How the Jim Crow Laws Harmed
the Poor Whites in the South
November 20, 2018
[This is an excerpt from this larger article]
[Related articles: "Why and How Big Money Promotes 'White Privilege' Rhetoric" and "Is it a 'Privilege' Not to be Discriminated Against?" and "We Need THIS, Not Affirmative Action" and "Crime & Race" & "Are Europeans Just Naturally Racist Oppressors?"]
[In this video interview, a white South Carolina man whose ancestors fought in the Confederate Army explains how the slave owners were anti-white working class as well as anti-black.]
[Read a white Southerner explain, "The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is"]
[Hear Martin Luther King, Jr. explain in a speech how Jim Crow harmed poor whites]
How does racial discrimination against blacks and Hispanics harm white working class people?
It is obvious that racial discrimination against blacks and Hispanics harms them. It is less obvious how it harms white working class people. Why is it true, as the best people in the Labor Movement have always said, that "An Injury to One is an Injury to All"?
First let's see that it is true. Then we'll look at why it's true.
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. How come?
Why Is An Injury to One an Injury to All?
To understand why racial discrimination makes things worse for the group not directly targeted by the discrimination (i.e., why An Injury to One is an Injury to All), one has to look at things from the point of view of the upper class, the employer class. The employers know that the one and only thing that can force them to pay higher wages than they want to pay is the workers all being united in refusing to work for lower than acceptable wages. This requires solidarity among all the potential workers, based on mutual trust and respect. The whole purpose of Jim Crow and related racial discrimination in the South was to prevent such solidarity--between the black and white workers--from ever developing.
The purpose of racial discrimination in the South was to foment mistrust between the two races: the blacks distrusted the whites because the whites went along with the racial discrimination and the whites distrusted the blacks because they feared that blacks would work for the employer for lower wages whenever they had the chance (i.e., if the Jim Crow discrimination were ended). Solidarity to force the employers to pay higher wages would have required white workers to be in the same organization with blacks, which would have required them to break the Jim Crow law against blacks and whites being in the same organization.
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 whites who mistakenly believed that the Jim Crow laws benefited them were not of a mind to break those laws. The result was that the white workers had to accept lower wages than whites in the North. Racial discrimination--in particular the refusal of the whites to see it as an attack on them as well as on the blacks, and their refusal to join blacks in fighting to abolish the racial discrimination--created so much mistrust between black and white workers that solidarity between them was impossible. This harmed the white workers. It did not benefit them at all, despite the upper class argument that "Jim Crow is good for the whites." (There were working class white tenant farmers who united with black tenant farmers in the Deep South during the 1930s, and who broke the Jim Crow laws by meeting and going on strike together. This was the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. They won important gains.)
In the United States today the ruling plutocracy uses racial discrimination to create mistrust between whites and non-whites. Blacks and Hispanics know from first hand experience how they are discriminated against. Because whites don't experience this discrimination they are less aware of its existence and are susceptible to being persuaded by lies saying that the discrimination is a myth (e.g., "The police don't single blacks and Hispanics out for worse treatment; it's just that they're all a bunch of low life criminals.")
Some whites may even believe the lie that they benefit from racial discrimination against blacks and Hispanics. (The Left, after all, tells them they benefit from it, calling it "white privilege" as if it were a "privilege" [the word means a benefit, by definition] to have one's solidarity with other working class people destroyed.)
Naturally the failure of whites to join blacks and Hispanics in demanding an end to the racial discrimination causes blacks to mistrust whites, even in some cases to view them as their enemy. By the same token, whites who think blacks and Hispanics are criminal races tend to fear them. All of this results in the destruction of solidarity between working class people of all races. This is precisely the purpose of racial discrimination: Divide-and-Rule.
This divide-and-rule is what enables the Big Money class to rule over us. It is why the three richest Americans are able to own more wealth than half of all Americans combined. Divide-and-rule is what lets the rich get away with this injustice despite the fact that virtually all ordinary people think it is morally wrong. Working class people--of ALL races--suffer greatly from this terrible economic inequality.
Because the lion's share of the wealth we produce goes to benefit a Billionaire class living in unimaginable luxury (as described here), ordinary people of ALL races live in economic insecurity. One big medical bill that the insurance policy won't cover or a job layoff or firing is all that it takes to drive many into missing a mortgage or rent payment and being homeless. For fear of being unemployed working people of ALL races put up with terrible abuse on the job. None of this is necessary. But to end it we must have the solidarity and mutual trust that it takes to remove the rich from power and have real not fake democracy with no rich and no poor.