J.R. Johnson

White Workers’ Prejudices

(April 1945)

Originally published in Labor Action, 23 April 1945:
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 46–48.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This column will attempt to describe some of the social reasons for the antagonism of the white worker to the Negro. While the antagonism is basically due to the system of capitalism, there are obvious ways in which Jim Crow makes itself felt.

First, whites and Negroes are segregated in the communities in which they live. The mass of Negroes the white workers has occasion to observe occupy an inferior and degraded position.

The Negroes whom he happens to meet are as a rule poor, shabby, often belonging to the dregs of the population. There are many whites who belong to the dregs of the population also. But counteracting these are the whites who are rich, powerful, well educated; besides the number who are just ordinary citizens, neither rich nor dregs, but fulfilling in their various ways the social functions of society.

If in a particular community there are Negroes who have achieved a certain education and competence, they function almost exclusively in relation to the Negro community. The ordinary white worker is only vaguely aware of their existence.

A worker never goes into an insurance office, or a department store, or a lawyer’s office where he sees a Negro or Negroes occupying positions of authority, or giving evidence of knowledge, or receiving the consideration which is due to those who have achieved the status of the middle class. For the daily round of his life Negroes for the most part, if not menials, are entertainers, singers, dancers, or players of jazz music.

These concrete realities are reinforced by the literature and art of the system. The worker does not create these. He does not ask for anti-Negro literature. As workers do in every country, he reads the books, newspapers, and goes to the shows. From every one of these organs of communication and education his daily impressions about Negroes are reinforced.

Movies reflect the society in which they are produced. The white worker constantly sees the Negro on the screen in situations which merely confirm his knowledge of the realities he himself has experienced. In books and magazines, all grace, strength, beauty, nobility, courage are automatically attributed to members of the white race. It isn’t that the books are openly or even subtly anti- Negro. It is that in the mental and emotional stimulation which they provide, good or bad, the Negro is usually excluded. If he is included, he is placed in his usual menial position, made the butt of jokes or at the very best is portrayed as a good and loyal servant.

The process does not end there. The whole history of the nation, the background of its thought, its social customs as expressed in the unconscious attitudes and sense of values of even people who are not personally hostile to Negroes – all these are permeated by the national attitude to the Negro people. Take an apparently simple thing like a brilliant performance in any sphere by a Negro. A well-meaning reporter will say with a certain satisfaction that the individual in question is a Negro.

He means well, but the mere statement of the fact carries with it the connotation that it is an exceptional thing for a Negro to show exceptional merit. A white man or woman who is friendly with a Negro is conscious that he or she risks criticism, or at any rate comment, from most of his friends.

This is the daily, inescapable experience of the average American white worker. The productive system of the United States created the basis of the Negro situation and it is the productive system which is creating the basis of its solution. It is the mass production industries which have within recent years placed whites and Negroes together on a basis of equality in that most fundamental social sphere – the process of productive labor.

Even though segregation (into the lowest jobs) pursued the Negro there, yet the discipline of large-scale production welded blacks and whites into a unit. It was on this that the fraternal unity of blacks and whites in the CIO was founded. It could have been founded and can be maintained on no other basis.

The social forces and customs making for division between whites and Negroes are too powerful to be seriously affected except by some such powerful discipline and unity as are imposed by the productive process itself. In the past the competition between workers was a fruitful source of maintaining the division. It will be more dangerous in the future. But if the unions tackle the struggle for full employment as a struggle for which both employed and unemployed workers must be mobilized, then what has been a cause of division in the past can be a source of even greater unity in the future.

Last updated on 17.7.2011