Since I not too long ago had the pleasure of overhearing toxic racist conversation about government moochers from a beloved relative, I’d like to take a moment to look at two thinkpieces on one of the most substantial and impactful USA federal affirmative action programs for white people in the 20th century.
If this post makes you interested in pondering the flipside, I recommend looking into the phrase ’40 acres and a mule’.
Today, we’ll be looking at a couple of writeups about FDR’s New Deal.
First, a disinterested political commentator’s biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in two-word (or less) sentences:
As I understand it, FDR has historically been considered the ultimate ‘good liberal’ president of the 20th century.
To hear certain people tell it, FDR was the sweet and lovely dude who established and fought for Good Liberal Values, rescued the country from the Great Depression, and is responsible for the existence of such bedrocks of modern society as Social Security, government insurance for bank accounts, and afaict the institutional attitude that the federal government has a right to regulate private businesses as regards their externalities.
Which leads to the existence of this piece from the Cato Institute on the anti-Black impact of FDR’s flagship collection of social and economic programs, which are collectively known as the New Deal. Because even a think tank founded by the Koch Brothers is capable of pointing out institutional racism when they are so moved.
Doing a running commentary on the piece:
[M]ounting evidence, developed by dozens of economists across the country, shows that the New Deal prolonged joblessness for millions, and black people were especially hard hit.
Hmm, but economists referenced by the Cato Institute tend to be lying liars. Continue.
The Wagner Act (1935) harmed blacks by making labor union monopolies legal. Economists Thomas E. Hall and J. David Ferguson explained: “By encouraging unionization, the Wagner Act raised the number of insiders (those with jobs) who had the incentive and ability to exclude outsiders (those without jobs). Once high wages have been negotiated, employers are less likely to hire outsiders, and thus the insiders could protect their own interest.”
By giving labor unions the monopoly power to exclusively represent employees in a workplace, the Wagner Act had the effect of excluding blacks, since the dominant unions discriminated against blacks.
An interesting critique of unions. Those bastions of liberal values of the 20th century? I’m sure that they’re being misrepresented.
The Wagner Act had originally been drafted with a provision prohibiting racial discrimination. But the American Federation of Labor successfully lobbied against it, and it was dropped.
…Well then. That sounds quite damning.
I do rather despise a lack of sourcing for claims, but I will give some slight leeway that this article is based on an interview of two authors of a history book on the Great Depression, and the article was originally published in 2003.
And now, a crash course in information literacy, documenting my process of verifying whether or not the above claim is accurate.
My search terms started with ‘wagner act’ and ‘wagner act racism lobbying american federation of labor’.
I then looked up the book by the authors and glanced at the Amazon.com reviews for claims of fake facts. The reviews are relatively negative, but at a glance, the negative reviews appear to be mostly academic whinging about the crafting and narrative of the book, rather than accusations of falsehoods in its reporting.
A search of the Wikipedia page for the National Labor Relations Act (the formal name of the Wagner Act) finds no mention of ‘race’ or ‘black’.
(By the way – that sentence you just read? That’s the incriminating tell.)
From the Wikipedia page from the American Federation of Labor, under the section “Historical Problems”, in the subsection “Racism”:
During its first years, the AFL admitted nearly anyone.
Really! Nearly anyone!
Gompers opened the AFL to radical and socialist workers and to some semiskilled and unskilled workers. Women, African Americans, and immigrants joined in small numbers. But by the 1890s, the Federation had begun to organize only skilled workers in craft unions and became an organization of mostly white men. Although the Federation preached a policy of egalitarianism in regard to African American workers, it actively discriminated against black workers. The AFL sanctioned the maintenance of segregated locals within its affiliates—particularly in the construction and railroad industries—a practice which often excluded black workers altogether from union membership and thus from employment in organized industries.
This doesn’t look good for you, American Federation of Labor.
In 1901, the AFL lobbied Congress to reauthorize the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and issued a pamphlet entitled “Some reasons for Chinese exclusion. Which shall survive?” The AFL also began one of the first organized labor boycotts when they began putting white stickers on the cigars made by unionized white cigar rollers while simultaneously discouraging consumers from purchasing cigars rolled by Chinese workers.
Oof. That’s nasty stuff.
Ok, but then, about the Wagner Act…
That’s the entire history of racism in the American Federation of Labor worth knowing about, according to the organization’s Wikipedia page.
At least, the narrative ends in their actively racist lobbying efforts in 1901, left aside until the American Federation of Labor merged with another group of unions in 1955 to become the biggest federation of unions in the USA. Like, the one that’s still the biggest one today. That’s the AFL-CIO.
You have heard about them in terms of ‘the unions’ endorsing a candidate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary?
That’s their group.
I’ll close with the discovered thesis of a research project, published on the official website of Social Security – yes, that Social Security – regarding racism in the New Deal:
The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded from coverage about half the workers in the American economy. Among the excluded groups were agricultural and domestic workers—a large percentage of whom were African Americans. This has led some scholars to conclude that policymakers in 1935 deliberately excluded African Americans from the Social Security system because of prevailing racial biases during that period. This article examines both the logic of this thesis and the available empirical evidence on the origins of the coverage exclusions. The author concludes that the racial-bias thesis is both conceptually flawed and unsupported by the existing empirical evidence. The exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from the early program was due to considerations of administrative feasibility involving tax-collection procedures. The author finds no evidence of any other policy motive involving racial bias.
So the answer to the economically isolated and racially subjugated Black folk of the Great Depression is that they were too economically isolated by their racial subjugation to be helped.
Nothing to be done.
Nothing to see. Move along.
Well, that is all a good enough answer to my initial question for my taste.
Did you find it satisfactory, reader?
Because a person of a certain political persuasion, and generally a certain privileged lightness of skin, might vocally object to the above analysis.
Those dirty, deceitful Koch brothers! They just want to undermine Black support for Democrats and social programs! How dare I besmirch the good name of a disabled president who fought for the proletariat with the rhetorical trickery of those who seek corporate oligarchy and the expansion of wage slavery!
And, honestly, in terms of the argument that lies underneath however much bullshit they bring to the table, I agree.
I find what FDR’s modern vanguard has to say on the subject far more telling.
This is the first and best line of defense that the institute “[i]nspired by the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor” gives in this response to concerns and anger about anti-Blackness in the New Deal:
“Judged from the standards of today, of course, there is much we can criticize about the New Deal/Roosevelt era. It did not bring to an end the tremendous injustices that African Americans had to suffer on a day-to-day basis, and some of its activities, such as the work of the Federal Housing Administration, served to build rather than break down the walls of segregation that separated black from white in Jim Crow America. Yet as Mary McLeod Bethune once noted, the Roosevelt era represented “the first time in their history” that African Americans felt that they could communicate their grievances to their government with the “expectancy of sympathetic understanding and interpretation.” Indeed, it was during the New Deal, that the silent, invisible hand of racism was fully exposed as a national issue; as a problem that at the very least needed to be recognized; as something the county could no longer pretend did not exist. ”
Let’s take a moment to sit with this:
The very best defense that the Roosevelt Institute can provide for its namesake president’s actions is to first acknowledge he not just failed to challenge, but directly aided and abetted, some seriously anti-Black and racist shit. (Further down in the piece: “FDR had to choose his battles carefully and at times appears timorous in the face of racial injustice – especially when viewed from today.”)
Then, after acknowledging that the dude who was responsible for the forced internment of people of Japanese descent during WWII wasn’t exactly a fierce fighter for racial equality, the very best case that the Roosevelt Institute can make on his behalf is that he was the president who was able to speak about the American Dream, national unity and common cause for the sake of the national welfare, and the importance of material and economic security, and then turn around, and listen to the ardent grievances and pleas of Black folk, and say:
“Well that sucks.”
…and that’s it.
Not that he and his administration did much of anything about the suffering of Black folk.
Not that they even really cared about racism and anti-Blackness.
But that they were willing to politely and diplomatically converse with people suffering unconscionable violence, genocide, subjugation, and, in the South, unyielding attempts at re-enslavement.
This is the best defense that the Roosevelt Institute can give for the racist inequalities of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program.
I don’t know about you, but that’s more than enough for me, regardless of further historical research and reading of other people’s analysis, to conclude that the New Deal was really quite shitty for Black folk, and for people of color more generally.
And why was the New Deal so shitty to people of color/Black folk?
Because white people were happier getting their fair share and more, and denying people of color/Black folk the share they were due.
And FDR apparently frowned, and then shrugged, and said “Well, shit. I guess we’ll trade off paying attention to the needs of Black folk [and POC] to help the national economy. Damn. Oh well.”
(If we can be honest, we know that his reasoning and private sentiments were significantly more racist than that – what I wrote was probably the central unspoken subtext of Bernie Sanders’ campaign strategy meetings in 2016.)
This concludes the blog post.