It seems as if Steinbeck is making the statement that economic class might have trumped the issue of race in the 1930s. The overwhelming economic crisis that forced migrant workers to seek work was a condition that seemed to undercut all. In terms of Crooks' predicament, he was challenged by both race and class, as the constant competition for work was class based, but his isolation from others and lack of social solidarity was caused by racial prejudice. Certainly, I think that Steinbeck would suggest that both factors seem to converge and work with one another in keeping individuals locked into socially stratified roles. However, the overriding sentiment featured in the work is that many people were placed in difficult conditions of economic reality for it is this aspect of their consciousness which causes them to have to compete for jobs and material prosperity. For African- Americans in this time period, the issue of race was another challenge sedimented upon the issue of class discrimination.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the setting of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Jim Crow Laws were existant in the South. These laws deprived African-Americans of many job opportunities; disinfranchisement was also in existence, while public buildings and parks, restaurants, and churches were segregated. Anti-miscegenation laws were in effect; it was not until 1948 that California repealed their law regarding miscegenation.
In Steinbeck's novella, Crooks, the stabler who is black, is segregated from the other men and not allowed into the ranch house. Instead, he is isolated from the white men and made to live in the barn with the mules. However, he tells Lennie that he is not a Southern negro who grew up under Jim Crow; instead, his father had a chicken ranch of nearly ten acres. He even played with white children as a child, but now
there ain't a colored man on this ranch an' there's jus' one fmaily in Soledad.
The most alienated of the men on another man's ranch, he tells Lennie,
A guy needs somebody--to be near him....A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody.
When Curley's wife appears, Crooks tells her,
Maybe you better go along to your own house now. We don't want no trouble.
But, because he is black, he retires into the "terrible protective dignity of the negro" and becomes quiet as Candy scolds her. However, Crooks does tell her that she has no right to come into a "colored man's room...and messing around." However, he is threatened by Curley's wife when she hears him say that he might ask the boss to prohibit her from coming around:
'Listen, Nigger,' she said. 'You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?'
Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and drew into himself.
She closed on him. 'You know what I could do?'
Crooks seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall. 'Yes, ma'am.'
'Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny.'
Crooks had reduced himself to nothing. There was no personality, no ego--nothing to arouse either like or dislike. He said, 'Yes, ma'am,' and his voice was toneless. [He acts according to Jim Crow]
For a moment she stood over him as though waiting for him to move so that she could whip at him again, but Crooks sat perfectly still, his eyes averted, everything that might be hurt drawn in. She turned at last to the other two.
Clearly, Crooks assumes a position of submission after Curley's wife turns upon him. For, he has no rights, no room in which to express any opinion, no edge over even Curley's wife; he must be submissive out of fear of reprisals. After all, this is the behavior expected of a black in the 1930s. Indeed, Crooks is the most tragic of all the men, isolated completely, ridiculed, and slighted.
According to the Constitution, African Americans were equal to white people in the 1930s. The Civil War Amendments gave them the right to vote and the right to the equal protection of the laws.
In reality, blacks didn't have as many rights as whites, especially in the South. In the South, there was the Jim Crow system of segregation. The Supreme Court would not say that segregation was illegal until 1954 (and that was just in schools). Blacks would not have the right to be treated equally in restaurants, bus stations, etc until 1964.
In addition, African Americans' right to vote was not really enforced in the South. A variety of legal tricks were used to prevent them from voting even though the Constitution gave them the right to do so.
So blacks in the 1930s did not have very many rights that were actually enforced, especially in the South.