Book Review: The End of Empires


The End of Empires: African Americans and India

By Gerald Horne

Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2008.

Gerald Horne's most recent book, The End of Empires: African Americans and India, tells a neglected story of racism, war and international solidarity. Horne outlines the mutually beneficial self-interest between African Americans and Indians in the struggle against racism, and how this self-interest not only spanned the oceans, but blossomed through the course of World War II and paved the way for both the Civil Rights Movement and the Indian Independence Movement.

Horne takes us back in time; he outlines the upsurge of the Asiatic Exclusion League on the West-Coast and its fear of an 'Asiatic Menace.' According to Horne, '...South Asians were described in terms eerily reminiscent of how African Americans were portrayed.' Horne continues: Politicians...sincerely interested in keeping their jobs could not easily ignore such anti-Asian sentiment.' In fact, the Governor of California had this to say: 'the the most undesirable immigrant in the state. His lack of personal cleanliness, his low morals and his blind adherence to theories and teachings [so] entirely repugnant to American principles makes him unfit for association with American people.

West Coast trade unions got into the racist fray also. The Portland Trades and Labor Assembly and the Seattle, Denver and San Francisco Central Labor Councils and Building Trades Councils, with a combined membership representing hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, 'endorsed and subscribed to The White Man,' a publication 'devoted to the movement for the exclusion of Asiatics.' At stake were jobs. In fact, race riots broke out all over the West Coast, 'caused by the employment of Hindoos at a wage far below what is required by a white man to support himself, let alone support a family,' said white supremacists. Of course, African Americans were already excluded from most good paying, union jobs.

As racist community organizations, politicians and trade unions closed ranks against South Asians, the African American community began to view India and her people as natural allies. In fact, the NAACP's Crisis newspaper, welcomed correspondence from Indian leaders; one of whom had this to say about his trip to America: 'During my visit...I have seen many evidences of blind race and color prejudice of the worst possible kind...something for which even I was not prepared.' Since most Indians experienced racism in their home land – from British colonizers and from the centuries-old caste system – this was no insignificant observation.

As The Crisis began to correspond with and publish articles from Indian authors, Indian newspapers began to report on US racism. The Swarajya, published in Madras, wrote that 'the whites cannot bring themselves to treat them [African Americans] as equals.' And L.L. Rai, a comrade of W.E.B. Du Bois, in his newspaper, The People, said, 'Modern America seems to have gone almost mad in its advocacy of the cult of the Nordic Race,' noting that the 'Negro Race especially is made fun of on every possible occasion. Either the Negro is servile in his attachment to the white man, or else he [is] treacherous and cunning and wicked.' Consequently, African American and Indian publications on both continents brought attention to each others plight and laid the groundwork for future cooperation and movement-building. In other words they laid the base for international solidarity.

As World War II broke-out, Great Britain and the United States were faced with a dilemma: either change their racist policies towards people of color, i.e. colonialism and Jim Crow, or face revolt – at home, in the colonies, and at the front. According to Horne, 'London and Washington were wary of the presumed affection of Black America and India for Japan – and their concomitant hostility toward the British empire.' Another problem for London and Washington' was that a socialist (A. Philip Randolph) and a presumed communist (Paul Robeson) – both of whom were uncompromising in their backing of Indian independence – were widely viewed as being part of the mainstream of Black America.' The fact that 'India was beginning to recognize that one of its most strategically-sited allies was Black America' made the hypocrisy felt by both African American and Indian soldiers on the front-lines of war that much more unbearable.

Horne's book unfolds with insight and skill. In The End of Empire the emperor has no cloths, as British colonialism and US Racism are laid bare. I have touched on only a few of the insights that The End of Empire has to offer. Needless to say, Horne's new book is another great work by one of today's most prolific and respected historians.

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