Successful high-grade organisms are only possible, on the condition that their symbolic functionings are usually justifed as far as important issues are concerned. But the errors of mankind equally spring from symbolism. It is the task of reason to understanal and purge the symbols on which humanity depends.

Alfred North Whithead, Symbolism, its Meaning and Effect

OUR INVESTIGATIONS to this point have shown that although racism has been an integral part of American life since the earliest colonial days, the passage of time has brought about certain changes in racist styles. What began as domination was in time overlaid and then replaced by aversion. Aversion. Aversive responses were present right from the beginning, but in rudimentary form; with the triumph of the Northern way of life over the Southern, aversion gradually became the preponderant style of American racism. Therefore, the key to the psychohistory of our racism lies in aversion and the fantasies of dirt which underly it.

Since aversive responses occurred (and still occur) with such irrational intensity, and moreover occurred in people. who had little directly to do with the Negro objects of the fantasy of dirt, then it follows that these fantasies pervaded the lives of white Americans and are not limited to racism. If such an infantile response can maintain such intensity in the most mature and "normal" of adults, then there must be something at large in culture to sustain it. The normal person is one who lives effectively within his 'culture; his normality is grounded in a congruence between his ego and his culture. Therefore, the best-adjusted, most productive, and most typical of Americans who respond aversively to black people they have not personally oppressed or even known, are no more than vehicles for the larger and axiomatic ideas of their times. This impliesthat the Negro is not actually the basic object of the fantasy, but a substitute, a surrogate. By virtue of the way he has been treated historically, he continues to represent in a concrete way something which persists actively in white American culture at an unconscious level, and ,which rises, as in racism, to find certain objects in the given world. As whites continue to treat blacks in such a way as to sustain their debased position within society, in turn maintains the black's suitability to represent the white's fantasy. This secondary activity is of great importance in the actual workings of history. But it is secondary: it does not sustain itself but is sustained by a primary activity that must reveal itself in the most varied aspects of culture. This primary activity must be widespread-else the phenomenon of aversion would not be widespread; it must be intense-else such an irrational, infantile fantasy would not be able to endure amidst so any strong and mature minds; and it must be deep-else an awareness of it would not be so defended against.

It is by reason of this hypothesis of a primary activity that we insist that racism is not synonymous with race prejudice. The prefudice against race is a special psychological issue in which specific people may handle their specific problems by drawing on the nuclear racist fantasies. Racism includes this, but also the more fundamental phenomenon of the generation and sustaining of these fantasies. Prejudice is the surfacing of racism. Racism is the activity within history and culture through which races may be created, oppressed, and fantasied about without the aid of bigots. And it must be present in more than the dealings of people of one color with those of another: it pervades the history of our culture at that deepest of levels at which the primary fantasies are generated. The problem of racism is part of the problem of Western culture. And thus, its central aspect is not that blackness whose many meanings we touched upon in the previous chapter, but its cognate, whiteness. For the world is neither black nor white, but hued. A lightly-hued people -aided perhaps by fantasies derived from their skin color -came to dominate the entire world, and in the process defined themselves as white. The process that generated this white power also generated the fear and dread of black.

People of all cultures have always been afraid of darkness.32 Children certainly are, and doubtless they have been since Paleolithic times. What has distinguished the West from other cultures is that these elementary issues, without losing their infantile core, have taken on a fantastic elaboration: They have been employed systematically and organically in the generation of power. No other culture has so drawn upon these primitive beliefs to super-ordinate itself to others; and if a culture has done so at all-as did Japanese culture-then the activity has clearly been an emulation of the West, and another proof of the viability of the Western system.

In the generation of power, the various meanings of white and black converge into a historically potent system. History, since the beginning of civilization, has been driven predominantly by the mysterious issue we call power, and the record of history is basically of the successions of that power. All the complexities of culture are harmonics about this basic theme. One might wish it otherwise; reality will not have it so.

Therefore, the questions posed at the beginning of the chapter take another form: how have the meaningful presentation of the world and the meaningful styles of historical action become harmonized with the themes of white and black in the Culture of the West, so as to permit the generation of power by the nations of the West, most particularly the United States? When we have grasped this, it will be possible to see the full extent of the racial problem that has grown in concert with Western power.

Psychohistory is the study of the changing meanings of things. But meaning itself means but one thing: symbolization. All meanings are but symbols, for a symbol is an element of experience that is used to represent another element of experience. We must put the matter abstractly and risk the aridity of theorization. Otherwise we will get lost in an overly narrow conception of symbols and win miss the cardinal point: that both the culture without and the ego within operate through the creation of an immense variety of symbolic differentiations, and the simultaneous binding of those differentiations into a synthetic whole. This is a very broad notion of symbolism. It extends far beyond the customary idea of a symbol as a fixed representational image, such as the cross, the swastika or a religious icon. And it extends beyond the idea that a symbol need have only a one-to-one connection with its referent. Concepts are simply partial aspects of symbolic activity. The activity as a whole is nothing less than the mind's apprehension of reality, including the reality of itself. Whenever an organism passes from the immediate sense perception of an object in the world to some action based upon the functional use of that object, it is engaging in an elementary symbolic process. Symbols arise in the course of differentiation, and there is no inherent limit evident in the degree to which the mind can differentiate and sort out reality. Furthermore, as any dictionary reveals, even the relatively discrete symbols called words cannot-by the very nature of human mentality-rest at a single level of meaning but are continually changing their signification, acquiring new layers of meaning and new emphases for their old meanings. New proper nouns and technical words continue to appear, assigning unique and precise meanings to things but the ceaseless progression of history gradually washes these formations into the shared sea of symbolism.

Just as each dream can be endlessly analyzed, until it comprises an individual's entire mental history, so does each symbol-whether it be word-symbol, image-symbol or abstract-idea symbol-spread out and eventually touch upon the entire range of shared human experience. And this experience passes beyond the surface of verbal cognition.

Thus each symbol stands at the center of an immense network of meanings extending from the most far-flung operations of culture to the deepest recesses of the individual mind. The richer such meanings, the more dynamically charged and the closer to historically important events, the greater the psychohistorical import.

Within the ramification of human symbols, there occurs a basic polarity across the dividing line of consciousness. The process of repression forces certain instinctual fantasies out of awareness, through the establishment of an inner unconscious counterforce created by the ego. When the ego's work negates the forbidden fantasy by drawing upon it, stealing its thunder, as it were, and taming that thunder to its own sublimated aims, the repressed urge persists in the unconscious id. And the ego, even in the process of defense, draws off that which it represses; thus what is repressed endures. Awareness is gone; the style of action changes from a direct and immediate urge to a sublimated, delayable one. Still, an active portion of the original fantasy persists. If the ego is to hold itself together-and this synthesis is absolutely necessary-then a further modification is required. This is carried out automatically by a change in the perception and understand ing of the outer world. The knowledge of part of reality becomes distorted to suit the persistence within both ego and id of the original instinctual wish. These distortions then become a special class of symbols.

Let us summarize this schematically:


1. Instinctual fantasy (infantile In origin; hence bodily-based)




2. repressed fantasy repressing

(Id) activity (ego)


synthetic reintegration via


change in cognition


3. repressed fantasy repressing _____ symbol of

(id) activity (ego) real object



Recall that the symbol may have more than a single referent. That is, it need not represent simply the repressed fantasy, but may also stand for the repressing activity of the ego (these two being in turn congruent). Some symbols may, for all practical purposes, represent only an element of the repressed wish. Such symbolic elements are, for example, kinds of images that appear in dreams, or in conscious daydreaming. These images may be quite vivid and exciting, but their appearance lacks one decisive component: action. The instinctual drive embedded in the fantasy impels the organism to action. If the fantasy is repressed, then a partial awareness, at times quite a vivid one, may be allowed as long as the person does nothing about it. This is in fact the condition of sleep: deprived of mobility and adaptive response, the organism is free to engage in the wildness of its dreams. But dreaming is not enough: humans exist through activity. And since the repressed wish continually strives for expression, the unconscious continually seeks a form of this activity within the world which will express its will free from awareness. Thus the decisive symbolic elements will be those that represent not only repressed content, but ego activity as well.

Symbolic forms are created, then, by the ego to relate the content of the repressed wish, the congruent form of the repressing activity, and the realization of this activity in the external world. These are the symbols that become culturally important: culture itself is established to maintain the world in a shape that conforms to the symbolic needs of the ego's activity. It is one thing to daydream and conjure up wishful images of the way things ought to be in order that one's instinctually-based fantasies may come true. It is quite another matter, and a more important one in cultural terms (for daydreaming in excess is the province of the neurotic), to restructure the world symbolically and to act upon it to achieve discharge and -mastery-to actually apply symbolic vision to the alteration of reality itself. The symbols so employed will be more remote from the original wish than those in dream activity, because they represent, not the original fantasy itself, but the fantasy as altered through the interposition of the ego. But what is lost in vividness is gained in safety, for the ego now assumes active control over what had been threatening to the person, when, as a helpless child, he suffered the full brunt of his impossible wishes. And what is gained in safety becomes multiplied in power.

Although the basic trends represented in the id are not very numerous, their elaboration in reality is endless-such is man's symbolic gift. A whole array of symbols may represent a given fantasy and its ego-expression, each relating to the other and expressing part of the original wish. The more widely such spread occurs, the more potent is the ego's operation.

Thus the symbolic apparatus of culture includes a host of representations by which the people within it sustain the inner balance of their personalities. Once established by the repressive activity of the ego, such symbols become especially important in history. They are each rooted in a timeless biological striving which, no matter how realized, is never realized as its original desire. Yet the original urge persists, never frees men of its demands, and continually goads mankind onward. Furthermore, the root of the symbol, based in the id, is handled according to the intensely -mobile and free form of thought characteristic of the id. This is how the symbol becomes permanently related to all those other instinctual fantasies which swim about in the inner sea of the unconscious mind. Even as the ego works without to perfect the symbol into a unique representation of its will, the id works within to maintain the endless connections with the rest of the unconscious and

primordial mind. No matter how divided, the unconscious mind never lets go of anything of dynamic significance but continually seeks to reshape everything into its time-less mold.

Closer inspection of the immense aggregation of potential symbols reveals two classes, divided according to whether the symbol is closer to inner fantasy or to outer realities. This division is to a certain extent arbitrary, and not at all absolute, hut it will be useful to our understanding.

The first class we shall term primary symbols. These include any symbol that refers to a feeling, thought, action, value, etc. and which is, correspondingly free of reference-to an external object. Blackness and whiteness are two such symbols, as is any abstract and general idea-such as the idea of progress, or even that of material substance. The goals of cleanliness, efficiency or rationality and the idea of holding power over another, are all primary syrnbols. Primary symbols are related to each other: thus, blackness may symbolize evil, gloom, and dirtiness, all primary symbols. Dirt, in the abstract, is a primary symbol, since such an entity exists only in the peculiar fantasy by which men consider anything that represents what comes out of the body to be dirty. Primary symbols do not long remain free of objective reference, however; and when applied to objects in the world, they become fixed in a different form. In the process of this passage they be come secondary symbols.

These secondary symbols, then, are the symbolic value of any external object. Property in the abstract may be a primary symbol; a particular piece of property may be a secondary symbol. Dirt as such is primary; thir piece of dirt is a secondary symbol. Bodily products themselves insofar as they are considered dirty, are to be counted as secondary symbols. The object of the bigot's prejudice is a secondary symbol: greedy Jew, smelly Negro, dirty Red, etc. The person who holds power, and the one over whom is held, are secondary symbols.

Insofar as the ego can act upon the world, it has to affix to it a primary symbol, deriving from the inner strivings of the mind. In its action the ego creates secondaiy symbols, and if such symbols prove particularly fruitful for representation of primary symbols, they will become enduring parts of culture. In practice this usually means that the secondary symbol serves to represent several primary symbols; the better it works as such, the more tenaciously culture will hold onto it, and the more historically important it will become. Black people, for example, beame symbols of blackness, of dirt, of being dominated, etc., and so became a basic part of the symbol system of Western culture.

The secondary symbols can at times no longer suitably represent those several primary meanings which gave thern their cultural validity. Considering the basic impossibility of many of the infantile trends represented, the incompatibiIity of one trend with another, the conflicts arising when people do not wish to be represented in the way culture wants them to be, or wish to supplant those in power-considering all these contingencies, it is almost certain that the set of secondary symbols that comprises a culture will eventually fail to function. There is a part of us that is timeless; and another part which, by its historical activity, generates the passage of things, the sense time. The two parts cannot remain out of conflict for long. When this inevitability occurs, the symbolic system has to be adjusted to a more or less radical extent. If it is not so changed, then the vital functions it fulfilled will fail. The harmonious integration of repressed trend and repressing force depends upon the external activity, aplied to those symbols which the ego created out of the worId to match its needs. When the symbols no longer work, neither does the inner defensive stabilization. Sulimated activity will break down, resulting in massive anxiety and/or forms of regression incompatible with civilized life. Major instances of such breakdowns are the substance of historical change; in dramatic form they become cataclysmic, as in the breakdown of German culture and the rise of Nazism. The passage of epochs, as at the end of the Middle Ages, is marked by the failure of very basic secondary symbols, and the need to find new ones-not just individual symbols, but whole new systems and forms of symbols.

Any historical event may contain some such process. The dislodging of outmoded secondary symbols from primary meaning is never spontaneous, for they are held with all the synthetic force of the ego and are underlined by the timeless urges of the id. This timeless id does not care that the symbol is useless; it does not care for reality at all, but wishes instead to retain for itself the symbol of satisfaction. There is an inertia in culture then, a resistance that implies the need for an energetic struggle within each historical event. The struggle is generally between opposed sets of people, who represent different interests, and compete for power. At times this struggle leads to war; sometimes it can be carried on peacefully; at times a group may even, by an inner upheaval, change its symbolic structure to match new realities. In the course of the event, there is a freeing of primary symbolic activity and a corresponding loosening of inner restraints. Such times are characterized by increased anxiety, uncertainty and doubt. Within each event, primary symbols may be reorganized under this momentary freedom; and from each event emerges a new secondary symbol. Each secondary symbol, since it arises basically from human activity in the world, is thus the heir to a historical occurrence. Each historical occurrence will add, to a degree proportionate to its actual historical importance, new syrmbolic structure to human experience; and so will change human ego. Personality is therefore a historically evolving system.

The ego we are discussing is not that of an individual, however, but rather the egos of a mass of personalities as they present themselves in a historical situation. Let us call it a Cultural Ego; just as we could refer to a Cultural or even a Cultural Id Within these structures, exists then a Cultural Unconscious. This is more or less synonymous with what is loosely called the mass unconscious, which exists, not as some kind of mysterious ethereal or genetically endowed substance, but as the summation, on a mass level, of the unconscious mental processes of the people in a social group. It is thus no more mysterious in principle than the individual unconcious, which is to say, it is a mental system of meanings without awareness. The existence of both the individual and cultural unconscious is demonstrated in the same way: the assumption of causality and the inference of meanings from a pattern of symbolic forms. In the individual, forms are found in the meaningful details of his behavior and in free association; in the mass, they rest in symbols of culture which exist explicitly to give enduring meaning to the unconscious wishes of society.

Such is the psychohistorical schema. It is a system in inuous disequilibrium and continuous evolution. Which historical event, the entire panoply of symbols is arraved and regenerated: each event creates the world anew and from this event emerge the old forms reworked.

The most meaningful way to enter this system in the West through racism, for here the irrational underside of our proud civilization is revealed most vividly. We can ask where in history the meanings of the symbols black and white have arisen, and how they have changed.


The answer will take us surprisingly far. All we have to do is look at the record of our history, and discern within it the most general type of transformation which is in equilibrium with racism, and grounded in the same primitive fantasies.