More recently, free-lance writer Larry Schwartz wrote, "...Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considered by many to be one of our greatest presidents, was a racist in his own spectacular way...there is little doubt that FDR failed to transcend his time, and his views on race were not enlightened" ("Who was the most racist modern president? 5 surprising candidates who fit the bill," Alternet, December 28, 2014).
The fact of the matter is, FDR and the New Deal had to tread softly because much of America was not ready for racial integration and harmony. Indeed, communist and socialist parties in the United States, during the early twentieth century, pushed for racial equality...and you see how far that got them. Our nation has been so steeped in racism for so long that it is unreasonable to expect that FDR and the New Deal could have ended it in just a few years. Heck, even one of our national icons, John Wayne, a man who was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 1979, said in 1971, "I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility" ("John Wayne vs. John Wayne," The Dallas Morning News, May 23, 2014, citing a Playboy interview).
Still, as New Deal and FDR enthusiasts, we must accept and come to terms with certain racial blunders, the greatest of which was the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. FDR, giving into military and public pressure (and perhaps his own bias), facilitated the unnecessary confinement of loyal citizens with Executive Order No. 9066. It was a dumb decision, as the bravery of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team would most famously prove (see photo above). Instead of confining them, we should have of reached out to Japanese Americans more and said, "Hey, we need your help." The latter strategy would have made our war effort even more successful.
Even in view of the mistakes, however, I disagree with Schwartz's conclusion that "FDR failed to transcend his time, and his views on race were not enlightened." Let's look at 10 things from the Roosevelt & New Deal era, and ask ourselves if they transcended the racism of the time:
1. Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet": According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, "The Black Cabinet was the semi-official racial-affairs advisory committee of the Roosevelt administration. Organized in 1936 and led by Mary McLeod Bethune, the Black Cabinet was composed of African American members of Roosevelt’s administration and created to represent and address the rights and needs of black citizens." If FDR's racial views were not enlightened, as Mr. Schwartz claims, why did he allow the formation of a Black Cabinet? He was certainly under no pressure to do so from the broader American public.
2. The idea of a master-race is "nonsense": At a White House Correspondent's Dinner in March of 1941, Roosevelt said, "We believe that the rallying cry of the dictators, their boasting about a master-race, will prove to be pure stuff and nonsense. There never has been, there isn't now, and there never will be, any race of people on the earth fit to serve as masters over their fellow men."
3. Prosperity...regardless of race: In 1944, in promoting his Second Bill of Rights, FDR said, "We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed."
4. The WPA's anti-discrimination policy: With Executive Order No. 7046, issued in May of 1935, FDR established the principle that an unemployed worker seeking a job in the WPA, who was "qualified by training and experience to be assigned to work projects shall not be discriminated against on any grounds whatsoever." This policy was hard to implement and enforce in areas of the country with a history of racism, but the effort was made and was often successful.
5. A real opportunity in white-collar occupations: Jim Powell, of the CATO institute, argues "If FDR’s New Deal policies weren’t conceived with racist intent, they certainly had racist consequences." Yet, according to a 1939 publication of the National Urban League, "It is to the eternal credit of the administrative officers of the WPA that discrimination on various projects because of race has been kept to a minimum and that in almost every community Negroes have been given a chance to participate in the work program. In the South, as might have been expected, this participation has been limited, and differential wages on the basis of race have been more or less effectively established; but in the northern communities, particularly in the urban centers, the Negro has been afforded his first real opportunity for employment in white-collar occupations." (Opportunity, vol. 17, no. 2, February 1939, p. 34, cited in The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, by Donald S. Howard, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943).
Also, according to Dr. Judy Yung, of the University of California, Santa Cruz: "...over 20 percent of racial minorities employed by WPA [in the San Francisco area] were in the white-collar sector. Chinese-American men like Lim P. Lee and women like Ethel Lum were hired as social workers, recreation aides, teachers, and clerks at prevailing professional rates to dispense financial aid to the needy, extend services to individuals and families, and help improve living conditions in the community. Aside from earning this group of white-collar workers a salary, their services assisted individuals through the depression and were instrumental in procuring a public health clinic, nursery schools, improved housing and street lighting, and English and job training classes for the Chinatown community" (Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, University of California Press, 1995, p. 185).
7. The WPA Theatre program: Many policies of the New Deal infuriated racists, which is evidence that FDR and the New Deal were not as racist as some would have us believe. For example, of the WPA Theatre plays, U.S. Senator Robert Reynolds (D-NC) said, "Through such material the cardinal keystone of communism--free love and racial equality--is being spread at the expense of the god-fearing, home-loving American taxpayer" (from the 2008 book Furious Improvisation, by Susan Quinn).
9. Citizenship and Naturalization Classes: During the New Deal, the WPA offered citizenship and naturalization classes to immigrants. If FDR and the New Deal were so horribly racist, why did they do this?
10. Adult Education for African-Americans: Due to obvious reasons, many African Americans did not receive a great education during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The New Deal, through the WPA, began to reverse that trend with adult education courses (e.g., reading and writing) and the building of many African-American schools.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, there were certainly some race-based blunders during the New Deal, and during Roosevelt's life, but I hope that the 10 examples above show that there were also some significant & positive accomplishments. There will always be naysayers, of course, who will claim that Roosevelt's failure to erase hundreds of years of racism during his 12 years as president must mean that, "By golly, the New Deal was a complete and utter failure and Roosevelt was the most racist president ever!" But, when you hear these types of claims ask yourself if the person making the claim is doing so after a full examination of history, or if the claim is being made for political reasons and/or because the claimant has closely examined the failures.....but only lightly examined the accomplishments.