The Negro Politician (1928)

The Negro Politician (1928)

While I was in Chicago, a listener at Winnetka threw this question at me, tensely, with evident deep resentment: “What have you to say to the course of Negro politicians who are following Thompson in the municipal campaign?” I answered the question indirectly and unsatisfactorily, because its fuller answer would have called for a lecture in itself. I said merely, “The Negro in Chicago and the Negro in New York has as much right to ally himself to political graft as represented by Tammany and Thompson, as have more respectable people, in allying themselves with Insul and Vare and Frank Smith.”

The whole matter, however, calls for deeper explanation and frank heart searching on the part of the American Negro. What happens to us continually is this: If we keep out of politics, we give the whip hand to our enemies. They pass segregation laws; they curtail liberty of the press and of speech; they hinder the right to organize; they discriminate by law, not simply against color, but against ignorance and poverty and the victims of any deep-seated public dislike. We have got to vote or be enslaved.

When we vote, we do not have a chance to vote on the real merits of the questions presented. We cannot consider the tariff, farm relief, war, peace, municipal ownership, superpower, and a dozen other pressing political questions. No, we have got to ask: Does Herbert Hoover believe that Negroes are men or sub-men? What is the attitude of A1 Smith toward the Negro problem? Does Reed of Missouri believe in education for Negroes or is he part of the conspiracy that deprives Lincoln University of decent buildings? Can any man born south of the Mason and Dixon Line be for a moment considered as a man or must he always be put down as a raging beast, in alliance with lynching, disfranchisement, “Jim Crow” cars, and public insult?

Under such circumstances, intelligent voting on the part of colored men in the United States becomes a disheartening farce. In Chicago, they can choose between two things: on the one hand, open gambling, bootlegging, prostitution, and Thompson; and on the other hand, segregation, denial of representation, loss of decent jobs and public insult under Deneen or the Democrats. What on earth is an honest black voter to do?

In New York, there is the same impossible dilemma. Tammany and a Mayor, who is still unable to explain a certain incident in Italy; on the other silk-stocking snobs, who refuse the Negroes representation and gerrymander them out of the city Hall, the state legislature and the United States Congress.

In the same way, the Philadelphia Negro can choose between Vare and bribery, or graft, Pepper, snobbery, and “Jim Crow” schools. Who can blame the American Negro if he votes for the worst, when it is only in this sort of alliance that he can receive the semblance of decent treatment?

On the other hand, it is perfectly clear that the Negroes who are supporting graft and political machines in the chief cities of the United States, are thereby incurring the distrust, enmity and active opposition of the intelligent people of the United States; of those very people who with all their vision, never, so far as the Negro is concerned, see beyond their own noses.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1928. “The Negro Politician.” The Crisis. 35(5):168.