October 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard
The demonstration by two hundred thousand people in Washington recently to protest at discrimination against the American Negro was an example of self-disciplined protest —restrained, yet massively determined. August 28th marked the flaring of accumulated frustrations that had smouldered for over two centuries. From this time forward the character of the Negroes' struggle is altered, they have a national organisation and specifically formulated demands that they can pursue in the spotlight of world-wide publicity.
‘Nobody knows the trouble I seen’ is a familiar lament of a Negro blues song. It expresses the special misery of 19 million people who have inherited a legacy of hatred and violent suffering. Although it is possible to recognise it as a fact, nobody who has not experienced it can feel on his shoulders the harrowing burden of American Negro history. And even now, for the Negro, life offers unstinted humiliation, for added to his exploitation as a wage worker, in every corner of American social life he faces the pointed finger that accuses him of racial inferiority.
In public transport, he is still to a large extent accommodated on sufferance, unseen at the rear of the bus, or on segregated trains he is refused the privilege of using the dining car. Of perhaps more importance, he is denied any equal access to education. In the area of employment, he is the last hired and the first fired, which in an economy that for years has supported millions of unemployed, involves the Negro in semi-permanent economic depression. In housing and other social amenities the Negro gets the worst of everything. In respect of freedom of speech and the franchise he is prevented by brutal intimidation, more particularly in the southern states, from exercising his ostensible right to vote. Here again, his right to assemble is jeopardised and made physically dangerous by the police. In some localities, the Negroes' struggle is reduced to one about basic democratic rights, which for many decades white workers have been able to take for granted. In these areas, the political climate for the Negro is no different than in the police state.
Again the repressive atmosphere in which the Negro still has to live, there exist counter tendencies. On the one hand there are social pressures acting against the exercise of colour discrimination. Without doubt there is an hardcore of prejudice built into attitudes of older generations, younger generations will be more susceptible to attacks on this issue through the media of radio, television, cinema and the press. There are dozens of books and pamphlets now available on archeology, biology and all departments of the social sciences that refute, and reveal the intellectual shallowness of, bigoted views on race. Against this phalanx of argument, documented with detailed evidence, the enunciation of prejudice remains the preserve of those whose thought processes are captivated by blind irrationality.
On the face of it, there would seem to be a good deal of affinity between the aspirations of Negroes in America and the economic and social reforms that the Kennedy administration seeks to bring into effect. But in truth, the American Government is moved by political and economic compulsions that take into account the interests of Negroes in only an incidental way. It was the Eisenhower Administration that saw the uneducated, under privileged Negro represented the greatest single aspect of manpower wastage in the United States.
To an economy dedicated to a doctrine of steady expansion, the unfitness of the quality of Negro labour power is an enormously inhibiting factor. This applies especially in the southern states, where since the end of the second world war, there has been a rapid development and intense concentration of secondary industry, a phase in the history of the total economy which amounts to a second age of expansion. Indeed, the financial cost of local prejudice to the American capitalist class runs high. Enormous amounts of money are invested in the institutions and general facilities for education. This represents an investment in the quality of tomorrow's available exploitable labour power. That a large section of the working class should remain more or less unaffected by this preparation process is a costly economic absurdity.
The unfitness of the Negro for exploitation in a community geared to production of an increasingly complex technical nature is of critical relevance to the future of the American state, both economically and militarily. Reformist politicians who exercise power in the administration of capitalism are not men of principle but are flexible "realists," who react promptly to the needs of the moment. And though they may describe their ends and their motives in terms of glowingly humane moral appeals which are often hard to resist, ultimately their eye is on the fast buck and the military strength of the power they represent.
The question that Negroes must ask themselves is whether capitalism can accommodate all their needs and aspirations towards material security, the freedom and opportunity to develop their individuality and the realisation of harmonious integration with the rest of humanity.
Capitalism cannot give the working class of any colour material security. Its entire method of producing and distributing wealth is based on a system of sale for profit and there can be no security in a distribution system that overrides human needs in favour of the vagaries of market demands. A system that always includes the risk of creating unemployment and so shutting off the provision of material necessities. Even the earning of a regular wage is not enough to provide these necessities for individual needs from birth until death.
The part of this Negro protest demanding scope for the development of individuality cannot be realised within capitalism, the very basis of which is the exploitation of man by man. The contribution of the individual to society through his work is made under capitalism the very means by which he is being brought under economic subjection. Under the duress of his poverty, the worker is forced to sell his physical energies to an employer for wages. The very essence of his individual existence, his power to labour socially, is brought under the control of another, his employer, in exchange for wages. How then can any wage worker of any colour, who donates his whole life in the employ of other men, who works most waking hours of most of his working life at the direction of other men, possibly develop individuality?
Again, capitalism can never provide the Negro with his dream of true social integration. Because capitalism is based on the ethic of material interest at the expense of other men, it inevitably must remain a divided society. There can be no social integration for any man whatever his colour where there is no genuine world wide community of interests and where almost every aspect of social life is in vicious competition, individual against individual, group against group, nation against nation.
It is vital that sooner or later Negroes should transcend any strong identification they have with what they may regard as an exclusively "Negro" interest. At the moment, at least in America, this is made extremely difficult for them. In a hundred and one ways, American life drives the Negro into insularity and narrow fugitive attitudes, and to some extent, especially where democratic rights are concerned, their views can be understood.
At the same time, it must be remembered that there are no solutions to the problems of this world that hold out hope to any particular section of men without holding out hope at the same time to all men. Individuals have had the courage and the generosity to rise above the embittering agony of their recent history. James Baldwin writes ‘I am not a nigger—I am a man.’ We equally wish to simplify things and join in the refutation of ‘ Niggers,’ ‘ Yids,’ ‘ Wogs,’ ‘ Proddydogs,’ ‘Jocks’ and ‘White Trash’. We too want to celebrate —Man.