J.R. Johnson

One-Tenth of the Nation

Race Prejudice Is Capitalist Product

(27 May 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 21, 27 May 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

During the last few weeks this column has laid great emphasis upon the importance for the Negroes and for the nation as a whole of “Operation Dixie.” It is necessary now to draw attention to another aspect of the Negro question, as it affects the national life.

First of all the nation is shaken to its economic vitals by the coal strike. The politicians, the newspaper writers and the columnists concentrate their fire upon John L. Lewis. Yet even these dishonest propagandists know that the strength of John L. Lewis is in the support that he gets from the United Mine Workers. Few people, however, stop to remember that the United Mine Workers contains over a 100,000 Negroes, among its half million members. Everyone speaks of “the miners” and rightly so. Whatever differences and difficulties there may be between white and Negro workers in the UMW, they are of such an insignificant character as not to disrupt, even in public estimation, the rock-like front which the miners present to the mine owners and to the capitalist government. This should be noted by those Negroes in particular, who frequently wonder what the fate of Negroes would be in a socialist society, that is to say, a society run by the workers. Instead of speculating as to whether race prejudice is not permanent among Americans, they should do well to study the industrial record of the United Mine Workers during the last 20 years.

At the Steel Convention

Two recent conventions of labor unions have brought to the fore the question of the relationship between white and Negro workers in the union movement. I have heard an account of how the question was raised at the recent steel workers convention. The account goes as follows:

Towards the end of the convention a Negro worker raised the question of a third vice-president for the steel workers union who should hot be elected but appointed. He reasoned that inasmuch as Negroes were only 25% of the steel workers he saw little opportunity of a Negro being elected as one of the two vice-presidents. However, inasmuch as Negroes had special problems in the factories and in the union, a Negro vice-president should not be elected, but appointed so that a Negro, familiar with Negro problems, should occupy a leading position in the officialdom of the union.

It will be remembered that a similar problem was faced by the UAW in its convention a few weeks ago.

I do not propose for one minute here to take up either in general or in detail the rights and wrongs of these and similar proposals. I wish instead to draw attention to certain facts which may be lost sight of in discussing these union problems.

Class versus Class

Labor Action and the Workers Party, in fact Marxists of all shades, have repeatedly maintained that the solution of the Negro problem in the United States rests with the organized labor movement. The capitalist class abolished slavery in the Civil War. That is true. But it must never be forgotten that the organized labor movement in the North was one of the most powerful supports of Lincoln and the Republican Party. Furthermore, when the Civil War was over, the capitalist class used the Negroes only insofar as it was necessary for capitalism to consolidate itself in the South. As soon as it had done so, it had abandoned the Negroes to the mercy of the old slave owners.

Many Negroes, keenly aware of this, are profoundly sceptical as to the future fate of the Negro minority after a successful proletarian revolution.

First of all, the capitalist class which led the Civil War for the abolition of slavery had nothing in common with the class of Negro slaves once the power of the slave owners was broken. As a matter of fact, once the power of the slave owners was broken, the capitalist class had much more in common with the class of cotton plantation owners than they had with Negro labor. Both of them could unite and had to unite because both were protectors of the dominant property relations in the United States. If space allowed we could show how similar treachery was practiced against the serfs or semi-slaves in every European country whether slavery or serfdom had to be broken by the capitalists.

The class position of the workers puts the white workers into a fundamentally different relation with Negro workers. “Operation Dixie” is a case in point. The capitalist class of 1861–1876 had had no basic solidarity with the Negro slaves and therefore could desert them as soon as the battle was won. Today organized labor moves into the South to organize workers, white and Negro, knowing that it must maintain labor solidarity as a condition for the future development of the labor movement as a whole in the United States. The class solidarity is evident. It is not a question of the racial prejudices of this or that individual worker. It is a question of class interests and class solidarity which molds the minds of the large majority of the workers and in the last analysis is decisive. It is this which explains the tremendous advances the CIO has made in handling the race problem in its own ranks. It is this class solidarity which will more than ever assert itself after a social revolution in the United States.

Why? Because the race prejudice that exists is fundamentally a product of capitalism. It is instilled into the working class by capitalist propaganda which by now has become almost instinctive in the capitalist press and in capitalist society as a whole. Not only is labor working out its own proletarian attitude to these questions. When labor breaks the power of capitalism, it will break the fundamental source of race prejudice and what is today a difficult task, its struggle for racial equality, in a socialist society it will be able to accomplish with infinitely greater ease.

That Negro workers in the UAW, and in the steel workers union should raise their problem is a healthy sign. The capitalists have created this problem, as they have created so many others for the labor movement. Labor tackles them and deals with them on their merits. But it is a tremendous sign of progress that society as a whole speaks of the miners, of the steel workers, of the UAW and never stops to consider what a large proportion of these are Negroes. Negroes themselves raise problems, not outside the union, but as a regular part of union procedure in the solution of union difficulties. That, properly understood, is a sign not of weakness but of strength.

Last updated on 19 January 2019