The Effect of World War II on the
Study of Racial Prejudice
Historian Robin D. G. Kelley has noted, “When thinking about the Jim Crow South, we need always to keep in mind that African Americans … did not experience a liberal democracy. They lived and struggled in a world that resembled, at least from their vantage point, a fascist or, more appropriately, a colonial situation.”1 In this context, African Americans experienced America’s entry into World War II in a profoundly different way from white Americans. For African Americans living under Jim Crow in the American South, the call to fight for “freedom” was something of a joke, since they did not experience freedom at home.
The call to arms, therefore, met with ambivalence at best, hostility at worst, among African Americans in the 1940s. African Americans who did want to join the war effort were frustrated by the segregation of the armed forces and blatant racial discrimination in the defense industries. Using wartime propaganda of freedom to their advantage, African Americans began demanding that the United States live up to its promises of equality and democracy. African Americans’ attitudes about the war presented problems for a government that needed to unite the country, including African Americans, behind the war effort.2 Social scientists were uniquely situated to help the government in this task.
By the end of the 1930s, most social scientists were convinced that the races were, scientifically speaking, equal. Additionally, social scientists were increasingly convinced that race prejudice was an irrational attitude that had no firm basis in reality but grew out of stereotyped thinking. During World War II, these social-scientific themes would take on wartime urgency, and afterward, race prejudice would be considered dangerous and undemocratic rather than merely irrational. This shift was possible because social scientists expressly linked racial egalitarianism to