The Two faces of Paternalism

Ellison D. Smith

Historians of the American South, seeking to give a more nuanced picture of the region’s history, sometimes describe traditional racism as being “paternalistic” in nature. The idea is that that paternalistic ideas that African-Americans needed white guidance mitigated against the racism of the region developing into more extreme forms of race-thinking that were genocidal in nature. There is some truth to the idea of a paternalistic racism but it has be remembered that paternalism wears many face, often the smile of indulgence hides an inner scowl of scorn which is quick to emerge.


I came across a good example of this in a 1940 newspaper article about Senator Ellison D. Smith, who represented South Carolina and was an outspoken opponent of New Deal efforts to improve the African Americans. Wikipedia offers a good rundown of his politics:


Smith opposed the woman’s suffrage movement, and specifically the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Tying the amendment to black suffrage, he warned on the Senate floor “Here is exactly the identical same amendment applied to the other half of the Negro race. The southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.

At the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Smith walked out of the convention hall once he saw that a black minister was going to deliver the invocation. Smith recalled, “He started praying and I started walking. And from his great plantation in the sky, John C. Calhoun bent down and whispered in my ear – ‘You done good, Ed.'”


Reporter Preston Grover met Smith in 1940 and described their conversation:

He sets so angry at what he calls the New Deal’s “catering” to the negroes that, like Donald Duck, he almost bites himself.

“I have deep love for our colored people than anybody in that outfit up there ” he shouted across his desk, “but I’ve had experience with them and I know where they should be kept.”  (Preston Grover, “In Washington,” Fitchburg Sentinel, Saturday February 3, 1940).


In one sentence we get the two faces of paternalism: the smiling face that claims to have a special knowledge and affection (“I have deep love for our colored people” combined with the scowling desire to maintain power (“I know where they should be kept”).

Smith’s two-faced take on race relations seemed very familiar to me. Don’t we see the same two-faces in the way neo-conservatives talk about Arabs? On the one hand there is the smile of condescension (we need to bring democracy to the Arabs) which quickly becomes the scowl of contempt (if they reject what is good for them, we’ll have to use the only language they understand which is force). The psychodynamics of racial paternalism deserve a deeper look from scholars.

One thought on “The Two faces of Paternalism

  1. Hi Jeet — If you’ll forgive the narcissism of a self-plug, my book Plantation Airs: Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction is very much about the dual (at least) faces of paternalism, mainly in the context of the work of Faulkner, Welty, Percy (William A and Walker), Hurston, and Gaines. It came out in late 2007 and has not, to my knowledge, ushered in an age of renewed enthusiasm about paternalism. Ah well.

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