J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

“Labor with a White Skin Cannot Emancipate Itself Where Labor with a Black Skin Is Branded” – Karl Marx

(3 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 84, 3 November 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Negroes in Industry

The future of the Negro is hound by unbreakable chains of iron and steel to the industrial system of this country. We, as a revolutionary party, must therefore has a very clear conception of the relationship of Negroes to this system, and the Negroes too must see the position as it is. Ninety-nine Negroes out of every hundred, to be more accurate, 999 out of every 1,000, firmly believe that Negroes are discriminated against in industry because they are black. “We could get such and such jobs. Only one thing prevents us. As soon as they see our black skins they turn us away. Obviously it is because we are black.”

The reasoning seems unanswerable. But it is false. In fact it is not the least exaggeration to say that the Negro’s skin has nothing at all to do with the fundamentals of this question. Bet me repeat that. The color of the Negro’s skin has nothing at all to do with the fundamentals of the question.

And now for the proof of this apparently bewildering statement. In India, Hindus and Moslems are quite often, the same color to the last shade. They, however, are divided by their religious differences. Therefore one of the chief strategies of the British government in India is to push fire between Hindus and Moslems in industry, in politics, and in every sphere of life. By this means they divide the Indians, particularly the masses, and make their own position more secure.

Take again Northern Ireland. There the population is white. The British ruling class must find some method of division, They find it in the different religions, one group Catholic and the other group Protestant.

The technique employed is simple as daylight. The Prime Minister and the chief spokesmen always preach about the necessity of unity, how the government duty is to keep the peace, protect the rights of all citizens, etc. So much in words. In action, however, the Government drives wedge after wedge between Catholics and Protestants, and keeps the antagonism at fever pitch.

In Germany Hitler found another source of dividing the workers, the peasants, and the lower middle class: he foamed at the mouth whenever he mentioned the Jews and persecuted them when he came to power.

Divide in Order to Rule

It is perfectly clear that your capitalists, your representative of the ruling class, seeks above all to divide in order to rule. In Britain where so much of the population is of the same racial type and of the same religion your capitalist is in difficulty as to how best to divide the workers. He does it by paying higher wages to some and creating a body, relatively small, of privileged workers. These, being quite satisfied, then become conservative and act as a check on the millions whose dissatisfaction with their lot would be a constant threat to the system if it were not suppressed by this privileged section within their own ranks.

Your capitalist must divide the workers in order to weaken them. In India he fans the flame between Hindus and Moslems. In Ireland between Protestant and Catholic, in many other countries between Jew and Gentile. But the Negro has a black skin. This makes him easily distinguishable from others. Your American capitalist, therefore, at his perpetual game of dividing the workers, leaps with joy and rubs his hands at the good God who made the Negro black. It is so easy to say: “There, don’t you see his black skin? White workers, my good friends, let us keep that black man in his place.”

The black skin business is only an excuse, as Hindu-Moslem, Catholic-Protestant, Jew-Gentile is only an excuse. Now you can’t look at a man and say whether he is Catholic or Protestant, Hindu or Moslem. But a Negro is seen to be different to the white man at first glance. Hence the viciousness and the obviousness of the discrimination against Negroes. But the root of it is in the system which gives the capitalist the need and the power to divide. And the cure is the abolition of the system which breeds this necessity to divide.

The Wherefore of Race Prejudice

Both Negroes and white workers who are advanced politically beyond their fellows must understand this, must have it in their bones. That is the truth and nothing but the truth. Naturally, there are other aspects of the question. Your capitalist does not say this openly. That would, ruin everything. He builds up great theories of Negro inferiority, Negro incapability, etc. These are taught in schools from generation to generation, and millions of unsuspecting people learn this and never think that it is in reality nothing else but capitalist rationalisation for the benefit of capitalist pockets.

Having imbibed these ideas with their mother’s milk so to speak and seeing Negroes living in dirt and slums, most white workers think what they hear all around them is quite true. And when white workers find that being white means the possibility of working in any factory and being black means exclusion from half of them, that being white means 70 cents an hour and being black 45 cents an hour for the same type of work, then these capitalist ideas receive a powerful material enforcement in the working class. This is the reason for race prejudice among the white workers. What the white worker does not see is that by combining with the Negro both can get 90 cents, or overthrow the system altogether. Your capitalist sees that quite clearly however.

How to clarify the minds of workers, both white and black, is the revolutionary problem. Propaganda and agitation to break down the capitalist propaganda; but above all joint action. As the economic crisis deepens, the white workers are driven to revise their previous conceptions. The crisis drove some 400,000 Negroes into the CIO. Thus millions of white workers have begun to think differently about Negroes. Another sharpening of the crisis, another stride forward of the organized workers, will bring thousands upon thousands of Negroes into the ranks of organized labor. But we cannot wait for these developments. We must work in preparation for them.

The first thing therefore is to know something about the Negro’s position in industry, not to know in the abstract, but to be familiar with it. How did the Negro enter into certain industries, what was his status there yesterday, what is it to-day? It is by this study, that we can get some real living conception of the role of the Negro in the working class movement. Few white workers have any conception of the history of this development. Still more tragic, fewer Negroes know anything about it.

Periodically this column will examine the Negro’s role in industry, the understanding of which is an indispensable preliminary to correct revolutionary action. In the next issue we shall have a general survey of the Negro in industry during the last hundred years, after which we shall examine his situation in steel, meat packing, etc. There we shall see how in the South, the employer used 5 Negros to one white in skilled industry before slavery was abolished, how after emancipation he used five whites to one Negro, how he started to use more Negroes to break the fighting power of the whites. In other words we shall see concretely how little the color question means to the employer where his pocket is concerned.

Last updated on 19 April 2018