Vol. 111 (2021)


Reflecting on Benjamin DeMott’s The Trouble with Friendship:

Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race


By Benj DeMott

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA


Blizzards of goodwill-and-bullshit have masked America’s failure to undo its caste-like social hierarchy. Twenty-five years ago, Benjamin DeMott’s The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race broke down the country’s “friendship orthodoxy”—the appealing, resolutely ahistorical faith that America’s racial problems can be solved without government intervention, “simply by blacks and whites working together, one on one, to reconcile differences.” DeMott clarified how friendship orthodoxy supplanted what had once been an emerging consensus during the Civil Rights era when The Democracy sensed:


[S]ociety would have to admit that when one race deprives another of its humanity for centuries, those who have done the depriving are obligated to do what they can to restore the humanity of the deprived. The obligation clearly entailed the mounting of comprehensive long-term programs of developmental assistance—not guilt money—for nearly the entire black population. The path forward was unavoidable. It was avoided.


Nice, cheap fixes to the American Dilemma came into vogue, along with the notion American racism is all about personal relations (and “hate”). Prospects for a broad-scale racial reckoning faded as images of racial amity and a “language of sameness” instilled belief that…


to achieve peace and harmony whites and blacks must work toward recognizing their fundamental commonality, must undertake, as individuals, to see through superficial differences to the needs and longings that all share. The discourse declares that we must teach ourselves how to get along together and how to become friends. We must – in the word of the Garth Brooks tune – learn to ignore “the color of skin” and “look for…the beauty within.” Public officials take the lead in voicing the message and their words are echoed by corporate executives, academic leaders, pundits, popular entertainers – even on occasion by black and white victims of racist beatings.


Turning again to The Trouble with Friendship in the wake of Trump’s throwback presidency, it’s vital to note DeMott never denied the national mythos of amity represented an advance over stony biases that shaped American life up until the Sixties made bigotry uncool. While there’s no denying the danger of Trump et al.’s atavism, there’s also no going back to beclouded Brooks or bushwa about a kinder, gentler country. DeMott (who died in 2005) would’ve been lifted by the new generation of marchers who prefer whiffs of teargas to stale verities about what we all share. Thanks to them, Americans may not be condemned to breathe derelict air forever.


Black Lives Matters (BLM) protesters have brought lucidity about systemic racism to the streets (as Biden has brought it to the White House). They aren’t at the mercy of friendship orthodoxy and they are thinking straight about race. While DeMott’s pre-millennial polemic might not serve as an up-to-date handbook for BLM, his remonstrance isn’t out of time; it’s in the tradition of today’s freshest thinking on race in America.


The Trouble with Friendship preps readers for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ touchstones—“The Case for Reparations” and Between the World and MeDeMott’s hard look at fantasies of amity prefigured Coates’ cold eye on (what he terms) the “Dream.” There’s an even more direct connection between The Trouble with Friendship and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents (2020).  DeMott leaned on the scholarship of John Ogbu—the Nigerian-born Berkeley professor who compared progress of black Americans to that of stigmatized populations such as Japan’s burakumin and brought home differences between “voluntary minorities" (groups of immigrants who chose to come to the United States) and an "involuntary” minority like Afro-Americans (whose ancestors were forced into the Middle Passage). Wilkerson delves deep into trans-national caste scholarship as well (though she doesn’t cite Ogbu’s work or the debate he sparked about black school children who equate educational achievement with “acting white.”)


A climatic scene in Caste accentuates what Wilkerson’s critique of our snares and delusions shares with DeMott’s. Near the end of her book, she describes a dinner date with a newish white friend who grew outraged after getting a taste of slights endured on the regular by black straddlers like Wilkerson who’ve risen above rungs on the social ladder ascribed to them by their race. Part of Wilkerson was glad her friend blew up “on my behalf.” Yet she also allows that she wasn’t all in with “this newly-minted anti-racist, anti-casteist, upper caste woman.”


Part of me resented that she could go ballistic and get away with it when I might not even be believed. It was caste privilege to go off in the restaurant the way she did.


As Wilkerson took this reader through her ambivalent response to her friend’s rage, I flashed on The Trouble with Friendship’s anatomy of an instance of iffy allyship. DeMott zeroed in on a story the ex-PBS pundit Roger Rosenblatt told how his son once “burned with anger and humiliation” when New York cabbies ignored his attempts to hail them since he was accompanied by black buddies. The son’s experience moved his father to rhapsodize about “the power of the friendship” between his boy and the two black lads who were with him when cabbies snubbed them: “[Friendship] has carried all three young men into the country that belongs to them. To all of us.” DeMott noticed how Rosenblatt kept ramping up the rhetoric of sameness: “Our proper hearts tell the truth, which is that we are all in the same boat, rich and poor, black and white…We need to give rides to one another.” DeMott wasn’t in a rush to sink Rosenblatt’s boat, though that American quietist had revealed his son used the taxi incident as the centerpiece for his college admissions essay. DeMott limned another writerly example of upper caste complacency—courtesy of a grandfatherly John Updike [1]—before coming back to that same boat and ironizing the tone of a “concerned white” to whom “it seems needless to ask…


what public correctives are in course—what steps are being taken to ensure that tomorrow’s white children will have fewer affecting stories of black injury and white sympathy to recite to their elders and to college admissions committees.


DeMott’s challenge to the amiable orthodoxy that quashed such questions has been validated by contemporary movements of mind. I’d distance The Trouble with Friendship, though, from certain trendy currents in anti-racist thought. DeMott’s big questions are surely at odds with the miniaturizing, personalizing approach to race issues taken by theorists of microaggressions.

Benjamin DeMott

It seems worth underscoring DeMott was going against trend in the mid-90s too. Back in that day, “the declining significance of race” seemed self-evident to many center-left heads even if they wouldn’t take Bill Clinton’s corollary point that “the era of big government is over.” I’m recalling just now how Clinton was said to have stayed up all night reading a book on the legacy of ‘68ers. Nobody ever hinted he found The Trouble with Friendship unputdownable. If he tried it (or glanced at the preview-article in Harper’s), he was probably put off by bits proving he’d stayed within the borders of the friendship-is-the-answer paradigm he’d upheld as a candidate when he averred: “White Americans are gripped by the isolation of their own experience. Too many still have no friends of other races and do not know any differently.”


Friendship orthodoxy, per DeMott, was a two-party deal that melded corporate liberalism with compassionate conservatism (even as it made space for black neo-con critics of affirmative action and race-based “coddling”). It was a spiral phenomenon of oval office pronouncements and Walmart circulars. The Trouble with Friendship detailed how America’s “epic of amity” was promulgated through ads, sit-coms, talk shows and other mass cultural modes. One memorable footnote took up half a page with a list of films—“tv and junk action movies mingling with more pretentious work—that treated race friendship themes.” A few years on, Spike Lee would make that film note go pop when the director mocked Hollywood’s reliance on the figure of the Magic Negro.


DeMott was so intent on keeping the focus of his analysis on the mindset he meant to overturn that he cut a chapter devoted to close imaginings of caste-bound lives. (One section of that chapter—a felt tribute to Charles Burnett’s imperishable film Killer of Sheep (1977)—surfaced in DeMott’s final collection of essays, Junk Politics.) DeMott justified his compactions though he sussed his book’s “absorption with majority thought and feeling,” might be seen as an “act of truancy” by “strong supporters of the black struggle for equality.”


DeMott knew there was something else missing from The Trouble with Friendship. Its negative dialectics stopped short of defining a positive program for the Party of Hope. DeMott’s reticence on this score might be usefully paired with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ refusal to anticipate the endgame of the historical process of redress that he tried to get back on track when he made his case for reparations. Coates’ desire to stay in the moment (and out of the weeds) is more than defensible. In a democratic society, citizen-writers’ projections matter less than the goals of organizers or policy-makers. That’s one reason why DeMott didn’t feel a need to push a program in The Trouble with Friendship. And, of course, he also realized it wasn’t his place to set an agenda for the black nation. Yet I can attest he was alive to what was absent from his analysis. I can only speculate but I’d bet he’d have been stirred when Coates’ “Case” reintroduced reparations into the national conversation. And I recently read a draft of a White Paper written by Bob Moses—legendary organizer of SNCC voter registration drives and the Algebra Project—that DeMott might have found even more galvanizing. Moses spells out the logic behind a “National Consensus Project to Eliminate Caste in America’s Classrooms.” Such a project would’ve been in DeMott’s wheelhouse. He put in decades as an English professor at Amherst College, but he also went outside the Ivory Tower. In the Sixties he participated in a Mississippi summer program designed to prepare black students for their first year in desegregated schools.[2] In the Seventies, he taught in D.C. public schools. In the Eighties, he was a visiting professor at an HBCU (Bethune Cookman). DeMott was responsive to any serious effort to overcome caste in classrooms. (The Trouble with Friendship bowed to Dr. James Comer’s pioneering “social development” schools: “The nation’s most widely admired, innovative ventures in minority education.”) I’m certain DeMott would’ve tuned into Bob Moses’ National Consensus Project. We should all be all ears.



[1] John Updike put high literary style at the service of friendship orthodoxy when he composed “A Letter to My Grandsons” (1989). Updike’s eldest daughter had married a West African and his missive in The New Yorker was addressed to that couple’s two sons, Kwame and Anoff. The letter was meant to introduce them to their mother’s family history and American history. It wasn’t beamish about race matters, but Updike kept faith with a willful evolutionism: “America is slowly becoming yours, I want to believe, as much as it is anyone’s…


…our laws now formally insist upon equal rights and our best corporations and educational institutions recruit blacks in an effort to right old imbalances, and professional sports and television commercials constantly offer images of multiracial camaraderie. An ideal colorblind society flickers at the forward edge of the sluggishly evolving one.


Updike told his grandsons “there’s a floating sexual curiosity and potential love [between the races] that in your parents has come to earth and borne fruit and the blended shade of your dear brown skins will ever advertise.” He stood at a distance at the top of his letter. That phrase “dear brown skins,” though, hints at how he’d lose his detached posture on his way to the letter’s summit of mutual ease and trust: “the moment the other evening when fretful little Kwame let himself be walked to sleep on my shoulder.”


DeMott commended Updike’s delicacy here. But, as he noted, the logic of Updike’s letter led from that broad shoulder toward “minimization” of white supremacy’s legacy.


[Updike] acknowledges, that “you will each be in subtle (at best) ways the focus of distaste and hatred and fear that have nothing to do with anything but your skins.” But, he insists, shutting the door briefly opened upon black-white difference, “we must all take our chances, and the world is not anywhere basically a friendly place, though our mothers and fathers and school teachers would make it seem so.”


We are, in sum, all in the same boat. The chances of whites would seem appreciably better than those of blacks in, say the state of Pennsylvania (where Updike was born), or Nebraska, or any other of the several states wherein fifteen times as many blacks as whites are in jail. But we must all take our chances.


DeMott acknowledged the tone of “A Letter to My Grandsons” was a “literary achievement.” But, its delicacy notwithstanding, he placed “Letter” as a “public document that was entirely representative of the new race thinking”: 


The evolution of the ideal color-blind society is imagined to occur more within feelings than in response to policy change; the ideal society’s origins lie not in the resolution of complex group conflict but in mysterious, irreversible movements of the passionate heart.


DeMott concluded his reading of Updike’s “Letter” by stretching himself to imagine from within the worldview of friendship orthodoxy’s subtlest exemplars:


Nor is it doubted that the experience of intimate white-black communion—the lived sense of interchangeability—can establish higher and lower orders of reality and time. Those caught up in this experience direct a mildly detached, Prospero-like gaze at the chaos and bestiality of the broader world. The apparent turbulence—the “problems”—is understood to be in some sense real; the political scene in some sense exists. But none of it feels substantive when compared with the pure moment of love. The new thinking and feeling melding in friendship orthodoxy prefers that moment to the endless, wearing cycles of conflict, confrontation, negotiation, ground gained, ground lost—the tenacity amidst frustration from which to this day “race progress” is wrung. The new orthodoxy charms and touches, and keeps social fact at bay.


Updike didn’t respond well to DeMott’s real talk. A year after The Trouble with Friendship appeared, Updike published a novel (In the Beauty of the Lilies) with a social climber character who changes her name to DeMott in the course of her career as a Hollywood actress. Updike’s name-check still seems cheap (and avoidant). But what could a wannabe Prospero do?


[2DeMott wrote up his experience in “Mississippi Learning.” That astonishing essay is almost worthy of Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man”—a record DeMott first heard when he was in Mississippi and that he brought home to a grateful family in the summer of 1967.


[Author’s addendum: Bob Moses died on July 25, 2021, but his longtime colleagues at the Algebra Project have reaffirmed their commitment to Moses’ vision of a national movement to overcome caste in America’s classrooms. Without Moses’s gravitas, it may be hard for them to get traction. OTOH, their mentor was famously averse to leader-mongering and one of his abiding lessons was that the future of multiracial democracy is on us.] 



Benjamin DeMott – Life and Times    

First of the Month    




Benj DeMott is the Editor of First of the Month—a magazine of politics and culture he helped found in 1998. He has also written an important account of Benjamin DeMott’s life and times.




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