Racial Divisions Distract the Working Class from the Real Problem

Myya Helm is the Summer Research Associate at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy 

By Myya Helm

September 1, 2021

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain. In August 1921, union coal miners clashed with an anti-union citizen army near Blair Mountain, West Virginia, in what became the largest battle in the history of the labor movement and one of the largest incidents of insurrection since the Civil War. During the battle, thousands of miners marched to free unionists that had been arrested and to voice their disdain for exploitative coal company systems and norms. At the time, workers were paid extremely low wages in company currency that often could only be used at company stores. Safety conditions were practically nonexistent and mine operators used harassment and violence to repress unionists. Many miners were even required to sign “Yellow Dog” contracts, wherein they pledged not to join a union in order to keep their jobs.

These conditions worsened when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize in southern West Virginia. Coal companies would retaliate by hiring private detectives to torment strikers and evict them from their company-owned homes. Ironically enough, these tactics further pushed miners to rally against their employers’ consistent abuse of authority. Horrific working conditions created a previously unseen class consciousness. They piqued workers’ interest in unionism despite racial divisions exploited by employers to encourage Black and white Americans to see each other as rivals.

The worsening situation in coal towns fostered solidarity among all coal miners, no matter their race, ethnicity, or nationality. West Virginia’s coal towns were surprisingly diverse in the early 20th century, with the armed march on Blair Mountain including roughly 2,000 Black miners. Coal companies repeatedly tried to stoke racial divisions to divide and conquer their workers. For example, companies would often hire Black, out-of-state workers to break white miners’ strikes, stoke racial tensions, and undermine economic solidarity. Many unionists, however, began to overcome their negative racial sentiments as they came to understand the nature of class struggle. ​​They realized their shared interest in better wages and working conditions. Class solidarity became of larger importance than workers’ racial and ethnic differences, and all miners’ union consciousness grew as they yearned for a better livelihood for themselves and their families.

History is now repeating itself, and there is a dire need to revisit our collective union roots with the interracial solidarity of the working class. Racism and xenophobia are too often weaponized in order to divide workers.

W.E.B. du Bois, an American sociologist and civil rights activist, wrote in his book, Black Reconstruction in America, that “the wages of both classes could be kept low, the whites fearing to be supplanted by Negro labor, the Negroes always being threatened by the substitution of white labor.” This can be compared to the myth of the “job-stealing immigrant” today, wherein many accuse Black and brown immigrants of stealing jobs from U.S.-born workers. Narratives such as this continue to distract attention away from the actual cause of declining working-class conditions. They divide workers, even though this is against workers’ own interests. But corporations, not immigrants, are to blame for slowing wage growth, declining living standards, and the lack of employment opportunities for the vast majority of Americans.

Although many U.S. industries once offered high-wage blue-collar employment, millions of these jobs have vanished over the past century. While some have been outsourced overseas or rendered obsolete due to new technology, many more were degraded by company and corporate strategies that expanded subcontracting, pushed deregulation, and worked to eliminate labor unions. Still today, power imbalances between corporations and working people are the most significant factor contributing to income equality. Like company bosses of West Virginia’s mining towns, corporations systematically depress incomes for the working class and hoard wealth for themselves. Today, corporate executives account for about two-thirds of America’s richest 1 percent of households. Wealth has become increasingly concentrated at the top, and the richest Americans repeatedly profit at the expense of a living wage for the working class. Income inequality is the primary reason why a majority of Americans experienced disappointing growth in their living standards and income over the last forty years. The richest 0.1 percent took in 196 times as much as the bottom 90 percent of Americans in 2018 alone.

The relationship between racial divisions and the exploitation of labor is nothing new. Racial conflict often seems to impede class solidarity in the United States. Even so, unions like those of the West Virginia coalfields were able to bring people with varying identities together, including in the industrial union movement that the United Mine Workers helped spark in the 1930s. 

The time has come for the working class to form a united front once again. One of the greatest weapons that individual workers have against companies and corporations is unity. Class solidarity holds large and diverse segments of society together and can be a powerful tool for organizing in and protecting our communities. Maintaining a strong class identity empowers workers to fight back against the mistreatment, oppression, and exploitation of the real problem—America’s wealthiest elites that continually profit at the expense of the everyday working class.

For more of a historical perspective on race, labor, and solidarity, check out Myya’s new report with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy here.