Tuesday, January 13, 2015

FDR, the New Deal, and Racism

(A 1940s WPA poster that, certainly by today's standards, is quite racist. And, if you were a Japanese American at the time, I'm sure it was very disconcerting to see. Can it be excused because of the war? I don't think so. It seems to me to be a product of fear, stereotyping, and insensitivity towards one's fellow citizens. I love WPA posters, but I don't like this one at all. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

(No, these World War II soldiers are not members of the Japanese Imperial Army. They are members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the United States Army, "the most decorated unit in U.S. military history." The 442nd, as well as other minorities who served during World War II, showed how foolish we were to discriminate against, rather than fully embrace, our fellow citizens. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Critics of the New Deal, eager to use any method they can to discredit the idea of a government that helps the people (ultimately, in an effort to keep tax rates low on their millionaire & billionaire donors), sometimes argue that Roosevelt and the New Deal were racist. See, for example, "Why Did FDR's New Deal Harm Blacks?," by Jim Powell of the right-wing CATO Institute (an organization founded by one of the Koch brothers...of course), December 3, 2003.

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).

 (A WPA poster encouraging New Yorkers to read about "The Negro and National Defense"; "Africa and the War"; and "Negro History and Culture." WPA workers also collected oral histories & interviews of former slaves. Note the airman's cap on the bottom figure in the poster. The first African American fighter pilots were trained circa 1939-41, and this poster was created between 1941 and 1943. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

I don't think it can be disputed that Roosevelt and the New Deal had some racial aspects. But is that really surprising, considering that our entire country has been immersed in racism--from the time the first English colonist set foot in the New World, until today when, for example, a Republican U.S. Senator says, "My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes"? Indeed, if Roosevelt had said, during his 1932 campaign, "If I am elected president, I will ensure that all races are treated equally, and I will, by law if necessary, ensure that segregation between the races is ended; the South will be put in it's place, once and for all," he would never have been elected president. And if he had said something like that during his presidency (and followed up with the necessary actions) he would never have been re-elected.

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.

(Mary McLeod Bethune was not only a founding member of Roosevelt's Black Cabinet, but also one of the head administrators of the National Youth Administration. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

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.

 (Because much of the WPA was administered at the local level, local politics and prejudices sometimes dictated segregated work sites. But there were plenty of integrated work sites too. The above photo shows a WPA project in Kent County, Maryland, 1936. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

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).

 (Children learning to paint in a WPA Chinese Nursery School in San Francisco, 1938. If FDR and the New Deal were so racist, why was something like this created? Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.) 

6. National Youth Administration Policy: "From the time of its establishment, NYA pursued the policy that no person was to be deprived because of race, creed, color, or national origin of any employment, position, work, compensation, or other benefits made possible under the program of the NYA" (Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, p. 111, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944).

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).

(A scene from the WPA Theatre production of "Battle Hymn," in New York City, 1936. Racist members of Congress--both Republican and Democrat--were not pleased with the racial mixing they saw in the Theatre program. So, in 1939, they got rid of the program altogether. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, and the New Deal Network.)

(The description for this 1935 photo reads, "WPA Fed Theatre Project in NY. Jewish Theatre Unit production, 'It Can't Happen Here.'" Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

8. The Indian New Deal: The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, frequently called the "Indian New Deal," gave Indians greater control of their land, encouraged self-governance, and more (see Indian Reorganization Act, Encyclopedia Britannica, for a brief summary). If the New Deal was such a hotbed of racism, why did this happen? Why didn't New Deal policymakers try to confiscate the land instead, and then distribute it to white homesteaders?

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?

(The description for this undated photo reads, "Future literates and future citizens. Adults of Spanish, Mexican, and Central American ancestry at Americanization Classes of WPA Education Program of the California Department of Education learning to read." Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

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.

(An older African American student learning how to read in a WPA adult education class in Savannah, Georgia, circa 1935-43. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)  

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.

(Factory workers, 1942. The New Deal was not perfect and New Deal policymakers were not infallible angels. Still, the New Deal was a significant, pre-Civil Rights era stepping stone to better race relations in America. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)


  1. Here's some background to where Powell got his material from.

    Between 1934 and 1940, the American Liberty League waged a relentless smear campaign against Roosevelt. Financed by some of America's wealthiest Anglophile families, led by the du Ponts, the Mellons, the Pews, and the Morgans, the League raised a reported $1.2 million, largely in the initial years of operation. In 2008 dollars, as measured in nominal GDP per capita, that $1.2 million would today be worth over $1 billion. Coudert, Beck, and Davis would launch the American Liberty League's Lawyers' Vigilance Committee, along with Raoul Desvernine, general counsel to U.S. Steel, and later, the president of Crucible Steel. The Vigilance Committee was a group of 50-60 top Wall Street lawyers, who led the assault against the New Deal as unconstitutional—in what can only be described as a scandalous repudiation of the General Welfare clause in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. While financing an alphabet soup of states-rights, racist, and other populist anti-FDR "grass roots" hate groups, the American Liberty League focused most of its energies on black propaganda assaults against FDR, using its access to the media, powerful Wall Street law firms, and vast Congressional lobbying capabilities against the New Deal. With a relatively bottomless pool of cash, ALL churned out 135 propaganda pamphlets between August 1934 and September 1936. The pamphlets were delivered to the Washington, D.C. bureaus of 350 newspapers, all of the press associations, key editors and editorial writers, every member of the House of Representatives and Senate, and 7,500 college and university libraries. The archive of the American Liberty League's pamphlets and leaflets, speeches and radio broadcasts, shows them to be, to this day, the wellspring of every attack against Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal/American System approach to political economy. Beginning even before the Liberty League shut its doors, a new network of Wall Street think tanks came into being; they exist, to this day, to carry on the dirty work of the ALL. In 1938, the American Enterprise Association (AEA) was founded by top corporate executives from General Mills, Chemical Bank, and Bristol Meyers, along with a New Deal defector to the Liberty League cause, Raymond Moley. They soon set up a Washington, D.C. office, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), to make sure that the New Deal and war-time Roosevelt mobilization and regulatory measures were rolled back in the postwar period. Today, AEI, along with the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, are the drivers of the campaign to pillory the FDR tradition through a revival of the very lies that filled the pages of the American Libery League pamphlets. Exemplary of the current drive are two recent books, drawn heavily from the Liberty League propaganda archives, trashing FDR, and anyone alive today who might consider modeling a program upon the successes of the New Deal and the World War II Arsenal of Democracy mobilization. In 2003, Cato Institute libertarian propagandist Jim Powell penned FDR's Folly—How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression. The book was the product of exhaustive direction from Milton Friedman and James Buchanan, two leading figures within the pro-Fascist Mont Pelerin Society, and was boosted by two top figures from the Cato Institute, David Boaz and Ed Crane. In 2007, Amity Shlaes, then a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a former London Financial Times and Wall Street Journal reporter, penned The Forgotten Man—A New History of the Great Depression, in which she, too, trashed FDR and the New Deal, for prolonging the Great Depression, by interfering in financial markets. Her arguments, like those of Powell, were taken, almost verbatim, from the Liberty League works.

    Exerpts from the February 27, 2009 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.

    1. Yep, the American Liberty League just keeps getting reincarnated decade after decade. One hundred years from now, it will be probably be called something like, "The Founding Father's League of True Blue Patriots!" or "The Koch Society of Flag-Waving Freedom Lovers!"

    2. That argument is an example of the genetic fallacy, that something is false because of its origins. Appealing to the Liberty League doesn't account for the reality of putting 100,000 Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. Why not just admit that FDR did some things that were good and others that were bad instead of getting defensive and pretending that he was perfect? FDR wasn't perfect and was a flawed human being. Much of the credit for the programs that racially integrated blacks can be given to Eleanor Roosevelt, who didn't have a racist bone in her body.