The real history of race and the New Deal

Material benefits trumped FDR's terrible civil rights records

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A quick preliminary: People sometimes ask me to explain why American mass transit construction costs are too high. I mostly need to tell them that I don’t know. The good news is that a few funders have gotten interested enough in this to give money to Eric Goldwyn and Alon Levy to study it. I moderated a virtual event yesterday presenting their preliminary findings.

You can also read their full case study of the Green Line Extension project in Boston.

I’m going to write more about this later but wanted to flag the raw material today.

Our main topic, though, is going to be how Democrats overlearned some points about racial discrimination in the administration of New Deal economic programs. This discrimination was a real thing, and a real problem, and it’s good to learn the history of it. But the big picture is that New Deal economic programs were so good for lifting African-American living standards that they broke Black voters’ historic loyalty to the Republican Party even though Republicans were, at the time, still clearly the more progressive party on civil rights and racial justice issues.

Obama thinks the New Deal was bad for Black People

Here’s Barack Obama speaking to Jonathan Chait about FDR:

The New Deal itself was a hodgepodge of efforts — some of which were really significant and some of which have taken on a great symbolism in our minds but were actually pretty modest. And even the huge victories like Social Security, if you were a Black domestic worker in Birmingham, Alabama, or in Atlanta, Georgia, Social Security didn’t mean much to you. And if you had been a socialist or leftist or just somebody who wanted social justice back in the ’30s, you’d be pretty angry about Social Security because it left out huge numbers of people, deliberately, to placate racist Dixiecrats, right? Sometimes we forget that these political constraints have always operated. That’d be one thing.

Obama is making two different arguments here, one of which I wholeheartedly endorse. Many of Obama’s critics on the left say that FDR was a good president. But if you take the standard those critics apply to Obama and apply it to FDR instead, then FDR looks really bad.

  • FDR signed inadequate bills because that’s what could get through congress, and then claimed those bills as enormous triumphs.

  • FDR acquiesced to political expediency with regard to racial justice issues rather than doing the right thing.

  • FDR engaged in massive human rights abuses related to Japanese internment that nobody defends today.

  • FDR made serious errors of political and policy judgment, such as the 1937 pivot to austerity, that inflicted serious harm on people relative to what an optimal course of action would have been.

Most negative things you could say about Obama from a progressive point of view fit comfortably into those buckets. So if FDR gets a pass then Obama feels he deserves one too. I think maybe a better lesson would be that people overly idealize past presidents and have a more realistic sense of the pros and cons of more recent ones. Either way, though, I agree with Obama that by any fair reckoning he’s not so different from any other good president — he bowed to political realities, he made some errors, but he also accomplished some important things.

But Obama is also alluding to a specific claim about race and the New Deal. It’s a claim that carries some truth but that I think a lot of contemporary progressives have taken too far.

When affirmative action was white

In 2005, the historian Ira Katznelson published a book titled When Affirmative Action Was White that has been very influential in how contemporary Democrats assess the New Deal and the Fair Deal. These programs were enacted during the Jim Crow era by a Democratic Party that included arch-segregationists in its coalition, so they reflected Jim Crow values. Katznelson told the story of how elements of racial exclusion were baked into these programs, and conceptualized them as a kind of “affirmative action for white people” — emphasizing that African-American relative deprivation was not just an abstract legacy of the past, but a concrete artifact of previous steps taken by the federal government.

These days you see a lot of work done based on the HOLC maps that included the infamous “red lines” but the set of discriminatory programs was much broader than the one housing undertaking.

By the same token, in the postwar years these programs were important in constituting a new form of solidaristic whiteness. One of my grandfathers was Cuban-American and the other was Jewish, and both had the misfortune to encounter plenty of racist people and bigoted attitudes over the course of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. But unlike the Black men of their age, they were entitled to equal treatment with their WASP peers in terms of the actual operation of government programs. They were “white enough” and that’s worth a lot.

Katznelson’s book is good, I’m glad that I read it, and if you haven’t you should consider reading it too.

That said, his nuanced and thoughtful book has often gotten boiled down into a bullet point — Matt Zeitlin calls it “Vulgar Katznelsonism” — that’s like The New Deal Left Out Black People which Obama seems to be invoking here and which stands history on its head.

Oscar Stanton De Priest vs Arthur Mitchell

During Reconstruction there were Black members of congress elected from the former Confederate states before a campaign of terrorist violence succeeded in establishing one party white rule.

George Henry White of North Carolina was the last member from this era to serve in Washington, leaving after the 1900 election.

But in the early 20th century there was an enfranchised African-American community in the state of Illinois that was well-incorporated into the state Republican Party, complete with Black GOP elected and appointed officials at various levels around the state. That included Oscar Stanton De Priest, born in 1871 in Alabama, and serving on the Cook County Board of Commissioners from 1904-1908 and the Chicago City Council from 1915-1917. He lost his City Council seat after a corruption indictment, but was acquitted at trial. And in 1928 the Chicago GOP machine put him up as their candidate for the 1st Congressional District and he won, becoming the only African-American to serve in congress.

There, as you might imagine, he got embroiled in various civil rights controversies starting with First Lady Lou Hoover inviting his wife to a tea for congressional wives. He championed anti-lynching legislation, the right of Howard students to eat in the public section of the House cafeteria, and otherwise did his best for racial equality during a very difficult political period for the cause. He was also a loyal Republican and when Franklin Roosevelt became president he mostly opposed New Deal legislation. In the 1934 midterms he was defeated by Arthur W. Mitchell, who became the first Black Democrat to serve in congress.

Vulgar Katznelsonism has trouble making sense of what could possibly have happened there in Chicago in 1934.

Racial Realignment

Another historian, Eric Schickler, published a book in 2016 titled Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932–1965 that helps explain this. Everyone knows that the GOP used to be the Party of Lincoln but that LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act and this touched off a realignment of partisanship in the South. Schickler’s point is that to understand how it managed to be the case that LBJ found himself signing the Civil Rights Act, you need to understand that much of the realignment happened before the law was passed and in fact goes all the way back to the New Deal.

And indeed it goes back to Mitchell who earlier in his life worked for Booker T. Washington and was a footsoldier in the Illinois GOP apparatus.

After Roosevelt’s election he was attracted by FDR’s support for relief programs for the poor and switched parties. Mitchell ran against de Priest as a Democrat and won:

The congressional campaign between Mitchell and Oscar De Priest garnered national attention because both the challenger and the incumbent were African American (De Priest faced white Democratic opponents in three previous general elections). Mitchell turned the contest against the venerable Republican Representative into a referendum on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public–relief policies. Capitalizing on growing support for the New Deal, Mitchell orchestrated an aggressive campaign that forced De Priest to defend the Republican Party, whose influence was waning locally, in part due to Chicago’s Democratic Mayor, Edward J. Kelly, who actively courted African–American voters.

Mitchell himself emphasized economic issues, underscoring that his plan was to replace an anti-FDR vote with a pro-FDR vote and bring concrete material relief to his constituents: “I don’t plan to spend my time fighting out the question of whether a Negro may eat his lunch at the Capitol or whether he may be shaved in the House barber shop,” he said. And then again shortly after taking office: “What I am interested in is to help this grand President of ours feed the hungry and clothe the naked and provide work for the idle of every race and creed.”

Now of course Mitchell also inevitably ended up being a civil rights advocate, pushing for better treatment of Black soldiers and federal employees, sponsoring anti-lynching legislation, and being involved as a plaintiff in a landmark civil rights lawsuit regarded segregated accommodations on interstate passenger trains.

Schickler’s argument is that Mitchell’s personal trajectory was fairly typical. Black Americans started voting for the Democratic Party because FDR’s economic policies were good for them, even though his civil rights policies were rotten. Then once they were there inside the Democratic Party coalition they ended up pushing the party toward racial liberalism. But the switch was driven by economics, which of course would not make sense on the theory that the New Deal was a crypto-racist undertaking.

The New Deal was good

On its face it seems like we should believe Mitchell and his constituents about this. After all, it seems undisputed that most African-Americans backed Roosevelt for reelection and Herbert Hoover was the last Republican to win a majority of the Black vote. But FDR’s record on civil rights was not good. It’s not just that he made compromises with segregationists in congress — everyone did that, including De Priest and Mitchell, they were just too powerful to ignore. He refused to endorse anti-lynching legislation, in contrast to past GOP presidents like Warren Harding who’d done so despite the legislative futility.

But African-Americans voted for him because they liked his economic agenda.

For example, while it’s true that the Social Security Act’s non-coverage of domestic workers did leave out a lot of Black people, it appears to not be true that this was deliberate racial discrimination. You can see a detailed discussion of the question on the Social Security Administration’s website but to make a long story short there is pretty clear evidence that Southern segregationists’ concerns about the Social Security Act didn’t relate to the old age pensions at all. The decision to restrict eligibility came at the behest of Treasury Department officials who didn’t think it would be feasible to collect payroll taxes from domestic workers. That the eligibility expansions came in 1950 and 1954 when segregationists still controlled congress but after the wartime enhancement of the federal government’s administrative capacity further bolsters the case that this was never about race.

By contrast the racial segregation in the Civilian Conservative Corps clearly was about race. But the fact that FDR’s work relief programs were segregated underscores the fact that African-Americans benefitted from the programs — they fought for and failed to obtain equal treatment, but they were better off with the programs than without them. Better off with Mitchell in congress rather than De Priest.

And as Harold Ickes became more prominent in the administration this intensified:

The WPA was arguably the most popular and important New Deal program of the 1930s, and it was vital for African Americans. By 1939, there were about 425,000 Black relief workers employed by the WPA – one-seventh of the WPA workforce and a higher percentage of African Americans than in the overall U.S. labor force [21].  This included skilled jobs and fair wages; when a complaint was voiced by a white critic that African Americans earned more on WPA jobs than they were offered by private employers, Ellen Woodward, head of the WPA’s Women’s and Professional Projects division, responded, “Government isn’t justified in paying people starvation wages because they only got that much before.”

Furthermore, the WPA, PWA and other New Deal public works programs made special efforts to focus on disadvantaged black communities, providing health clinics, hospitals and  immunizations; new schools, college buildings, and special courses; and recreation facilities, staff and programs. The Bankhead-Jones Act of 1937 assisted black tenant farmers in purchasing their own land. 

New Deal public works such as parks and recreation facilities were meant to be open to all Americans, regardless of race. The eleven WPA-built municipal swimming pools in New York City are a famous instance of such integration, in a context where race mixing was previously unheard of]. At the same time, Secretary of Interior Ickes desegregated the cafeteria and offices in his department and the practice spread throughout the federal bureaucracy during the 1930s. Overall, the employment of African Americans in federal line agencies tripled.

All this history stuff is of more than academic interest because it illustrates something contemporary Democrats sometimes seem to me to forget namely that basic economics has been the traditional center of the party’s pitch to non-white voters. It’s Republicans who, starting with Goldwater, use racial issues to win white votes.

Unfortunately, the current structure of the Democratic Party tends to discourage this old time wisdom.

Operational silos make bad politics

One issue is that addressing racial equity explicitly has become a very high prestige undertaking internal to the operations of progressive spaces.

But the other issue is that people operate inside institutional silos. Many more Hispanic voters say education as a very important issue to them than say that immigration is. But you have people in specialized “Latino Politics” roles, and they want to bring something distinctive to the table which encourages more focus on immigration. Otherwise you’re really just saying “everyone cares about schools” and there’s nothing all that special about your silo.

In my piece “The Racial Wealth Gap is a Class Gap,” I argued that Democrats had gone down a conceptual dead end by reconceptualizing a basic distributive problem as a racial one.

This analysis is perhaps gaining some steam. Wednesday morning, Vanessa Williamson at Brookings published a policy brief titled “Closing the racial wealth gap requires heavy, progressive taxation of wealth.”

But any program to close to racial wealth gap must grapple with the reality of wealth concentration in contemporary America. The 400 richest American billionaires have more total wealth than all 10 million Black Americans combined. Black households have about 3% of all household wealth, while the 400 wealthiest billionaires have 3.5% of all household wealth in the United States. Because wealth in the United States is so highly concentrated, and because the wealthiest Americans are almost exclusively white, the racial wealth gap is also concentrated among the wealthiest families. Indeed, if the wealth gap were completely eliminated for all but the richest 10% of households, the total racial wealth gap would still be more than $8 trillion, 80% of the total wealth gap that exists today.

Any plan to eliminate the total racial wealth gap requires, in addition to a transformative national investment in Black households and communities, a program of heavy and highly progressive taxation aimed at the very wealthiest Americans. A comprehensive agenda to close the racial wealth gap would likely include reforms to income and estate taxation, plus new taxes on wealth and inheritance, buttressed by a substantial investment in enforcement.

There’s room for reasonable disagreement about the mechanics here. But the broad point is clearly right — the solution here is broad redistribution, just as FDR’s poor relief schemes closed the racial income gap in 1930s Chicago.

Jamelle Bouie did a post-election roundup highlighting the significance of Trump’s signature on relief checks to his gains with Black and Hispanic voters. On The Weeds, Karl Smith more emphasized the strong pre-pandemic recovery and the way that was particularly beneficial to Black and Hispanic workers. I don’t know exactly how we’d apportion between those two theories, but they point in the same direction — Trump’s association with generic improved material conditions outweighed both his often-racist behavior and Democrats greatly increased emphasis on centering anti-racism in politics. That’s exactly how Mitchell won, it’s the real story of race and the New Deal, and it should be something of a cautionary tale for Democrats going forward.