The Root: The Real Deal on The New Deal

Michael Dawson
Contributor, The Root
Wednesday, March 11, 2009; 1:00 PM

"It is often forgotten that, for all of its benefits, the New Deal reinforced structural black economic disadvantage in many ways. It is certainly true that the Work Projects Administration (WPA) put many blacks to work, and many blacks also benefited from the relief programs.

"But it is also true that key programs of the New Deal consciously excluded blacks. Black farmers were excluded directly from the agricultural programs and were often forced off the land. Southern and Southwestern legislators insisted that social security legislation was written to exclude the vast majority of black and Latino workers."

Michael Dawson, contributor to The Root, was online Wednesday, March 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his article about how African Americans must fight inside and outside of the political system to ensure that Congress and the president initiate, pass and implement a progressive agenda. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dawson: Hi folks. I look forward to chatting today about my article in The Root about lessons from the New Deal and other topics of interest. I look forward to your questions.


Kensington, Md.: 'If anyone should be skeptical of New Deal policies, it should be black folks, not Republicans.'

So let me get this straight: In the 1930's, with Jim Crow as the prevailing norm throughout the country, and with Dixiecrats holding key positions of power in Congress, many New Deal programs were implemented in ways to exclude African Americans.

I don't think that too many people would argue with that proposition, since it's solidly based in fact.

But exactly how is this relevant to today? Do Dixiecrats controll Congress or the key regulatory agencies? Is President Obama beholden to segregationists, as FDR was? Just where do you see the parallels?

Michael Dawson: I did try to make the point in the article that the situation in Congress was totally different in this era, as was the political position of African Americans. The parallel that I was trying to invoke was that in the New Deal, many of the most detrimental policies toward blacks were implemented at the local and state level particularly in the South. That phenomenon I was comparing to the threat by some Southern governors in particular to reject the part of the stimulus package that targeted aid to the unemployed--a rejection that would disproportionately adversely affect African Americans. In both cases, local Southern officials are in the postion to shape how aspects of the economic recovery programs would be implemented in ways detrimental to African Americans.


Laurel: Our modern association of blacks living in urban areas of the northeast and midwest didn't really start until the labor needs of World War II overcame entrenched prejudices. Up until the 1930's, most African-Americans lived in the south, and worked principally at the kinds of jobs we would associate today with low-skill illegal immigrants -- agricultural labor, day labor, domestic household help, and in the hospitality industry.

I don't think it can accurately be called racism (it would be stretching that term beyond its legitimate meaning) that whatever stimulus there is should be targeted at LEGAL U.S. residents (including LEGAL immigrants). It is certainly true that the illegal immigrant population has been severely harmed by declines in the construction and hospitality industry. But I hope the stimulus jobs can be filled by the people who used to work at Circuit City or Linens and Things.

I can hardly think of a better source of stimulus jobs than improving the physical condition of schools. And I hope they're filled largely with unemployed African-Americans, not illegals.

Michael Dawson: As someone active in the union movement during the 1970s, I would not argue that the WWII-sparked demand for black labor overcame entrenched prejudices. Instead, I would argue that the demand for labor was so great that employers had no choice but to hire black workers. That said, continued racial antagonisms at the workplace were responsible for the late 1960s and 1970s black worker movement.


Rockville, Md.: One other commonality between Mississippi and Louisiana -- it's widely believed (with justification) that those states are rebuilding their Katrina-devastated areas with less low-income housing, in hopes that fewer blacks will move back.

Michael Dawson: I've done a fair amount of research on post-Katrina politics, public opinion, and political discourse. There is a lot of evidence and research to back your point, and local civic and economic leaders in New Orleans were quoted as saying they wanted to make the city richer and whiter--not all of course, but enough to make it clear that this was an active topic of discussion among local elites. There are also partisan reasons for hoping in Louisiana in particular that blacks would not move back in larger numbers. The New Orleans black community was a critical part of Democrats' ability to be competitive at the state level.


Anywhere, U.S.A.: Yes, early in the 20th century most socialists and other advocates for Big Government were far more racist than were economic conservatives. Indeed, racial segregation was pushed by government, against the wishes of the capitalist bus companies and factory owners. One goal of the trade unions in the 1940s was to prevent low-priced black labor from replacing higher-paid white workers in factories and construction.

Nowadays, however, black people have the political influence to use the government for their own disproportionate advantage. This advantage is only temporary; in a few decades Latinos will be able to make the government favor themselves at the expense of both blacks _and_ whites.

In countries where people depend upon government for their economic opportunities, people tend not to be very good losers. Instead of stepping aside when their side is outvoted, when the stakes become too high, political parties turn to violence.

Michael Dawson: What evidence do you have that socialists were far more racist than economic conservatives? Conservative craft unions (the old AFL) actively tired to ban blacks from their unions and workplaces, but the far more radical industrial unions (represented at the time primarily by the CIO) had much more progressive racial policies. Are you predicting that either of the two major parties in this country will turn to violence when out voted?


Washington: Did they benefit from TVA? FHA? Were they systematically excluded from Federal contracts? Were there any Black owned banks that were saved by intervention? Were Blacks in the CCC? Did Social Security improve the lot of Blacks in Amererica?

Michael Dawson: Two programs that massively benefited blacks during the New Deal were the WPA and the relief programs (which today we call welfare programs). The WPA put blacks across class lines back to work. Not only did the black working class benefit but many outstanding black writers and artists were also employed through the WPA. The combined effect of these programs led in the mid-1930s a black political realignment (at uneven rates) in the urban north from the Republicans to the Democrats. Most blacks at the time were rural farmers in the South. Social Security excluded farm workers and domestics two key components of black labor. The HOLC (the precursor to the FHA) by rule labeled neighborhoods with black residents as being unworthy or receiving housing loans. Over time this changed. During WWII and afterwards as a result of the second great migration black males moved from farming to industrial jobs and thus were eligible for social security. The discriminatory housing policies were eventually overturned (although the private sector followed the same rules for decades). But at their creation, the programs I mentioned were consciously designed to exclude as many blacks as possible.


Michael Dawson: Thanks folks! The questions were challenging and fun. Have a great week.


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