Heinlein and Racism

Sometimes we enjoy linking to some American SF, and we did indeed enjoy coming across this Robert Heinlein letter setting, in no uncertain terms, his views on race,  in a letter addressed to F.M. Busby but possibly never sent. It should be noted, note the editors, that “this letter was written before the Civil Rights Movement, already well under way, made its biggest public impact and changed the way we speak and think of race relations in this country [The United States] and so reflects a “hard common sense” approach dating before that cultural watershed.” You can read it, and some other Heinlein letters, here. (PDF).

Some of my best friends:

I have made rather more effort to meet and be friendly with Negroes than with whites, as I am both interested and curious. But the opportunities are slim. I had a Negro boss in the Railway Mail Service years ago. He was a good boss—but he gave me no chance to be friendly. I had a Negro tutor in advanced calculus at uCLA; the closest I ever got to him was to lunch with him a couple of times. I was willing, he was not. Etc. I’ve known a few Negro officers, Fort Carson and elsewhere; I managed to get really friendly with just one, because his wife was a writer and needed some help. Hardly enough data on which to draw a curve. All I’m trying to say is that if I have any prejudice against Negroes, I am not aware of it.

Anyway it wasn’t me:

But I don’t have any prejudice for Negroes, either. I don’t feel any guilt over the fact that slavery existed in this country from 1619 to the Civil War. I didn’t do it. Nor did any of my ancestors to the best of my knowledge (which is pretty complete) own slaves. I had many relatives and one grandfather on the union side during the Civil War, none that I know of on the Southern side other than one cousin we aren’t proud of—Jefferson Davis. But I’m not accepting any guilt on his behalf, either—I didn’t do it.

But really it was good for them:

Nor do I feel responsible for the generally low state of the Negro—as one Negro friend pointed out to me; the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved. Having traveled quite a bit in Africa, I know what she means. One thing is clear: Whether one speaks of technology or social institutions, “civilization” was invented by us, not by the Negroes. As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them. Except for the culture, both institutions and technology, that they got from us, they would still be in the stone age, along with its slavery, cannibalism, tyranny, and utter lack of the concept we call “justice.”

And really they’re just not very good at it:

But it seems to me that the American Negroes (through their leaders, at least) are demanding, not “equality before the law,” but equality, period”—everything the whites have whether the Negro has earned it either racially or individually. One hears demands that Boeing or Douglas or General Motors employ at once the same percentage (or higher) of Negroes than we find in the population—and at every level. Well, anyone who has ever tried to hire skilled help knows that this cannot be done. (I tried to hire Negro engineers during the war; we managed to hire one out of about three hundred jobs. He was a real peecutter, a genius. I found one other candidate, an M.E., whom I turned down because he wasn’t qualified.)

And – by golly! – they want to be on TV:

They are demanding such things as a percentage share of the acting jobs on TV—and demanding along with it that they not be shown in menial jobs. In other words they are demanding that a working dramatist (such as myself) put a very distorted picture of American life on the screen. No, thank you.

And are they really equal?

Buz, one of the sacrosanct assumptions is that the two races, white and black, really are “equal” save for environmental handicaps the Negro has unjustly suffered. Is this true? I don’t know, not enough data observed by me, not enough reliable data observed by others, so far as I know. Obviously the two races are different physically, not only in color but in hair, bony structure, and in many other ways—blood types, for example. Must we nevertheless assume that, despite obvious and gross physical differences, these two varieties are nevertheless essentially identical in their nervous systems? I don’t know but I do know that in any other field of science such an assumption would be regarded as just plain silly even as a working hypothesis, more so as a conclusive presumption not even to be questioned.

It’s a free market innit:

However, this question as to whether the two races are “different” or “equal” or what need never come up if we are concerned only with equality under the law—if each man is free to make of himself whatever he is capable of making of himself. When I hire a mechanical engineer I am not concerned with his skin color but I sure as hell am concerned with his grasp of mathematics, his knowledge of strength of materials, of linkages, of power plants, of instrumentation, etc.—and if he can’t cut the buck, I certainly do not want to be forced to hire him because of his color. Nor does it matter to me (at the time of hiring) that he “never had a chance” to learn these things.

It’s always better to be rich anyway:

Nor am I certain that society is obligated to spoon-feed to him such a chance—whether he be white or black. The easiest way for a youngster to have the opportunity to have a broad education is to have rich parents—which a few Negroes have and which most whites do not, even though there are clearly more rich whites than rich Negroes. But most of the really well educated of any color do not have wealthy parents, they scrounged it out somehow. Some Negroes do manage to become number-one engineers—or Congressmen, or scientists, or whatever—and some whites wind up on skid row. Still more whites never amount to anything in particular, just get by, as taxi drivers, or bookkeepers, or suck broom salesmen, or such.

White kids are discriminated against:

I had better shut up or I’ll never finish this letter—I started out in this vein just intending to make a passing comment on your article. “Equality before the law”—Is it right to force white children to ride buses halfway across Manhattan in order that a kid in Harlem can sit next to a white child in second grade? I don’t think so; I think the white child is being discriminated against because of his color.

He does go on for a lot longer, but you can check out the letter in this sampler.


26 thoughts on “Heinlein and Racism

  1. (I think you mean/he meant “stick broom salesmen” – while I am quite sure that some white people do suck broom salesmen, he probably wasn’t proposing that as a career option…

  2. Lavie – I want to say “I can’t believe this.” I can. Linked on FB along with many others. It’s so “special.” It WAS troglodytish for its day. I am sure there are defenders activating right now. This is crystal clear racism. And that “special edition” the letter is in? I said its loving preservation of his every word made me think of candying a turd.

  3. I’ve never liked Heinlein – he was always a mediocre writer with very problematic views and his politics annoyed me even as a teenager. But this one is a dozy even by his standards.

    BTW, Lavie, I just spotted a stack of German editions of The Bookman on a display table at a chain bookstore. I would have taken a pic but I didn’t have my camera.

  4. I find this dragging the past into the future and attacking it nearly as problematic as the RAH piece itself. He can’t defend himself (even if he wanted to) and there is no consideration given to the context of the time. We may as well all throw out everything pre-2010 as all or nearly all of its authors will no doubt fail to live up to the enlightened thinking of our current time.

    If you want to discuss the impact this kind of thinking had on works, how it has affected the genre currently, why such thoughts and feelings are inappropriate to today’s world, or even how obviously misguided some of our grandmasters were – great, but don’t do it in a vacuum and do pay due consideration to the changes the individual also made during their lifetimes.

    If we insist on treating the dead past as if it is the current era, we will be leaving ourselves with no history and will end up with a culture so monolithic that none of us will want to live in it.

  5. It should be noted, note the editors, that “this letter was written before the Civil Rights Movement, already well under way, made its biggest public impact and changed the way we speak and think of race relations in this country [The United States] and so reflects a “hard common sense” approach dating before that cultural watershed.”

    Oh, look! Consideration being given to the context of the time!

      1. So this post is “nearly as problematic as the RAH piece itself” because of the absence of context *in the comments*. O-kay.

      2. Yes, I think so, because in the one case we’re talking about an individual who is dead, who can’t change, no even be given the opportunity to change, while on the other hand we’re talking about living individuals who ought to see the futility of trying to affect change by criticizing the private correspondence of a dead author. At least when it comes to the people commenting here, the commentary could have an effect on their thinking. If what is posted here affects change in Heinlein’s brain, we’ve got a lot more to be concerned about than this issue.

  6. And how exactly does the fact that these commenters aren’t, in your opinion, giving consideration to the context of the time render *the post itself* problematic?

    Given that the post itself *does* give explicit consideration to the context of the time, I mean, what further mechanisms, what wicky-woo-woo powers of mindthought projection should the writer have been applying in order to ensure that yon “bear in mind it was the early 60s” caveat was echoed in the comments to your satisfaction?

  7. Read something like Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, Steve — which predates Heinlein by half a century — or some of Orwell’s writing (to just invoke Anglophone names).

    Then we’ll revisit context. The term has become as beloved to a certain contingent as “alpha male biological urges” and its ilk.

    1. Athena – why don’t we just beat up everyone who is dead who held views different from what is considered to be culturally acceptable now? Or rather – why don’t we just start the approved reading list at 2001 and burn everything that predates it?

      Yes, there were authors more enlightened in some respects than Heinlein was – and I’m sure we could find other authors who trump Woolf or Orwell on other subjects. That’s not the point.

      The point is: we CAN potentially do something about the views expressed by contemporary authors who are still alive and trying to make a living from their work as they use that work to promote wrong-headed, bigoted ideas, but nothing is to be gained from attacking a dead author. He is not going to go back and re-write any of those novels.

      1. why don’t we just beat up everyone who is dead who held views different from what is considered to be culturally acceptable now?

        For values of “beat up” equaling “publish their complete works in a hagiographic 46 volume leatherbound limited edition but include a letter espousing views now considered dubious for its critical/historical interest,” I’d say that sounds pretty fair. I hope I get “beat up” like that after I die.

        For values of “beat up” equaling “post a blog entry linking to and quoting from said letter, commenting upon it so as to highlight problematic views, albeit prefacing that critique with a quote from the editors which sets the views in their historical context”… that still sounds pretty damn fair. An accurate rendering sourced to a hagiography and including the “of his era” caveat? Hardly a dire injustice.

        Even for values of “beat up” equaling “post a comment on said blog entry arguing that the views were actually reactionary for their era”… I fail to see any grievous bodily injury here. If a writer is of sufficient stature in posterity to have their correspondence critiqued fifty years on, it doesn’t really make them a victim of heinous inequity if one naysayer has the temerity to suggest they were reactionary even for their period.

        Is it that the poor dead author “can’t defend himself”? He doesn’t need to. He’s dead; he doesn’t give a damn. And if being dead means he “can’t change,” if that means it can’t help him to point out his racism, it also means it can’t exactly hurt his delicate sensitivities to have a sentence like “As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them,” held up for harsh scrutiny, rebuked as racist. Even the truth doesn’t hurt when you’re a corpse long-rotted in the grave.

        You say there’s no gain, I say there’s no *harm* in “attacking” a dead author, not when that emotive rhetoric of “attack” is bollocks, not when the “attack” consists only of highlighting some explicit racism, not when the only thing that exists to be defended is a reputation. Man, if a few caustic comments on *Heinlein’s own words* are cause for overblown rhetoric of bookburning, that just demonstrates how his precious reputation is inflated to reverence. That alone shows there’s a whole lot to be gained in challenging the hallowed image of Teh Great & Sainted RAH.

  8. For the people that live in the past and refuse to put in context the present.

    We went from Slavery to a Black President.

    So many white and black people died as steps to get to where we are.

    So many Black and White People are, have been and always will be Racist.

    You can even say that part of the truth of why Malcolm X was killed by his Racist Religious Group former pals, was because he renounced his racist views and learned how wrong he was.

    But it is not the man who willingly died for his more wise convictions that is widely worshiped today.

    People will learn what they want from the past, a lot of the time it is to satisfy some selfish part of their ego.

    The truth is, if (Groups/races) were half as racist(or sexist) as many people point out then slavery would be the norm and not the opposite.

    Racism just like bad apples will always exist, lets not let the fewer bad apples make one not realize MLK’s dream may have come as far as it if there is few that will willingly agree its time to take the next step.

  9. You’ve missed the point of the joke about ‘some of my best friends are black’. The joke is that a rich white man deflects criticism by talking about the hired help. It seems that Heinlein went out of his way to become friends with the few black men that he came across in his life. That hardly seems evidence of racism.
    Especially considering the larger picture. Heinlein wrote anti-slavery books (notably ‘Citizen of the Galaxy’ and part of ‘Time Enough for Love’). He went out of his way to quote black writers like Booker T Washington at a time when that was not at all fashionable. Several protagonists of his were men and women of color. How many other science fiction authors in the 50’s were writing books for teens that had non-white heroes?
    But the proof is in the pudding. I read a ton of Heinlein when I was a teenager. From him I got an overwhelming sense that you can’t judge a person by color, only by their actions. I’ve talked with other Heinlein fans and gotten the same sense from them.

    1. You’ve missed the point that “some of my best friends are black” isn’t a punchline in a joke that begins “So, there’s this rich white guy…” It’s a phrase that encapsulates a genuine, actual — i.e. at large in the world — obliviousness to the idea that racism need not involve pointy white hoods and burning crosses. Sadly, you can be quite absent the vehement hatred, actually have quite warm and fuzzy feelings of benevolence toward blacks, but nonetheless see them in terms of stereotypes, as something profoundly Other and — insidiously, sneakily — as essentially inferior. Which is racist.

      Put it this way: that phrase is the racist equivalent of “But I love gays! They’re so *fabulous*” It’s not a guilty deflection; it’s a blithe Teflon coating. It’s the genuine sentiment of someone who honestly thinks X are lovely people, but in large part because they’re seeing X in terms of stereotypes. Hateful prejudices that blacks are bestial, gays are camp, Jews avaricious, etc., have “positive” masks in stereotypes that blacks have physical prowess, gays have panache, Jews are shrewd, etc.. Clueless condescension based off those prejudices is not vitriolic loathing, but it’s still a signal of prejudice.

      Trust me, when you’ve encountered the weird fawning of enough strangers whose desire for friendship is based on bizarre assumptions that you must know all about fashion, you recognise the attitude and you recognise the prejudice underlying it. You’re acutely aware that to this person you’re not actually *you*; you’re the GBF that it would be just *awesome* to have, a pet member of Teh Gayz with which to accessorize their life. Experience in nodding and smiling at such overtures — e.g. being cornered at a party by someone who presumes you must love Madonna/Kylie/Gaga [delete according to relevant decade] — means I can’t help but wryly see the situations Heinlein is describing from the other side. It’s hard *not* to see a subtext there, in fact — Heinlein obliviously describing his own alienation of potential black friends with benevolent but clueless approaches.

      Prejudice is complex because of that sort of obliviousness. It’s what allows a writer to operate on profoundly racist ideas like “As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them,” while thinking of themself and their work as progressive. It’s what leads to a book that, I do think, *aspires* to be anti-racist actually turning out racist as all hell: to wit, Farnham’s Freehold. I read pretty much all of Heinlein as a teenager, did an adoring English project on him. That book though I bristled at even as a 14 year old utterly clueless about racial politics. I’ll happily say I found a lot of his work mind-opening even where I’d come to disagree with it, but that one I just thought WTF?!

    2. I have no doubt you got the same sense from reading Ayn Rand. Except all of her heroes were blond straight white men. Heinlein’s heroes were all versions of himself. There’s a reason why these authors are beloved of teenagers of all ages.

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