Tolerating Intolerance in American Politics

Peter Skerry
Peter Skerry Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Political Science - Boston College

July 19, 1998

In June 1943, Detroit was the scene of a two-day race riot that left nine whites and 25 African Americans dead. Commenting on those events, University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park wrote to a colleague: “I am not quite clear in my mind that I am opposed to race riots. The thing that I am opposed to is that the Negro should always lose.”

The continuing controversy in the San Fernando Valley between former Assemblyman Richard Katz and City Councilman Richard Alarcon over a contested state Senate seat is hardly of such tragic dimensions. Still, Park’s blunt realism is a useful antidote to the hand-wringing angst expressed in recent weeks over strained relations between Jews and Latinos. Park, the leading student of race and ethnic relations of his day, believed that competition and even conflict were inevitable stages in the process by which diverse groups learn to accommodate one another in modern societies.

Unlike Park, Americans today tend at first to deny or turn away from intergroup tensions. When we do finally face up to them, we interpret such tensions as the result of irrational prejudice and bigotry. We see them as aberrations, as the despicable excesses of those narrow-minded few who resist change and progress.

Park, on the other hand, viewed intergroup tensions, even animosities, as natural and inevitable. He saw competition and conflict as the quite rational clash of interests that emerge as groups jockey for position and advantage.

There are solid reasons for our contemporary perspective: Our national history has seen a good deal of irrational bigotry directed (Park reminds us) at a few groups that always tended to lose the competition—too often with their lives.

But we Americans have overreacted to this shameful history and high-mindedly decreed all group competition and conflict to be intolerable. Not all conflict is unjust, and certainly not all conflict is avoidable.

When my Irish Catholic forebears arrived in Boston a century ago, there is no doubt that they encountered unthinking, bigoted nativism. Yet as practicing Catholics pledged to obey the pope in Rome, they and their co-religionists did raise legitimate concerns as to their loyalty to their adopted home. When church leaders urged parents to opt out of the public schools and send their children to separate Catholic schools, such fears among Protestant Americans were understandably aggravated. Similarly during this period, when Mormons practiced polygamy and asserted, not unlike Catholics, that they practiced the one true religion, there were legitimate reasons for non-Mormons to be alarmed.

Did such concerns justify the burning of Catholic convents and the lynching of Mormons? Of course not. But an attentive reading of our ethnic and racial past should remind us that quite rational conflicts of interest and clashes of world views have been intertwined with even the most emotional and irrational intergroup battles. Attributing all such dissension to the unenlightened views of retrogrades may gratify those who consider themselves enlightened, but it does not help us to understand the complexities of intergroup relations. These relations are often messy and sometimes quite nasty. But such are the jostling and elbowing that arise among groups in a dynamic, competitive society.

An irony lost upon those who reduce all intergroup tensions to the struggle between the forces of light and darkness is that such tensions typically peak just when out groups are making their greatest strides. For example, Jews encountered the most thoroughgoing anti-Semitism in 19th century America after they had made the economic advances that allowed them to seek entry into social enclaves that until then had simply been beyond their means. Similarly, it is understandable, if regrettable, that Latinos encounter resistance today, when they are on the move politically. It would not surprise Park that tensions are emerging now between Latinos and their former Jewish allies. Nor would it surprise him that Latinos are finally getting mobilized politically because they have, since Proposition 187—a 1994 initiative that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants—felt themselves to be under attack.

The philosopher William James, one of Park’s teachers, once remarked that “progress is a terrible thing.” Without for a moment excusing any of the political chicanery or vituperation indulged in by all parties in the San Fernando Valley, Angelenos need to face up to the fact that such excesses are to be expected in the struggle for advancement and power in this diverse and competitive society.

If we truly value diversity, then we will need to enlarge our concept of tolerance to include tolerance of contention and outright conflict. Alternatively, if we decide that we value consensus and social harmony more, then we should reexamine our preference for diversity. Our history tells us we can’t have it both ways.