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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

How to Feel Like a Negro

(11 February 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 6, 11 February 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

If you were a white enlisted man in the Army, keep on reading. For you will have a rare opportunity offered you – a chance to change your skin for the next few minutes, a chance to change your white skin for a black one. You will be able, in a small way, to find out what it feels like to be a Negro.

This is possible because the contemptible life led by the white enlisted man in the army bears a great resemblance to the life led by the Negro in civilian life.

For the two of them it is a system worked out in the minutest detail. For the white enlisted man it is summed up in the initials RHIP – Rank Has Its Privileges. For the Negro it is summed up in the phrase Jim Crow.

A Striking Parallel

Similar social distinctions exist. The best seats in army theaters are reserved for the brass. The GI’s get the poorer seats. In civilian life the Negro is either rigidly confined to a certain section of the theater, as in the South, or “directed” to the balcony, as in the North.

On railroad trains the plushy accommodations are always reserved for the officers. The GI gets what’s left. If the GI walks, the officer rides. For the Negro in civilian life there are Jim Crow cars and Jim Crow sections on buses, particularly in the South. And they are universally the worst accommodations.

Officers have separate messes and billets, from which the GI is excluded, just as the Negro is excluded from the best restaurants and hotels.

Since they walk in beauty and since their metabolism is of a celestial order, officers have separate entrances to buildings and toilets for their olympian bottoms, separate from the GI’s. The Negro is discriminated against similarly in civilian life.

The Bended Knee

Accompanying these caste distinctions in the army is the servile attitude forcibly imposed upon the enlisted man. It is designed to keep him continuously aware of his inferior status. He must always address an officer as “Sir!”, he must always remove his cap indoors in the presence of an officer, he must always salute him, he may leave an officer’s presence only when dismissed, he must submit to the filthiest abuse silently, he must preserve a deferential attitude at all times, he must leap when called for. Only a blind person could fail to see that this is the normal condition of Negroes in society today.

As is done in regard to the Negroes, the myth is carefully cultivated that the enlisted man is a semi-brute, incapable of independent thought, and that he must be carefully watched and restrained lest he step out of his place.

Legal and Job Inequality

The Negro in civilian life and the white enlisted man in the army are both discriminated against before the law. The Negro is customarily tried before white magistrates and white jurors and usually receives a longer sentence than a white man convicted of a similar offense. Similarly in the army! The white enlisted man is always tried by a board of officers (never by his peers – other enlisted men) and given excessive jail sentences for offenses which if committed by an officer are lightly punished – or passed off merely as a joke.

Like the Negro in civil life, the white enlisted man in the army does all the dirty, hard, and servile work of the army. He digs the officers’ toilets and fills them in. He erects the officers’ tents. He cooks the officers’ food. He serves it to them. He washes the officers’ dishes. He gets their laundry done. He takes care of their equipment and transports it. He always chauffeurs them. He takes them to their billets when they’re drunk and cleans up the filth after their parties.

Economic Discrimination

The Negro, of course, forms the lowest paid section of the working class. As a consequence, his standard of living is low, his pleasures limited.

The same is true of the white enlisted man in the army. He is miserably paid. Unlike the officer, he cannot support his wife near his station if it is in the U.S. His family, in fact, probably has difficulty in getting along. The soldier himself cannot dress as well as an officer or as comfortably. He cannot enjoy all those small but important advantages of travel, food, entertainment, and other pleasures which are so easily accessible to the officers.


How many times have you, as a white enlisted man, under the pressure of that brutal, boring, dangerous life, felt that one more minute of it and you would blow your top?

Many times, if you were like me.

Do you know what was happening to you? You were being treated as the Negro is treated in civilian life, but with this difference: THE NEGRO ENDURES SUCH TREATMENT, AND WORSE, FROM THE CRADLE TO HIS JIM CROW GRAVE!

Now ask yourself how it must have been in the army for the Negro, where he was subjected to all the inhuman treatment accorded the white enlisted man – but multiplied a thousand-fold because of the color of his skin.

Do you understand a little better now what we socialists mean when we speak of the oppression of the Negro?

The regime in the army, which presses down so harshly upon both white and black, is a reflection of the capitalist society which produced it.

As long as capitalism exists we shall have wars. And as long as capitalist armies are maintained to fight them we shall have authoritarian regimes within these armies.

Only the establishment of socialism will abolish war and all that follows in its wake.

That is a job for Negro and white workers alike.

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