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Neil Wynn, ‘Race War’: Black American GIs and West Indians in Britain During The Second World War’

The article, Race War’: Black American GIs and West Indians in Britain During The Second World War by Neil Wynn, shows how the racial prejudices portrayed by the British and American troops were more closely aligned than the British cared to admit. This article draws an interesting comparison between how African Americans soldiers were highly perceived by the broader British public, compared to the hostility which was usually shown towards the black ethno-groups from the British colonies.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Wynn either. He makes the point that America was often considered the epitome of freedom, which was their main motivation for joining the war – to squash the ideals of Nazism and their beliefs of racial purity – despite the openly racial prejudices and laws imposed by the United States on their own citizens such as the Jim Crow Laws, heavily enforced throughout the southern states. The segregationist attitudes were also prevalent within the army which the British vocally opposed. This led to the British government to allow for the Americans to police their own troops, whether in the barracks or out in the cities and impose segregationist laws where they saw fit.

Interestingly, the Jim Crow Laws began to be low key instilled throughout wider British society, particularly areas with high US military presence. This was noted in Bristol for example, where pubs would begin to only serve whites and poorer areas only serving blacks. Even when white American soldiers entered a pub, they demanded any blacks to vacate. This illustrates how rife racism was throughout Britain that they were able to conform with American laws within a matter of months, pushing black British citizens further down the social hierarchy, allowing for the white Americans to be treated equal to the white Brits purely because of skin colour.

The author notes that the racism was not all one-sided, however. He uses anecdotes from West Indians who recount frequently being called derogatory terms with someone saying, ‘Show me a black serviceman who claimed not to have encountered any prejudice in the UK during the War and I’ll show you a liar!’. A common hatred both American and British army shared was their disdain for blacks mixing with white women, which was often met with confrontation of sorts.

Wynn mentions that the experience of travelling to other countries benefited African Americans during the post-war. For example, the beginning of desegregation of the US armed forces and civil services from 1948 onwards. He even goes to mention that with the rising expectations of black Americans, helped lay the foundations of the civil rights revolts which happened soon after.

This article was interesting as it highlights how easily assimilated the white Americans became when integrating within British society and culture. It also highlights how easily influenced some parts of the UK were to establish local policies, like that of the Jim Crow Laws. However, it discusses already known facts such as how racist both the US and Britain were and how similar they were regarding culture. The article makes good use of anecdotes from ordinary British citizens as well as from those in the military to show how casually accepted racism had become.


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