From Fourth International, Vol.8 No.9, November-December 1947, pp.282-286.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
There are plenty of vital statistics and useful facts about the oppression of the Negro people in the document  presented to the United Nations last October by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
This document can be of considerable value to those first becoming acquainted with the American Negro question, but it does not take us very far toward solution of that problem. Strong on the presentation of facts, it is weak on explaining and analyzing those facts, and almost worthless when it comes to a consideration of what should be done about them.
These facts constitute a damning indictment of American “democracy.” They show that the Negro people,
“... something less than a tenth of the nation ... form largely a segregated caste, with restricted legal rights, and many illegal disabilities ... [They have] a strong, hereditary cultural unity, born of slavery, of common suffering, prolonged proscription and curtailment of political and civil rights; and especially because of economic and social disabilities ...”
But why? Nowhere in this document is there a clear answer to this all-important question.
DuBois comes closest to discussing it in the following widely separated remarks, buried away in the midst of discussion of other issues. Slavery, he notes,
“... was a matter of economics, a question of income and labor, rather than a problem of right and wrong, or of the physical differences in men. Once slavery began to be the source of vast income for men and nations, there followed frantic search for moral and racial justifications.”
After the Reconstruction Era, he declares, Northern industry joined with the Southern landowners “to disfranchise the Negro; keep him from access to free land or to capital, and to build up the present caste system for blacks founded on color discrimination, peonage, intimidation and mob-violence.” The US as a result is “ruled by wealth, monopoly and big business organization to an astounding degree.” And in the South today, DuBois adds in passing, “Industry encourages the culture patterns which make these groups [competing for jobs] hate and fear each other.”
Added together, these statements provide at least a clue to the answer. Why then aren’t they added together and summed up in a forthright declaration on the causes of Jim Crow oppression? Because DuBois and the NAACP leaders and most of the prominent Negro leaders are afraid of the conclusions that would have to be drawn from a consistent analysis of these causes. We have no such fears, however, and neither do the Negro masses. Let us therefore say plainly what DuBois only hints at:
Like slavery, Jim Crow oppression is rooted in economic life. It is profitable to the capitalist ruling class in both the North and the South, and that’s why they not only encourage, but instigate and maintain this system and bitterly resist any attempt to end it.
Furthermore, Jim Crow is a matter of politics. DuBois gives irrefutable proof of this in demonstrating that the dis-franchisement of the Negroes in the South “means greater power for the few who cast the vote.” His analysis of the 1946 elections shows, for example, that the Southern landowner who disfranchises Negro and white workers and sharecroppers has a power at the polls greater than that of six workers and farmers in the North. This explains not only why the South is the most backward section of the country but also why the Southern congressmen elected by this political monopoly form the most reactionary bloc in Washington where the laws for the whole nation are written.
Facts About Jim Crow
But here too the NAACP document fails to draw the necessary conclusions. True, it cites the obvious need for abolishing Negro disfranchisement. But that is too narrow and limited an answer for the many political problems arising out of Negro oppression, and fails to even touch the crucial point: What measures are necessary to achieve the goal of Negro equality at the polls — itself a political goal? We are again compelled to say explicitly what the NAACP document only half-implies:
Jim Crow is not only a source of political power for the ruling class, but the political power of the ruling class is itself a source of Jim Crow. This inevitably raises the question of the government — the executive committee of the ruling class through which its political power is exercised.
Consequently, the only effective way to fight Jim Crow is by fighting the capitalist system, and the only way to end it for good is by political action to replace the capitalist system with one under which Jim Crow won’t be profitable — that is, a socialist system.
By rejecting or evading this approach, whose basis is no confidence whatever in the capitalist class or any of its agencies, the Negro leaders are trapped in one contradiction after another, thus weakening and undermining the Negro struggles. A few examples from the NAACP document will illustrate this.
When the ruling classes of the North and South worked out their “gentleman’s agreement” in 1876 and set out to deprive the Negro of the civil rights he had won during the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Supreme Court was one of the chief instruments employed. The Court obligingly ruled that most of the Congressional civil rights statutes were illegal, and that the states rather than the federal government had the responsibility of guaranteeing civil rights. As a result, it is precisely in those places where the Negro most needs legal protection that he gets it least — in the South, where the state governments, far from adopting civil rights laws, legally established the pattern of segregation which is the base of the modern Jim Crow system.
Dickerson does a great deal of historical and legal research on the period leading up to 1914 to disprove what he calls “the fallacy inherent in the argument that the legal rights of American Negroes can be entrusted to the states.” Now a fallacy is a mistaken assumption, an erroneous conclusion or argument, etc. But there was nothing at all “fallacious” about the thinking of the US ruling class when it decided to “entrust” the Negro’s legal rights to the states! On the contrary, it was a carefully thought-out device for achieving exactly what was intended — the legal destruction of the Negro’s rights. Only people who are themselves suffering from the most pernicious fallacies about the nature of the ruling class or its Supreme Court could use such a namby-pamby term to describe a diabolically successful conspiracy against the Negro people.
But the authors of the NAACP document do hot even carry through consistently their own line of reasoning. They refrain from a similar criticism of the idea that the legal rights of the Negroes can be safely entrusted to the federal government and its agencies — a conception spread far and wide by most of the Negro leaders. Is that any less a “fallacy” than the one concerning reliance on the state governments? Not at all. Remember, first of all, that the federal government connived to make “state’s rights” dominant in this field. And now it follows a pattern in its treatment of Negroes (armed forces, government employees, District of Columbia) which essentially duplicates that followed by the Southern states. The “big” difference between the two is that the federal government is the executive committee of the national ruling class while the state governments perform the same repressive role for the local sections of that ruling class.
In another place, Dickerson says that
“... to tell a Negro who has suffered from mob violence because of state inaction that he must look to the state for protection sounds very much like telling a woman who has been seduced that her future protection lies in the hands of the seducer.”
This is apt and well put, although the crime committed in the case of the Negro is more like rape than seduction. But in that case, telling the Negro to rely on the federal government is like telling the woman to rely on the man who delivered her to the attacker and even held her while the crime was committed. Yet, because of their false theories on the main cause of Jim Crow and on the nature of the capitalist state, that has been the essence of the Negro leaders’ program and demands.
By the above we do not at all wish to belittle or criticize demands for federal legislation against lynching, the poll tax, discriminatory employment practices, and so on. Such demands are obviously necessary and progressive because they facilitate the mobilization of the masses against the Jim Crow system and because their realization would considerably weaken and undermine the Jim Crow status quo. What we are criticizing and warning against here is the impression spread by Negro leaders that such limited demands are the be-all and end-all of the Negro struggle and that their realization would solve the problems of the Negro people. Such a conception is false to the core for it ignores the real roots of Jim Crow — the capitalist system.
Now this very same fallacy appears, even in a more extended form, in the NAACP appeal to the UN for redress. Having obtained no satisfaction from petitions to the stales, then having made little headway as a result of petitions to the federal government, the NAACP leaders feel that it is
“... fitting and proper that the thirteen million American citizens of Negro descent should appeal to the United Nations and ask that organization in the proper way to take cognizance of a situation that deprives this group of their rights as men and citizens.”
It is, of course, perfectly proper for the Negro people to utilize the UN as a forum in which to present their grievances. Skillfully utilized, such a procedure can serve to expose the fraudulence of the US government’s pretensions about democracy at home and abroad. (The NAACP document, incidentally fails to take proper advantage of this opportunity by bewailing the fact that American prestige is lowered and embarrassed by its oppression of Negroes at home. While this may be important to the American ruling class, which wants to extend its power and domination all over the globe, it is certainly not embarrassing to the Negro masses, and it is certainly not the reason why they want Negro oppression ended.) But what can practically come out of such an appeal to the UN, except some publicity and an advance in the education of the people about the indifference of the UN to genuine democracy and its subservience to Wall Street?
The NAACP leaders do not say anything on the question one way or the other, and perhaps they privately don’t expect much to come of it. But in the absence of any statement to the contrary, their appeal creates illusions among the masses about (1) the nature of the UN and (2) the correct way to fight Jim Crow. Instead of strengthening, it tends to weaken that fight by creating the wrong impression that there is some other way to win equality than by mass struggle against capitalism and its agencies.
Such an appeal, while useful as propaganda, is manifestly worthless as a means of improving conditions in this country because the American imperialist oppressors of the Negro, who dominate the UN, just will not permit it to “intervene.” And even if the US ruling class did not dominate the UN, it wouldn’t make any difference because this association of bandits has no desire or intention to halt oppression anywhere. This has already been amply demonstrated by its attitude toward the colored peoples of Indonesia, Indo-China and South Africa. For the Negro masses to entertain any illusions on this score would be like a Negro slave complaining about the cruelty of his master to the Confederate Government during the Civil War and expecting it to give him redress.
There are many things that the NAACP leaders see but do not understand. One of the most important is the national element in the Negro struggle. DuBois notes the fact that all Negroes are discriminated against, those with “wealth, training and character” as well as those without. He declared:
“... prolonged policies of segregation and discrimination have involuntarily welded the [Negro] mass almost into a nation within a nation with its own schools, churches, hospitals, newspapers and many business enterprises.”
The results of this growing national (or racial) consciousness, he finds, have been both good and bad. Good in that it inspired the Negroes to “frantic and often successful effort to achieve, to deserve, to show the world their capacity to share modern civilization.” And bad in that it has made the Negroes to a wide extent “provincial, introvertive, self-conscious and narrowly race-loyal.” Coming from the pen of a white liberal or social worker, such an estimate might not seem out of place. But from a Negro leader who has made genuine contributions to the study of Negro history, it is certainly inadequate and negative, especially from the viewpoint of what effects national movements have on the struggle for Negro liberation. Let us consider the Marxist estimate:
The national consciousness of the Negro people, induced by the factors cited by DuBois, does indeed have varying effects. Such attitudes as Negro nationalism, black chauvinism, etc., do carry a danger of being utilized to spread mistrust of all whites, including the whites who are opposed to Jim Crow, and to widen the divisions between Negroes and their natural ally, the labor movement. But essentially this national consciousness is an expression of the Negro’s desire for equality and is therefore progressive (unlike white chauvinism which reflects the desire for continued racial supremacy). J.R. Johnson has correctly called attention to an important consideration in this connection:
“Whereas in Europe the national movements have usually aimed at a separation from the oppressing power, in the US the race consciousness and chauvinism of the Negro represent fundamentally a consolidation of his forces for the purpose of integration into American society.”
That is one side of it, and not all of that is bad by a long shot. On the other side are the power and explosiveness lodged in national movements, which organize the oppressed minorities in struggles whose objective consequence can only be the abolition of capitalism. The American Negro as a minority cannot solve his problems without powerful allies, but even by himself he can direct heavy blows at the system, keep it in a state of instability by his opposition and help set into motion other revolutionary forces which can and will collaborate in the solution of his particular problems because they share the same fundamental interests. DuBois seems oblivious of the dynamite lodged in the Negro’s national consciousness; for him it presents only a “dilemma.” But for those who aim at destroying Jim Crow the racial feelings and nationalist movements of the Negro people present a challenge and an opportunity. Here is a powerful anti-capitalist and anti-Jim Crow force if they know how to direct it into correct channels.
It is one-sided and therefore wrong to stop with the national aspects; the Negro question involves much more than that. It combines the struggle of an oppressed minority for democracy with the struggle of the entire working class for emancipation from capitalism. This second factor is never explicitly stated or recognized in the document, although it contains the figures to prove it.
Perry cites the following statistics from the 1940 census:
The total number of Negroes gainfully employed in the United States amounted to 4,479,068 men and women (not counting those on public emergency work). Of these, the vast majority, 61%, were unskilled workers. Less than 3% were “skilled and foremen” and only 2.6 were professional persons. The rest were largely semi-skilled workers, farm tenants and the like.
Thus the Negro question is overwhelmingly a working class question, tied up with the fate of the labor movement as a whole and dependent on the fulfillment of the working class’s destiny as the gravedigger of capitalism and the builder of a new society. To ignore this vital fact is to deprive the Negro of the aid of his best and strongest ally. It is not enough merely to pass annual declarations of solidarity with labor and to invite an occasional union bureaucrat to speak at NAACP meetings or add his name to the NAACP Board of Directors. What is needed above all is for the Negro organizations to strengthen the ties of active collaboration with the labor organizations and to try to influence them in a progressive direction. The Negro people will not win their second emancipation until labor has settled accounts with capital. The Negro people have a great part to play in that settlement.
The assumption guiding these Negro leaders — that the Negro people can attain equality under capitalism, even in its “democratic” form — is not consistent with the facts adduced or implied in the NAACP document. It is the theoretical source of all their mistakes, vacillations and betrayals of the Negro struggle.
The authors can admit flatly, as Dickerson does, that
“... by 1914, the eve of the First World War, the legal status of the American Negro had degenerated to the pattern that existed before the Civil War.”
But do they understand what this statement really means — that at the height of the flowering of democratic capitalism the American ruling class had no more to offer the Negro than in slave days? Do they appreciate what a terrible indictment that is of capitalism in its prime, when it was able to grant some concessions to the masses? Can’t they realize what this means today — and even more for tomorrow — now that the permanent crisis of this decadent system drives the ruling class not to grant new concessions and rights but to withdraw as many of them as they can, as the anti-labor drive now sweeping the country demonstrates?
They can calmly declare, to quote Konvitz, that in addition to “the inequalities that exist despite the law,” there are also many “inequalities that exist because of the law,” These include the right of Negroes “to live where they please, to be free from segregation in schools and universities, to vote without the poll tax restrictions, to ride in intrastate commerce in public conveyances without subjection to Jim Crowism.” In court contests against these inequalities, “the Negro has been unsuccessful, even when, as in recent years, the Supreme Court has consisted of a liberal majority.” Do they actually grasp what they are saying when they admit that so far as the Negro is concerned, the capitalist liberals upon whom they rely for improving the situation, act no better than the other supporters of capitalism?
Or take the conclusion reached by this remark of Ming: “The political and legal system of the United States appears to be unable or unwilling to cope with this hiatus between the theoretical and actual status of the Negro.” But what does it matter whether the capitalist politicians and judges are “unable or unwilling”? Isn’t it plain that a system which either can’t or won’t grant the most elementary democratic rights to the Negroes is rotten to the core and must be replaced by one that can and will?
But while their “theory” is contradicted at every point by the facts, the policy recommended and followed by the Negro leaders is consistent with and flows from their “theory” of refusing to place the responsibility for Jim Crow where it really belongs. Refusing to recognize the core of the problem, they attribute Negro oppression to “fallacies,” “paradoxes,” “enigmas,” “apathy” and even “shortsightedness” of the capitalist class.
True, they put pressure on the capitalist class in order to get recognition and correction of these “fallacies.” But they want to arouse and employ no more than the most limited kind of pressure — the kind that will serve to embarrass and extract a concession or pat on the head from the ruling class, but that will never under any circumstances challenge their power to oppress and exploit and their right to rule. This is shown best of all by the Negro leaders’ approach to politics.
The NAACP program — to end lynching, the poll tax, industrial and military Jim Crow, etc. — is conceived by its leaders as a legislative program. To put it more correctly, it is a political program whose fate will be decided by the political struggle of the masses. As was stated above, the NAACP leaders reject our concept that what is needed is an anti-capitalist political movement aiming to take power away from the Jim Crow capitalist parties and government. What is more, they reject even the concept of organized political action by the Negro masses.
Yes, ludicrous as it may appear and tragic as it is, the largest Negro organization in the world still refuses to use political weapons in a political war and still relies on lobbying methods that have proved their ineffectiveness over and over again during the NAACP’s 37 year history. This puts the NAACP leaders on an even lower political level than the moss-backed AFL bureaucrats, who finally had it drummed into their fat heads by the Taft-Hartley Act that no fight against the employers can be divorced from politics. How many more blows will the NAACP leaders need before they are forced to a like conclusion?
The alibi offered by the NAACP leaders for the abstentionist policy is as pathetic as the policy itself. The NAACP, they say, is a “non-partisan” organization that cannot take sides in politics without offending and alienating its members, friendly politicians and wealthy well-wishers, who have diverse political views. The best it can do is urge its members to register and vote, to inform them of the voting records of the various candidates — and then hope for the best! They do not explain what value to the organization are members and sympathizers who want to be “non-partisan” as between the political foes and the political friends of the Negro people. Nor has it apparently occurred to them that the loss of such followers would be compensated many fold by the recruiting of Negro workers when they saw that the NAACP really meant business about fighting their enemies, including those in high political seats.
Abstentionism from politics is, however, also a kind of politics — the worst kind because it damages above all those who practice it. The NAACP’s “neutrality” is most pleasing to the political practitioners of Jim Crow because it leaves undisturbed the political monoply by which they sustain the Jim Crow system. How the reactionary politicians whose election was left unopposed by the NAACP must laugh when the NAACP comes around lobbying for something like an anti-lynch law! They probably even smiled when the politically self-disarmed NAACP presented its document to the UN, where the politically “safe” appointees of the US capitalist government will see that it comes to naught.
In the middle Thirties, there was a strong movement among the workers in the factories toward the AFL as the only important national labor organization in the field. But these workers were looking for something different and better than the AFL, as was soon shown in the industrial explosion out of which the CIO was born as the labor movement on a higher level — industrial unionism. In the same Way during recent years there has been a strong tide among the Negro masses toward the NAACP as the only important national Negro organization in the field.
This tide has swept into the NAACP tens of thousands of militant young Negroes eager to deal a finish blow to the Jim Crow system. Explosions lie ahead here too. They will either transform the NAACP’s character in accordance with the needs of the times or else replace it with a new organization that can play the role required. It behooves these Negro militants to study the origins as well as the effects of the Jim Crow system and to take measures to prepare themselves and their present organization for the most useful ways to conduct the Negro struggle.
What is needed now is a new Negro leadership — one that is not afraid to draw radical conclusions and advocate drastic measures when they are justified by the facts. Fighters who will not have any illusions about the hostile character of capitalism and all its agencies and servants, no matter how disguised; who will recognize and strengthen the bonds linking the Negro struggle for equality with the organized labor movement and who stand ready, if that becomes necessary, to mobilize their people for action on their own behalf without waiting for labor to act first. This new leadership will understand the progressive character of Negro national consciousness and will know how to utilize its power in the right direction; it will rearm the Negro movement politically through an independent labor-Negro coalition.
Jim Crow is twined inextricably around the trunk of capitalism like a poisonous vine around a tree; both are nourished by the same soil of class society. It is necessary to cut down this tree at its roots in order to kill the vine, just as it was necessary to abolish slavery root and branch. The more hands that are put on the job, the sooner it will be done. The axe is waiting to be used by that new Negro leadership which is already arising from the ranks and is destined to replace the present half-way leaders who dare neither to think things through to the end — nor to act decisively to destroy Jim Crow.
1. A Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress (edited by W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, historian and director of the NAACP Department of Special Research, with contributions by attorney Earl B. Dickerson of Chicago, Milton R. Konvitz of Cornell University, William R. Ming, Jr., of the University of Chicago, Leslie S. Perry of the NAACP Washington Bureau, and Rayford W. Logan of Howard University).
Last updated: 16.2.2009