Moving Toward Race War

The New Republic/June 22, 1921

THERE are men who will frown upon us for even entertaining the hypothesis of a possible race war; for even naming the horror. Paint not the Devil on thy wall, says an old injunction. He will be sure to call to inspect his likeness. Talk about race war and we shall have it. Unhappily, all experience is against the theory that you can ban war and the Devil by refining them out of your vocabulary. We already have manifestations of race war whether we so denominate them or not. What was it but war when whites and blacks battled in Tulsa, killing and burning not out of private vengeance- or in private interest, as in ordinary crime, but by collective impulse as in the rage of combat? What were the race riots at East St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, Omaha, but overt acts of war? And what but war spirit is the spirit prevailing on both sides far beyond the points of actual conflict?

Thousands of whites are looking to their guns and ammunition; hundreds of thousands are looking to arms as a last resort. Thousands of Negroes are beginning to look to their means of defence and offence. Fortunately there are no politicians, no generals, no sutlers and munition makers that can profit from a race war. There are no huge winds of self-interest blowing upon the embers. Between the races only a “popular war” is possible. Popular wars are slow in developing, but when they break they are terrible, as the Balkans bear witness.

What gives the American race problem a new and menacing aspect is the emergence of a spirit of forcible resistance on the part of the Negroes. “Get a gun,” is the advice of scores of Negro leaders. “Hit back; make them respect you.” That is dangerous doctrine; if we could kill it by preaching we should preach. But it is impossible to do anything with a doctrine unless you understand it. And we shall never understand the militant attitude among Negroes unless we try to put ourselves in their place. Suppose that America were mainly a black man’s country, with nine Negroes to every white. Suppose that the blacks held all the offices, controlled the police and the courts, owned practically all the property, monopolized all lucrative businesses and professions. And then suppose that in addition to exploiting the whites, the Negroes sporadically rushed together in mobs and tore white men away from their families, beat them unmercifully, shot them down or hanged them or even burned them at the stake on charges of crimes that black men’s courts would have dealt with not too gently if there had been any semblance of proof. Finally suppose that in some cases the burning of a white man was widely advertised in the press, a holiday declared, and excursion trains put on for the benefit of those who wished to view the spectacle. What white man is there among us who would not get a gun and urge all other white men to do likewise?

But it will be said that the Negroes will not improve their lot by using force; on the contrary, many more will be insulted and abused and slain than would be the case if they accepted the wrongs done them in the old spirit of resignation. We believe that is true. At Tulsa, if the Negroes had made no show of resistance, the most that might have happened was the lynching of one Negro, possibly an impudent fellow though not a criminal.

Because a group of Negroes rallied to his defence over a score were killed and more than ten thousand were driven from their homes by fire—men, women and children, in ghastly fear of a mob more cruel than the flames. But a cold blooded calculation of this kind will not carry far in a world which has recently sacrificed twenty million lives to the Manes of an Austrian Archduke. It would not carry far with us whites if we were the minority from which the majority race selected victims to mutilate and torture to death. Why should we expect it to carry far with the Negroes? Are they utterly without a feeling of race solidarity?

Are they altogether immune to that species of unreason that makes the white man say: Better ten thousand dead in battle than one single worthless individual wrongfully done to death in despite of his race or nation?

The Negroes are coming into a sense of solidarity: so it is declared by witnesses from all over the country, equally by those who deplore the fact and by those who rejoice in it. They are coming into a spirit of collective self-defence, often a truculent spirit. It is asserted by Southerners that the war is responsible for this spirit, and there is much to be said for this view. The Negroes who faced the German guns and were regarded as citizens of the first class when it came to stopping German bullets might easily become centres of disaffection with a civil status ranging from disfranchisement to death at the stake. But war or no war, it was probably bound to come. The servile acceptance of kindness or outrage at the hands of the white man could not survive slavery by many generations.

Whatever its origin, the spirit of collective resistance is abroad in the Negro population. And that spirit presents a grave challenge to Americans. Shall we go on about our other affairs as heretofore declaring complacently that the race problem is one that can never be solved? Or shall we address ourselves seriously to finding a modus vivendi under which the Negro will be assured of his ordinary rights as a man? Mob law and peonage, as every intelligent person now recognizes can be maintained only at the cost of increasing race bitterness, breaking out sporadically in manifestations of race war. They must inevitably make life and property less secure for Americans of both races, not only in the South but wherever the Negroes have gained a foothold in the North. The Negro will no doubt suffer most from race war but the whites will also suffer incalculable losses. Are we not as a people possessed of sufficient common sense and political sagacity to check so disastrous a tendency while there is yet time? The problem is not an insoluble one. There are hundreds of communities, South and North, where the two races live together on terms of cordial goodwill. What has been done in some communities can be done in all, if we attack the problem in a spirit of common sense and common justice.