—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, New York: The Viking Press, 1946, p. 113)
The New Deal did a great deal of good in overcoming the exclusion of neglected, oppressed and marginalized people in American life. It aided the elderly, women and people of color, as well as the disabled and refugees. The New Dealers were, in every case, faced with a daunting task of overcoming long-established patterns of discrimination and social hierarchy, and they could only do so much in reversing ingrained opinions, habits and power relations across this country.
Nevertheless, there has not been enough appreciation of the way New Dealers tried to subvert the existing social order on a wide front. In fact, the accomplishments of the era’s progressive policies were substantial. In this section, we summarize the achievements of the New Deal that helped bring marginalized and racialized Americans into the mainstream and advance the causes of racial justice and gender equality. We focus on eight groups: elders, women, disabled, and Jewish refugees, plus the four major racial categories, African-Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. We conclude the section with a photographic essay on inclusion of diverse peoples in New Deal work projects, called “Working Together”.
Continue reading below the gallery.
Click on each image below for more information and photos about each group.
Histories of the New Deal have often noted its failures to overcome the barriers of race, gender, religion and more in American life. The New Deal revolutionized many aspects of US society and politics, but it ran up against many harsh realities of an imperfect social order that blocked and distorted the goals of reformers in the government. It would be unfair, however, to blame the New Deal for racial and other policies that were rooted in the larger contours of American society. Yet, recently there have been far too many voices criticizing the New Deal for racism and discrimination and too few looking carefully into the record to discern what the New Deal did and did not do to correct racism, misogyny and other injustices.
Let us be clear at the outset that a handful of the New Deal’s hallmark programs were marred by fundamental exclusions. The Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act both made an exception for agricultural and domestic workers – which was effectively a means of preventing African, Latino and Asian-Americans from enjoying their benefits and protections. The Federal Housing Administration adopted rules that cemented residential segregation into the landscape of US cities. Native Americans saw their livelihoods badly damaged by big water projects like the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River, which interrupted salmon migrations on which the tribes depended. And, the most flagrant case of racism was Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned some 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast as the country went to war in 1942 – President Roosevelt’s single worst decision and a blight on his legacy.
Nevertheless, we need to look more carefully into the political foundations for these failures of the New Deal to treat people equally and inclusively.
The biggest reason for the omissions in the Social Security system and labor protections was the power of Southern Democrats in Congress (cheap black labor was fundamental to the economic order of the south); President Roosevelt had to defer to the Dixiecrats in order to keep the New Deal Coalition together to get his programs passed at all.
The FHA rule that red-lined racialized neighborhoods – meaning that it was hard for minorities to secure mortgages and become homeowners – was written by the chief lobbyist of the National Association of Real Estate Boards. Realtors had every reason to favor racial segregation that conformed to prevailing white prejudices, and they had the political clout to see that it became federal policy.
Another case of political expediency was FDR’s capitulation to war hysteria in the widespread calls for Japanese internment, backed by a notorious record of anti-Asian agitation on the West Coast where internment took place.
A more subtle reasons for the New Deal’s failures was deference to local governments in the selection of projects and distribution of funds in a variety of public works projects. That is why segregation ruled in public housing, WPA work teams and CCC camps in Jim Crow country (but not throughout the country). On the one hand, deference to localism was a strength of the New Deal because it allowed local people to choose projects they wanted and gave local politicians a stake in federal programs. On the other hand, localism crippled the national government’s ability to force change from above.
It is well to remember that the New Deal also had to cope with deeply held beliefs by the vast majority of Americans about the indolence of the unemployed, women’s place in society, the superiority of the White Race, the threat of immigration, and the worth of the disabled. It was not enough to change federal policies; the dominant culture had to be eroded. New Deal arts and cultural programs did a great deal on this front, as well. Government-sponsored writers, painters and performers were free to depict working people as heroes, to honor native cultures, and to put women in the spotlight. New Deal artists portrayed national life in dramatically new ways that included a host of ordinary Americans, featured African Americans in prominent roles and gave voice to the disenfranchised.
A striking example of New Deal rethinking of American society was the Federal Writers Project (FWP) chronicles of the experience of African Americans. Hundreds of first-person accounts of former slaves were transcribed, 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, Twelve Million Black Voices. Alan Lomax and others were paid to travel the South recording the songs of folk and blues musicians, creating a magnificent repository of folk music. Federal Security Administration (FSA) photographers compiled a superb visual account of popular life and suffering of all races.
In short, The New Deal generated a political and cultural revolution that began to transform the country and lay the foundation for later achievements in Civil Rights, disabled rights, women’s rights, senior citizen programs, and better treatment of Native Americans.