John Derbyshire On “Contact Theory”—Ignorance Is Bliss, But Familiarity Breeds….What, Exactly?


On February 3rd 1954 the British Cabinet, under Prime Minister Winston Churchill, discussed the issue of the fast-swelling nonwhite population of the U.K. That population then stood at 40,000, most of them blacks from the Caribbean, eighty percent having arrived in the previous six years.

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary (i.e. Attorney General, approximately) weighed the pros and cons of controlling the inflow by legislation. By imposing controls, said Sir David, as reported in the abbreviated language of Cabinet minutes:

“We should be reversing age-long tradition that British subjects have right of entry to mother-country of Empire. We should offend liberals, also sentimentalists.” Accordingly, “on balance, scale of the problem is such that we shouldn’t take these risks today.” He finished with a shrewd, cynical thrust: “The coloured populations are resented in Liverpool, Paddington and other areas—by those who come into contact with them. But those who don’t are apt to take liberal view.”

My emphasis. I took that extract from Family Britain, 1951-1957, the second volume of David Kynaston’s social history of the post-WW2 United Kingdom.

(To the degree that Sir David Maxwell Fyfe is remembered at all today it is for his response to Member of Parliament—and promiscuous bisexual—Robert Boothby when Boothby was lobbying for reform of Britain’s homosexuality laws: “I am not going down in history as the man who made sodomy legal.”)

Curiously, the year 1954 also saw the publication of Gordon Allport’s book The Nature of Prejudice, which is generally credited with having unleashed “Contact Theory” on an unsuspecting world.

Contact Theory takes a point of view opposite to Sir David Maxwell Fyfe’s. It argues that group prejudices and stereotypes are a result of isolation and ignorance. If persons from different groups are brought together, says the Contact Theorist, they will see the falseness of their prejudices and embrace the “psychic unity of mankind.”

Contact Theory is one of the foundation stones of the modern cult of Diversity.

To be fair to Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice presented Contact Theory in a subtle and qualified form. Allport repeatedly stressed, for example, that the individuals in contact need to see themselves as being on the same social level for the theory to work its magic: “occupational contacts with Negroes of equal status tend to make for lessened prejudice,” etc. (page 276, Allport’s emphasis).

Subsequent social science research, notably Robert Putnam’s much-discussed 2006 paper, further diluted Contact Theory down to well-nigh homeopathic levels. There is a good discussion of the theory’s current status in Chapter IV of Russell Nieli’s book Wounds That Will Not Heal, which I reviewed for VDARE.com here.

Sir David’s observation that familiarity breeds rancor while ignorance is multicultural bliss seems oddly up-to-date. Here for example was I, writing after last November’s election:

In the state of Mississippi…89 percent of whites voted for Romney; in the state of Alabama, it was 84 percent. In the state of Maine, on the other hand, only 40 percent of whites voted for Romney; in Vermont, only 33 percent.

The immigration debates in British Cabinets of the early 1950s are full of similar echoes of today’s immigration debates. Try this:

The main cause of this sudden inflow of blacks is of course the Welfare State. So long as the antiquated rule obtains that any British subject can come into this country without any limitation at all, these people will pour in to take advantage of our social services and other amenities, and we shall have no protection at all.

That was Lord Salisbury writing to a colleague in March 1954. Or this:

It was hardly surprising that all efforts to persuade the West Indian governments themselves to retard emigration ran up against the rock of their self-interest; they were effectively exporting unemployment and, when the immigrants sent money back to their families, importing capital.

That was from Chapter 4 of Andrew Roberts’ Eminent Churchillians, which gives full coverage of the topic, and of the determination on the part of mid-1950s British governments to do nothing at all about it.

The first restrictions on settlement by “British subjects”—that is, people from the old British Empire—were introduced in 1961. “By that time, however,” as Roberts says, “the pass had been sold.”

To me personal, David Kynaston’s books about postwar Britain are especially fascinating. They begin precisely where my existence did, around VE Day. The first volume, Austerity Britain, covers 1945-51; the second, noted above, is Family Britain, covering 1951-57. The third, just published over there, is Modernity Britain, 1957-1959.  

It’s a very engrossing thing, to read social history precisely keyed to one’s own lifespan. Words and names loaded with strange power, that seemed, to one’s childish understanding, to loom up suddenly, inexplicably, out of the fog of adult concerns, are here seen in their humdrum context: Johnnie Ray! Formica! Polio! Wilfred Pickles!

There are some surprises. Working my way through the first volume, I was curious to see which event in the world at large was the first of which I had any memory at all. Astonishingly, for a person as severely fashion-challenged as myself, it was the New Look, which I remember my mother and her housewife friends talking about. Psychologists tell us that our first memories form around age 2½, so I suppose I am remembering late 1947. Good grief!

Time and again, though, working through Kynaston’s pages, I am reminded that I belong to the last generation of whites to grow up in a monoracial nation. Because nonwhites were concentrated in a few big cities, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe’s rule applied. From Family Britain:

Gallup in April 1955 asked, “Do you think it is right or wrong for people to refuse to work with coloured men or women?”, to which only 12 percent thought it was right, whereas 79 percent thought it wrong. (In the same poll, to the question “Do you personally know or have you known any coloured people?”, 58 percent replied in the negative.)

The inhabitants of our own sleepy country town must have been solidly in the 58 percent.

The racial vacuum was to some degree filled by the narcissism of small differences, with class of course the main marker. Kynaston:

Robert Roberts . . . identified an “English proletarian caste system” that divided working-class people living or working in the same place; it is clear that this system was still alive and well after the Second World War. “The East Enders could be incredibly snobbish and class-conscious in their social gradings”…

It sure was: that, I remember well. Every town and district had a “rough” neighborhood where respectable people didn’t venture; every street in a “decent” working-class neighborhood had a problem family: house dirty, husband work-shy, wife coarse and boozy, kids numerous and feral.

In accordance with Sir David Maxwell Fyfe’s dictum, we grew up racial egalitarians, so that by college age we were marching against Apartheid and cheering on the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

On the other hand, contra Sir David, the college-age kids of today, raised in multiculturalism, are also mostly racial egalitarians, if perhaps a tad more so in Maine and Vermont than in Mississippi and Alabama. The power of childhood indoctrination? Youthful idealism trumping reality? The tame docility of a supervised, playgrouped generation raised by helicopter parents?

I don’t know. I do like to think, though, that the experience of growing up around human nature in all its fullness—the good, the bad, the exemplary and the appalling—all packed into one’s own ethny, forms a better foundation for a mature adult view of human group differences than the coloring-book simplicities of the Diversity cult.

What do they think, this new generation we’ve raised, as they see the East Asian kids packing the AP Algebra classes, black flash mobs on YouTube, Amerinds vegetating in scholastic mediocrity, the endless scroll of Jewish names in law, the media, the intelligentsia, . . .?

When they have cleared their minds of cant at last, what will take its place: cool realism, or warm rancor?

Perhaps Contact Theorists, if there are any left, could look into the matter.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is  FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.

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