Skip to main content

Next Steps In Interracial Relations: 1944

Next Steps In Interracial Relations


By Lester B. Granger, Executive Secretary, National Urban League, New York City


A Presentation at The National Conference of Social Work Seventy-First Annual Meeting, Cleveland, Ohio

May 21-27, 1944Lester B. Granger 1944 [View Image]
[View Image]
Lester B. Granger

WHEN DISCUSSING the problem of race relations during these critical and disturbing days, there is a natural temptation to lament the social errors and excesses of racial hatred that have marked recent months. The temptation can be resisted successfully only by realizing that the most important phase of race relations in America lies not behind us, but ahead-during the war and in the postwar period as well. Social historians will look back upon this period and observe that during World War II American public opinion finally made a decision as to our racial future and either swung into the road that leads to social democracy, or turned its face from America’s traditional ideas and chose the highway leading toward social disaster.

The dreadful pattern of race riots of 1943 has not thus far in 1944 been repeated. It may be that we can escape their recurrence for the remainder of the war, though disturbing reports from certain industrial centers and the unceasing inflammatory efforts of race-baiting demagogues make us realize that there is nothing in the present situation to encourage complacency.

Every American who is worthy of the title “citizen” has carried a deep sense of shame and a feeling of almost personal responsibility for what happened in 1943 in New York City, Los Angeles, Beaumont, Mobile, and Detroit. Those bloody and costly riots were warnings of how far this nation still has to go in order to develop the single-minded purpose and the well-disciplined unity that are needed to win this war. It is possible mathematically to calculate the loss of man-hours of labor, of war materials, and of property caused by those riots. It will never be possible, however, to calculate the more severe loss of confidence by American citizens in their government and the loss of trust and cooperation between white and Negro Americans who should be working and planning together, wholeheartedly, for victory.

Tragic as these losses are, out of our 1943 interracial experience has come one important result-a more sober realization by the average American that our national race problem is not simply an interesting sociological condition to be discussed by social workers and theoreticians, that racial prejudice and factual conflict are far more than annoying evidences of our ethnological diversity and political immaturity.

More and more of our population’s rank and file are pondering seriously over the real causes and the hoped-for results of this war. They are beginning to realize that America can achieve and hold world leadership in the fight against fascism only by demonstrating her capacity for building social, political, and economic democracy at home. There is a determination that the war years shall be used to lay the foundation for an enduring domestic peace; and there is a growing realization that domestic peace is impossible unless racial conflict is eliminated from our community life and interracial cooperation substituted.  Indicative of this realization and determination is the spontaneous development throughout the country of interracial committees composed of responsible white and Negro citizens who seek to locate the most serious sources of interracial friction in their own communities and to remove their causes. More than one hundred of these committees have been formed in Northern and Western cities. Some have been appointed by governors and mayors; others have sprung up without official encouragement, as expressions of public interest.

The mere existence of these committees is not enough, as the record of many of their predecessors amply proves. In too many instances, they have been simply expressions of public interest without becoming instruments for social action. And, in the field of race relations, social interest that does not develop into social action is sterile and useless indeed.

Sometimes this lack of action by new committees, as well as by established agencies and organizations, is caused less by lack of desire than by lack of information and guidance. Uninformed or inexperienced leadership considers the whole race problem so vast and formidable that it is apt to shudder away, after making one or two ineffectual gestures. Practical and constructive steps in the field of race relations should be of special interest to social agencies, for racial conflict is the most extreme manifestation of America’s most urgent social problem. Social agencies, coming in contact with their communities on the plane of everyday living, are best able to grapple with these problems effectively.

The phrase “racial tension” has recently come into popular usage, but there is nothing new about the phenomenon itself. The term is used by persons who are worriedly aware that groups of American citizens, separated by the accident of color, are ready to fly at each other’s throats once an incident is provided. In Mobile the incident was the upgrading of skilled Negro shipyard workers. In Los Angeles it was the report of assaults by Mexican zoot-suit wearers upon sailors and soldiers. In New York it was the shooting of a Negro soldier by a white police officer. In Detroit it was a rumor that Negroes had beaten up a white couple; or, conversely, that whites had killed a Negro woman and her baby.

In no case was the incident itself important. The real cause of each riot was the pressure of widespread racial hatred. Backed up behind present attitudes is a great pool of racial antagonism which has been steadily growing for over two centuries. Even where the dam has not broken, there have been steady leakages which, though less dramatic, have caused an equal amount of social destruction. Witness, for instance, the stubborn resistance maintained by Southern railroads and the Railway Brotherhoods against the order of the Fair Employment Practice Committee to employ and upgrade qualified Negro workers. Witness, also, the death of the anti-poll tax bill in Congress; the frequent violence against Negro soldiers in Southern cities and camps; the racially segregated blood bank of the American Red Cross; the successful blocking of war housing for Negroes in Buffalo, Detroit, and dozens of other industrial centers; the defeat of the Federal education subsidy bill; and the renewed activities of the Christian Front and the Ku Klux Klan through new creature organizations. These are only a few of the ominous signs that not all racial conflict is fought out in bloody battles on the streets of industrial cities.

Our next steps in racial advancement must be based upon a realization of the actual forces that produce the outbreaks. While this reservoir of racial hatred continues to swell, we must take every precaution to keep the walls of the dam in good repair. But we must do more than this-we must drain the pool itself, by re-educating the American public on matters of race. Further, we must remove the economic, political, and social causes which have for so many years been feeding the pool of racial misunderstanding and hostility.

The 1943 Annual Conference of the National Urban League addressed itself to the problem of racial conflict and offered a fifteen-point program to city and state heads and leaders in social work and civic organizations. Those recommendations proposed the appointment of committees on public morale composed of representative citizens of both races and charged with the responsibility of identifying the racial factors that make for community friction, and removing them. Government heads and city-planning groups were urged to realize that the present period of social mobility offers a chance for re-education and readjustment of Americans in their new wartime environment. They were warned that in many communities Negro populations had grown and would continue to grow; that their adjustment within new urban environments would be successfully accomplished only through sustained campaigns of education directed at both whites and Negroes. Work habits, public behavior, and neighborhood relationships must be stressed by schools, social agencies, and every educational facility which the community has to offer. The Urban League warned that racial segregation is no solution for the problems that will continue to develop, but will actually accentuate them. The need for the reorganization of police departments, in order to create greater public confidence in law enforcement, was stressed. Industrial management and organized labor were exhorted to develop effective concern for the housing, health, and recreational needs of the Negro workers who have come to war centers in response to the call of the nation’s industries. Social agencies were urged to re-examine their policies and programs, reorganizing staffs and spreading services so as to meet the emergency needs of their constituencies, of which Negroes will form an increasingly large part. The Urban League Conference placed great stress on provisions that must be made for housing, health, and child care of these Negro and white newcomers, and also advised that intensive programs of consumer education and protection be developed, especially among the Negro population. Finally, the Conference recommendations called for an imaginative and constructive use of all media of public education, church, press, radio, schools, motion pictures-so that racial subjects may be presented in an unbiased and constructive manner to the end of creating proper racial attitudes and understanding.

Many organizations with a sincere desire to help will find themselves at a loss as to what steps should first be taken in order to get results. The problem of employment is naturally the most pressing aspect of the whole question of racial conflict, for conflict is sharpest where economic factors are most apparent. When questions of equality of job opportunity for Negro workers are squarely faced, we are most apt to challenge, not only the deep-seated prejudices of millions of white Americans, but also their most active fears regarding their own secure future. This is why the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) has become a symbol both to liberals and to reactionaries in the field of race relations. It is to the credit of American voters that the FEPC was not only established through the pressure of public opinion, but has also been maintained against the continuing attacks of reactionaries in Congress. The surest safeguard against the recurrence of race riots in the postwar period will be to serve notice upon the nation during these critical war years that the democratic job gains which have been achieved thus far will be maintained and expanded in the postwar period. This means the continuance of the FEPC and also the inclusion of the principle of fair employment practice in our Federal labor laws, or through some other administrative means, as a permanent part of our national employment policy.

Such permanence cannot be insured without drastic reorganization of our public employment services. Few Americans except Negro job hunters themselves have realized how freely our public employment services have been used to freeze the Negro’s inferior job status. With the exception of New York, Illinois, Ohio, and one or two other progressive states, it was almost impossible, before the war, for Negro workers to secure referral by a state employment service to any except unskilled labor and domestic service jobs. Employment services assumed that job orders that did not specify “Negro” were meant for white workers only; and it is the unusual employer who will specifically request Negro workers for semiskilled or skilled jobs. Thus, except for special agencies working in the field of race relations, the Negro worker has had little assistance in his dogged efforts to advance himself from an insecure, scantily paid job status to one of equality with similarly qualified white workers.

Creation of the emergency War Manpower Commission and federalization of the state employment services have slightly improved the situation. For the first time since World War I there is a central authority directing public employment services which is more or less responsive to the actual demands of the war emergency and which realizes that unrestricted industrial production demands unrestricted use of all labor reserves. But not even the war emergency and the War Manpower Commission have sufficed to change policies and practices in the employment services of certain states. Texas, for instance, when offered a manual prepared in the United States Employment Service for the use of interviewers in handling Negro employment, stiffly responded that Texas had its  “own traditional way” of handling Negro labor and would continue to do so, war or no war. Nor are Southern states the only ones that openly or secretly oppose Federal directives and allow interviewers to continue to use their own discretion and exercise their own prejudices in the referral of Negro workers to war employment.

It is clear, therefore, that if war gains are to be preserved and if the re-employment of Negro veterans is to be accomplished with a minimum of unfairness and conflict, there must be reorganization of our whole public employment setup-a reorganization that starts with Washington and carries through to the most reactionary and sternly resisting state service. Effective safeguards must be included when the supervision of employment services is once more handed back to state governments-safeguards which will insure the right of the qualified Negro eligible to serve on the staff of the agency, which will guarantee courteous and intelligent handling of the job applicants interviewed, which will give the Negro worker the same opportunity as his white fellow to interview the employer who sends in an “open” job order. This, of course, is only one aspect of a broad subject which is infinitely complex, for included in the Negro’s problem are the attitudes of employers, the policies of organized labor, and the terms of the collective bargaining agreements arrived at between management and union. Here, then, is a problem which cannot be simply referred to Washington for solution. It is one that focuses, first of all, in the community itself and which must therefore be attacked by local community leadership. It is a job for interracial committees, for social agencies with an interest in employment, for city officials, enlightened employers, and liberal labor leaders.

In every community there should be established, either through the council of social agencies or some other agency similarly representative, a standing committee on interracial job equality and employment security for Negroes. Such a committee should begin immediately to discuss the specifics of postwar employment, such as questions of job seniority, transfer of workers in plant conversion, retraining for peacetime employment, and elimination of restrictions against Negro membership in trade unions. Employment services, both public and private, should be called upon to discharge their responsibility by serving all the people freely, without favor and without discrimination. Vocational schools and guidance centers should be scrutinized to determine, not only the thoroughness of their training and the adequacy of their equipment, but also their racial policies and the attitudes of their staff members.

Most important of all, a public sentiment should be steadily built up in support of the Negro’s inalienable American right to contribute his best talents to his community’s good and to receive a just return for his services. The problems of Negro workers are not his own alone; they are the problems of the American community. We must not fall into the fatal error which was committed after World War I and repeated during the depression years, when Negroes, after being the last to be hired, became the first to be fired. Racial equality in employment is a fundamental part of industrial democracy, and industrial democracy is simply sound community organization, without which there is no protected American community life.

Employment is by no means the only serious problem which will develop during the war years and continue to develop in the postwar period, unless next steps are taken now. Closely related to employment is the matter of housing, for Negro workers must live decently, healthfully, and within convenient reach of their jobs. The conditions under which they live will affect, as well as reflect, the conditions under which they work: conflict developed in tenancy situations will carry over into job situations; personal and group attitudes that have been built up through the Negro’s experience in finding and maintaining a home will affect his job efficiency and his relations with his white fellow workers.

It is disturbing to note the almost complete lack of planning manifested in most American communities regarding the future of Negro housing. I should not say “Negro housing.” There is no such thing as “Negro housing”; only the housing of Americans, one tenth of whom happen to be Negroes. In spite of increased Negro populations, in spite of the rapid deterioration of the obsolescent Negro housing which has received no repairs during the war, in spite of population shifts which have taken Negro families across dozens of states, there seems to be no realization by city-planning groups of the fact that these families must be housed, and housed under conditions that are socially desirable. This state of planlessness is strikingly illustrated in the urban redevelopment law recently passed in New York State. That law made possible the planning of New York’s Stuyvesant Town, which has been described by one New York newspaper as “a walled city” behind which the forces of bigotry and ignorance would stand entrenched. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, sponsor of Stuyvesant Town, has decreed that this project, to be built as tax-exempt property and therefore subsidized by the city of New York, will bar Negro citizens from possible tenancy. This arrangement makes the city of New York a partner with a private life insurance company in denying to a group of citizens rights which are theirs as taxpayers.

In St. Louis, a plan for postwar urban redevelopment has been proposed which would demolish a great part of one of the largest areas of Negro residence. It is proposed that in place of these slums shall be erected model apartment houses which will be a credit to the city and which will push the slums away from the center of town. Of course, the Negro slum residents will also be pushed away -to where? The fine new apartment houses are not to be for them. No plans have been proposed for any public or limited-dividend housing to accommodate them. No subdivision is planned for home ownership by low-income Negro families.

St. Louis affords a typical example of the lack of social planning throughout the country. There is too much dependence upon engineers and architects in plans for postwar reconstruction, and not enough upon social engineers. Too often elaborate housing projects, highways, parks, and bridges are brought forward into the blueprint stage without any realization that their only reason for being is the welfare and the social growth of the people themselves.

In every community there should be a formally organized group -whether an emergency committee, a “citizens’ housing council,” or an established social agency-which accepts the responsibility for urging upon city officials and planning bodies the need for decent housing and expanded residential opportunities for the Negro population. As urban redevelopment plans are carried forward, the community should see that the following requirements are included in any proposed legislation: (1) that land acquired under the right of eminent domain shall remain in public ownership, and that restrictive covenants barring occupancy to certain racial and religious groups shall be declared invalid for land acquired under redevelopment laws; (2) that previous site occupants who are economically eligible shall have preferred tenant status in the new housing erected; (3) that where economic and racial groups are displaced because they are unable to qualify for tenancy in new developments, equivalent land area and residential units, either new or conforming with acceptable building standards, shall be provided concurrently as a part of the general redevelopment project; (4) that equivalent land required under this condition shall be provided in areas at least as desirable as the location from which tenants have been displaced-as desirable, that is, in proximity to employment, community facilities, and public utilities.

The contiguous fields of education, recreation, and health also furnish plentiful opportunities for exploration and experiment. It is encouraging to note the appearance in a number of Northern cities of projects in intercultural education and community co6peration. The much publicized Springfield plan in the school system of that Massachusetts city is being matched by similar educational experiments in the schools of Detroit and Chicago. In New York City the Benjamin Franklin High School has for several years conducted an imaginative, intercultural program within the melting pot community of East Harlem. All of these, and many more, are demonstrations of the fact that enlightened educators are beginning to realize both the challenge and the opportunity offered to the public schools for acquainting student and parent groups with the real facts of life about our real America. The intercultural plan is bringing children of different racial, religious, and cultural heritage into a new kind of association based upon mutual understanding of, and respect for, the common contributions made by our various racial and cultural stocks to the building of present-day America. Differences of background, it is being shown, can become interesting stimulants to friendship, rather than causes of suspicion and conflict.

Social agencies are beginning to follow a similar pattern in the development of recreational and group work programs. The settlement house, the community center, the meeting hall are used more and more to bring different population groups together for intergroup interpretation, rather than keeping them apart by perpetuating and fostering group differences. More and more “Negro agencies” are becoming centers of interracial activities. The eventual passing of the Italian settlement, the Polish neighborhood house, will also be a happy sign of more enlightened social work leadership.

It must be admitted that social work as a leadership group has only begun to assume its full responsibilities in this field. Too often social workers have considered the question of race relations as a dangerous, controversial problem to be avoided rather than attacked. It is heartening to notice a recent sharp divergence from this previous point of view. The Detroit Conference on Intercultural Relations, sponsored largely by social work leadership and held less than nine months after the 1943 riot, furnished an inspiring example of how social workers can organize public opinion against racial conflict.

The action of the Detroit Council of Social Agencies in adopting  a racial code for its own guidance and as an example to other social agencies of the community is another bright spot on our professional horizon. The code is simple, and impressive because of its simplicity. It declares that the social agency has a primary responsibility to see that its own employment, board membership, and staff supervision policies are absolutely free of racial bias. It calls for the full inclusion of the Negro community in planning and policy-making by the agency. The code is by no means the perfect social document. It may not be exactly applicable to every city in the country, but its basic commitments and its fundamental philosophy are inescapable in the social obligations which any social agency owes to its community and to itself. The Detroit Council’s racial code should be studied by every social worker and board member who believes that equality of opportunity is synonymous with American democracy.

Now is none too soon for social workers to step out boldly, departing from the timid, half-hearted efforts which have previously characterized too much of our activity in the field of race relations. There can be no question about the seriousness of the social need. Imaginative and aggressive leadership has already pointed the way. Liberal trade unions have shown what can be done to correct the distorted attitudes and bitter prejudices of men and women of both races who meet in plants, in mines, and on the ships. Exceptional industrial management, like that of the National Smelting Company in Cleveland, has pioneered impressively in building better relations and freer cooperation between whites and Negroes. A few public spirited Federal and state officials have shown their awareness of the critical interracial situation and their intelligent concern for what lies ahead in the postwar period. A broadened base of popular support for interracial leadership has recently developed. It remains for us to take advantage of these examples and the increasingly favorable public situation to make our professional skills and our social devotion count most now, when the need is most critical.

Our race problem is not insoluble, the barriers that stand in the way of interracial democracy are not insuperable. All that is needed is an abiding faith in the rightness of the democratic ideal and an unshakable determination that here in our time we shall take the first steps down the road which leads to democratic America.

Source:  Proceedings of The National Conference of Social Work Selected PapersSource: Seventy-First Annual Meeting, Cleveland, Ohio May 21-27, 1944, p.126.

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

View graphic version