What is the central conflict in "Battle Royal"?
The central conflict in "Battle Royal" is between the narrator's desire for what he (in a slip of the tongue) calls "social equality," or an equal chance for success in society, and the desire of white men to uphold the existing social order by humiliating and subordinating young, black men as an inferior group. In this scene, black men are forced to do what the white men want, such as brutally box with each other, look at a scantily clad white woman (an act kind of behavior that in other contexts could provoke a lynching), and then as a "reward" dive onto a rug where coins and bills have been scattered. They do so only to find the rug is electrified and they are shocked as they scramble for the money. This amuses the white men—and after the fact the black men learn that the gold coins they scrambled for are worthless brass pieces. All of this reinforces the idea that white men own all the resources and hold all the cards. It appears that to get ahead at all, the narrator must accept humiliation and pretend to be submissive, which conflicts with his natural desire to be treated with dignity and equality.
The major structural development in the story is that of black against white. The other is the outright contempt and mistreatment of the black boys by the white spectators. There is also a broader conflict between oppressor and oppressed, for the white dancer might be included as one of the exploited. When she is tossed in the air it is clear that she, too, is being dehumanized, just like the boys (paragraph 9). In addition, Ellison brings out the conflict of ordinary male adolescent intimidation, for the boys by no means present an organized and unified front. The larger boy, Tatlock, dramatizes his contempt for the narrator both with words and fists (paragraphs 27-37). We may conclude that Tatlock embodies the hostility and jealousy that the less intelligent often exhibit toward the more intelligent.