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The New International, February 1944

Alfred Freeman

The Psychology of Jim Crowism

Effects of the War on Reactionary Tradition


From The New International, Vol. X No. 2, February 1944, pp. 44–47.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A series of race riots as ugly as any pogrom which Hitler could concoct swept over America last year. It is becoming painfully clear to even the most superficial observer that America, so cocksure in its adolescent boasting about its rôle as the democratic missionary, is now rent with social poisons and prejudices of the most extreme character.

The race question in America – more accurately, the color question – sums up in itself the internal contradictions and external barbarisms of our capitalist society. Properly understood, it can serve as the clearest, if ugliest, portrait of the sickness of that society.

In this article it is not our purpose to attempt an exhaustive analysis of the anatomy of Jim Crowism. We shall, for the most part, leave aside the economic motivations of racial tensions, even though it is they which lie at the root of the problem. No one who has read the story of the riots in the Mobile shipyards, where the employers deliberately withheld information of even the feeble government plan to restore some kind of peace between the white and Negro workers, can fail to see that many of the racial outbreaks are the specific result of employer attempts to incite color against color as a means of destroying class solidarity. And no one who has studied the rôle of Negro workers during the last part of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries as strikebreakers deliberately degraded to that position by the exigencies of capitalist society; no one who has seen how the pattern of Jim Crowism in the South has its social origin in the attempt to preserve the cheap labor basis of its economy by creating color fissures within the ranks of the Southern workers; no one who has, on the contrary, seen how the policy of equal and fair treatment on the part of such unions as the United Mine Workers has resulted in the creation of class solidarity between white and colored workers; no one who has seen these developments can deny that Jim Crowism is an integral part of the social pattern of American capitalism.

Without succumbing to any theory of “internal imperialism,” we believe that it is illuminating to say that American capitalism depends for its very existence on Jim Crowism as much as British imperialism depends for its existence on the exploitation of the masses of India. American capitalism cannot and will never attempt any serious blows at Jim Crowism, because such an attempt would be suicidal to its own existence. It may perhaps attempt here and there to subtilize the Jim Crow pattern, as is done in certain sections of the North (where, of course, Jim Crowism is as deeply embedded as in the South, though it takes a less open form) but it can nowhere abolish it. As a matter of fact, as the crisis of American capitalism becomes sharper, Jim Crowism becomes more widespread and virulent; it has multiplied enormously since the outbreak of the war. It is no exaggeration to say that the ultimate destruction of Jim Crowism is impossible without the establishment of socialism; and in many parts of the country it would be one of the major tasks to continue the struggle against vestigial Jim Crow psychologies even after the economic system that bred them was long removed.

The Jim Crow Tradition

Yet, despite the fact that Jim Crowism had its origin in the mechanics of capitalist society and is nurtured and protected by that society, it is unfortunately true that a large part of the American population, perhaps a majority, is imbued with these prejudices despite the fact that, for instance in the case of white workers, these prejudices may be directly contrary to their own economic interests. And therein lies one of the most gruesome crimes of American capitalism: By imbedding deeply within the consciousness of great masses the myths of racial superiority, it has created a social weed which, by its own autonomous growth, poisons our national life and provides fertile psychological and emotional grounds for the rise of American fascism. Jim Crowism, while it has its roots in a calculated policy of American capitalism and is maintained by it, has assumed the status of an autonomous tradition in this country; it has, alas, become part of our folkways.

There are two main ingredients in the Jim Crow pattern: the myth of racial superiority and the tradition of mob violence. Both have their roots deep in our national history. Side by side with the so-called democratic Jeffersonian tradition, the heritage to which our liberals pay such uncritical homage, there has developed in this country a tradition rather less attractive – mob violence quite uniquely American. A summary knowledge of our historical background must lead to the conclusion that in reality the tradition of Jeffersonian democracy and the tradition of violence are not by any means dichotomous but rather find a joint origin and show a congruent development in the American Revolutionary War. Violence in social life cannot (unfortunately, as yet) be judged by absolutist standards; its social and ethical character depends, in the last analysis, upon who uses violence against whom. Thus, it would be absurd and retrospectively reactionary to attribute the tradition of mob violence to the violence of the American revolution, which sprang from deep and valid social needs. But the equalitarian violence of the American revolution, when it became embodied in a national tradition, degenerated over the course of decades into a vicious kind of mob action, one reason for which may perhaps be that the “American Dream,” upon which the original equalitarian violence was based, has been so largely unfulfilled.

It was along the Western frontier, that elastic chimera of unrealized hopes, that this violence came to a head. Often enough, it is true, the violence of the frontier was the direct result of specific economic conflicts between the small farmer and the large ranchers and railroaders (see Frank Norris’s Octopus). But what is distinctive in the Violence of the West is that so often it is the comparatively uninhibited expression of a mass social frustration, of undefined and inchoate rebellion against the drabness and dullness of the realities of our civilization. Just as some of the finer aspects of the American Dream found their freest expression on the Western frontier, so did the vigilante tradition also flourish there. (The recent Hollywood film, The Ox-Bow Incident, is an excellent illustration.)

When we examine the other main source of the mob tradition, the Southern lynchings, we find a similar phenomenon. Here, too, the basic economic explanation is essential to an understanding of lynchings. But why does the white worker indulge in the savagery of lynching? The poor white lynches and Jim-Crows because: (1) his entire upbringing has been steeped in the ignorance of racial prejudice. From the cradle on, Southern society sees to it that he adopts the Jim Crow mores; otherwise, he faces the dread appellation of “Nigger lover.” This is a classic instance of how the educational apparatus serves the basic purposes of the ruling strata of society; (2) the poor white lynches and Jim-Crows because he gains a vicarious pleasure out of pushing someone else around after having been pushed around himself. He finds in the passion and soothing irrationality of the lynch mob a temporary alleviation from the unspeakable dullness and constant poverty of his textile mill existence. For once, he can be “on top” (and that in a highly exciting way!); as a worker or sharecropper he is the lowest of the low; and as a White Man he belongs – and to the “superior” race at that.

It is this tradition of mob violence, plus the fact that it is after all only some eighty years since chattel slavery was abolished in this country, which is a constant factor in producing these riots which shame the nation. This tradition has, of course, not acted as an independent or arbitrary factor. It has arisen when social tensions have been most strained; it has arisen, both spontaneously and when prompted, during those crises in our history when the gulf between the reality and the promise was most apparent.

A Harbinger of Fascism

Today, in America, one can see this tradition of mob racial violence arising in new and virulent form. For now it is not merely the result of democratic exuberance or democratic frustration; now it arises coincident with, and as a product of, the greatest social crisis since the Middle Ages. In fascism, the methods of absolute irrationality coupled with unrestrained violence are utilized for the quite rational, if reactionary, purpose of maintaining capitalism. That is why the tradition of mob violence finds such fertile ground in America today; it is one of the harbingers of fascism. The mob violence of recent months is the psychological counterpart of the increasing totalitarianization of America’s capitalist economy and a symptom of the intolerable social strain which is thereby being produced.

Let us take three typical incidents as illustrative of the thesis we have put forward: the “zoot suit” riots in Los Angeles, the large-scale race riot in Detroit, and the riot between white and Negro boys in Newark.

The Los Angeles “zoot suit” riot is a remarkable illustration of the pattern of social frustration which leads to mob violence, since it is operative for both sides. Neither the sailors nor the zoot suiters have any direct economic motivation in fighting each other. Yet an examination of the causes of the riot provides a remarkable illustration of how the psychological poisons bred by capitalism develop and intertwine to the point where a monstrous social explosion results. The sailors, first of all, are victims of a situation largely not of their own making. Trained to think and act in terms of organized violence, tense with the eventual or momentary expectation of battle action, they are easy prey to mob moods. The unspeakable boredom of the military routine itself leads them to wild actions some would never indulge in otherwise. They are resentful of civilians as a group, mainly because they are so envious of them. And they find in the Mexican and Negro youth who wear the zoot suits “legitimate” prey for the outlet of these suppressed emotions; their hooliganism even wins the applause of the local bourgeois press which is anxious, for perfectly solid reasons of its own, to keep the Negroes and Mexicans “in place.”

On the other hand, the Mexican and Negro youths are also victims of social and psychological patterns which they scarcely understand. The war has offered them a half-opportunity: the scarcity of labor forces large war industries to give a few of them jobs which they could never get in peacetime. This slight reed of opportunity merely produces an intense desire for more, and a new spirit of aggressiveness arises. Most of the Mexican youths are of the second generation of their people in this country; they are more acquainted with the myths of American democracy than are their resigned elders and they are anxious to have them applied to themselves. They find security neither in their old-fashioned family life, which is still largely organized along Mexican patterns, nor in the American community which refuses to accept them. They naturally form gangs and wear the zoot suit as a badge of defiance. It is their way of being different, of flashing their birthright. And can anyone wonder that criminal tendencies find root at the peripheries of the zoot-suit gangs (which would be no different from any other boys’ gangs were it not for the discrimination problem), especially when one considers the poverty in which the Mexican population of Los Angeles is forced to live?

When one remembers the deliberate way in which the Los Angeles Hearst press fanned the fires of prejudice, the attitude of the local police, which consisted of tolerating the aggression against the Mexican youth and in some cases even helping it, and the peculiar laxity of the naval command in failing to prevent its members from engaging in the riots; it is then possible to see why this tragic outburst of violent irrationality, or apparently motiveless struggle arose. Both sides were victims of a social tragedy neither had made nor understood; and it is a queer commentary on historical development that such a complex social explosion should be set off by as ridiculous a matter as a zoot suit!

In Detroit, the racial riots assumed the aspects of a minor civil war. This situation deserves analysis far more detailed than we can here offer. There are numerous specific local factors which helped produce the riot. A town with a housing problem so severe as to be able to provoke race riots by itself; the center of the activities of numerous native fascist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, Gerald K. Smith’s America First Party and the remnants of the Black Legion; a large influx of white Southerners, bringing with them their racial prejudices; a large Negro community with considerable internal organization; the center of mass war production and home of the most reactionary segment of American capitalism, the Ford dynasty; the home of America’s most dynamic union, the UAW, and most economically militant, but not equally socially developed working class. Add up these factors and you immediately have an explosive situation.

Here again we wish to emphasize our belief that it is the functioning of capitalist society which is the prime spur to such catastrophes. We do not doubt that if thoroughly investigated it would be found that behind the fascist groups there is the hand of the auto dynasts, trying to sow dissension in the ranks of the workers and destroy their union by creating racial conflicts. Nor can one ignore the tidal economic pressures which crush the Negro workers.

Yet how explain the tragic fact that in this, the heart of American industrial unionism, such horrible race riots are possible?

Effects of the War

It is only, I think, by a consideration of the general factors of the social psychology of a nation at war which I have heretofore. referred to, that an explanation is possible. Mass hysteria, mass social frustration, mass violence can only be explained by tracing their roots in the tortuous historical caverns of the American past. The Detroit worker, only a few years ago a resident of the deep South, is incensed at the comparative freedom the Negroes are afforded in Detroit. He sees some of them as leaders of his union, as shop stewards. Another worker joins in the riot because of his boredom, his sense of general and vague dissatisfaction which he can neither specify nor explain. Still another worker joins the rioters for the excitement or the “fun.” And still another worker joins the rioters because of a craving for violence; the movies have pumped him full of chauvinistic war propaganda which puts a premium on violence and which contrasts sharply with his own harried, spiritless life. Can any of these unfortunate victims of a twisted heritage of social rottenness and primitivism – many of whom undoubtedly feel a sense of shame after their participation in the riots – resist the malicious gossip and rumors which the native fascist vermin make it their business to spread around? And who is there to counteract this terrible situation when the leaders of their unions are too busy emasculating the militancy of the workers and smearing John L. Lewis to pay attention to this social blockbuster in their own backyard?

Finally, when we turn to the Newark riots, in which only children participated, we can see most clearly how the racial antagonism has grown like an irresistible weed, which even those who planted it could not uproot if they would. No more complete condemnation of the savagery to which capitalism has brought us can be made than by merely describing this scene in Newark where children in their teens form phalanxes of color to destroy each other with baseball bats, where white slum urchins organize to uphold the precepts of white supremacy. Henceforth, let us understand that the race problem is not a local excrescence due to Southern peculiarities. When children riot in Newark or when a giant housing project in New York plans to bar Negroes, and the “liberal” Mayor approves that step, we are witnessing the same pattern as that which culminates in lynching in the South.

These children in Newark have absorbed the anti-Negro prejudices which are part of the American heritage simultaneously with their lessons in spelling. The war produces mass psychoses which irritate and disturb them; what is easier than going down to the Negro section of the town and beating up some of the Negro kids? With their lessons teaching them that “All men are created free and equal” they also learn that “Niggers must be kept in their place”; and society applauds their hooliganism with a slap on the wrist and a secret pat on the back.

* * *

If, then, the racial conflict goes deeply into the national heritage, if it has seeped into the national psychology, if it is the product of social psychoses and frustrations as pervading as the economic system from which they spring; are we not then entitled to a pessimistic outlook for the future of race relations? If we project our discussion upon the premise of a continuation of capitalism in this country, the answer must be: yes. The forces that make for Jim Crow under capitalism grow stronger as that system declines, rather than weaker. Each pantywaist, milksop measure of the pussyfooting liberals is as nothing compared to the social drives of a declining society. Does this, however, mean that we are to resign ourselves to the barbarism of Jim Crow? By no means.

The Task of the Working Class

The working class cannot build a new society in the womb of the old; it cannot even construct positive new ethics while struggling against the old, but it can develop an ethics of struggle, a revolutionary ethics which will make no compromise with racial prejudice. The elementary forms of such an ethics are already visible. In the deep South, it has been possible for agricultural workers to organize on a harmonious, bi-racial basis. In such unions as the UMW and the UAW, it has been possible to do likewise. The Negro problem becomes more and more a union problem. We are convinced that the orthodox Negro organizations are doomed to increasing futility; they can only lead to a new kind of Uncle Tom resignation, or into the blind alley of racial exclusivism. Most concretely, in Detroit: the very future of the United Automobile Workers is at stake in these race riots. If the UAW leadership does not at once begin an intensive educational campaign designed to cement inter-race relations within the union, if it does not at once begin a merciless campaign designed to expose and root out the fascist agents within the union, its very existence is at stake. Either the Negro will be a loyal union brother, or you will force him to become a strikebreaker – that is the alternative that must be posed and elaborated to the Detroit worker. In a sense the very future of the American labor movement depends upon whether or not the UAW will be able to solve this problem.

Yet racial prejudices are a conservative social factor. Precisely because of their irrationality it is unlikely that even the establishment of a workers’ government would result in their immediate destruction. That is even more true of immediate reforms designed to alleviate the plight of the Negro. An important cause of the riots in Newark was the absence of proper recreational facilities for both white and Negro youth; it is important and proper to fight for those facilities as a means of alleviating those conditions. But it would be Utopian to believe that to remove an immediate cause of riots – the absence of playgrounds – would result in an eradication of the racial antagonisms.

In America we are blessed with a magnificent industrial apparatus with which the construction of socialism should be a comparatively easy and rapid matter. But we are also cursed with a tradition of racial violence which may well leave its traces in the mind when the society which produced them is being buried. That is why the struggle to eradicate every last vestige of racial prejudice is one of the major and most imperative tasks of the socialist movement now and the socialist society of tomorrow.

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