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George Breitman

Negro ‘Progress’: What the Facts Show

(November 1952)

From Fourth International, Vol.12 No.6, November-December 1952, pp.173-178.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Two main camps, broadly speaking, are engaged in a struggle for the leadership of the anti-Jim Crow movement in the United States. One camp, temporarily dominant, stands for “gradual reform” through class collaboration; it includes most labor and Negro leaders, practically all capitalist liberals and some capitalist conservatives. The other camp, whose direct influence is much weaker, stands for radical change through militant class struggle; its chief organized expression is the Marxist movement, although large numbers of Negroes and workers sympathize with some or many of its practical conclusions.

The reformist camp takes this position:

“We deplore Jim Crow and want to eliminate it. We believe that this can be done, and should be done, within the framework of capitalism and the two-party system. The way to achieve progress is not by antagonizing those who control the country, but by persuading them that Jim Crow is harmful, unjust and unnecessary. The facts show that our approach is correct because the Negro has steadily been making remarkable gains in all spheres of American life. Let us not become impatient and throw away the method that has been tested and proved successful. Let us continue to work as we have been doing, more energetically of course, and through peaceful collaboration, appeals to reason and willingness to compromise we will gradually but surely solve the problem.”

The revolutionary camp takes this position:

“The only way to make progress against Jim Crow is by fighting tooth and nail against those who profit by it, the capitalist class, just as the only way to end Jim Crow is by removing its fundamental cause, the capitalist system. Whatever lasting gains the Negro people have made in the 20th century were won through struggle in alliance with other progressive sections of the population, particularly the working class, and not by collaboration with the capitalist beneficiaries of Jim Crow; and that is how future gains will be made too. We deny that the economic gains of recent years are substantial, or that they will necessarily be permanent, or that they automatically signify further gains, or that they prove the correctness of the reformist program To win the maximum gains possible under capitalism, and to abolish Jim Crow, we need new methods, a new leadership and a new party based on the labor and Negro movements.” [1]

New Bible for Reformers

As can be seen, part of the controversy revolves around the extent and nature of recent gains by the Negro people. Since the end of World War II the reformists have talked about little else, for this is their strongest debating point. Now they have a Bible too — a report entitled Employment and Economic Status of Negroes in the United States, prepared for the Senate Subcommittee on Labor and Labor-Management Relations and published on Nov. 20, 1952. The air has been thick since then with claims that need to be examined.

An introductory note in the report says:

“From all the information brought together, two general facts seem to emerge. The first is that in almost every significant economic and social characteristic that we can measure — including length of life, education, employment and income — our Negro citizens, as a whole, are less well off than our white citizens. The second is that in almost every characteristic the differences between the two groups have narrowed in recent years.”

(The second, naturally, was selected for priority and the main emphasis in the headlines, news stories and editorial comment of most of the capitalist press.)

In our opinion, the first of these general conclusi6ns, whose truth no one can deny, is the more important of the two. The program of gradual reform has had 8% decades since the Civil War to show what it can do and yet 1950 found the Negro “less well off” than the white — and that is an extreme understatement, as the statistics will show. Nevertheless, since the reformists claim that the decade 1940-50 marked such an acceleration of Negro progress that their policies have been vindicated, it is necessary to examine the statistics supplied in the report with a view to determining what changes took place in the status of the Negro people during that decade, and what their implications are for the future. [2]

Table 1 — Median wage and salary
income of persons with wage and salary
income, 1939 and 1947-50




as a percent
of White


$   364

$   956


















According to Table 1, the average wage of the employed Negro rose from $364 in 1939 to $1,295 in 1950, an increase of $931. This is less than the average increase of the employed white in the same period, $1,525. But since the Negro’s wage in the base year (1939) was so much lower than that of the white, his smaller increase in dollars works out as a bigger increase in percentages. In 1939 the Negro’s wage represented 38% of the white’s, in 1950 it represented 52%. Thus this table shows a relative gain of 14% for the Negro in the period considered.

This 14% figure is the most impressive in the entire report. The table on average life expectancy shows a relative gain of only 5% for Negro men and 8% for Negro women in the last 30 years; the table on education shows a relative gain of 6% for the Negro from 1940 to 1950; and the tables on occupational status vary too much from industry to industry and between the sexes to permit an exact estimation. [4] Most of this article, therefore, will be concerned with an evaluation of the maximum change hailed by the reformists, the 14% figure on wage income.

Most of the comparisons in the report are between 1940 and 1950 — 10 years, not 11 as in the wage income table. This at once raises a question: Why did the government statisticians omit the 1940 figures, which are available, and use the 1939 figures instead? It may help us to note here that if we compare the 10 year period 1939-49, we find a relative gain of 7% — only one-half the gain shown for the 11 year period. Could it be that a comparison of 1940 and 1950 — the standard procedure in most of the tables, we repeat — would show a much less imposing relative gain than the 14% shown for 1939-50? The compilers of the report will have to answer that question. Meanwhile, we see how greatly the final result can be changed by a slight alteration in the years picked for comparison, and we should be put on our guard by the arbitrariness of the choice made in this table.

That leads us directly to a much more basic objection: Comparisons of this kind have only a limited value unless they are accompanied by an understanding of the specific conditions that prevailed in the different years compared. (How useful for example, are figures comparing agricultural production in two different years if you don’t know that one of them was a drought year?) We must know in what respects the economic situation of 1939 resembled that of 1950, and in what respects they differed. Otherwise we are in no position to evaluate the 14% figure or the impression, fostered by the report, that it establishes a general trend.

The 1930’s were the years of the great depression; despite some relative recovery around the middle of the decade there was another recession in 1937 and unemployment was still heavy in 1939 (averaging 9½ million). It may be asked: What significance does that have for our study — didn’t unemployment affect whites as well as Negroes? Of course it did, but not proportionally — the percentage of unemployment was much higher among Negroes. Then it may be asked: But what difference does that make in considering Table 1, which gives average incomes only of the employed? It makes plenty of difference: The depression not only produced proportionally greater unemployment among Negroes, it also reduced the average “income of those Negroes who managed to get or keep jobs proportionally more than the income of employed whites. This resulted from two factors: discrimination against Negroes in hiring, and the depression-born practice of replacing Negroes with whites in the better-paid of the so-called “Negro jobs.” Thus we have good reason to believe that so far as income went, the Negro was relatively, as well as absolutely, worse off in 1940 (or 1939) than he was in 1930.

Now we cannot prove that statistically because, for some reason, the report does not give 1930 figures on Negro and white income (although it supplies 1930 figures in many other tables). Nevertheless there is evidence strongly supporting our conclusion that Negro income fell relatively during the 1930’s — statistics on employment (not contained in the report). We take the figures on manufacturing because this was amongst the best-paid employment open to Negroes. In 1930. Negroes made up 7.3% of all employees in manufacturing. By 1940, the figure had fallen to 5.0% — a drop of almost one-third. According to the final report of the Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1947, the 1940 figure was even lower than that of 1910, which was 6.2%! In other words, 1939 was not a “normal” year for Negroes in relative employment or in relative income, but represented the lowest point reached in both fields in at least 10 and possibly 20 or 30 years.

Consequently, the 14% relative gain computed by using 1939 as the base year does not show the overall ware trend but a temporary fluctuation. What actually happened in 1939-50 was that the Negro recovered some of the ground lost in the depression. (His proportion in manufacturing rose from 5.1% in 1940 to 6.8% in 1950 — which was still below the figure in 1930.) Was the Negro relatively better off in income in 1950 than in 1930? The government will have to release the 1930 statistics before we can answer that question with certainty. If he was relatively better off in 1950 than 1930, how much? Again the answer will have to await the release of the statistics, but one thing is sure — the figure will be much less than 14%.

Whatever else Table 1 does, it does not show the overall wage trend of recent times. A comparison of 1930 (when the depression was just beginning) with 1950 (when employment was high) would provide a far more accurate picture of the over-all trend than this table (which is based on comparison of a depression year with a year of relative prosperity).

Having filled in the background that is needed to assess the relative gains shown during the 1940’s, we must now seek an explanation for those gains. A good place to begin is with data on shifts in the population.

Shifts in Population

Table 2 — Population by urban-rural residence, 1920-50 (in thousands) [5]







































Another table, which we shall not reproduce here, “reveals the shift of the Negro population, during this wartime decade (1940-50), from Southern to Northern, Central and Western States. A resulting decline in the number and proportion of Negroes in the population occurred in the Southern States of West Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The Middle Atlantic, East North Central, and Pacific States had the most appreciable increases in their Negro population, and the percentage increases for Negroes far exceed those of the white population. Michigan’s Negro population more than doubled, while its white population increased only 17%. In California the Negro population increased 116%, compared with a 50% increase among whites.” Other data dealing with population shifts in the big cities show heavy increases, especially in non-Southern cities. These figures firmly establish the shift in large numbers of Negroes from farm to city or town and out of the South and the fact that proportionally this shift was greater among Negroes than whites in the last decade.

Simultaneously came a shift in the proportion of people employed in agriculture:

Table 3 — Percent distribution of employed men and women
in agriculture, March 1940 and April 1950

Male Nonwhite

Male White

Female Nonwhite

Female White

















These figures show that on the whole the proportion of the employed Negroes who were engaged in agriculture dropped much more than that of whites similarly employed in the period under examination.

The greater urbanization and proletarianization of Negroes shown in Tables 2 and 3 are a fact of tremendous economic, political and sociological importance, but here we want to discuss only their effects on relative incomes.

To begin with, wages are higher in the North and West than in the South; a steel worker who moves from Alabama to Pennsylvania gets higher wages for the same work. Similarly, wages are higher in urban than rural areas; a tenant farmer or sharecropper who moves to the city and becomes a factory worker also gets higher wages. Since more Negroes migrated relatively than whites, the Negro’s relative income would have risen as a result of his migration even if wage rates for all occupations had remained absolutely stationary during the last decade. Consequently one part (maybe even the major part) of the 14% relative gain is due solely to the existence of wage differentials between urban and rural areas and between North and South, and not to a narrowing of Negro-white wage differentials within any of these areas.

The migrations enable us to judge the validity of the 14% figure as a guide to relative changes not in wages but in real income during the last decade:

  1. Not only wages but living costs are higher in urban and non-Southern areas. Negroes migrated more than whites, so this factor affected them more. In terms of real income or purchasing power, therefore, the relative gain must have been less than 14%.
  2. Many people employed on the land receive part of their income “in kind” (board, lodging, produce). But this part of the income of the 1939 farmer who became a worker by 1950 is not included in the Table 1 figures, and so the increase in his real income is not actually as great as those figures would indicate. Since Negro urbanization was proportionally higher than white urbanization, this points to the need for making another reduction in that 14% figure.
  3. The last decade was marked by inflation, which strikes at the living standards of both whites and Negroes but always hits the lowest-income groups the hardest (who must spend more of their incomes on food and other necessities which have risen most in price). Since Negro wage income is shown to be only 52% of that of the whites at the end of the decade, this means that the Negro’s real standard of living (as distinct from money income) was adversely affected by inflation more than that of the white, and that in terms of real income the 14% figure must be reduced further. [6]

“Progress” in the Last Decade

Next we turn attention to what happened to relative income within the last decade because it throws clearer light on the causes for the change in the decade as a whole and at the same time further refutes claims about the “steadiness” of Negro progress. Table 1 has already shown that the Negro’s relative wage suddenly fell 7% in the single year 1948-1949, with the beginning of the depression that was staved off only by increased cold war arms spending. But there are other statistics in the report that are even more illuminating:

Table 4 — Median money income of families, 1945 and 1947-50




as a percent
of White




















     54 [7]

Table 4 indicates that the high point in the relative gains did not come at the end of the decade but in the middle, when the figure reached 57%, “a comparative level that has not yet again been reached in recent years,” as the report states. This loss of 3% among Negro families as a whole from 1945 to 1950 was even exceeded among urban Negro families which fell from 67% to 58% between 1945 and 1949 (1950 figures for this category are not supplied).

Causes for the Changes

Now we have the clues to the two main causes of the changes of the last decade. One was the mechanization of agriculture, which drove many people off the land, especially in the South, and gave an added impetus to the migrations and urbanization. The other was the war needs of the capitalist class, which erased the unemployment prevalent at the beginning of the decade. The requirements of war, and structural changes in the agricultural economy — these were the primary factors responsible for whatever relative gain may have taken place, and they operated independently of the will of the reformists and of the needs of the masses, white or Negro.

When we call these the primary factors we don’t mean that they were the only ones. The Negro people themselves intervened effectively at many points. It was they who pulled up stakes and moved to new areas (often against the advice of timid leaders who feared that migration to the cities would provoke anti-Negro riots). It was they who won concessions by independent action, by struggles inside the plants where they broke clown some of the barriers to upgrading and hiring, and by struggles outside the plants through organizations like the March on Washington Movement whose threats to undertake militant mass action did more to win a wartime FEPC order from Roosevelt than all the efforts of the reformists combined. It was the labor movement, acting mainly in self-defense to be sure, that saw to it that the newly-migrated Negro workers were paid the prevailing wage scales, more or less, in the plants under union contract.

We have no wish to minimize these other factors — on the contrary — because these struggles confirm the basic outlook of the Marxists, not the reformists; our aim here is rather to stress the conditions which enabled these factors to operate with some success. In fact, we can even afford to attribute a measure of participation in the process to the reformists, who tried in their own way to persuade the ruling class to lift some of the obstacles to Negro employment, which they decried as harmful to the war effort, morally unjust, etc.; but, this doesn’t mean the tail wagged the clog. (The reformists also had a negative effect for wherever they had the influence they restrained the masses from independent struggle in a crisis where such struggle could have induced even greater concessions from the ruling class.)

We cannot determine statistically which of the two primary factors was the more decisive, but we conclude that it was the war. Because as soon as the war ended, the Negro’s relative gains ended too, and were succeeded by relative losses. When the cold war began to be heated up, further relative gains were recorded in certain spheres, but not enough to make up for the losses of the second half of the decade as a whole. At this point we must also ask the reformists: If the over-all gains of the decade are to be credited to your policies, won’t you also have to take the credit for the losses of the last five years, or explain why your policies did not work during 1945-50? (This period, incidentally, coincided with the Truman administration’s conduct of the noisiest anti-Jim Crow reform demagogy in the history of the country.)

Turning now to a discussion of what the future holds, we begin with the report’s data on unemployment:

Table 5 — Unemployment Status of the
civilian population, annual averages,
1947, 1949 and 1951

(percent distribution).













This shows, the report says, that the average rate of unemployment for Negroes has been “more than 50%” above that for whites in recent years. (70% above in 1951.) “Although the rate was about 5% for Negroes in 1951, compared with 3% for whites, about the same relative improvement had taken place since 1949 when the economic situation was less favorable.” (Again we must ask why the authors of the report omitted the 1940 or 1939 figures, which are in their possession. Because a comparison with the latest data would show a considerable relative rise for Negroes in the average rate of unemployment during the last decade?)

The same unfavorable proportions are shown in the data about seniority. A survey in 1951 showed that “Negro workers had been on their current jobs an average of 2.4 years, compared with an average of 3.5 years among white workers” — that is, seniority among white workers is almost 50% higher than among Negroes. Moreover, “20% of urban white men and only 13% of urban Negroes had worked on their current jobs since before January 1940.”

Thus if a depression takes place before a global war, Negro workers as usual will be first and hardest hit, with calamitous results for all the relative gains of the last decade.

But let’s grant that the most likely variant for the next period is not depression but continuation of the cold war leading to another world war. Does that lend support to the vista, held out by the reformists, of continued relative progress for the Negroes at approximately the same rate as in the 1940’s, or anywhere near that rate? Our answer must be a flat No because the special circumstances of the last decade will not be operating in the next period, or not with the same force. The same rate of relative gain will not continue because the new base year (1950) is not a depression year such as 1939 was. It will not continue because the gap in urbanization has already almost been closed (61% for Negroes to 64% for whites) and while further migration will take plate it will be on a reduced scale and therefore will not have the same impact on relative incomes as in the 40’s. And most of all it will not continue because World War III is going to be a lot different from World War II.

Prospects If War Comes

Last time the US had strong allies abroad and a neutral if not friendly attitude from many other countries; next time its allies will be neither strong nor dependable and Washington will enter the war with the hate and suspicion of most of the world. Last time the fighting was conducted far from US shores; next time the US will learn how it feels to receive as well as give bombings. Last time the war, beginning in a depression, produced a switch from mass unemployment to full employment and an economic revival which permitted the capitalists to grant some concessions to keep the population at home from getting too restless; next time the war will begin when production will already be at near-capacity levels and the working class will already be fully employed and therefore will not produce the same psychological effects on the people. On the contrary, the counter-revolutionary attempt to subjugate the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, the anti-capitalist workers of Europe and the anti-imperialist masses of Asia. South America, the Middle East and Africa will strain the economy to the breaking point, impose crushing burdens on the American people and generate discontent and resistance at home as well as abroad.

The inevitable tendency then will be not to grant but to withdraw concessions from the masses. The ruling class will seek to freeze wages solidly; to conscript labor and chain the workers to their jobs; to regiment the unions and turn them into agencies of the state to maintain labor discipline: to double and triple taxes until they consume a majority of the workers’ income; and to set up a military-police dictatorship to put down all opposition to this program. Those who preach and practice class collaboration, those whose first allegiance is to capitalism rather than the working class, will be utterly unable to halt or reverse this tendency even if they should want to; only the methods of militant class struggle will be able to stop the onslaughts of reaction.

And what will happen to the economic status of the Negro people? It is of course conceivable that, even in such circumstances Negroes at first might register slight relative gains in income where they were drafted out of inessential jobs and into war production. But that would be both the beginning and end of it. With strictly enforced wage-freezing and staggering taxes, the real income and living standards of the people would go down and not up. The relative status of the Negro would be frozen for the duration of a war that everyone expects to be as prolonged as it will be terrible, and all efforts to change his status would be branded “subversive” and punished by the heavy hand of the state.

No Hope in Reformist Program

Thus if a depression signifies the rapid loss of all recent relative gains by the Negro, war means absolute losses for white and Negro workers, with the Negro’s relative status fixed and frozen, at best, for an indefinite period. Either way, the reformist perspective holds out little hope to the Negro for genuine progress in the present or the achievement of equality in the future.

In essence, the advocates of gradual reform exaggerate the relative gains of the past and ascribe them to the wrong causes in order to conciliate the Negro with his oppressor and to divert him from the militant action which can both alleviate and end his oppression. This program has always been a hoax; now it is becoming a trap too. If it was harmful in the past, it is doubly harmful today because the United States is approaching a fateful turning point. The future, as we have tried to show, will not be a mere repetition of the past. In the absence of a social upheaval led by the labor movement, the war will bring a savage dictatorship which the ruling class will have no desire to relax When or if the war ends.

In the pamphlet The Jim Crow Murder of Mr. and Mrs. Harry T. Moore, we related the prospects of the Negroes in the US to the fate of the Jews in Europe during the last war and demonstrated that “conditions can arise which will wipe out in a single decade all the gains that have been painfully accumulated in a century of strenuous effort.” Such conditions will flourish luxuriantly in the soil of the reaction that will accompany the next war. Instead of continuing progress, the next period can see the Negro people used as scapegoats for the capitalist class and menaced with the loss of all their liberties and even with mass extermination. These dangers cannot be wished out of existence by shutting eyes and covering ears and reciting twisted statistics: they must be reckoned with and actively combatted. For this task the reformists and their program are worse than useless; they get in the way of the job that has to be done.

This article is mainly negative because its aim is to refute certain misconceptions. But the perspective that Marxism offers the Negro people is neither negative nor pessimistic. Capitalism, which looks so powerful and imposing in this country today although it is the only part of the world capitalist system that has any stability whatever, is headed for its doom. It will not be any more successful than Hitler in conquering the world, and like him will probably break its neck in the process. The convulsions and crises arising out of the drive to war or the war itself will radicalize the American people; they will also provide the American people with opportunities to check the assaults on their living standards and liberties, and take the political power and the fate of the nation out of the hands of the capitalist minority.

For this a new party is needed; the sooner the job of building an independent labor party is started, the sooner, smoother and less costly the transfer of power will be. The American workers in alliance with the Negro people, the poor farmers and the lower middle classes are just the ones to do this job. When they do it, the economic roots of racial oppression will be eradicated, the Negro people will secure the equality that capitalism has stubbornly denied them in the 90 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and Jim Crow will become a memory to puzzle future generations.


1. The most complete exposition of the Marxist position will be found in the Socialist Workers Party resolution, Negro Liberation through Revolutionary Socialism, Fourth International, May-June, 1950.

2. Our use of the data in the report does not mean we endorse or accept them. Statistics are not correct merely because they are official. These were prepared for the Senate subcommittee by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, publisher of the cost-of-living index which is notorious for its anti-labor bias. Their main source is the Bureau of the Census, whose studies admittedly are often incomplete and, because of inadequately-trained census-takers, inexact. Furthermore, the Bureau of the Census sometimes changes its definitions so that comparisons between two censuses may be based on different things (for example, the 1950 census defines “family” in such a way as to exclude four million persons included in 1940). Victor Perlo, in an article Trends in the Economic Status of the Negro People (Science & Society, Spring, 1952) demonstrated that certain census figures are misleading and different from those of other government agencies. Consequently there is good reason to believe that the statistics in the report give a rosier picture in many details than reality warrants.

3. In a number of places the report uses tables on “median” income but refers to them in the text as “average” income. Similarly most of the data in its tables concern “nonwhites” but the text uses the term “Negro.” (“Since Negroes comprise more than 95% of the nonwhite group, the data for nonwhite persons as a whole reflect predominantly the characteristics of Negroes.”) In both cases this article follows the usage of the report in tables and text.

4. Average life expectancy at birth: In 1919-21 the figure for male Negroes was 84% of that for male whites (47.1 years to 56.3 years); in 1949 it had become 89% (58.6 years for male Negroes to 65.9 years for male whites). Thus male Negroes gained 2 years more than male whites and still lag behind by over 7 years — a relative gain of 5%. For females, in 1919-21 the figure for Negroes was 80% of that for whites (46.9 years to 58.5 years); in 1949 it had become 88% (62.9 years for Negroes to 71.5 years for whites). Thus female Negroes gained 3 years more than female whites and still lag behind 8½ years — a relative gain of 8%.

Median school years completed by persons 25 years old and over: In 1940 the school attendance record of Negroes was 5.7 years, while that of whites was 8.7 years. In 1950 the figure was 7 years for Negroes, 9.7 years for whites. The change was from 66% to 72%, a relative gain of 6%.

Occupational shifts: The report sums this up as follows:

“... the highest proportions of Negro workers continue to be found in the lower-paying and less-skilled occupations, such as service workers and laborers. Comparatively low proportions are found in the professional, technical, managerial, clerical, sales, and craftsmen occupations. However, the shift of Negroes into better-paying occupations and more skilled occupations, accelerated during the war years, has in general been maintained.”

This latter statement is true only as a generalization; while gains made during the war were maintained in some of the better jobs, they were lost in others.

5. A different definition of “urban” was used in 1950 than in 1940. With the old definition, the total urban population would have been 8 million smaller. For our purpose we will assume that the change in definition does not affect the relative result.

6. Perlo (previous citation), for example, offers Census figures to show that in this decade average rents for Negro families rose 150% while those of whites rose 61%, and that even in absolute terms of dollars Negro rentals rose more than white on the average.

7. The difference between this 1950 percentage for family income (54%) and the 1950 percentage for individual wage and salary income (52%) can be explained as follows: In Negro families more members, especially married women, are working than in white families.

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