I. Race and Capitalism
Not long ago a friend of mine with his family made an automobile trip to his ancestral home in the South. In a discussion of his trip I asked him how he got along on the road. He is a former official of the NAACP, a militant fighter against segregation and discrimination and knows the score just about any way he may be required to add it up. I knew that any incident which the southern Jim Crow system insisted upon bothering him with would be amply repaid.
No, he hadn’t any trouble to speak of. Only one small incident occurred at a gas station in the beautiful state of Arkansas. They drove into this gas station, asked the attendant to fill the tank and prepared to go to the rest rooms. The attendant told them gently but firmly that the colored rest rooms were around at the back. My friend put on his best dead-pan expression and in his most casual conversational tone replied: “That’s interesting. What color are they?”
And while the attendant was gasping for breath and trying to keep from fainting, the family made its unhurried way to the regular rest rooms.
This episode, small and personal though it may be, reveals two important truths which I will try to illustrate tonight and next Friday when I complete this discussion of the race question. First, it illustrates the complete irrationality of the division of society into groups according to skin color. What my friend was saying to the gas station attendant was that to any rational human being there should be no more significance to differences in the color of people than to differences in the color of rest rooms, and that the fact that the attendant was the proprietor of rest rooms of different color was mildly interesting, but no more. But that contrary to all reason and logic, all of American society is disfigured by this artificial and fantastic division into races.
Secondly, the episode brings to mind what the reaction of an ordinary European, unfamiliar with the American social structure, might be to such a situation. A naive Englishman or Frenchman might honestly reply to such a situation: “You have rest rooms of different color? Very interesting, I am sure. What color are they?”
When placed in this context, the racial division of society shows up primarily as an American disease of the social structure. For in the social structure of none of the advanced industrial countries is it possible to find anything approaching the American system of race relations, with the single exception of Germany under the Nazis.
These are two important themes in the analysis of the Negro question and you will find them apparent in each of the following subjects with which we shall deal tonight:
- 1. The transformation of the Negro question
from the days of Booker T. Washington to the present day.
- 2. The exploitation of skin color.
- 3. What is race and what are race relations?
- 4. The origin of the race concept.
- 5. The form of race relations.
- 6. International aspects of the race question.
- 7. The Negro question and the oppression of national minorities in the U.S.
1. The Transformation of the Negro Question
No inhabitant of our planet is permitted to ignore the power of American capitalism today. Its military might, its financial rulership, its monopolistic national power and apparent political equilibrium are everyday facts of life for all the oppressed peoples of the world. This strength of American capitalism was born in the Civil War, the Reconstruction and the consolidation of power following it.
In 1860 the capitalist class had shared the power with the dominant slaveowners for sixty years. Throughout this period the capitalists were thwarted economically and humiliated politically. Economically they were injured by the constant reduction of tariffs which brought cheap British goods onto the domestic market. Their need for westward expansion was thwarted because the slaveowners would permit westward development only on terms favorable to their interests.
The capitalists were humiliated politically by a series of congressional compromises. In these compromises the slaveowners invariably came off the victors, even when the Whig Party of the capitalists held congressional majorities and controlled the executive as well.
Through the Civil War the capitalist class overthrew the slaveowners and took the whole national power for itself.
During the ensuing Reconstruction in the South, the capitalists permitted a short and inconclusive struggle of the Negroes for equality. These were the glorious days when a white and black peasantry ruled the South. It was then that the Negroes achieved the social, political and economic destruction of the old enemy class. But as soon as this destruction had been accomplished, the capitalists turned against the Negroes. Together with a new capitalist plantation aristocracy, the capitalists drove the Negro people back into the social conditions that accompanied slavery.
This defeat of the Negroes formed the basis for the modern political system in the United States. The stability of the so-called two-party system, where the capitalists rule unquestioned through either one of two similar political cliques, was based upon the disfranchisement of the southern workers.
This political system enabled the capitalist class to exploit mercilessly the western farmers, amass tremendous aggregations of capital through this exploitation and through the looting of the public domain and the public treasury.
Capitalist economic dominance and political equilibrium made it possible for the United States to expand into the world market, to engage in two world wars of imperialist expansion, and to rise from an insignificant power at the beginning of this century to its present exalted position as leader of the entire capitalist world. All this was done without serious political interference by any other class in American society.
In part, therefore, the economic well-being and the political stability of the capitalist class rest upon the renewed degradation of the Negro people after the Civil War.
It was this degradation that brought forth Booker T. Washington. He was the instrument by which the Negroes acceded to the terms of defeat. In his famous Atlanta speech in 1893, Washington formally renounced the struggle for equality.
But since this defeat in the last quarter of the 19th century there has been a fundamental change in the material conditions surrounding the Negro struggle. The defeat of the Negroes was the defeat of an almost exclusively agrarian people in a backward agrarian society. Today the Negroes are largely city dwellers, and even in the South, industrial capitalism has been forced to break up the old agrarian pattern.
The victory of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1890’s was made possible because the Klan was able to isolate the Negroes and to separate them from all their allies among the other working masses of the country. Today, the Negro movement emerges as a movement of national scope with powerful contingents in every city in the country. The growth of the CIO has reflected the re-establishment of the alliance of black and white in the industrial working class.
The program of Booker T. Washington was one of humility and acceptance of second-class citizenship. Today the Negro community is alive with a great movement which has as its fundamental aim the achievement of full economic, political and social equality. Substantial gains have been made. There has been, in fact, a complete transformation of the movement of the Negro people during the past twenty-five years.
This occurred at a time when the whole American working class stood on the threshold of growth into political consciousness. In the great awakening struggles of the 1930’s the working class gained the elementary class solidarity of unionism. Today the conditions are maturing under which it will move forward towards full class consciousness and a struggle for political power.
The rejection of race prejudice in favor of class solidarity has been a consistent phenomenon ever since the beginnings of the CIO. Its fulfillment will be the mark of the full maturity of the American working class movement.
The struggle of the Negro people for equality is one of the great dynamic forces of the labor struggle itself. The purpose of these lectures is to analyze this struggle and to show how it will find its completion in the socialist society of the future.
2. Exploitation of Skin Color
We will now consider the fact that the fundamental element in discrimination against Negroes in the United States is special exploitation through stigmatization of skin color. Never in history until the rise of capitalism had the world witnessed the division of society by color.
The special exploitation of Negroes bears some similarity to the exploitation of the colonial world by the imperialist nations, and also to the domination of the small and weak nations of Europe by the rich and powerful empires. The similarity exists in this one fact: that the Negroes as a social group are subject to discrimination and super-exploitation above and beyond the elementary exploitation of wage labor by capital, or the oppression of the small capitalists by the large ones. The Negro people as a whole including all classes are subject to this discriminatory oppression.
This is the similarity of the exploitation of Negroes in the United States to that of colonial peoples and other oppressed nations. But there are also important differences, and these differences are more striking than the similarities.
Czarist Russia conquered Poland and subjected it to a classical national domination. Great Britain’s subjugation of India was equally representative of colonial oppression. Here we have the oppression of whole nations. But the Negroes are not a nation. Imperialist exploitation subordinated the national economy of the weaker and more backward countries of the earth to that of the dominant nations. This exploitation is made possible through the vast differences in historical development of different areas of the world.
Neither cultural difference nor national peculiarity sets the Negroes apart in American society. American capitalist society is a composite of immigrant groups of diversified national origin. The emergence of the American nationality as one of the distinct peoples of the world is made possible by the subordination of these immigrant groups to the dominant Anglo-American culture and their assimilation into it. Of all the immigrant groups, the Negroes were historically the best prepared to assimilate.
Europeans coming to North America, whether voluntarily as colonists or as temporary indentured servants, had a natural protective tendency to group themselves together into closed communities in which they could perpetuate the national peculiarities of language and custom characteristic of their homeland. The existence of large foreign-speaking groups, even entire cities and towns having newspapers, foods and other customs of their European background, runs as a persistent theme throughout the history of the United States.
The voyage of the Negroes to North America was not a migration, however, but the process of the slave trade. The slave traders, in their devastation of African life, did not bring to America a homogeneous population but representatives of a thousand different tribes.
The transition from African tribal life to exploitation on American plantations was sufficiently abrupt, terrifying and protracted to break virtually every important bond which held the slave to his former life and cultural background. The rupturing of the cultural chain which might have held the Negroes together in some African cultural homogeneity was further helped by the slaveowners, who would generally refuse to buy more than one slave from the same tribe or nation.
Thus living as slaves, who came to know no other homeland than the United States, knew no other language than English, held no foreign allegiance, the Negro people are among the oldest of all the immigrant groups. They are essentially American.
For two and a half centuries, the Negroes were the only stable labor force in that portion of the North American continent which became the United States. All other sections of the population were drawn into the fluidity of classes which characterized the period of westward expansion of the capitalist economy. The slaves remained enslaved from generation to generation.
In this position, the Negroes developed a powerful folk culture. But this culture did not take the road of an independent national development. Because it was virtually the only real American folk culture, the slaves’ music, “accent,” folklore and religion filled a cultural need for the American people as a whole. First the slave culture inundated the original Anglo-Saxon culture of the South, virtually destroying it. From there it went on to fuse with the whole national culture until today those aspects of the national culture which are considered to be “typically” American are largely the result of Negro influence.
This is true in song and dance, in folktale, the romantic crooner, blues singer, jazz man and hep-cat; in all popular art, in fact, and in nearly every other field in which the needs, aspirations and frustrations of people are expressed through a social medium.
Cultural differences are one of the important symptoms of traditional national and colonial oppression. However, it should be obvious that cultural difference can have no bearing upon the special kind of exploitation to which the Negro people are subjected. On the contrary, Negroes have been a constant instrument of modification of the basic Anglo-American culture. This attests to a process of mutual assimilation with the dominant cultural group.
In spite of the stigma of the black skin, therefore, the mutual assimilation of Negro and Anglo-American appears as an overriding law of American historical development which defies the laws of segregation, the prejudice of skin color, and the customs and social relations of the Jim Crow system.
3. Race and Race Relations
The historical peculiarity of such a system of special exploitation based upon skin color requires a fundamental analysis of the race system of social organization. The first question which arises is: what is race and what are race relations?
Until a few years ago it was universally agreed among scientists and laymen alike that race was a legitimate biological category. That is, that the visible physical differences of skin color, hair texture, etc., which are apparent among people formed an adequate scientific basis for the biological division of the human species into subcategories generally called “races.” Indeed for the past century all of physical anthropology, which is supposedly a branch of science, has been devoted exclusively to the demonstration of the race concept.
No two schools of this so-called science were ever able to agree upon what the fundamental yardstick was for determining race. None agreed precisely as to whether race was really a designation of subspecies. None agreed as to how many “races” exist. Some said one hundred, others said three. Fundamental to all of them until recent times was the idea of superiority and inferiority. They all agreed that these obvious physical characteristics were somehow related to fundamental biological characteristics which expressed themselves in different capacities and functions of the human mind.
A more recent school of liberal anthropologists overthrew the concept of biological superiority and inferiority. They retained however the basic concept of racial division. This was the theory of the biological equality of separate races.
But once the idea of superiority and inferiority was stripped from the race concept, it could not stand, for this idea was fundamental to the very idea of racial division. Within the last few years in a series of brilliant studies a small group of scientists has destroyed the basic theory and method of physical anthropology. That is to say, they have made it quite clear that there is no scientific basis for the contention that society can be divided into races upon the basis of visible physical characteristics.
Even while destroying the foundation of the race myth, however, most of these scientists are still in its power and continue the search for some means to justify racism. But the objective result of their destruction of the old race concept has been to make any race theory scientifically untenable today.
What they have proven in reality is that there is no justifiable biological category such as “race” into which to divide humanity.
Nevertheless, in defiance of this advance in science, skin color and Jim Crow laws continue to go hand in hand. Color supremacy and color exploitation continue to persist, not only in the United States but throughout that part of the colonial world dominated by Anglo-American imperialism. And the recent discovery that there is no such thing as “race” seems not to have affected the existence of exploitative relations between people which are in fact organized around skin color or “race.”
“Race” is therefore a reality in spite of the fact that science reveals that it does not exist. In order to discover the relation between “race” as a concept of physical anthropology and “race” as a fact of social existence, it is necessary to enquire into the origin of both.
4. The Origin of the Race Concept
How did the idea of race come into being? There was no conception of race before capitalism. Of all the antagonisms between peoples of the ancient and medieval world not a single one had as its focal point the different appearance of peoples. On the contrary, older civilizations were struck with the basic identity of people as human beings independent of the differences in skin color, hair texture, etc.
To be sure, ever since the division of society into classes, the owning classes have held those that they exploited in contempt. But in ancient times the claims of superiority of ruling classes never took on a racial character.
The first time in the known history of human society that difference in skin color was the subject of fierce antagonism between people was the direct product of colonial and United States chattel slavery created under the impulse of the development of European capitalism.
It was a peculiar combination of historical accident and necessity by which the Negroes become the slave class of this modern slave system.
The climate, soil and location of the southern United States, the West Indies and Central America were suitable for the production of certain crops. These crops could only be produced in marketable proportions by the use of large scale cultivation methods. With a wide abundance of free land, however, available to all, free labor could not be held on the land of others. It was therefore necessary to create a system of compulsory labor. The system of chattel slavery is quite inefficient and wasteful. But in this part of the western hemisphere the low cost of maintenance of labor made it possible to utilize slavery profitably in spite of its wastefulness.
The native labor supply of the American, Caribbean and other West Indian tribes was neither extensive enough nor so easily adaptable to agriculture as to provide an adequate working force of plantation labor. European peasant labor was inefficient in the sub-tropical zone and expensive to maintain and replace. Labor from Africa, on the other hand, was plentiful, accustomed to agriculture and efficient in the heat of the sub-tropical zone.
Furthermore a slave trade had been going on in Africa for years, organized by the Arabs. It was by no means an extensive trade but it could serve as a starting point.
Another advantage of African labor was that as a chattel slave—i.e., a piece of property—a Negro could be identified by his skin.
Chattel slavery was a system of production which had been outgrown by European society because it was a system of low productivity and wastefulness. Therefore, the very existence of a mode of production based upon the absolute ownership of one human being by another, after it had been so long outgrown, was repulsive to progressive people. Particularly when the world was bursting with revolutions proclaiming the equality of all men. This slave system became so repulsive in fact that only weird and perverse social relations could contain it. To despise the black skin as the mark of the slave was the principal and focal point of these social relations.
Thus, around the question of skin color, society in the West Indies and North America proper began to divide itself, as social relations degenerated under the slave system. First the black skin was despised because it was the mark of a despised mode of production. But this despised mode of production was the creator of untold wealth and prosperity, and capitalist society cannot despise riches for long. So they turned the whole matter on its head.
The slaves were in an inferior position economically. Gradually, white slaveowning society constructed a wall of color: that it was not the mode of slave production which was to be despised, but the slave: that the reason the black skin was the mark of the slave was that it was first the mark of human inferiority.
In this manner the class problem of slavery became complicated and confused by the color question. The slaves, besides being an exploited social class, became, in the perverted thinking of the dominant society, an inferior race as well.
It was upon this foundation that the “science” of physical anthropology built its structure. In service to the American planters, the international slave traders and colonial exploiters, fake scientists and politicians took a set of perverted social relations based upon a discarded social system and made them into the foundation stones of a science. They justified slavery as natural and completely desirable for those with a colored skin.
And they had great need for such a justification. At the beginning of the slave trade the idea of spreading Christianity to the heathen was sufficient justification for Negro slavery. Slave traders were the missionaries and the slaveowners the priests of a crusade to bring the word of God to heathen “savages” who would otherwise be doomed to eternal torment in their awful ignorance.
But the revolutions in Britain, America and France stripped away the veil of religion from knowledge and initiated the age of science and rationalism. Social relations could no longer be explained by reference to God. So a fake “scientific” explanation of the social relations of slavery grew up to justify them. This is the actual foundation of the science of physical anthropology.
Slavery itself was overthrown in the Civil War and Reconstruction. But the needs of the American capitalists for compulsory agricultural labor in the South remained. A new semi-capitalistic mode of agriculture grew up in which the semi-slave condition of the freed Negroes was made permanent by the re-establishment of the social relations of slavery: color discrimination buttressed by segregation and race prejudice.
Race thus became a fetish of American capitalism, a system of special exploitation based upon the social relations and customs of a previous mode of production, which had itself been an abomination to society. Stripped of scientific justification, what then remains of race? Race is a relation between people based upon the needs of capitalist exploitation. The race concept in anthropology grew out of the social relations of slavery. It was congealed by the adaptation of these obsolete social relations to the needs of capitalist production.
The concept of race has now been overthrown in biological science. But race as the keystone of exploitation remains. Race is a social relation and has only a social reality.
5. The Form of Race Relations
The basic form of race relations is segregation. In the colonial countries it is expressed by the voluntary self-segregation of the white agents of empire. But it would be an error to judge race relations as a whole by their expressions in colonial exploitation. Race relations in the colonies are derived primarily from the existence of the race question in America and particularly in the United States.
In the colonies the question of race is dependent upon the specific needs of colonial exploitation. In the United States special exploitation is dependent upon race relations. In the colonies race is dependent upon exploitation, but here the exploitation is dependent upon race.
In this country race relations take the form of the compulsory segregation of Negroes. The intensity of segregation and of all the secondary race relations which flow from it determine the extent of the special exploitation. By and large, in the North and West, where segregation is less intensive than in the South, the degree of special exploitation of Negroes is far lower. Without segregation, discrimination and race relations would soon disappear.