Harry Haywood on the Question of White Privilege

Harry Haywood

Harry Haywood

Harry Haywood was a major African American communist leader and theorist who wrote extensively about the national question in the United States. His writings deal primarily with African American national liberation, but also deal with the question of how poor and working class whites relate to the the national oppression of African Americans in terms of privilege and exploitation. The question of white privilege is complex and needs careful study. Harry Haywood very well understood the importance of building the strategic alliance between the multinational working class in the struggle for socialism and the movement of the oppressed nationalities, including African Americans, for full equality and national liberation. National oppression is of course harsh and violent for the oppressed nationalities and there are real privileges that exist for masses of white people. However, Harry Haywood makes the argument that poor white workers do not significantly benefit from the oppression of people of color, racism is used to divide the working class for the benefit of the ruling, monopoly capitalist class. Furthermore, Haywood explains concretely how national oppression and racism functions to the detriment of all workers. For more on this please see also Freedom Road Socialist Organization’s Statement on National Oppression, National Liberation, and Socialist Revolution and The Third International and the Struggle for a Correct Line on the African American National Question. What follows are excerpts from Harry Haywood’s “Shadow of the Plantation”, a chapter of his major work on the African American national question, Negro Liberation. These excerpts were originally posted here: Harry Haywood on the “Staggering Price of White Supremacy”.

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It is not accidental then, that where the Negroes are most oppressed, the position of the whites is also most degraded. Facts unearthed and widely publicized, including the Report of the National Emergency Council to the late President Roosevelt, have thrown vivid light on the “paradise” of racial bigotry below the Mason-Dixon Line. They expose the staggering price of “white supremacy” in terms of health, living and cultural standards of the great masses of southern whites. They show “white supremacy” — the shibboleth of Bourbon overlords — to be synonymous with the most outrageous poverty and misery of the southern white people. They show that “keeping the Negro down” spells for the entire South the nation’s lowest wage and living standards.

“White supremacy” means the nation’s greatest proportion of tenants and sharecroppers, its highest rate of child labor, its most degrading and widespread exploitation of women, its poorest health and housing record, its highest illiteracy and lowest proportion of students in high schools and colleges, its highest death and disease rates, its lowest level of union organization and its least democracy….

Nearly 45 per cent of sharecroppers were white in 1940….

Wages in 1938 were anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent below those of the rest of the country. In 1940 the per capita income of the southeast was only $309. Compare this with a national per capita income of $573. Containing 14 per cent of the nation’s population, the region received only 7.3 per cent of the nation’s wage total….

Political controls which are aimed primarily at the disenfranchisement of the Negro have also resulted in depriving the mass of the poor whites of their right to the ballot. In 1942, 6,000,000 southern whites were disenfranchised as compared to 4,000,000 Negroes.

Lynching, a device of the Bourbon ruling classes designed to keep the Negro in “his place,” is turned against the white worker whenever he attempts to improve his conditions or to join forces with the Negro in the struggle for his rights….

In fact, every measure passed to curb the Negro has resulted in destroying the civil rights of the poor whites. At the bottom of the cultural backwardness and impoverishment of the southern white is the position of his black neighbor. America’s Tobacco Road begins in the Black Belt….

Plainly the South can progress only by breaking the oppression of the Negro. “A people which enslaves another people forges its own chains,” said Karl Marx. The same idea was expressed in colloquial language by Booker T. Washington: You can’t hold the Negro in the ditch without staying in it with him.

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