watts, the Long Hot Summer of 1967 — it was one thing to mock Gov. Cletus G. Redneck’s racism from the journalistic bully pulpit, but it was a different thing entirely when the long-standing tensions of one’s own backyard erupted into violence. LIFE never drifted into full-on reactionary racism, but it was apparent the its optimism for the future was severely shaken. (I can only imagine the questions staff photographer Gordon Parks must have had to field from clueless white editors at the time.)
You’re familiar with the refrain by now: “Why would they burn down their own neighborhoods” uttered by the same folks who’ve kicked holes in their living room walls when the fates dealt them a bum hand. It isn’t as if social scientists have written countless works dissecting the mechanics of collective behavior and “mob violence,” after all.
In truth, I’m convinced there’s a strain of whiteness that actually welcomes these events for the sense of twisted clarity they provide. They provide an opportunity to shift any sense of guilt or responsibility, to vent a stream of poisonous resentments that have been corked up like a fart at a fancy dinner party. Out they come, on social media or over dinner table, prefaced by “I’m not a racist, but…” and similar disclaimers at direct odds with what inevitably follows.
It’s easy because it has been socially engineered to be, thanks to the handy overlap between the social upheavals and recurring fits of economic stagnation of a post-industrial economy which have been woven into a zero-sum, protect-your-neck political narrative. All you have to do is whisper “an undeserving Other is threatening your shit” while touting systemic privilege as personal virtue, and worst parts of human nature will take care of the rest.
You don’t even have to get your hands dirty. That’s what the state security apparatus is there for.
Buying into the line — no matter how reluctantly or subconsciously — allows all other contextual complexities to be sidestepped. A long, horrific legacy of racial and economic injustice which has molded and informed the existing power structure? Recurring moral panics which criminalize entire populations? Solutions which habitually depend on endemically compromised local political institutions? Paternalist “fixes” which are imposed from above and never seem to target the roots of the problem? A supine media unwilling to speak truth to power but happy to feed public paranoia? A history of being thrown under the bus by dubious allies seeking advantage?
Don’t worry about it, pal. Just mutter “But some thugs torched a CVS” as you trundle over to queue up with the long line of fellow Pilates at the hand-washing station.