This is How Jim Crow Was Used to HARM, Not Benefit, the Poor Whites of the South

by John Spritzler

August 9, 2019

[Also read "Why and How Big Money Promotes "White Privilege" Rhetoric"]

[And if you still don't "get it" then read "Is it a 'Privilege' Not to be Discriminated Against?"]

Below are excerpts from Revolt Among the Sharecroppers, by Howard Kester, published in 1936. Kester was a very active member of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, which was an integrated union of the poorest people in the cotton-growing region of the South--the landless black and white people (including their six-year-old children) who performed all of the labor to produce the cotton crops for the rich big landowners, and who lived in absolutely mind-boggling abject poverty during the decades of Jim Crow. At the time Kester wrote, he reports [pg. 22], 60% to 70% of all farms in the cotton states were operated by tenants (who rent the land using a major part of their crop to pay the rent.) "Dr. Rupert Vance places the number of tenant families in the cotton belt at 1,790,783. Of these 1,091,944 are white and 698,839 are Negro. The number of individuals included in this classification runs to approximately 5,500,000 whites and 3,200,000 Negroes."

The first excerpt gives a sense of the enormity of the poverty in which both black and white farm laborers lived--some of them as wage laborers, some as tenant farmers, and others as share-croppers, but all in abject poverty. The next excerpt describes the purpose (for the rich landowners) and the effect (on the farm laborers) of Jim Crow (legal racial discrimination and segregation).

The effect (and, from the point of view of the upper class, the purpose) of racial discrimination such as Jim Crow, and also of the more modern de facto (as opposed to de jure or legal) kind, is to destroy solidarity between white and black (more generally non-white) working class people. It does this in several ways. The upper class "justifies" the discrimination against the non-whites with racist lies about how the non-whites are inferior--less intelligent, a criminal class, lazy, shiftless, etc. etc. These racist lies gain some credibility from the observable fact that non-whites are (as a result of the racial discrimination that the non-whites know all about but that the whites are kept ignorant of), different from whites--poorer, incarcerated at a higher rate, angrier at the authorities, etc. The more that whites believe these racist lies, and the more that whites go along with the racial discrimination, the more the non-whites come to resent and mistrust the whites. This in turn makes the whites suspicious of and fearful of the non-whites. The result is that it becomes extremely difficult if not impossible for real solidarity to develop between the white and non-white working class people.

If, after reading the following excerpts, one still clings to the absurd belief that racial discrimination against black people benefits working class white people, that it enables working class white people to have a better life than they could gain with the solidarity with black working class people that racial dicrimination is designed to destroy, that it confers on working class whites a benefit--the word "privilege" in the phrase "white privilege" means, by definition, a benefit!)--then one is clearly unable to think straight.

The Oppression of Both Black and White Farm Workers

[excerpt from pg. 51-2]

Mrs. Naomi Mitchison, one of England's famous women, author of Vienna Diary and numerous other works of historical importance, was in Arkansas for several days in the winter of 1934. Mrs. Mitchison visited in the homes of numerous sharecropper, ate at their humble tables and spoke at their union meetings. She writes: "I have traveled over most of Europe and part of Africa but I have never seen such terrible sights as i saw yesterday among the sharecroppers of Arkansas. Here are people of good stock, potential members of a great community, and they are being treated worse than animals, worse than farming implements and stock. They arenot shiftless, they want work. they want to live decently as workers; but ever the right to work is denied them. They seem to be denied all of their rights.

"They are dressed in rags, they have barely enough food to keep them alive; their children get no education; they are a prey to diseases which the scientific resources of modern civilization coujld easily eliminate. I saw houses, if one can call them that, in which whole families lived in conditions of indescribable misery. Here was a log cabin half sunk in flood water and in it eight people, one of them a mother yellow and boney with malaria with a newborn child in her arms. The only furniture in the house was a table, a bench and a stove and two beds for everyone. In another home a bed this time out of old bits of rusty iron, patched with rags. The youngest child was two years old but his mother was still nursing him; she could at least be sure he got some milk that way. She herself was gray haired with a face of such misery that it seemed scarcely possible she could go on living. She earned enough to feed her children on cornbread and perhaps gravy by picking wood out of the river and selling it. Her two sons helped her do this; she could not send them to school. But even if [she could] how could they have gone, wearing nothing but their rags, barefoot and full of pellagra? Everywhere the children are rotten with deficiency disease; they are marked for life. Everywhere they are undersized; they will never grow into the strong men and women they should be.

"There is only one hopeful thing about the situation and that is the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. Here one may see the truest human values, brotherhood and loyalty and immense courage in the face of danger and here something has happened of terrific historical importance. For the first time in the history of the United States, perhaps in the history of the world, white and colored people are working together in a common cause with complete trust and friendship. They are working together for what is supposed to be everyone's birthright--a decent standard of living, education, security, hope for the future."

[end of excerpt]

The Role of Jim Crow in Oppressing Both Black and White Farm Workers

[excerpt from pg. 72-3]

Had the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union accepted only white farm workers into its midst [in accordance with the Jim Crow laws--J.S.] it would have been regarded with abhorance by the planters [the big landowers--J.S.]. It would have been, however, a comparatively easy matter to crush such an organization by the time-honored method of using unorganized Negro workers to suppant the members of the union. The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union foresaw the dangers in such a program and brought the Negro and white workers together in a single union. Thus they sset at nought at the outset one of the most reliable instruments of oppression that the planters had. As long as the Negro and white workerss were divided the planters culd keep oth of them in chains. It should be added that had the union organized both Negro and white workers into separate locals the problem of breaking the union would have been difficult, yet it would have been infinitely less difficult than to crush them when they were united within the same organization. The tremendous potential power of the union of these two groups of disinherited workers was immediately recognized by the planters.

In the first place then, the mere existence of a unionb designed to advance the interests of the sharecroppers was sufficient to cause grave aniety among the planters. The fact that this union was composed of Negro and white workers amazed the plantation interests and threw them into a frenzy of anger and fear.

The spokesmen of the plantation interests played up the inter-racial features of the union. All of the bugaboos of intermarriage, social equality, supremacy of the white race, etc., were given wide publicity by the plantation spokesmen and the reactionary southern press.

The plantation interests, led by the Rev. Mr. Abner Sage, tried desperately to break the union by starting a counter union along lily-white lines.

[end of excerpt]

Here is an example of how the upper class in the South preached racist contempt for black people for the precise purpose of preventing blacks and whites from developing solidarity. In the 1940s a notoriously reactionary Texan named Vance Muse had "wealthy sponsors, ranging from Texas oil and cotton magnates, to northern petrochemicals titans like the DuPonts and the Pews." Muse warned whites not to join labor unions with these words, “From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

The culture of Jim Crow laws and the associated informal understanding by business and political leaders in the South to discriminate against blacks in hiring and related matters persisted flagrantly in the American South after the Civil War until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The upper class told white workers that this racial discrimination benefited them. Their argument was simple:

"Think how much worse off you'd be if we treated you the same as we treat the blacks. You're very lucky we treat you so much better and give you the good jobs because you're white. Without Jim Crow you'd be worse off."

It may have been a simple argument, but it was flat out wrong. Southern white workers who compared their lot to that of the worse-off Southern blacks (as the wealthy employer class urged them to do) failed to notice what they would have seen if they had compared their lot to the better-off white workers in the North where Jim Crow didn't exist. Here's what they would have seen:

“In 1907, Southern wages were at 86% of the national average and remained at about the same level in 1945. From 1945 to 1960 wages in the region remained between 20%-25% below the national average.”[reference: https://www.iwu.edu/economics/PPE09/amanda.pdf]

As Theodore Allen notes:

"Textile mill wages in the South were not only low relative to those of New England, but absolutely low with reference to their own daily needs." [reference: The Invention of the White Race, Vol. 1. pg. 157]

Jim Crow and racial discrimination in the South made it easier for the employers to lower the wages of the "better-off" white workers below what they would have been in the absence of the racial discrimination. If one does not understand this, and if one believes that racial discrimination against non-white working class people benefits white working class people--gives them a "white privilege," which means a benefit by definition--then one is simply clinging to a ruling class divide-and-rule Big Lie for some strange reason.





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