J.R. Johnson

One-Tenth of the Nation

(21 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 42, 21 October 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Over and over again I have heard from Negro workers, good unionists, the following statement:

“The white worker works alongside me. He is a good union man and a good pal on the job. But as soon as we get outside the factory or the union hall, he becomes a white man again and I just another Negro. You will never change that.”

It is not said with bitterness in all cases. Quite often the Negro says it with regret. And further conversation will elicit the fact that he believes race prejudice is something rooted in the heart, blood and bones of the white man. He would like to believe otherwise. He knows some whites who are not prejudiced. That he will admit. But the large majority? He cannot conceive of a time when they will be different.

Equally important is the fact that many white workers feel that, if they carry out their duties as fellow worker and fellow unionist, that is sufficient. They wish the Negroes well, but after all many workers do not see why they should not “go their own way” and Negroes go theirs.

Roots of Prejudice

One way of getting a more sober, less personal, view of this problem (for problem it is), is to recognize that this deep-rooted prejudice is something peculiar to the United States and to Great Britain. The overwhelming millions of white people during many centuries of civilization have not had it. The average American white worker must understand that race prejudice is not a natural thing. The very reverse is the truth. It is a most unnatural thing.

The old classical civilizations of Greece and Rome did not divide men according to race. They had a different division. They divided men according as they were “civilized” or “barbarian.” A colored man could be “civilized" and millions of white men could be "barbarians.”

Is this just history? Not at all. The French people today make exactly the same distinction in their African colonies. They exploit the natives as fiercely and as mercilessly as the British. But if a native African learns to speak and write French, or visits France, or serves in the French army or otherwise becomes a part of French civilization, he is known as one of the “elite” and is treated for all practical purposes as if he is a Frenchman.

French Experience

There have been Negro generals in the army, captains and commanders and, I think, one admiral of the French fleet. There have been black Cabinet ministers and Negroes holding all sorts of superior administrative posts in French government and French business.

During World War I the officer in charge of the air defenses of Paris was a French Negro, with all sorts of British and American air pilots subordinate to him. At the battle of Verdun, the chief of staff of Petain was a Negro.

Some years after the last war a poll was held among French middle class families, asking whether they would admit their families as house guests. Not only did the majority say “Yes.” A number of them could not understand why the question should be asked at all.

After World War I the depopulation of France by the death of young Frenchmen in the war occupied public attention seriously. The proposal of inviting some hundreds of thousands of American Negroes to live in France was made and discussed freely in the French press. The Americans did not want them. France needed them. The French had seen them as soldiers and liked them. And many French people did not see why they should not come to France and live as Frenchmen. Needless to say, this discussion was NOT reproduced in the American press.

Basis for Equality

But it was not only France. All over Europe it was the same. Any educated Negro was received as any other educated person. In Germany, before 1933, Negroes were welcomed and entertained freely. There is an authenticated story of a little Abyssinian boy who was brought up in the household of the German Emperor. He finally became a major in the German army.

In the Scandinavian countries to this day Negroes are not only tolerated but welcomed. In the old days, in Italy and Spain, a Negro was a black man, and nothing more.

Not only were Negroes looked upon as ordinary people. The governments and the population as a whole did not tolerate anti-Negro prejudice, immediately after World War I, Americans in Paris made themselves objectionable by opening restaurants (SOUTHERN fried chicken restaurants) and refusing to admit Negroes, particularly Negroes with French girls. Briand was Minister of the Interior and he issued a warning: If the French government hears any more of this, it will close down the offending establishments. Needless to say, the practice stopped.

Doubtless there were isolated cases of prejudice, but the general sentiment of Europeans was to accept a Negro on the basis of what he represented. Hitlerism ruined Germany in this as in other spheres, and between Nazism and Americans in Europe, race prejudice has grown of recent years.

Anglo-American Influence

No. The real strongholds of prejudice against Negroes have been the United States and Great Britain. And the cause of it is not in the blood but in the economic and social systems. In the U.S., prejudice has grown on the exploitation of millions of Negroes in the South. In Britain it has been the result of centuries of colonial domination.

The British, however (except in the colonies), never carried it to the lengths of the U.S. Under pressure of the war and colonial revolts, a strong tide of feeling against racial prejudice grew up in Britain. It was the American officers and Southerners who fought hard to “Americanize” Britain on the Negro question.

So that the position today is as follows: American imperialism and Bilbo morality combined are the great strongholds of anti-Negro prejudice. In Africa too the imperialists maintain it but they cannot extend it from Africa to other parts of the world.

The Negro worker should, therefore, see race prejudice for what it is—rooted in the American social system. When that system is broken the back of racial prejudice will be broken with it. And the white worker has to ask himself: Why should I give way to prejudices which are dangerous to my union, a disgrace to my nation, something which is characteristic of American capitalism and in the past has been repudiated by most civilized peoples?

Last updated on 8 July 2019