Monday, October 03, 2016

Special Relationships, II: Black-and-white issues

When I was young, my mother told me all about how the dance halls in her village instituted "black nights" and "white nights" during the war as a result of intra-American conflicts and fights breaking out when some white soldiers saw black men dancing with local white women.

I was reminded of that when reading this:

"Examples are beginning to reach me of the complications that are almost certain to arise if considerable numbers of coloured troops arrived with the American army. For instance, a British soldier writes to complain that in an English port part of a well-known restaurant is barred to coloured troops. He says that the employees of the restaurant disliked discriminating against coloured soldiers, and that a group of British soldiers near said what they thought about colour prejudice. He adds that his unit was called together and instructed to be ‘polite to coloured troops, answer their queries and drift away.’ They were not to eat or drink with coloured soldiers.

Before going off the deep end about this we must try to understand the nature of the problem that confronts the authorities, British and American. English people will find that coloured troops are particularly easy and pleasant to get on with, and I should think they should be extremely popular in most villages. American troops from a large part of the U.S.A. would agree with this, and be prepared to rub shoulders with the negro soldiers.

But the feeling of white troops from the ‘deep South,’ where the poison of slavery has never left the land, is something far too deep to brush aside. I have met Southerners who seemed rational enough until the negro problem was mentioned, and who would then suddenly show a terrified, lynching spirit which was about the ugliest thing imaginable.

The colour problem in the South is economic, political and sexual. The political side has been increased lately because the parties have begun to canvass for the negro vote. The economic aspect has increased with the increased opportunities of war-time employment. The social and sexual prejudice is so deep that there will be many Southern whites in this country who will take it for granted that it is their duty to interfere if they see black troops with white girls.

What is to be done? The American Government must itself face the problem. It must use every device of persuasion and authority to let white Southern troops know that it is against discipline to treat negro soldiers in the way to which their training and education has accustomed them. I am aware that with a prejudice as deep as that of the South, discipline and re-education will not work nearly quickly enough. I feel it is a mistake to send large numbers of coloured troops.

If things are left to drift an impossible problem will be set to the British authorities, and very unhappy incidents will occur between black and Southern troops, and, only too naturally, between Southern troops and the British, who will instinctively take the side of the blacks against their white assailants."

"A London Diary", The New Statesman and Nation, 22 August 1942, 121. (Paragraph breaks have been added.)

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