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Harlem: Dark Weather Vane

by Alain Locke

Professor of Philosophy, Howard University

August 1936


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THE riot itself might never have occurred had such imponderables been taken into consideration. Its immediate causes were trivial—the theft of a ten-cent pocket-knife by a Negro lad of sixteen in Kresge's department store on 125 Street. It was rumored that the boy had been beaten in the basement by store detectives and was gravely injured or dead; by tragic coincidence an ambulance called to treat one of the Kresge employee, whose hand the boy had bitten, seemed to confirm the rumor and a hearse left temporarily outside its garage in an alley at rear of the store to corroborate this.

As a matter of fact the boy had given back the stolen knife and had been released through the basement door. But it must be remembered that this store, though the bulk of its trade was with Negroes, has always discriminated against Negroes in employment. Shortly before the riot it had been the objective of a picketing campaign for the employment of Negro store clerks, had grudgingly made the concession of a few such jobs and then transferred the so-called "clerks" to service at the lunch counter. While the original culprit slept peacefully at home, a community of 200,000 was suddenly in the throes of serious riots through the night, with actual loss of life, many injuries to police and citizens, destruction of property, and a serious aftermath of public grievance and anger.

The careful report of the Commission on this occurrence correctly places the blame far beyond the immediate precipitating incidents. It was not the unfortunate rumors, but the state of mind on which they fell; not the inflammatory leaflets issued several hours after the rioting had begun by the Young Liberators, a radical Negro defense organization, or the other broadside distributed a little later by the Young Communist League, but the sense of grievance and injustice that they could depend on touching to the quick by any recital of fresh wrong and injustice.

The report finds that the outbreak was spontaneous and unpremeditated; that it was not a race riot in the sense of physical conflict between white and colored groups; that it was not instigated by Communists, though they sought to profit by it and circulated a false and misleading leaflet after the riots were well underway; that the work of the police was by no means beyond criticism; and that this sudden breach of the public order was the result of a highly emotional situation among the colored people of Harlem, due in part to the nervous strain of years of unemployment and insecurity. ". . . Its distinguishing feature was an attack I upon property rather than persons, and resentment against whites who, while exploiting Negroes, denied them an opportunity to work."

The report warns of possible future recurrences, offering as the only safe remedy the definite betterment of economic and civic conditions which, until improved, make Harlem a "fertile field for radical and other propaganda." It is futile, [the report continues] to condemn the propagandists or to denounce them for fishing in troubled waters. The only answer is to eliminate the evils upon which they base their arguments. The blame belongs to a society that tolerates inadequate and often wretched housing, inadequate and inefficient schools and other public facilities, unemployment, unduly high rents, the lack of recreation grounds, discrimination in industry and the public utilities in the employment of colored people, brutality and lack of courtesy by police. As long as these conditions remain, the public order cannot and will not be safe.

Despite this clear diagnosis, there are those even in official circles who insist upon a more direct connection between Harlem's restless temper and radical propaganda. To do so seriously misconstrues the situation by inverting the real order of cause and effect. Discrimination and injustice are the causes, not radicalism. But to neglect the symptoms, to ignore the grievances will be to spread radicalism. Violence will be an inevitable result. Eleven years ago, in the Harlem issue of Survey Graphic, the writer said: Fundamentally, for the present, the Negro is radical only on race matters, in other words, a forced radical, a social protestant rather than a genuine radical. Yet under further pressure and injustice iconoclastic thought and motives will inevitably increase. Harlem's quixotic radicalisms call for their ounce of democracy today lest tomorrow they be beyond cure.

That statement needs underscoring today, when aspects of discrimination, chronic through the years, become acute under the extra pressure of the depression. At such a time special—perhaps even heroic—remedy becomes necessary where preventive long term treatment should and could have been the scientific course. It follows that at this stage both the basic disease and its many complications as well must be treated. Obviously both long and short term measures are indicated, from the temporary palliative that allays inflamed public opinion to the long range community planning which requires years for development and application. The Commission report spreads its recommendations over just such a wide range. It is particularly wise and sound, even at the risk of appearing doctrinaire, in pointing to the Negro's economic exploitation through the employment policy of the whole community as the basic economic disease, anal to segregation as inducing the radical complications. Unlike many such reports this one does not overlook fundamentals, and in that respect renders a service of truly scientific and permanent value.

IT follows then that Harlem's most acute problem is employment. Not mere job occupancy, but rather a lifting of its economic earning power through less discriminatory job distribution. A careful analysis of job categories and employment trends makes this clear and is the basis for the rather startling suggestion that the municipality grapple with the traditionally non-governmental problem of the right to work according to ability. Knowing of course that the city cannot directly control the private labor market, the report nevertheless suggests, as a long term policy, measures of indirect control. It suggests that the city enact an ordinance that no municipal contracts be given to firms or corporations that discriminate, racially or otherwise, against workers, and that in its contracts with the public utilities it make provisions and reservations which will prevent flagrant labor discrimination. It further suggests that the city itself as an employer set a good example, not merely by the number of Negroes employed but by widening the range of jobs filled by Negroes. This is a particularly pointed suggestion in view of the fact that the relatively small quota of Negroes in the New York city service, 2.2 percent in 1920 had fallen to 1.4 percent in 1930, the latest figure available.

The PWA housing project for Harlem sets the proper but daring precedent of specifying that the employment of less than one third skilled Negro labor will constitute prima facie evidence of discrimination, and furnish grounds for disciplinary action against the contractor. Revolutionary as all this may seem, it goes to the economic roots of the race issue, and boldly carries the principle of the Fourteenth Amendment into the economic field. Typical is the report of the New York Edison Company with 65 Negroes in its employ out of 10,000 and the Fifth Avenue Coach Co. with 213 Negroes l out of a total of 16,000 employee. It is such an industrial policy that brings, in the words of the report, "a certain retribution upon a community that discriminates against the Negro worker through the money it must spend upon him in the form of relief."

THE common sense and logic of such a position become obvious when a community has to pay the indirect costs of labor discrimination in relief to the victims of insecure and marginal employment. Definite proof of this economic inequality is seen in the disproportionate number of Negroes on New York City relief rolls. Ten percent of the Negro population is on relief, over double its relative population of 4 percent. It has been further evidenced in the difficulties encountered by Negro workers with skilled vocational training and experience in securing work relief assignments except as unskilled laborers. Negroes did not receive their proportionate share of work relief jobs even in sections predominantly Negro, and in sections predominantly white Negro home relief clients were not given their proportional share of referral assignments to work relief jobs. Many skilled Negro workers had either to accept places in the unskilled ranks or go back to the home relief rolls as "unemployables." Of the employables in New York City on relief the year preceding the riot, 14 percent or 58,950 were Negroes.

Most of the complaints of discrimination in the relief services have occurred in the work relief sections, where finally an advisory committee on Negro problems was appointed, and in the matter of personnel policies of the Emergency Relief Bureau itself. In home relief, the investigation found substantial fairness and little or no justifiable complaint. Negroes have been employed in the relief services at a ratio almost double their percentage in the city's population, incidentally affording indirect evidence of the disproportionate amount of unemployment among Negroes with relatively high grade qualifications. There was some complaint, according to the report, about their slow admission to higher administration grades, especially the strategic positions of occupational clerks, a type of position vital for initiating any broader policy of labor classification for Negro eligibles. Recently, Mayor La Guardia announced the appointment of Dr. John H. Johnson, rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church, as the sixth member of the Emergency Relief Bureau.

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