Histories of the New Deal have often noted the failure of its programs to overcome the barriers of race in American life. 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 Social Security in 1935—an effective way of excluding Southern African Americans and Southwestern Chicanos. The Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River flooded thousands of acres where Pacific Northwest Indians hunted and interrupted salmon migrations on which the natives 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 structures. One cannot simply blame the New Deal for racial policies that had roots in the larger contours of American society. One major reason for the New Deal’s failings was President Roosevelt’s need to keep Congressional Democrats from the South in the New Deal Coalition to get his programs passed at all; Social Security’s exclusions are one result of this. Another case is the way FDR bowed to the call for Japanese internment on the West Coast, which had a long and notorious history of anti-Asian hysteria before Japanese internment (by contrast, Japanese were not interned in Hawaii, which had a different social order and racial politics).
Another cause of the New Deal’s failure to overturn the prevailing racial order was that most programs deferred to local oversight in the selection of projects and distribution of funds. That is why in Jim Crow country segregation ruled in public housing, WPA work teams and CCC camps. At the same time, such “deference to localism” (Sugrue, 60) was a strength of the New Deal because it allowed local elites to choose projects they wanted and gave local politicians a stake in the massive expansion of federal programs. Still, such localism crippled the national government’s ability to force change from above.
Then, too, there was the long-standing cultural belief among European Americans that the America was a White Republic. 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 acknowledge, 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). Worse, integrated arts programs, like the Federal Theater Project, were targeted by Southern Democrats in congressional hearings and suffered cuts in funding as a result.
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, FDR’s “black cabinet” of advisors and his appointment of William Hastie as the first Black federal judge put African Americans into positions of power not seen since Reconstruction. The Indian Reorganization Act “ended the half-century-old policy of forced assimilation and alienation of tribal lands and encouraged tribes to establish their own self-governing bodies and to preserve their ancestral traditions” (Kennedy, 378-379). Many leading New Dealers, such as Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt, were vigorous advocates of racial equality.
What is more, the New Deal encouraged a widespread effort among Depression-era Americans to work together to improve their situation 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. While there is a paucity of studies of New Deal integration of public works sites, we have found many reports from the time on “special efforts” made on this front and a host of photographs of New Deal programs showing an array of faces of different colors and origins. One instance of note was an increase in “requests for naturalization papers” among Chicanos who now felt that they belonged to the nation and that the nation belonged to them (Sánchez, 261). Another was noted in an WPA ethnography of Seattle’s Hooverville, and how the Filipino, Black, Mexican, Indian, Japanese, and White residents comprised an “ethnic rainbow” where people lived “in shabby camaraderie.” Or as one New York highschooler 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 were the Federal Writers Project chronicles of the experience of African Americans. FWP writers transcribed hundreds of first-person accounts of former slaves for the WPA Slave Narratives, an unparalleled resource for historians and citizens alike. Meanwhile, Alan Lomax was paid to travel the South recording the songs of folk and blues musicians, 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. 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.
There is a small chorus of scholars and archivists now exploring New Deal-sponsored integration, such as Lewis University’s photographic collection of integrated CCC projects in Illinois. For our part, “Working Together” creates a photographic archive of New Deal interaction and integration based on the research of Living New Deal staffer Brent McKee. Note how many images of children there are in this collection; one of the most heartening aspects of the New Deal was the promise it invested in new generations.