Intergroup Tensions and the Mental State of Black Soldiers
As with the civilian population, the unreasonableness and emotionalism of soldiers' attitudes seemed to reach their zenith in the delicate area of intergroup tensions. The vast majority of white soldiers supported the rigidly segregated structure of the military without question. This structure not only kept black soldiers in separate units but rejected them at much higher rates than whites and restricted them to a small number of labor-intensive assignments—mainly in quartermaster,
engineering, and transportation corps—if they managed to make it into the armed forces. Black soldiers were also systematically denied the opportunities for social mobility available to white soldiers, since the command of white troops was not a possibility for black officers, while many black units were led by white officers. There were, in any case, only five black officers in the entire army at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack and three of them were chaplains.
Not surprisingly, when the army's Research Branch conducted an elaborate survey about race relations in March 1943, it discovered that whites barely considered these issues, whereas black soldiers' attitudes were thoroughly shot through with resentment about military discrimination and contradictory feelings about the fairness of separating the races in a war against a racist ideology. Further, the pervasive anger of black troops about racial injustices affected the way they thought and felt about everything else. Black soldiers were even less likely than whites (if that was possible) to have a reasonable grasp of war aims or be personally identified with democratic ideals. Unlike their white counterparts, however, black soldiers' uncertainty on this matter was not the product of thoughtless indifference but a pessimistic conclusion drawn from direct observation and personal experience. As one man facing imminent induction put it, "Just carve on my tombstone, 'Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of a white man.'"
The Research Branch was careful to note that no evidence existed that black soldiers behaved disloyally; there was no difference between draft-dodging rates among blacks and whites, for example. Clearly, black soldiers could and did respond to racial frustration in a variety of ways. Either their aggression could devolve into alienation and insistence that blacks had no reason to fight on the side of a hypocritical United States, or they could proclaim their patriotism, demand the right to serve in combat units and command positions, and hope that their wartime service would translate into racial gains at war's end. One illustration of alienated reaction was Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little), who was given a 4F after he arrived at the local induction center dressed in a zoot suit and told the psychological screeners that he either wanted to join the Japanese army or go south to organize black soldiers and kill white people. Civil rights leaders and the black press, on the other hand, along with many black soldiers, agitated tirelessly against the War Department's 10.6 percent quota for blacks in the military and a selection process that counted complaints about segregation as
sufficient reasons for psychiatric rejection. They tried to counter the argument about frustration's negative consequences with claims that frustration made black soldiers even more determined to serve than whites. But suggesting that the gap between racial rhetoric and reality made black soldiers' patriotism especially heartfelt also depended upon the growing authority of psychological experience as a measure of political sacrifice. Just as Malcolm X understood that overt racial antagonism would likely result in rejection by the military's psychiatric gatekeepers, so too did other black soldiers wager that enduring the racism of a segregated military would eventually be seen as a badge of emotional honor, and benefit them.
The Research Branch made films and developed leadership training materials in an effort to blunt the dangerous potential for racial divisiveness in the army, just as it had done in the above-described case of addressing widespread ignorance among soldiers about the purposes of the war. In 1943 Frank Capra made a film titled The Negro Soldier, based, in part, on Research Branch survey data. It ritualistically celebrated a historic honor roll of black Americans who had valiantly served their country, from Crispus Attucks to the black Wacs who repaired jeeps and trucks. Capra's film was careful to mention neither slavery nor military segregation, but attempted to instill pride and solidarity in black troops through emotional identification with "the tree of liberty" and "this great country." The Research Branch also put its findings to good use in publications like Command of Negro Troops and Leadership and the Negro Soldier.