Civil Rights Advocacy and Unsupportive White Attitudes: Lessons from World War II

By Steven White


Civil rights advocates frequently work in the context of unfavorable public opinion among white Americans. For example, attitudes towards the Black Lives Matter movement remain strikingly racially polarized, with whites generally much less supportive of the movement than African Americans, even in the presence of video evidence of police misconduct. Such attitudes can be difficult to change. What, then, does it take to radically alter white racial attitudes? And what might civil rights advocates do if negative white attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement remain unchanged?


In my recent article, I offer a more critical examination of an era when many assume white racial attitudes underwent significant transformation: World War II. While it is often assumed that the war against Nazi Germany led many white Americans to rethink domestic racial politics, I demonstrate that white Americans’ racial policy attitudes did not liberalize during the war. Wartime civil rights rights advocacy strategically turned to the possibility of unilateral executive action, as well as litigation in the federal courts. If white attitudes remain unsupportive, the Black Lives Matter movement might find itself in a similar situation today.

In the context of America’s fight against Nazi Germany, civil rights advocates led a Double-V campaign calling for victory abroad and at home. Many white liberals adopted similar language. In the aftermath of the Detroit race riot, for instance, an editorial in The Nation declared bluntly, “We cannot fight fascism abroad while turning a blind eye to fascism at home. We cannot inscribe our banner ‘For democracy and a caste system.’” Perhaps the most famous white author drawing a link between the war and racial liberalism was Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. In his 1944 book An American Dilemma, Myrdal declared that there was “bound to be a redefinition of the Negro’s status in America as a result of this War.” Myrdal’s legacy remains influential. Many political scientists today tend to take for granted the assumption that World War II had a liberalizing effect on white attitudes.

 In my article, I assess the extent to which this wartime racial liberalization hypothesis is consistent with the available empirical evidence. I ask two questions. First, did World War II actually coincide with increases in aggregate white racial liberalism? Second, were white veterans of the war liberalized relative to their non-veteran counterparts? To answer these questions, I turned to public opinion surveys from the era to offer a better empirical assessment. Although these surveys are not ideal by modern standards, weighting techniques allow researchers to correct for their known biases as much as possible. Even with their imperfections, they offer the best possible tool for assessing mass attitudes in this era.

To answer whether World War II actually coincided with increases in aggregate white racial liberalism, I look at measures of both racial prejudice and public policy preferences. There is some evidence that white racial prejudice began to decrease during the war, particularly in its more extreme forms. By the war’s end, whites became more likely to say African Americans should have the same chance at a job (38 to 45 percent), that black people were as intelligent as white people (45 to 54 percent), and that black blood was biologically the same as white blood (31 to 40 percent). While the blood question might sound strange to contemporary ears, it was actually an important issue during the war, as the Red Cross stored black donations separately from white donations, even in the war against Nazism.

However, when I looked at public policy preferences I found no support for the racial liberalization hypothesis. If anything, white opposition to federal antilynching legislation seems to have increased during the war. By the late 1940s, white opposition to antilynching legislation finally became majority opinion, and in the white South opposition stood at 71 percent. Trends in attitudes towards abolishing the poll tax were largely flat – the war did not seem to have a significant effect. On these tougher issues of public policy – questions of what the government should do about racial inequities – the wartime racial liberalization hypothesis is not empirically supported.

But what about white veterans? Although World War II was fought with a segregated military, perhaps there was sufficient contact between white and black soldiers to shift white attitudes. Alternately, perhaps these white men, who served during the “impressionable years” of their late teens and early twenties, were simply exposed to more egalitarian ideals abroad. On many issues, however, white veteran were not distinguishable from their civilian counterparts. They did not express less racial prejudice and they were no less committed to segregation, both in the military and on the home front. The fact that white veterans were not more likely to support integrating the military is a particularly striking non-result. There were, however, two interesting exceptions: White veterans were more supportive of federal intervention in state lynching cases in the war’s immediate aftermath, and those in the South offered stronger support for voting rights by the early 1960s.

Overall, the wartime liberalization argument, at least with respect to public policy issues, is inconsistent with the available empirical evidence, although there is some evidence of limited moderation among veterans. The Myrdalian account is perhaps better seen as a primary source representing the expectations of certain white racial liberals than as an empirical study of white attitudes. Many white Americans were indeed able to support a war against Nazism without rethinking the domestic racial status quo.

These findings offer an empirical corrective, but also provide important contextual background for understanding why civil rights politics in this era played out in the venues that it did. As I describe in a book manuscript building on this article, the lack of white attitudinal change makes congressional inaction on civil rights policies unsurprising. Many of the most important civil rights advances in the 1940s would come in the form of executive orders, as advocates turned to the possibility of unilateral executive action as a way of sidestepping white opposition. Pressured by advocates like A. Philip Randolph and Walter White, FDR issued an executive order combatting discrimination in the defense industry, and in the war’s aftermath Truman issued an executive order that would lead to the gradual integration of the armed forces. The federal courts would also prove an important resource for the movement. The 1944 Smith v. Allwright ruling outlawed the whites-only Democratic primary in the Deep South, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared school segregation unconstitutional.

Today, as the Black Lives Matter movement begins to make concrete political demands and move into the more formal political realm, strategy questions inevitably emerge. Of course, demographic change since the 1940s has created a more favorable attitudinal terrain for civil rights advocates. But if white attitudes remain unsupportive, movement strategists might find themselves turning to political avenues less constrained by majoritarian sentiments, like the executive branch and the judiciary, in order to meet their goals, and overcome negative public perceptions.

However, the election of Donald Trump complicates this. While a Clinton administration might have been a plausible site for civil rights advocacy, this will likely not be true of the Trump administration. Given a newly unfavorable executive branch climate, civil rights advocates might instead continue to invest in social media activism, where users effectively draw media attention to police brutality, or turn to organizing at the state level, to set the groundwork for a more positive executive branch response under a future president.

Steven White is currently a visiting assistant professor at Lafayette College. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. He is currently finishing a book manuscript on World War II and American racial politics.

One thought on “Civil Rights Advocacy and Unsupportive White Attitudes: Lessons from World War II

  1. You have to understand that many White people get their impressions of Black people from the local news. In many (most?) large cities that news includes a significant amount of footage showing African Americans being arrested, tried, or sought for a variety of crimes. In addition, many African Americans are openly contemptuous of White people. Economic problems are certainly behind this behavior, but years of Affirmative Action hasn’t changed things for many Black communities. This may be why many White
    people do not whole-heartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s