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David Coolidge

For a New Trade Union Program

White Workers and Negro Workers

(August 1945)

From The New International, Vol. XI No. 5, August 1945. pp. 137–140.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The present article in this series is addressed primarily to the white workers in the organized labor movement: CIO, AFL and the railway brotherhoods. The demand contained in the subtitle is urged upon the white workers. The main body of the working class does not and cannot have genuine social equality in capitalist society. That is, the white workers themselves do not have social equality, in the fundamental sense. We will have more to say on this point later.

The white worker has a degree of political and economic equality in the sense that white workers are not denied the right to vote by direct legal act any place in the country, nor are they denied employment on the basis of their color. It is only the Negro who faces Jim Crow socially, politically and in a special and unique manner. It is the purpose of this article to discuss the attitudes of white and Negro workers toward each other, to discover the source of clearly apparent antagonisms and to suggest the working-class means for the resolution of this conflict within the working class.

We realize the difficulties and complexities inherent in any attempt at a frank discussion of this problem as it exists in the United States. But the only way to approach the question is in the frankest and most vigorous manner. This method of approach is indicated for the reason that the working class is rent asunder by hatreds. It is the rock upon which the working class dashes about and remains divided and disunited. It is an apple of discord thrown into the ranks of labor to keep labor divided in the interest of ruling class peace-of-mind and domination. Workers on both sides, so to speak, have very strong opinions and attitudes on the question of their relation one with the other.

Oftentimes these attitudes are extremely irrational and are held to without rhyme or reason. The leader of a strike in Philadelphia, called to protest the employment of Negroes on the street railway, gives as his reason for opposition to working with Negroes that: “Negroes carry bed bugs. We sit on wooden benches in the car house and wood breeds bedbugs.” The question of admitting Negroes to a machinist’s local of the AFL is under discussion in a meeting of the local. A member takes the floor to object to the admission of Negroes working in the plant because, “I hate the black s―bs.” A very militant white worker is against Negroes because “they are savages.” A young white worker who was defending the rights of Negroes was reproached with the question: “You must want your sister to marry a nigger.” A white worker rises in the UAW convention to object to the resolution demanding equality for Negroes because “I would not want my wife and daughter to mix with Negroes at our convention.” The management of a plant decides under pressure from the union to upgrade Negroes. A member of the 7-man negotiating committee begins circulating a petition in his department against the admission of upgraded Negroes to that department. Members of a railway union organize a reign of terror against Negro firemen. In numerous instances where the announcement has been made that Negroes would be promoted to skilled jobs there have been strikes.

In a steel mill, two Negroes are promoted to a department where Negroes have not worked before. Two white workers, one a union member, begin the circulation of a petition against them. They give as their reason for not wanting to work with Negroes that “Negroes smell bad.” The superintendent added to the ludicrousness of the situation by telling these two workers that he got very close to the two Negro workers while they were in his office and “I didn’t smell anything.” Right at the time that Hitler was crushing the Poles in Poland, Polish workers in a northern city were raising furious objection to a plan of the Federal Housing Authority to erect a project to be occupied by Negroes in an area where the Poles lived.

Hundreds of instances of this kind could be given but these are enough to illustrate the situation concretely. It is interesting to compare these statements and attitudes of white workers with statements and attitudes of certain white people outside the working class. Senator Bilbo, of Mississippi, announces in the Senate that “all history and biology prove that the white race has been the leader of civilization for the past 6,000 years.” Senator Eastland of the same state tells the world that the “white boys in the Pacific are fighting for white supremacy.” A judge in the Scottsboro case announced that “no white woman would voluntarily give herself to a Negro.”

Workers Imitate Employers

The point which we are making is that the white workers as a rule take the same attitude toward Negroes and Negro workers as that assumed by the white bourgeoisie: the industrialists, financiers, Republican and Democratic Party leaders and government functionaries. Negroes assume similar attitudes: A Negro waiter on a dining car intones that it is not Negroes whose writing is difficult to read but “it’s these white folks who come in here who can’t write.” A Negro worker expresses the opinion that “hunkies can live cheaper than we can because all they eat is black bread and onions.” A Negro soldier is convinced that “the Japanese are savages.” Negro workers have stated that “the foreigners take our jobs.” “If I had a black chicken and a white chicken came around I would kill the white chicken,” “a white man is a white man and the white man in the union is no different from a white man anywhere else.”

White workers block up against Negro candidates for office in the unions and “plug” for a white candidate, purely on racial grounds. The unions under the leadership of the white workers permit the company to discriminate against and Jim Crow Negro workers. AFL unions bar Negroes from membership and hold Negroes out of employment under closed shop agreements. In all sections of the labor movement locals or groups of white members object to Negroes attending social affairs given by the union on the ground that they are against “social equality.” All of these are common practices and attitudes found everywhere, to one degree or other, in the trades unions. It is necessary to unearth the roots and the source of these attitudes on the part of white workers. The attitude of Negro workers is essentially a defense set-up against the anti-Negro practices of white trade unionists.

The labor movement and the white workers act in this reactionary manner under the impact of capitalist society. It is a demonstration of the fact that no institution is immune from the all-prevailing miasma of a putrid social order whose devotees profit materially from this fratricidal strife in the labor movement and the working class. Workers enter the factory and the union out of the capitalist world, enveloped in all the prejudices, hatreds, puerilities, psychological distortions and social fabrications of bourgeoisie society. The workers, white and black, live in a capitalist social order encompassed about with every tangible and concrete device necessary for the maintenance of the class supremacy of the bourgeoisie and the breeding of internecine conflict among the proletarians.

From the standpoint of propaganda, the subtlest means used to keep white and black workers embroiled in bitterness and hatred is the doctrine of the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro. This propaganda and agitation seep through the whole national scene and enter every nook and cranny of human relationships. For the country at large this is well understood. What is difficult for Negroes to understand is why such attitudes are prevalent in the labor movement. It is the purpose of this article to give an exposition of the reasons for this phenomenon.

We say that the base for hatred between black and white workers is laid when it is established in the mind of the white proletarian or other white toiler that the Negro is inferior. The white worker quoted does not want Negroes in his union because they are “savages” and of course it is well understood that savages are an inferior breed. They are “dirty,” “diseased,” “ignorant,” give off an “offensive odor,” etc., etc. It is not that the Negro worker is literally a savage, rather he is only one step removed from the savage state. He is therefore not a person one sits beside, works with, eats with or dances with. “Negroes don’t make good union men,” they are “scabs,” “difficult to organize,” “won’t pay their dues.”

The white worker has these notions drilled into him day and day out; year and year out. Not always in the crude and semi-illiterate manner of a Bilbo but far more effectively by distortions of bourgeois historians, journalists, publicists and the mumb-jumbo written by sociologists and political scientists in the name of science and scientific method. These bourgeois scholars, academic sorcerers, with their ill-founded generalizations, really plant the seed which flowers into the ignorant but articulate and vicious demagogues who infest the Congress, state legislatures, newspaper offices and other public institutions. One can prove this to oneself by consulting some of the school histories, especially those sections dealing with slavery and the Negro today. Also many of the sociological treatises have been responsible for a great deal of rubbish about race which with some people passes for science. For instance, in their discussions of “miscegenation” it is always a white man and a Negro woman. Reading these “investigations” one would never get the idea that “miscegenation” takes place the other way round. One of the judges in the Scottsboro Case concluded that these Negro boys must be guilty of rape because “no white woman would willingly give herself to a Negro.” This judge of course knew that this was a lie, but there are simple-minded white folk who could be made to believe it.

The white worker also receives a daily training in the concept of superior and inferior races from federal, state and municipal governments. He learns that Negroes are Jim Crowed by the government, that the federal government does not enforce the 14th and 15th amendments, that Negroes and white people are always placed into separate units in the Army, that the Navy has a tradition that Negroes are neither to serve nor be transported on battleships.

For decades the white worker has been taught through the practices of capitalist employers that Negro workers are confined to the menial, dirty, heavy, the lowest paying and most undesirable jobs. The white worker has become accustomed to seeing Negroes pushing the trucks, sweeping the floor, running the elevator, slaving at the coke oven or in the foundry. He is not accustomed to seeing Negroes in the company office, in the engineering or drafting departments or as part of the sales force. It is understood that Negro women can be only domestics, cotton pickers or scrubwomen. These practices in conjunction with the writing, speeches and lectures of the publicists, politicians and teachers, thoroughly indoctrinate the white worker with the idea of white superiority and Negro inferiority. Consequently when the white worker enters the factory he carries the ideas, notions and prejudices with him which he has acquired in capitalist society. On this, as well as other questions, he thinks as the leaders of capitalist society want him to think. His social theories as well as his economic ideas are not his own but those of the capitalist ruling class.

Such a white worker, and this type is the overwhelming majority, therefore thinks of the factory as a white factory, the union becomes a white man’s organization, because they both exist in a “white man’s country,” with a white man’s government, a white man’s army fighting a white man’s war, white business enterprises, white amusement places and restaurants, big league ball clubs, YMCA’s and churches. He often resents Negroes being employed in “his plant,” opposes his promotion to a “white man’s job,” his running for office in a white man’s union, or his attending a dance given by this white man’s union. Being white is alone enough in the thinking of the white worker to make him superior to the Negro.

This quality of whiteness with the attendant propaganda, tradition and pseudo-science produces a queer mental state in the white worker. The doctrine of the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro creates for the white worker, a feeling of oneness with the ruling class: with the employers, financiers and big government officials. This thing called the white race is a mystical entity, a hallowed group, a pure strain whose purity and thousand-year-old achievements must be kept inviolate and isolated from contamination by contact, as equals, with “inferior” races. The indoctrination of the white worker with ideas of Negro racial inferiority and white supremacy creates a harmony-of-interests attitude on the part of the white worker toward his employer, his congresssman and even toward the policeman on his block. On the question of Negroes the white proletarian closes ranks with every section of the white population except that small minority of white people who reject the race superiority myth and the resultant practices. This minority become “nigger lovers,” and a serious threat to “white supremacy.” The white worker can eat with the general manager of the plant, he can get a room in the same hotel as Ford or Truman, he can ride in the same car with Col. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune. Or so he believes, and the real situation in this connection is a subject unexplored and totally misunderstood by the average white worker.

His acceptance of this hocus-pocus about race and race superiority envelops the white worker in a cloud of ignorance, superstition, anti-labor practices and class collaboration. The whole set-up of capitalist exploitation and the class organization of capitalist society becomes obscured. By their blind adherence to the notion of white superiority and Negro inferiority, the white proletarians stultify the class struggle and defeat the purpose for which the trade-union movement exists. In the mass production industries where the majority of them receive the same pay as the Negroes,they solace themselves on the propaganda, put over by the ruling class, that although they receive the same pay as the “inferior” Negroes, they belong to a superior race, to the race that maintains “white supremacy.” They belong to the race which owns the biggest bank in the world, the tallest building on earth, which operates the richest university in the world, which operates extra-fare luxurious trains, which owns the most palatial dwellings: these white workers belong to a race which pays itself billions in dividends and interest every year, to a race which gorges itself on the finest food brought from every corner of the earth. The white proletarian accepts this situation as part of his pay. Although his pay envelope may contain the same amount as the Negro on the next machine, this white worker nevertheless permits himself to be drugged with the propaganda of a superior and an inferior race.

The Negro worker along with other Negroes is given a status in society, similar to the status of the serf in feudal society. The Negro is assigned a place and is expected to “know his place.” By his actions, the white worker divides capitalist society into two groups: Negroes and white people. The “white” group includes all white people: the employing ruling class, the middle class and the white working class. The Negro group includes all Negroes: the Negro banker and businessman, the professional group and the black worker.

Workers acquire such reactions mainly for the reason that the working class has not yet developed the habit, in its thinking, of inquiring into the source, the history and the roots of any body of opinion which is disseminated in society. Concepts, notions and propaganda are accepted uncritically and without any thought as to what effect such doctrines may have on the working class as a whole. For instance, workers and others use the term “race” as though they really knew what they were talking about. (The pamphlet, Races of Mankind, should do yeoman service in dispelling these illusions and this ignorance.) They do not know that no reputable and competent biologist, anthropologist or sociologist would dare come out today with the statement that there are superior and inferior races. Anthropologists definitely discount and reject the notion of race as ordinarily understood. There are no pure races. They are all mixed. This can be demonstrated to anyone in the U.S. except to the most obtuse or to those who profit from the propagation of this myth in some material or social way. This doctrine is often spread around by those who know that it is not true. The South is the hot-bed of this nonsense and it is very significant that in this section, where the greatest amount of mixing has gone on, we find the most pronounced talk about the purity of the white race. It is interesting that genealogical organizations, whose business it is to trace one’s ancestry, do not do a very extensive business in the South. Many Southerners, when they find it necessary or expedient to account for some seeming “impurity” in their lineage, are in the habit of discovering that they are descended from some Indian chief or princess. (Pocahontas is a very popular ancestor for white Virginians.)

Suppose, however, the scientists, whose business it is to be acquainted with such things as race and “racial characteristics,” were of the opinion that there are superior and inferior races. What would this mean? What would they be talking about? Of what significance would such theories or discoveries have for the working class? That is, what social, economic or political importance would such a theory have for wage earners? How could white workers use such a theory to improve their material status, their political and economic position in capitalist society? Would employers be inclined to raise the wages of the white workers because these workers were of a group which was “superior” to the group which Negro workers belonged to? Will lay-offs during “reconversion” be determined by considerations of racial superiority or inferiority? If this is the case, is it not true that during the last depression, the only people on the relief rolls would have been Negroes and other non-white workers? Furthermore, one would suppose that employers would never object to collective bargaining agreements except where Negroes are to be covered by the contract. Also, one would think that the federal government which also is a practitioner of race superiority and Jim-Crow, would only deny maintenance of membership after strikes in cases where the strikers were members of the “inferior” race. In the case of military conscription, one should draw the inference that only members of the inferior race would have to be drafted since their very inferiority would mean that they had no proper. notions about patriotism, the defense of civilization and of “our noble institutions.” We can add another inference. That is, we should expect our Jim-Crow federal government to do more than merely segregate Negroes in separate regiments. We should expect them to keep the members of the superior race at home and let the inferiors go to the jungles of Burma, the reptile-infested fastnesses of the Pacific and brave the vicissitudes of German prison camps. It might be replied that these are deeds for men of heroic mold, pastimes for the brave, the chivalrous and the noble.

Some white workers will be inclined to say that what we say here is merely ludicrous and fantastic. Perhaps so, but what makes it ludicrous and fantastic? Only the brute fact that many white workers act toward the Negro workers as though these things were true and actual. If white workers do not believe the “ludicrous” ideas which we express above, they will have to express such disbelief in action. They must base their changed actions on their discovery of the facts of life as it is in capitalist society: a social order based on the ownership of the means of production by a class and the use of the productive forces for the extraction of private profit.

They will have to divest themselves of quack notions about race and begin thinking in terms of working class and ruling class. They will have to throw off all ideas of superior and inferior races and begin to understand that in capitalist society, the attempt to divide mankind into races can have no value for the working class, which as a whole is exploited and oppressed by the capitalist ruling class all over the world. On the basis of this fundamental idea it will become clear that what is important for the working class is not what race or nationality one belongs to but rather which class is he a part of.

(To be concluded)

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