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Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism in the U.S.

We are reprinting this essay in honor both of the hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Souls of Black Folks, and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of this article in the April 1953 issue of Monthly Review

The Editors

How “free” was the black freedman in 1863? He had no clothes, no home, tools, or land. Thaddeus Stevens begged the government to give him a bit of the land which his blood had fertilized for 244 years. The nation refused. Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner asked for the Negro the right to vote. The nation yielded because only Negro votes could force the white South to conform to the demands of Big Business in tariff legislation and debt control. This accomplished, the nation took away the Negro’s vote, and the vote of most poor whites went with it.

A fantastic economic development followed. In the South the land was rich and the climate mild. There was sun and rain for grain, fruit, and fiber. There were natural resources in rivers, harbors, and forests. In the bosom of the earth lay coal, iron, oil, sulphur, and salt. All this either already belonged to or was practically given by the government to the landholder and capitalist. Only a small part of it went to labor, black or white.

Capital was needed to develop this economic paradise. Government furnished much of this capital free to the landholder and employer. Railroads were subsidized, and rivers and harbors improved; private wealth largely escaped taxation. The North, fattened on tariff legislation, money control, and cheap immigrant labor, poured private capital into the South. When Southern labor lost half its vote, landholders and capitalists filled the state legislatures and Congress with servants of exploitation. This gave all the powerful chairmanships in Congress to the South under the Democrats, and large influence under Republicans. During World War I, a large part of the military training program was located in the South, and the government overpaid interested landlords and merchants and contractors to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—a performance which was to be largely repeated in World War II. During the depression, most relief money paid out in the South went to landlords, not to workers.

During and after World War II, Southern industry moved into high gear. The Federal government poured billions of grants-in-aid into the South. Washington was lavish with “Certificates of Necessity” to build new factories, and owners of oil wells were given tax rebates for depletion of the oil which God gave the nation; and today they seek to grab the $80 billion worth of oil underseas.

Above all, the South furnished and boasted of one of the largest pools of cheap, docile, unorganized labor, skilled and unskilled, in the civilized world. This mass of labor was historically split into white and black, each hating and fearing each other to a degree that persons unfamiliar with the region cannot begin to imagine. Southern labor was further split into organized and unorganized groups; and finally, all American labor was split by red-baiting and the smear of “Communism.”

Here was a paradise for the investor, which the state governments improved. Labor laws in the South were lax and carelessly enforced; company towns arose under complete corporate control; the police and militia were organized against labor. Race hate and fear and scab tactics were deliberately encouraged so as to make any complaint or effort at betterment liable to burst into riot, lynching, or race war.

The result has been startling. In 1919 the South turned out less than a fifth of our mining products; by 1946 the proportion had risen to nearly half. The value of manufactures in the South has risen in thirty years from a tenth to nearly a fifth of the national total. Many of the new and promising industries are seeking the South; since World War II, no less than $11 billion has been invested there in new industrial plants. The Southeast already has 80 percent of the nation’s cotton mills and virtually all the new chemical fiber industry. It is drawing the woolen and worsted mills, and the textile machinery mills will soon follow. Paper and pulp mills and plastics represent hundreds of millions in new investments. The Southwest is perhaps the fastest-growing chemical empire in the world.

This newest South, turning back to its slave past, believes its present and future prosperity can best be built on the poverty and ignorance of its disfranchised lowest masses—and these low-paid workers now include not only Negroes, but Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the unskilled, unorganized whites. Progress by means of this poverty is the creed of the present South.

The Northern white worker long went his way oblivious to what was happening in the South. He awoke when the black Southern laborer fled North after World War I, and he welcomed him by riots. Slowly, however, the black man has been integrated into the unions, except those in whose crafts he was not skilled and had no chance to learn. One of these was the textile unions. They excluded Negroes. It is taking a long time to prove to them that their attitude toward Negroes was dangerous. If Negro wages were low in the South, what business was that of New England white labor? Today the union man sees that it was his business. The factories are moving out of New England and the North into the South. One hundred thousand textile workers are idle. This illustrates a paradox of capitalism: in the South, the nation, and the world, the workers are too poor to buy the textiles they need; while machinery is able to make more textiles than its owners can sell at the prices they demand.

Wages in the South are 20 percent lower than in the North, and Negro wages as a legacy from [the National Industrial Recovery Act], are at least 20 percent below white wages. This wage differential between North and South represents increased profits of $4 to $5 billion a year. Small wonder that the Negro population in the rural South decreased by 50,000 in the last decade, and that the number of Negroes in the North increased by 55 percent. Of nine million industrial workers in the South, less than three million are unionized. Last year 40,000 members of the CIO Textile Workers Union, which excludes Negroes, struck in the South, and spent $1,250,000 in five weeks. They lost, and their membership fell from 20 to 15 percent of the operatives. The carpetbaggers today are the vast Northern corporations which own the new Southern industry, and the scalawags are the Southern politicians whom they send to state legislatures and Congress.

The organized effort of American industry to usurp government, surpasses anything in modern history, even that of Adolf Hitler from whom it was learned. From the use of psychology to spread truth has come the use of organized gathering of news to guide public opinion and then deliberately to mislead it by scientific advertising and propaganda. This has led in our day to suppression of truth, omission of facts, misinterpretation of news, and deliberate falsehood on a wide scale. Mass capitalistic control of books and periodicals, news gathering and distribution, radio, cinema, and television has made the throttling of democracy possible and the distortion of education and failure of justice widespread. It can only be countered by public knowledge of what this government by propaganda is accomplishing and how.

In the nation as a whole we have full employment and high wages for most skilled workers, but this state of affairs is maintained by manufacturing arms and ammunition which rapidly deteriorate in value, and by giving it away and paying for it by taxes which lower high wages, and by high prices. How long can we maintain this merry-go-round?

What now must American Negroes say to this situation? This question raises another: what is the real nature of this group today?

There are nearly 15 million persons of known Negro descent in this country; two-thirds of these are in the former slave states, somewhat fewer than a third are in the North, and a half million are in the far West. This distribution marks a notable change from the recent past: in 1860, nine-tenths of the Negroes were in the slave South; in 1900, there were only 900,000 in the North.

The group is not homogeneous and is in process of rapid change. From a predominantly rural group in 1900, it is today mainly urban. As late as 1940, 7 million Negroes in the United States lived on farms and 6.5 million in cities. In 1950, 6 million were on farms and 9 million lived in cities! These large-scale shifts, of course, create great strains on family and social life.

These Negroes are closely integrated into the industry of the nation, but the character of that integration is rapidly changing. From being predominantly farm laborers, today 83 percent are in non-agricultural occupations and only 17 percent on farms. Of the former, 40 percent are servants and 19 percent are laborers; skilled and semi-skilled workers represent 30 percent. A little over a tenth of the employed Negro population is in business and the professions.

This indicates a group of poor people, especially those remaining in the South, where their median wage is about $1,000 a year. The Southern farm laborers are even poorer. For example, in South Carolina, nearly half the Negroes on farms earn less than $500 a year. Southern whites have a median wage of $2,000, and Northern whites $3,000.

Most American Negroes are as a mass ignorant. Perhaps two-thirds can read and write, if we depend on draft statistics which are lower than the census report of 11 percent illiteracy. This naturally follows from the poor, segregated Negro school system. In the South, adult Negroes have had on the average half as many years of schooling as whites. Most colored adults in the North had their education in the South, and show it in lack of training.

The proportion of the Negro population that has attained middle-or upper-class status can only be guessed at. Some surveys indicate that in cities like New York and Chicago, perhaps seven to ten percent of Negro families have incomes of over $5,000 a year, and 20 percent receive from $3,000 to $5,000; while from five to ten percent are in the slums, earning under $1,000. On account of continued disfranchisement in the South, only 40 percent of Southern Negroes vote; but in the North, Negroes wield political power and hold some important offices.

What now is the attitude of this upper group toward the present capitalistic crisis in America? For the most part they are capitalists in thinking, believing in “making money,” in saving and investing. When they hire labor they exploit it as do their white neighbors. In businesses, like insurance, they employ the same methods as white insurance companies, within the protection of color discrimination. The colored landlord is no different from the white. Many Negro fortunes have been gained in antisocial activities like gambling.

Negro Americans, like whites, are subject to the mass propaganda by which monopoly of news gathering and distribution; concentrated ownership of radio, cinema, and television; and financial control of publication, make democratic government nearly impossible today by denying knowledge of the truth to the average man. But Negroes are repelled by the custom of calling agitation for Negro rights “Communism.” This has caused some sudden reversals of snap judgment by officials in high places, but it makes the average black man suspicious, and this suspicion may increase.

Today any Negro leader who is willing to testify to the “free and equal” position of Negroes in America can get free travel to Asia, Europe, or Africa, with no passport difficulties. Even if he will not testify but is willing to keep still, a variety of perquisites, including scholarships, are available.

Some Negro leaders with much to lose in property, credit, or reputation have yielded to panic; two colored authors in recent new editions of their books have deleted references to Paul Robeson and myself in order to appease the witchhunters. Much time and thought of misguided intellectuals has been devoted to helping deprive American Negroes of natural leadership or to scaring them into silence by threat of imprisonment, loss of work, or by smearing them as “Communists.” Negro colleges especially are silenced and influenced by funds raised by Big Business and visits from distinguished capitalists. Their courses in sociology, economics, and history are carefully watched.

This kind of suppression and censorship, however, does not solve anything; it but complicates the situation. For a time it may deprive Negroes of some of their best-trained and wealthiest leaders, but despite this, the color bar, will not release the main mass of the group. The bar may bend and loosen. Rich Negroes may travel with less annoyance; they may stop in the higher-priced hotels and eat in the more costly restaurants; the theaters and movie houses in the North and border states may let down the bars. Beyond that, because of constitutional law and mounting costs, the wall of segregation in education may be breached. But with all this, what results? The color bar in this nation will not soon be broken. Even as it yields in places the insult of what remains will be more deeply felt by the still half-free.

When the whole caste structure finally does fall, Negroes will be divided into classes even more sharply than now, and the main mass will become a part of the working class of the nation and the world, which will surely go socialist.

As long as caste remains, the Negro leaders are bound to their own group. This group, despite its class differences in income property, education, and type of work, is still bound together by a certain unity usually called racial, but really cultural. It has an art and literature and intricate ties of social intercourse. Negroes intermarry with each other almost exclusively and live largely in the same neighborhoods. They gain information about themselves and about Africa and the West Indies only from some 200 weekly newspapers and various magazines which also have something of a special interpretation of the facts as relating to this group. These periodicals, to attract white advertising and political dole, are becoming timid and suppressing news; yet they cannot become too timid or they will lose readers.

The Negro group is continually pushed toward socialistic experiment; the churches try it in recreation and relief; the fraternal orders’ experiment in insurance; the fraternities give scholarships; there have been trials of consumers’ cooperation. In time, this group with any increase in pressure, might become a veritable school of socialism.

A Negro of talent, education, and money may not live in a Negro ghetto; he may not attend a Negro church, and he may welcome whites to his home and table. Less often, but now and then, his children or friends may marry white persons. He may be elected to public office with the help of white votes and be referred to in the public press without being carefully designated as “colored.” But such cases will be exceptional. For the most part, the educated well-to-do American Negro is firmly bound to his powerful group. His memories are memories of its oppressions, insults, and repressions. He rejoices in its victories. He cannot break off from the Negro church entirely and the Negro vote will be his chief dependence in elections. His family will chiefly marry Negroes, and Negroes will constitute the main body of his friends and acquaintances. Consequently no matter how self-centered he may be, he will not be able to avoid exercising some leadership in the group of which he is a part, not only by inner attraction but also by outer force.

In the white world he will not be a member of any church or social club; he will not be nominated to public office except in a Negro district. He may be endured in an exclusive neighborhood but not welcomed. His reception in hotels, restaurants, and public entertainments in the North will vary according to locality. In the South and border states he will almost invariably be excluded. If he tours the nation in his car, most of the “motels” will exclude him. In his leadership and social thinking, therefore, he must consider the future of his race or he will neglect himself and his family.

What this paper is considering is the question of the critical place which this segregated group of Negroes will occupy as the crisis of capitalism in the United States develops. This crisis of American capitalism could be rendered more serious than it is if the leadership of a tenth of the nation should fail in its responsibilities. The crisis arises from the fact that this nation under the control of Big Business is trying stubbornly, and in defiance of the clear historical development of the world since World War I, to oppose state socialism. This Negro group is at present far from being revolutionary. Its fault rather has hitherto been yielding to pressure and bowing in fatal humility when resistance and retaliation would have been best not only for the Negroes themselves but for their oppressors as well.

What will American Negroes answer to the challenge of socialism? What part will they think the State should play in future industry and development? The Negro must see that his advance so far has depended on federal action rather than on states rights or individual initiative. Federal action emancipated him from slavery and is his lone hope for stopping lynching, enacting [a Fair Employment Practices Committee], and getting justice in the courts.

But far beyond this is the inevitable relation of the colored folk of the United States to the colored peoples of America, Africa, Asia, and the world. When a great nation like the Soviet Union not only refuses to draw the color line but cannot conceive of such barbarism, in the face of the color prejudice which nearly every white nation of Europe and North America practices—what can, what must Negroes think? When China went Communist the impact on the Negro race was tremendous, and no amount of yelling and shrieking will change this. Russia taught her peasants to read and write in a generation. The United States leaves a third of her Negroes illiterate after 90 years of half-hearted effort. If the darker world gradually finds that socialism is the only answer to the color line, then the colored peoples of the world will go socialist and black Americans will perforce march in the ranks. They will not so much lead as be pushed by their own people.

The United States, with its existing social structure, cannot today abolish the color line despite its promises. It cannot stop injustice in the courts based on color and race. Above all, it cannot stop the exploitation of black workers by white capital, especially in the newest South. White North America beyond the urge of sound economics is persistently driving black folk toward socialism. It is the United States which is straining every effort to enslave Asia and Africa, and educated and well-to-do black Americans are coming to know this just as well as anybody. They may delay their reaction; they may hold ominous silence. But in the end, if this pressure keeps up, they will join the march to economic emancipation, because otherwise they cannot themselves be free.

2003, Volume 54, Issue 11 (April)
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