Social Distance

Although Park hoped for the eradication of racial differences through fullassimilation in the very long run, he did not think of it as a process that hadmuch relevance to the analyses of race relations in his America. The conceptof "social distance," which Park derived from Simmel, seemed to him of muchgreater importance for an understanding of contemporary race relations. Thisconcept refers to the degree of intimacy that prevails between groups and in-dividuals." The degree of intimacy measures the influence which eachhas over the other." The greater the social distance between individuals andgroups, the less they influence each other reciprocally. Such terms as raceconsciousness or class consciousness, Park argues, refer to social distance be-tween groups of people. They "describe a state of mind in which we becomeconscious of the distances that separate, or seem to separate, us fromclasses and races whom we do not fully understand." In American race re-lations in particular, a fixed and conventional social distance assures that theNegro is "all right in his place." As long as he keeps his place and his dis-tance, a great deal of warmth between the subordinate and the superordinatemay obtain. The lady of the house may be on the closest terms with her cook,but these relations can be maintained only as long as the cook keeps her"proper distance." Similarly, interpersonal relations between Negroes andwhites may be more personal in the South than they are in the North, becausethe southern white is assured that the Negro will know precisely how to keepthe proper distance.

Park thought that what is ordinarily called prejudice "seems . . . to be[the] more or less instinctive and spontaneous disposition to maintain socialdistance." Prejudice in this sense was to Park by no means pathological; itwas a universal human phenomenon. Men, he argued, come into the worldwith certain predispositions and they acquire others in later life. "A man with-out prejudices is a man without conviction, and ultimately without character."Friendships and enmities are correlative. "As it seems impossible to conceiveof a world without friendship, so it seems improbable, in such a world, that lifeshould go without enmities, for those two things are, in some sense and somedegree, correlative, so that the bias with which we view the qualities of ourfriends makes it difficult if not impossible to do justice to the virtues of ourenemies." Prejudice and social distance are therefore ineradicable aspects ofhuman association.

Race prejudice, like caste or class prejudice, is in this view "merely onevariety of a species." It can be looked at as "a phenomenon of status.""Every individual we meet inevitably finds a place in our minds in some cate-gory already defined." Every person we encounter is categorized and assessedaccording to his imputed status in the established order of things. And so, inracially divided American society, Negroes are assigned inferior status andthey are enjoined to maintain the proper distance toward those who havesuperordinate status.

Racial prejudice and social distance, Park argued forcefully, must not beconfused with racial antagonism and conflict. The former operate when thesubordinate accepts his inferior status; the latter arise when he is not longerwilling to do so. Writing in 1928, Park penned these prophetic words: "Thereis probably less racial prejudice in America than elsewhere, but there is moreracial conflict and more racial antagonism. There is more conflict because thereis more change, more progress. The Negro is rising in America and the meas-ure of the antagonism he encounters is, in some very real sense, the measureof his progress." Race prejudice refers to the normal process of categorizingindividuals according to the position they occupy in the traditional order."Prejudice is not on the whole an aggressive but a conservative force." Racialconflicts and antagonisms, on the other hand, indicate that the traditionalorder is weakening so that the customary accommodations are no longereffective and social distance in no longer maintained effectively. Racial conflictsare harbingers of change in the racial status order. As previous accommodationsbreak down under the impact of antagonism and conflict, they prepare the wayfor a new accommodation between contending racial status groups in whichthe previously inferior group achieves more nearly equal status. Once this hasbeen accomplished, the basis may have been laid for a fusion of the previouslydistinct groups through racial assimilation and the eradication of social dis-tance between them. Hawaii's racial situation is a case in point. The race re-lations cycle from accommodation to conflict to new accommodation and pos-sibly to assimilation is to Park only a special case of the general process ofsocial change.

From Coser, 1977:360-362.


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