People today are calling for a reckoning with the dark side of America’s past – slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, immigrant exclusion and more – and demanding change in the country’s oppressive racial order. We at the Living New Deal support that movement and hope that America can one day realize its proclaimed ideals of liberty and justice for all. Because the fight against racism is so important, we have create this section of our website to deal with the question of the New Deal and race.
Histories of the New Deal have often noted the failure of its programs to overcome the barriers of race in American life – and in some cases to make things worse. Unfortunately, there are some prominent voices today declaring that the entirety of the New Deal was racist, which is not true. It is important to answer that sweeping denunciation because it undermines the use of the New Deal as a model for progressive action by the federal government today, when bold ideas, such as a new Civilian Climate Corps or Green New Deal, are badly needed to deal with the many serious challenges facing the country (and the world), such as crumbling infrastructure, vast inequality, failing health care and global warming.
Therefore, we aim to revisit the role of the New Deal in dealing with America’s oppressive racial order in the 1930s, when Jim Crow was at its height. Our view is that despite the Roosevelt Administration’s failings, the New Deal’s record on race was, on the whole, positive and constituted an important step forward in the long struggle for Civil Rights and social justice.
This is an ongoing project, so please see our writings and talks on aspects of the New Deal and racism at the bottom of this page.
OPENING THOUGHTS ON THE NEW DEAL AND RACE
The New Deal revolutionized many aspects of US society and politics, but not its racial order. Indeed, some of the New Deal’s hallmark achievements rested squarely on discriminatory politics. For example, agricultural and domestic workers were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act in 1935—an effective way of excluding African Americans and Chicanos (Latinos) in the Southwest. The Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River flooded large areas in the Pacific Northwest where Native People hunted and blocked salmon migrations on which the tribes depended – and did not even provide irrigation water for local reservations. The most flagrant case of racism was Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned some 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans on the West Coast as the country went to war in 1942.
Yet these actions were not unique to the New Deal. They followed from a long history of racism in the United States and the realities of the country’s racial and class power structure. The Jim Crow era was in full force in the 1920s and 1930s, and the treatment of African Americans, Native Americans and other people of color was unbelievably bad by present-day standards. White America was by no means ready for racial equality and justice.
One cannot blame the New Deal for racial policies that had roots in the larger contours of American society, and the Roosevelt Administration was sharply constrained by that larger context. At the same time, the administration’s priorities were clearly economic recovery and the amelioration of unemployment and searing poverty among the mass of American working people. Those aims meant that most New Deal programs helped people of color through the Great Depression, brought important federal interventions for fairer treatment and gave many hope that racial equality was possible. But racial justice was not a priority of White liberals and progressives at the time.
The South was still clearly defined by its racial system of Jim Crow laws, despite early support for the New Deal from white populists and progressives in the region. President Roosevelt had to placate Southern Democrats in Congress to hold together the New Deal Coalition and get any of his programs passed. Compromise on labor law was one result of this. Even after programs such as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Federal Theater Project (FTP) were set up, they were hemmed in by congressional opponents of integration and aid to the poor. The Western states generally supported FDR, but had their own ugly history of anti-Asian prejudice. FDR bowed to West Coast racism in ordering the Japanese internment (by contrast, Japanese-Americans were not interned in Hawaii, which had a different social order and racial politics). War hysteria made matters worse.
A critical dimension of the New Deal (as throughout US history) was the reality of “federalism”, which means that national laws are often filtered through state and local powers. Many New Deal programs deferred to local oversight in the selection of projects and distribution of funds. That is why Jim Crow segregation ruled in public housing and ultimately in CCC camps. At the same time, such “deference to localism” (Thomas Sugrue, p. 60) was a strength of the New Deal because it allowed local governments to choose projects they wanted and have a financial stake in the massive federal investment in public infrastruce. Furthermore, while localism crippled the national government’s ability to force change from above, as Theodore Lowi famously argued, some New Deal public works programs, such as the Public Works Administration (PWA), Works Progress Administration (WPA) and National Youth Administration (NYA), intervened aggressively to enforce anti-discrimination rules in recruitment and pay on states and local authorities (Harvard Sitkoff).
Behind such intra-party and inter-governmental struggles lay the long-standing power of White Supremacy among European Americans. For example, in art and literature the injustice of poverty was typically framed as most acute for long-suffering, salt-of-the-earth whites, as in John Steinbeck’s book Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange’s FSA photograph, Migrant Mother. Even when the art of people of color was acknowledged, it was often treated as something apart, as when Thomas Parker, Assistant Director of the WPA/FAP, romanticized Black aesthetics by isolating them in segregated arts centers (Musher, 159).
Nevertheless, the New Deal era’s political and cultural groundswell began to transform the country in a way that would help launch the Civil Rights Movement. For example, the number of African Americans in the federal government rose dramatically, including a number of officials who formed the so-called Black Cabinet to pressure the administration. William Hastie became the first Black federal judge and the first Office of Civil Rights was established in the Department of Justice. The Indian Reorganization Act ended the previous policy of forced assimilation and sell-off of tribal lands, while encouraging tribes to establish their own governing bodies (Kennedy, 378-379). Mass deportation of Mexicans was ended and there was an increase in requests for naturalization papers among Chicanos who felt more accepted by the country of their birth (Sánchez, 261). Many leading New Dealers, such as Harold Ickes, Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, were vigorous advocates of racial equality, something that had not been seen since Reconstruction.
What is more, the New Deal encouraged a widespread effort among Depression-era Americans to work together to improve their lot and to recognize that America was, in the words of a famous sociological study of the era, a “nation of nations.” The enactment of the National Industrial Relations Act (NIRA) sparked a wave of interracial labor militancy from the textile factories of the Piedmont South (Denning, 352) to CIO outreach programs in Chicano Los Angeles. We have found many reports from the time on “special efforts” made to integrate public works projects and a host of photographs show relief workers of different colors and origins together. As one New York high-schooler of the time recalls, the New Deal spirit prompted friendships across racial and ethnic boundaries, which he remembered as “implementing equality at the grass roots level” (Fass, 152),
The spirit of the New Deal had an especially elevating effect on public art and critical expression. Government-sponsored writers, painters and performers were free to depict working people as heroes, to recast the images of the nation’s past, and to shine light on contemporary injustices of all kinds. As Sharon Musher puts it, “When Treasury-commissioned artists portrayed national figures, they included blacks, Native Americans, and women as well as political radicals” (95). That inspiration went beyond New Deal arts programs. For example, the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1941 exhibit, Indian Art of the United States, acknowledged that, “At this time, where America is reviewing its cultural resources, this book and the exhibit… open up to us age-old sources of ideas and forms that have never been fully appreciated….” (Belgrad, 55). Or, as Barney Josephson, founder of the integrated Greenwich Village club Café Society (where Billie Holiday debuted 1939’s hit song “Strange Fruit”) recounted, “It was the time of labor organizers… and the W.P.A. Art Movement” and an integrated club with political music-making seemed natural in that moment (Denning 235).
A striking example of New Deal support for a rethinking of American society and history was the Federal Writers Project and its chronicles of cities and states, which made a point of including the contributions of African Americans and other people of color. FWP writers transcribed hundreds of first-person accounts of former slaves for the WPA Slave Narratives, an unparalleled resource for historians and citizens alike. FWP writers produced such classics as James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Richard Wright’s scathing account of life under Jim Crow as the companion text to the FSA’s photo collection, Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States. Meanwhile, musicologist Alan Lomax was paid to travel the South recording folk and blues artists, creating a magnificent repository of folk music, much of it African American. Federal Security Administration (FSA) photographers like Walker Evans compiled a superb visual account of popular life and suffering of all races.
We at the Living New Deal continue to research and write on the question of racism in the politics and programs of the Roosevelt Administration. This is an ongoing project to which we will be adding new entries over time.
Here is one example. Please see our section, “The New Deal Speaks”, for more videos and audio recordings
Living New Deal advisor Touré Reed speaks on the theme, “Neoliberals & The Right Don’t Understand The New Deal,” on The Michael Brooks Show
Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.
Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.