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“Brothers Under the Skin”

Racial Problems in the U.S.A.

(December 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 11, December 1943, pp. 345–347.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Despite the fact that it has pockmarked American life for decades and that it immediately affects a sizable group of our population, the status of the non-Negro colored minorities in this country has escaped the attention of even our liberal historians. This is understandable enough, since they are more concerned with composing lullabies than writing history. Only in comparatively obscure studies has the problem been discussed, and that in isolated form. Carey McWilliams’ Brothers Under the Skin [1] has, therefore the virtue of bringing together popular studies of the colored groups – Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Negro, Orientals. In eight sketches he has traced the history of these groups, their segregation and exploitation, their pathetic efforts to integrate themselves into the American community and the rebuffs they have met. Regardless of the other merits of the book, it serves the valuable purpose of presenting the fact that there exist in this country Some 14,000,000 people who by virtue of the dark pigmentation of their skins are doomed to live as an inferior social caste from which, by definition, escape is impossible.

The Dualism in McWilliams’ Approach

McWilliams is not a footnoting sociologist; nor is he a particularly subtle social psychologist. He is a popularizer, which is quite acceptable, since he carefully documents his sources and does not sacrifice accuracy for popularity. His approach, unfortunately, suffers from that dualism which is indicative of the difficulties to which even such competent liberals as McWilliams are driven by the untenability of their present politics. He attacks color discrimination because

  1. his sense of decency is outraged at the fact that men can be made to suffer indignities merely because of the color of their skin, because he realizes that the culture of the prevailing group is impoverished by discrimination, and because he realizes that no decent society can be built so long as racial and color fissures eat into the social organism; and
  2. because he believes that the victory of the United Nations is partially dependent upon a progressive solution of the color and race questions.

Since McWilliams is a liberal, he cannot be expected to have a fundamental understanding of the war and it would therefore be pointless to argue with him when his main preoccupation is with another question; what is reprehensible, however, is to suggest in any way that the color problem needs to be solved primarily as a means toward winning the war. McWilliams, however, has not allowed his political preoccupations to divert him from his main task and, with the exceptions of the poor first and last chapters, his book is reasonably free from any attempts to pose the color problem as a function of the war.

McWilliams’ main approach is in terms of the cultural effects which the oppression of colored minority groups produces. He has a fine respect for the integrity and value of different cultures and his best pages describe how colored groups have had their social and cultural patterns debilitated as a result of the impenetrable economic barriers which American society has placed in their path. He appreciates the fact that the alien colored groups find themselves in an impossible position when they are thrust into a strange, hostile land in which their folkways are neither accepted nor tolerated, and they are, then, not allowed to become part of the American life-stream. Especially is this true in two contingencies:

  1. where the immigrant group has succeeded in establishing a ghetto existence, such as the Chinatowns or the Hispanidad agricultural communes in New Mexico, and then these precarious structures are swept away by the appetites of American capitalism; or
  2. where the second generation groups become alienated from the values of their parents and the new “democratic” values which they acquire during their scanty educations are never fulfilled in actual life, with personal and group demoralization as the result.

And though official society blithely pretends to be unaware of these situations, America is husbanding within its borders a minority which is degenerating into social and cultural atrophy. This situation is not true for the Negroes, or at least not as true; they are in a different position from, say, the Mexicans or Chinese because they have become, in a perverted way, an integral part of the American social structure, and therefore capable of resistance. But of that, more later.

It is pathetic to see with what eager credulity the Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, the Chinese and Filipinos have accepted at its face value the prattle of democracy and economic opportunity which American big business utilized when it needed additional sources of cheap labor. If ever there were peoples anxious to make themselves acceptable in their new land, it was they. Yet they have had to face the withering effects of that terrible provincial insularity and snobbishness with which American society has been afflicted.

There has resultantly developed a marginal caste, hemmed into poverty by the visibility of their skins, and living as a doomed group, unable to integrate itself into either the economy or society of the nation. Is it any wonder that the tightly knit family life of the Chinatown community has begun to disintegrate; that the Japanese group, once virtually free of crime, has begun to produce an increasing criminal element; that the Puerto Rican community in New York has witnessed an alarming growth of juvenile delinquency; that the Mexican community in California has produced the zoot-suiters; that, in short, degeneration, disintegration, demoralization have all been forced on these initially industrious and ambitious peoples by the “land of the free”? Is it any wonder that the second generations find themselves in the heartrending dilemma of having neither a heritage nor a future, a memory nor a promise, a cultural buttress nor a social guide? One of the most poignant passages of McWilliams’ book is his description of how even the primitive natives of Guam have been disturbed by the contrast between the “democratic” phrases of the American schools and the reality of colonial existence.

Source of Color Oppression

McWilliams’ cultural approach is in the main a worthy one since the final toll of national oppression is cultural: the oppressed minority has its native culture destroyed and is unable to develop an adequate substitute, while the oppressing majority fails to absorb the best elements of the minority culture. The great Marxists have also adopted this stress, but they have properly placed it in the context of a controlling social situation. McWilliams, while aware of the causal rôle of capitalism in producing color discrimination, consistently neglects to emphasize it. He adequately describes the economic effects of color discrimination and relates it to the less tangible aspects of that discrimination, but he is remarkably chary in dealing with its social causes. He even suggests, because of his liberal politics, that color discrimination was not in the interest of American capitalism; that, for instance, the Japanese truck farmers in California were not an economic threat to the native agricultural combines.

Yet it cannot be denied that color oppression arose as a social corollary to the growth of American industrial capitalism. This took several forms:

  1. the colored minorities were used as a source of cheap labor and potential strikebreakers with which to threaten the standards of American workers;
  2. they were used to fill menial tasks or labor in substandard industries which proved unattractive to American workers accustomed to a higher wage level;
  3. they have formed an important element of the reserve pool of unemployed which capitalism finds useful to maintain even during “prosperity” periods;
  4. they served as the convenient scapegoat on which the masses could vent their spleen as a result of their own economic difficulties while simultaneously adopting an attitude of social superiority.

These are a few indications of the way in which color oppression in general, and Jim Crowism in particular have been a vital part of the development of the American capitalist economy. Why does McWilliams skate around these questions? Perhaps we shall find an answer when we discuss his program of action.

While it might be expected that he would fail to stress the economic causes of color discrimination sufficiently, it is surprising to note that he has also neglected many of the psychological aspects of the situation. He has avoided the rich field of social psychology which is opened when the question is asked: Why do so many whites participate in the shameful acts of discrimination which so often erupt into open violence? As a result, his study is deprived of a good deal of necessary subtlety. Once these reservations are made, however, it is necessary to note the rich harvest of materials he has gathered. Within the limitations of his cultural approach, he has presented materials that are indispensable knowledge for any socialist.

The best chapters are on the Indians and Mexicans. He reviews the story of how America massacred the Indian tribes, as well as the recent policies of the government. These have fluctuated between two extremes, each of them disastrous: first, the policy of “cultural attack,” which attempted to destroy the Indian tribal community, suppress its native languages and customs, abolish the ownership of land in common and attempt to set up individual Indians as small landowners; and second, the attempt to recreate in miniature a bloodless replica of the old Indian life on the artificial basis of the reservation, which attempt no longer challenges the independence of the Indian cultural tradition but doesn’t foster any development toward modernity and views the continued existence of the Indian people as a sort of museum-piece anachronism. In a sense, the treatment of the Indian is the “original sin” which stimulated and served as the starting point for the American racist tradition.

It is somewhat different with the Mexicans. McWilliams ventures the estimate that there are about 3,000,000 of them in this country. They suffer nearly all of the difficulties that the Negroes do, but lack the social cohesion of the Negroes with which to resist. There are three main groups of Mexicans in this country:

  1. the majority of them are the most miserable of the migrant workers of the Southwest and the South;
  2. a group of nearly 500,000 has become stranded in such large cities as Chicago, where they lead the life of a marginal slum proletariat;
  3. and most interesting of all, there remain the original Hispanos of New Mexico who have long been citizens of this country and who, in the obscure regions of that state, have continued until recently to live as a primitive semi-communist agricultural community.

McWilliams describes these latter as “communities which have remained almost wholly unaffected by world developments during the last two hundred years. Inhabited by the descendants of the original Spanish colonists, these villages still speak the Spanish of the time of Cervantes. To visit the villages is not only to form an intense admiration for the people themselves, but to become deeply impressed with the integrity of their social life and of their culture.” Yet even these havens have been destroyed over the course of years, the pressure of “Anglo” capital being too strong to resist. Today these three groups of Mexicans find themselves in a common state of economic despair, political inarticulateness and social disintegration.

The Question in the U.S. Colonies

Less worth while are McWilliams’ chapters on America’s colonies, the Philippines, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. They provide fine materials on the cultural suppression of the peoples of these islands (especially harrowing is his story of the Puerto Rican “educational system”) but are very weak with regard to the methods and policies of American imperialism. It is here that the scholar exits and the liberal enters, for McWilliams believes that independence for these peoples is a worthless chimera. He rationalizes this position by saying that the difficulties of a free Puerto Rico, for instance, would be insurmountable and that the solution lies in so liberalizing American life that the Puerto Ricans will desire to become a forty-ninth state. There is, of course, a grain of truth behind this reactionary nonsense. There is no doubt that the Caribbean island peoples would want to tie their fate in some way with a socialist America, but since that socialist America is at present lacking, it is incumbent upon all genuine democrats to support the right of Puerto Rico for national independence, without which any subsequent federation is merely a farce.

McWilliams is at his weakest in dealing with the Negroes. He gives a fair summary of the Negro in the post-Civil War period, based on Du Bois and Allen. But his contemporary interpretation is largely in legal terms – the increasing “rights” which Negroes have won in the courts – and fails completely to take into account such essential factors as the rôle of the Negro in the trade unions, the factors of resistance in Negro life, etc. Least adequate of all is a program of action, which is nothing more than a set of legislative perspectives without any realistic considerations of the means with which to achieve them. McWilliams is in a trap: his political opinions, lashing him to the war machine, prevent him from offering the socialist conclusions which his materials clearly suggest.

One final thought is stimulated by the reading of this book. We of the American Marxist movement have paid much attention to the polemics over the national question in Europe, but we have almost totally ignored the materials which this book contains. As part of that other-worldliness which has been a crucial cause of the theoretical barrenness of American Marxism, we have studied primitive communism in Engels and have not even been aware of the settlements in New Mexico. We have contented ourselves with agitational generalizations but have never attempted to apply the tools of Marxian method to the Negro question in this country. All of these problems – some of them, such as the Negro question, of burning importance, and the others of marginal significance but great theoretical interest – we have ignored in so far as any serious study is concerned. McWilliams has provided us with the materials; that is why his book is indispensable for every socialist. But these materials must be developed with the sociological precision and psychological subtlety that the skilled Marxist can furnish.


1. Brothers Under the Skin, by Carey McWilllams. Little, Brown & Co., 325 pp., $2.75.

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