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David Coolidge

For a New Trade Union Program

White Workers and Negro Workers

(September 1945)

From The New International, Vol. XI No. 6, September 1945, pp. 181–183.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from August issue)

White workers have an abundance of evidence at hand in their past experience with the capitalist employers to teach them that what we say here is true. White workers acquiesced in the barring of Negroes from skilled and semi-skilled occupations for decades. Some of them went so far as to write in their union constitutions that Negroes could not be members. They participated in pogroms against Negro workers. They collaborated with anti-Negro employers and used their closed shop agreements to keep Negroes off the job. They engaged in strikes against the hiring or the upgrading of Negroes. But when the Second Imperialist World War rolled around with unprecedented demand for increased production, the capitalists and their government did not hesitate to raze the job barriers against Negroes and induct hundreds of thousands of them into “white” jobs. The Negro lost his inferiority, at least to a considerable degree. The protestations of white workers availed them nothing. The FEPC appeared. There were presidential decrees against the barring of Negroes. Capitalist employers discovered that Negroes were as good workmen as white men. They even expressed disagreement when white women objected to working with Negro women.

The contention that “Negroes are savages” did not seem to be a matter of any importance. The lathes, punch presses and welding apparatus did not seem to be concerned with whether or not the “hands” that operated them were black or white. The owners of the machines also did not bother about the niceties of social theory and practice. For the time being at least these were things for the erudition of a backwoods Bilbo, the gentlemen of the professorial chair, the editorial office and the street corner. When a big war is on, there are capitalist profits to be made and gold is neither black nor white. Fifteen per cent on one’s investment or an annual salary of $100,000 wrung out of the sweat and blood of a black worker will buy just as many mansions, cocktails, and chorus girls as the same amount from the labor of a white worker. Capitalist profit really knows no color line. The African native toiling in the Transvaal gold fields, concentration camps, the Nicaraguan peon writhing under the lash of the slave drivers of the United Fruit Company, the Chinese coolie sweating out profits for the British imperialists, the Indian laborer bowed under the weight of the whole British ruling class, the Negro sharecropper of the South eking out his inhuman existence on sow belly and corn meal, the Mexican peon enriching the Associated “Farmers” of California, stand no lower in the estimation of the capitalist masters than the “aristocracy of labor” in the most highly skilled of the AFL craft unions.

The white worker who does not understand these things is in fact a very naive individual. He believes everything that he is told. He is a glutton for error, myth, ignorance and superstition. He sees the employers and the government crack down on his Negro exclusionist policies during the war and his only reaction is: “Just wait until the war is over and we’ll get rid of the niggers.” How does he know he will, and what does he mean by “get rid of?” White workers have never understood that the preferment which has been theirs all these decades was neither basically a matter of the capitalist employers being pro-white labor or anti-Negro labor but what best serves the interest of capitalism at a certain time or in a certain locality. The ruling class always seeks to divide and rule. The atomization of the working class has not been promoted by the ruling class in the relations between black and white workers but also between skilled and unskilled, male and female, children and adults, natives and “foreigners,” Jew and Gentile, northerner and southerner, urban and rural.

We have said that these phenomena in the ranks of the white workers are the result of the impact of capitalist society on the working class: the penetration of the working class by ideas which should be cast out as alien and inimical to the welfare of the proletariat as a class. A united and class conscious ruling class parades before the working class with slogans and ideas which if accepted by the workers can only lead to strife, disruption and disintegration of the working class front. The fact that the economic problem facing the white worker is the same problem faced by the Negro does not impress itself on the white worker. He has a feeling that because he is white, he is entitled to more and better. The capitalist employers, knowing full well that the root of the problem is capitalism itself and the search for capitalist profits, seek always to keep the white worker disoriented and safe in the tow path of race and race superiority.

The root problem is the job problem. Under capitalism there are not, will not and cannot be enough jobs for all the people. Those who work can never hope to receive adequate wages or a high enough standard of living. Capitalist profits and a high standard of living for the masses are incommensurable. White workers act as though they believed that if there were no Negroes in the U.S., they would have no economic difficulties. If this is true then Bilbo and the Negro chauvinists have the solution white workers are looking for more jim-crow, complete separation or giving the Negroes a country of their own. It is extremely difficult, however, to grasp how a white worker can accept such nonsense. To believe this is to believe that 12 or so million Negro workers are the main obstacle to the economic welfare of 40 to 50 millions of white workers. And not only this but the 50 millions Belong to the superior race and the 12 millions are cursed with the badge of inferiority.

It is a most sorrowful predicament that the white workers have permitted themselves to be pushed into. Fifty millions of them have developed the conception that they can enhance or sustain their present economic, social and political position by keeping Negroes common laborers, by segregating them into Jim Crow departments, by disenfranchisement, by forcing them to live in Negro ghettoes, by mob violence, terrorism and lynching. This is the way the white worker attacks the problem of capitalist exploitation, of profit grabbing and imperialist war. If there are no Negroes around the capitalists will agree among themselves not to have any more depressions. If there were no Negroes involved, the capitalists and the government would reconvert to peace-time production at a faster tempo, they would never attack seniority and no white worker would ever be fired and rehired at a lower rate Of pay. Any employer who violated the sacredness of this arrangement would be branded by the National Association of Manufacturers, as a betrayer of the white race. If such events occurred in the South, that would be betrayal of the South and an insult to southern white womanhood.

The Roots of Negro Aggressiveness

And thus the white worker attempts to rise on the backs of the Negro toilers. He attempts to solve the problems of capitalist created scarcity by demanding only a meagre portion for his children and starvation of the child of the black worker. He demands a cheap pair of shoes for his wife and is satisfied if the wife of the Negro worker goes barefoot. He confines his efforts to getting some kind of shelter for himself and drives the black worker into the unspeakable cabins of the cotton fields and the vermin infested hovels of the big cities. This is what the white worker has learned in capitalist society. This is what he has imbibed from the capitalist press, the capitalist school, the capitalist pulpit and the capitalist government. This is the halter which the ruling class has drawn around the neck of the white working class, the blinders which this class has placed over its own eyes.

Quite often white workers resent aggressiveness on the part of Negroes. I have heard them say that Negroes “push too hard” for their rights. Negroes are too “uppity.” “They should take things a little easy.” Here these white workers are only producing an echo. That is what he reads in the capitalist press. That is what he hears from white “friends of the Negro,” and white enemies of the Negro. That is the kind of advice the Negro gets from certain white liberals, especially the southern white “liberals.” The white worker should stop and ask himself: what or whom is the Negro pushing against? What are the roots of this aggressiveness? Does the Negro push too much against the employer? If so, this is good. The white workers themselves need a few practical lessons in this type of pushing. If the Negro worker gives them this lesson, we say “well and good.” That is a much needed contribution that militant Negro workers can make to the labor movement.

Do the Negro workers push too hard against the officers of a local which collaborates with the employer in discrimination against Negroes? We will support wholeheartedly this type of pushing also and every white worker who is against discrimination should do likewise. And without hesitation or qualification. Do Negroes demand in a most aggressive manner, their democratic rights in all phases of national life? The Workers Party supports this type of pushing also and every white worker should go arm in arm with the Negroes in this demand.

Are Negroes angry in the United States today? Do they at times give vent to their anger in foolish ways? Do they at times react in an incorrect manner toward white workers? To be sure they do, but who are the white workers to rise in such righteous indignation against them? How did the Negroes get into this condition? Is the white working class ready to pretend that it has made no contribution to this situation?It can be only a pretense because the Negro worker has had many sad experiences with the white working class during the past decades since his emancipation. The Negro has been oppressed and exploited by the white ruling class and maltreated and oppressed by the white working class. In his political and social immaturity he has not always understood how to make the proper distinction between the “boss” and the white worker. The Negro worker and the white worker both have been victims of the same capitalist poison propaganda. White workers should therefore ask themselves whom and what Negroes “push” against. Do they push against the union and when? Do they push against the employer and when?

Here too the white worker is thinking in terms of race and not of class. It is race against race. The militant and aggressive Negro in the factory is not a worker with a grievance against the company or the local, or the international. He becomes a Negro who “wants to be as good as a white man. The white worker develops a grievance against the Negroes and at times expresses this resentment by collaborating with the company.

Do Negro workers who come North for example, try to move into “white neighborhoods” after they have accumulated a few dollars and become accustomed to a higher standard of living? To be sure they do. Is this one other mark of inferiority? Does the white worker expect the Negro to act in any different way from the white worker. The white worker from Mississippi or Arkansas, who has come North to escape the horrors and misery of “Tobacco Road,” to escape the low wages and the meagre standard of living of the South, begins to fix himself up as soon as he has made a few days’ pay. The Negro who has left the South or the slums of the North, does likewise. He moves into a “white neighborhood.” Why? Because he has only one aim in life: to live beside a white man? The white worker who thinks this is really too stupid to be entitled to opinion on any question whatsoever. The Negro goes to the “white neighborhood” because here he finds the most modern houses, the best paved streets, the most up-to-date school buildings, fewer brothels, whiskey shops, factories and dumps.

Instead of the white working class welcoming this move by the Negro, quite often a mob is organized to drive Negroes back to the slums and shanty-towns from which they came. What are the white workers protecting when they act in this manner? Whose property? Their own property? Nonsense; they own no property. Even those white workers, particularly in small communities, who have a little home of their own, discover every so often that they do not own anything; not even the house on which they pay taxes to the capitalist state. The white working class renters who object to Negro neighbors are victims of the propaganda of the big property owners and real estate operators who say that “Negroes depress property values,” Why should white workers be interested in maintaining “property values?” It is not their property. They, like other wage-earners, own no property. The property is owned by the banks, landlords, insurance companies: that is, by the capitalist exploiters of all the workers; black and white. If Negroes depress property values, that in itself is a good reason for any white worker to welcome the arrival of Negroes.

Do Negroes want to eat in “white” restaurants? Of course they do. They want to eat where other people eat and where it is most convenient to eat. Why do white workers object? The proprietor says that if he serves Negroes he will lose his trade. Why will he lose his trade? Because white workers will not eat with Negroes or rent a room in a hotel if the proprietor accommodates Negroes? But we ask any white worker: “What interest can you have in refusing to eat in a restaurant which serves Negroes or live in a hotel which rents a room to a Negro?” Assuming that there is a loss if Negroes are served or accommodated, is it the white worker who suffers the loss? How many white workers own hotels, restaurants, theatres, railroads or bus lines? In what way to white workers profit by the exclusion of Negroes? Does the hotel keeper reduce their room rent, the cafe owner the prices of the meal, the railroad the cost of the ticket or the landlord the amount of the rent? If none of this, then what? A feeling of racial superiority? This is very poor material to use as a foundation for economic security, for the building of the unions, for the struggle against the employers, or for the organization of working class political action.

The Bogey of Social Equality

The white worker has one stock argument against Negro equality which is likely to be pulled out at the drop of the hat. That is his obsession with what he calls “social equality.” “How would you like for your sister to marry a Negro?” It is expected that this question will floor any white worker who has been advocating that Negroes should have the right to a job, to live in a decent house, to eat in a “white” restaurant or ride on a train like other people. “How would you feel if you looked up and saw your girl friend dancing with a Negro?” For fear that the “girl friend” might forget herself and dance with one of the Negro members of the union, such a worker takes the position that Negro members should not be allowed to attend union social affairs.

Years ago I heard a southern congressman say in the House that he went into the Washington Union Station and there was no place “for my wife and daughter to set. Every place they went they would have to set by a darky.” The white union member who talks about “social equality” in the way which is prevalent among these workers is taking the identical attitude as this congressman. If Negroes just must use the trains then let them have a separate waiting room and a separate coach. If Negroes insist on joining “our unions” then let them have their own department, their own washrooms and their own social affairs.

This attitude on the part of white workers is reactionary In more ways than one. It assumes that men should control the lives of women and dictate to their wives, sisters and sweet- hearts, who their associates should be. This is a medieval conception of the place of women in society. They are given an inferior status and told by the men how they should live their lives. Also such an attitude on the part of white workers assumes that the main determinant in social behavior should be, or is, sex and the relations between the sexes. A white worker who exhibits such beliefs reveals that he accepts all the anti-Negro propaganda that is spread through the country by the purveyors of hate and working class disruption. This “social equality” obsession of the white workers gives the impression that his main concern in life is to keep Negro men away from “our women.” All of this orients white labor away from what should be their main concern: the united struggle of the working class black and white, male and female, against the capitalist employers and exploiters. Their attention gets centered on maintaining artificial divisions within the working class, which strips labor of its striking power, makes it the prey of every demagogue and hate-monger.

The most important aspect of this question of “social equality” for the working class, however, is the fact that the white worker thinks that he has social equality. He doesn’t know that the Negro worker has just as much social equality in the fundamental sense as the white worker. The essence of social equality is not merely nor primarily the right or the opportunity to mingle socially with those of other racial groups. The white worker does not achieve social equality in capitalist society just because he excludes Negroes from association with him. Social equality is the question of which class one belongs to: ruling class or working class. In a capitalist society if one belongs to the working class, then one does not and cannot have or achieve social equality in that society. Only those can be socially equal who share in the distribution of social power. Social power, therefore, social equality is based on economic power. Economic power means the owner ship of the means of producing wealth: the mines, mills, factories and the banks.

The white worker deludes himself even if he believes that he has political equality. Many workers think thus because they have one vote the same as the millionaire. Rockefeller has only one vote the same as the lowliest wage-earner. But political power too, can be understood only by looking at capitalist society or capitalist democracy (the United States) as a society divided by class lines: ruling class on one side and the working class on the other. The ruling class rules politically as a class because this class owns the wealth and the means of producing wealth. It protects its political power, it dominates the government and the country by virtue of the fact that it has social power.

If the white worker, the white trade unionist, would look at this question through his own eyes, that is, through his own experience he would get the point clearly. He wants to bar the Negro worker from his dance but this white worker doesn’t think the matter through. This white worker is himself barred from his employer’s dance or other social affairs of his employer. He is barred from his employer’s club, from his home and from the whole social, economic and political life of his employer. The two belong to two different and antagonistic classes in capitalist society. The employer has social equality. He can go wherever his desires or inclinations lead him. He may marry in his own class or in the working class. He may eat in the most expensive cafe or in the humblest and cheapest. He may join the swankiest club or the cellar hangout of the very dregs of society. For his social life he may stay in his class or leave his class., The white worker cannot do these things. He is forced to remain with his class. He has no economic power, no social power, therefore he cannot have social equality in a capitalist society.

The natural ally therefore for the white worker, socially, politically and industrially is the Negro worker. They are in the same boat together: members of the same class. The work- ing class cannot cross the class line; either in its social life, its economic life or its political life. Both are propertyless wage-earners. There is political, social and economic equality between them. The white worker is socially equal to the Negro worker and vice versa. This is one of the stark and crude facts of capitalist society. No amount of nonsense about superior and inferior races; no catch questions about the marriage of one’s sister to a Negro worker can destroy the fact that this Negro worker, as a worker, is socially, politically and economically equal to the white worker; to his sister, his wife or his mother. It is capitalist society with its class lines and its exploitation which makes this so. It is the fact that both are wage-earners which establishes this basic fact.

The new program urgently needed for the labor movement must take this fact into account. The white working class must place in its program and in all workers’ organizations: Social, Political and Economic Equality for the Negro.

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