Mr. Dalton’s Performative Activism

In Native Son, one aspect that stands out to me during Bigger Thomas’s trial is Mr. Dalton’s insistence that he is someone who truly cares about the wellbeing of Black people while not understanding how little he is really doing. He adheres vehemently to the belief that he is a man who bears no ill will toward Black people, describing how he has worked for years to help them in whatever ways he can. His efforts are, in reality, very minimal and not actually effective.

Mr. and Mrs. Dalton believe that their hiring Black individuals and contributing to the South Side Boys’ Club are sufficient actions that mark them as being true advocates for all Black people. Several times throughout the novel, Mr. Dalton mentions how he “sent a dozen ping-pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club” with a sense of pride and accomplishment, as though he has done some great service to the Black community in Chicago (294). However, Max calls him out on this belief, saying, “My God, man! Will ping-pong keep men from murdering? Can’t you see? Even after losing your daughter, you’re going to keep going in the same direction? Don’t you grant as much life-feeling to other men as you have? … This boy and millions like him want a meaningful life, not ping-pong…” (295). Max attempts to show Mr. Dalton the ridiculous mismatch between what he thinks Bigger needs to live a good life and what Bigger actually needs in order to be able to do that. Mr. Dalton fails to recognize or admit that even with the help he tries to provide, he still places Black people at a disadvantage in other ways, such as by only renting them apartments in certain neighborhoods and raising the prices for them. While he tries to come off as this kind gentleman concerned with equity and justice, his actions align more with the concept of performative activism. He claims to care a lot about the problems that Black people face but makes no effort to incite real change. In order to truly help the individuals he claims he wants to, Mr. Dalton would need to analyze the systems of oppression that are in place and work to address and alleviate the issues that prevent Black people from having the “meaningful life” that Max tells him they deserve.