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Irving Howe

Jim Crow: Who Will Win the New Orleans Race?

(June 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 22, 1 June 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most vicious twist given to Jim Crowism in a long time – and the most obvious exposure of the fact that its main social purpose is as a means of dividing poor Negroes and whites for the benefit of the Southern ruling classes – is seen in a report in the May 22 issue of the New York Daily News headlined “Shipyard Race to Pit White Vs. Colored.”

In New Orleans, the Higgins Industries, Inc., produces 15,000 ton freighters for the American war machine. We do not know exactly, but we’re willing to bet our last plugged nickel that Andrew Jackson Higgins, the owner of the plant, is doing very nicely for himself insofar as war profits are concerned. If he’s doing only as well as the other shipbuilding corporations, he’s wallowing in profits!

But Andrew Jackson Higgins faced a problem – the labor shortage. The way to solve that problem would appear to be obvious: hire Negro workers who have never before had a chance to work in skilled trades but who have been confined to the most menial tasks. This the South has previously refused to do; but the exigencies of the war crisis bring many changes. And it brought a change here.

How to Divide the Workers?

But, thought the wily Higgins, how shall we hire Negro workers for our shipyards and still maintain the color line? For if Negro and white worker toil together, right next to each other, then they’re liable to see that this color line is just a lot of malarky and get together for wage increases within one union.

And here Higgins had a brainstorm. He would set up two mile-long assembly lines, one colored, the other white. And then there’d be a race ... to see if the idea of “racial supremacy” were really valid. The foreman of the Negro workers would say: “Here’s your chance to show that you’re just as good as those white men.” And the foreman of the whites would say: “Are you white men going to allow those Negroes (only he’d used a less polite word!) to beat you, to show you up? Work faster!”

And who’d gain from all this? The Negro workers? The white workers? No, of course not! Regardless of which group won the race, what good would it do them? Would they get more pay? Would they have better working conditions? No, all they’d have would be more sweat from speeding themselves to death. If the Negroes won the race, that wouldn’t end Jim Crow. And if the whites won, that wouldn’t help them any.

The Boss Profits from Jim Crow

But regardless of which side won the race, the boss would really profit from it, because he’d get more labor done in less time and would therefore have to pay less wages! Because he’d succeed in keeping the Negro and white workers separated and inflame their racial prejudices, with the result that they wouldn’t work together for their mutual working class needs.

Was there ever an incident which so clearly showed up the fact that Jim Crowism is a weapon used by the Southern bosses to divide the white and Negro workers to the economic and social disadvantage of both? Was there ever a grosser incident illustrating the basic fact that Jim Crowism is a means used to perpetuate capitalist rule in the South, low wages and open shoppism?

We don’t know what the reaction of these workers will be. But they would do well to look at the example of the sharecroppers of Southeast Missouri, who have united, across color lines, in defense of their common economic interests as workers.

Whatever their present attitude, their experiences in being speeded up for the advantage of their common enemy, Boss Higgins, will necessarily bring closer to them the basic message that must be brought home to all workers: Jim Crowism is a means of splitting and destroying the labor movement! The road to salvation for the Negro people leads clearly along the lines of unity between Negro and white workers!

This is not merely a general idea. It is a concrete lesson which must be learned – and is being learned by the labor movement to survive.

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