J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(17 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 88, 17 November 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Negro in Steel

We must get some general conception of the role the Negro worker has played and plays in industry in this country. We have first to recognize that the race question, the color question, play their part. But we must see below the surface of things and recognize that the color question is not decisive. It is not the factor which plays the greatest part. Until we understand that, we cannot organize for struggle and plan our campaigns. We have not only to understand it but must have it deeply rooted in our minds as the basis of all our thinking. Quite recently an able study has appeared on the Negro worker. It is called Black Workers and the New Unions, written by Horace Cayton and George Mitchell. We shall use it heavily in these articles on the Negro’s role in industry, and we recommend a thorough study of the book to all workers, white and black.

First the Negro comes into the steel industry as a strikebreaker. From 1875 to 1914, whenever the white capitalist wants to break the neck of white workers, he sends for Negroes, most often to the South, and uses them against the workers of his own color. For the great steel strike in 1919 the white capitalists brought in 30,000 Negroes. For these capitalists, the race question was certainly not the main question.

Negroes Enter Industry

This sending for Negroes to help break the struggles of the white workers was part of the general economic movement of the times – the migration of over a million Negroes to the North. Thus in the Allegheny district of Pennsylvania in 1910, there were 100 Negro steel workers, in 1915 there were 2,500, in 1916 there were 8,325, in 1923, there were 16,000.

As an official of the Carnegie Steel Company said in an interview given to Messers Cayton and Mitchell on July 6, 1934:

“As far as I am concerned I believe that the Negro has been a lifesaver to the Steel company. When we have had labor disputes or when we needed more men for expansion we have gone to the South and brought up thousands of them. I don’t know what this company would have done without Negroes.” (Black Workers and New Unions, p. 7)

On the whole, between 1890 and 1930, the number of Negroes in the iron, steel, machinery and vehicle industries, increased from less than 25,000 to 250,000.

The Dirty Work for the Negro

What sort of jobs did Negroes get in the industry? Naturally nothing but the unskilled, the lowest paid, the most unpleasant jobs. Between 1910 and 1930 the Negro made little progress in getting the better kind of job. Take for instance the work in blast furnaces and steel-rolling mills. In 1910 there were between 45 Negroes out of every 1,000 working as laborers in these industries. In 1930 there were 85. Thus the number of Negroes almost doubled. But it was chiefly laborer’s jobs that the Negroes got. In 1910 out of every 1,000 laborers, 69 were Negroes. In 1930, there were 165 Negroes out of every 1,000. But whereas in 1910 there were 29 Negroes out of every 1,000 skilled workers, in 1930 there were only 40. Thus 96 more laborers got jobs, proportionally, but only 11 skilled workers. That is a point we have to keep our eye on. As for office jobs there were 3 Negroes out of every 1,000 in 1910, and only one out of every 1,000 in 1930.

All the nasty jobs are for the Negroes. But here again we must have some historical perspective. All the white groups, American born and foreign born, discriminate against the Negroes. But the American-born whites discriminate against the foreign-born whites. The American born usually take all the best jobs for themselves and the bosses encourage them. (For the boss loves, how he loves to see the workers divided.)

Discrimination Among Foreign Born

But that is not all. Even the “foreigners” discriminate. Sixty or seventy years ago Irish did all the dirty work. After a generation they moved up in the scale and the Poles, Czechs and other central Europeans did most of the dirty work in their turn. The Negroes came last into the industry and so quite naturally Poles, Czechs, and these latest immigrants did to Negroes what the Irish had done to them The bosses naturally encouraged this. The class-conscious workers tried to break it down. Only whereas the American-born, Irish, and Central European workers were all white, they could get together more quickly as workers than they could get together with Negroes.

Was the Negro an Inferior Worker?

Was the Negro an inferior worker? The bosses at one time used to say so but as they found it necessary to use the Negro more and more, they changed their tune. Take this interview with a Buffalo superintendent of a steel plant:

“We found most of them good workmen. There are some who are poor, but In general they are good men. I don’t see any difference between the races.”

Or this statement by the assistant superintendent of a steel plant in Cleveland:

“Some of the very best workers we had were Negroes – I will say that the colored are on a par with the white.”

Take this from a Superintendent of Safety and Welfare in Homestead, Pa:

“The Negroes that we brought up are superior to the whites that we brought in. We got one group of whites from Kentucky Hills district. They were just the poor white trash and were no good at all. We also got a shipment of whites from around Buffalo but they were just riff-raff. The Negroes are superior to them as workmen and morally. Also I believe they are better physically.” (Black Workers and New Unions, p. 35)

Where did the white bosses learn this? They wouldn’t have said it twenty years ago. Some of them deny the Negro’s capacity up to today. But on the whole they have been driven by economic necessity to accept the Negro in the industry and then to recognize that he can do. the job as well as any other.

But the workers were having a much longer time to recognize the Negro. First it seemed to them that being white meant a better chance to get a job and a better-paid job. Which was true, though it wasn’t the whole truth. And secondly, although the white bosses were forced to recognize the ability of the Negro, they did not go out of their way to help the workers, white and black, to overcome the prejudices. For them to do that would have been suicide. It would have meant the unity of black and white workers, which, for the bosses, is the beginning of the end. So in some plants Negrotes and whites continued to be segregated in the lunch-room. In another plant the company built a swimming pool with money collected from both white and black and they prohibited the blacks from using the pool. In Gary, Indiana, the United States Steel Company took it upon itself to see that Negroes were kept out of all the municipal parks except one.

By this means the company aimed at keeping the Negroes and whites in the plants divided. The superintendent and officials of the plant actually told the Negro workers that if they used a certain park they would lose their jobs. Why? Every white worker arid Negro worker should ask himself this question and think over it until he got the answer. Why were the bosses so anxious to prevent Negro workers and their wives and children from using a park along with white workers and their families? Was it because the bosses loved the whites so much that they wanted to save them from Negro contamination? But since when have bosses been so concerned about what happens to workers after they leave work? The reason is obvious. The boss wanted to keep them apart.

Naturally the white workers should have opposed this immediately, should have demanded that the Negroes be allowed to use whatever park they wanted, should have insisted upon it. But the workers are not as quick as the bosses at seeing these things. They see them in time, however. In succeeding articles we shall see how the white steel-workers as a whole, recognized the necessity of cooperating with their Negro brothers in industry. We shall have to note particularly why they recognised it, and how this recognition expressed itself.

(To be continued)

Last updated on 19 April 2018