Undoing the New Deal: African-Americans, Racism and the FDR/Johnson Reforms (Pt5)

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Historian Gerald Horne says that to pass the New Deal legislation, FDR allowed discriminatory practices to appease the racist Dixiecrat section of the Democratic Party; the reforms of the 60’s that responded to the upsurge of the civil rights movement helped Black Americans, but have been undone by Democratic and Repubican administraitons since – with host Paul Jay

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Hi and welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Paul Jay. Now, don’t forget, we’re in our winter fundraising campaign. Every dollar you donate will be matched, and of course this fundraising campaign is critical, the end of year when everyone’s doing their taxes, and looking at their potential tax deductions, and the donation to The Real News is tax deductible in the US and Canada.

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We’re continuing our series titled Undoing the New Deal. While most of the measures taken during the New Deal helped to mitigate the worst effects of the depression on workers and created a social safety net where there had been none before, not all Americans benefited equally. Most New Deal programs discriminated against African Americans. Whites were offered the first jobs and it allowed a separate and lower pay scale for Blacks. This is in a federal government jobs program. The Federal Housing Authority refused to guarantee mortgages for Blacks who tried to buy in white neighborhoods and the Civilian Conservation Corps maintained segregated camps. The Social Security Act excluded those job categories Blacks traditionally filled.

The situation in agriculture was even worse. Since 40% of all Black workers made their living as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration acreage reduction hit Blacks hard. In this program, farmers were actually paid not to produce food, which raised the prices for farmers but white landlords could make more money by leaving land untilled then by putting land back into production, which created even more Black unemployment.

In the 1960’s New Deal-style programs were created that benefited Blacks more equally, but successive administrations both Democratic and Republican have been rolling back these programs since the 1980s. Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms played a major role in undoing the New Deal and now the Republican Party is planning to put a few final nails in the coffin of what’s left.

Now joining us to discuss African Americans in the New Deal is Gerald Horne. Gerald is the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He is the author of many books, most recently The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and The Origins of the United States of America. Thanks for joining us again, Gerald.

GERALD HORNE: Thank you for inviting me.

PAUL JAY: Let’s start with the New Deal itself. We know that Blacks simply did not benefit from the New Deal programs in the way white workers did. Why don’t we start with that? What are some examples of that? Then we can kind of get into the why and the politics of it.

GERALD HORNE: You alluded to a number of the examples, that is to say, with regard to the Social Security program seeking to exclude categories of workers where Blacks tended to flock, such as agricultural labor in particular. I should also mention that with regard to housing programs, recent scholarship has suggested that New Deal housing programs did not erode Jim Crow neighborhoods. They helped to fortify Jim Crow neighborhoods.

However, before we go too far in that direction, I should also mention some of the positive benefits of the New Deal, particularly the so-called Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act, which was a kind of Magna Carta for the organizing of the industrial north and the industrial Midwest. This led to the formation of the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers in particular and they tended to organize many Black workers within their ranks. Then, after those unions were organized, they were able to use the dues money of those workers to support anti-Jim Crow initiatives. In some ways, it’s fair to say that the New Deal was a mixed bag for African Americans.

PAUL JAY: In those unionization struggles, many Blacks were in the leadership of those struggles. In some of the bitter fights founding the UAW and some of the industrial unions, Black workers were right up front leading the struggle.

GERALD HORNE: Not only with regard to the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers, but keep in mind that at that point there was a flourishing mostly black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Workers, led by A. Philip Randolph, who started as a left-wing socialist and then migrated into a kind of right-wing social democrat. In between, that is to say in the 1930s, his union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Workers, was a very important force not only in terms of organizing Black workers on the railroads, which then before the era of air travel was the major route for transcontinental travel in this country, but also in more mundane terms, for example in terms of spreading anti-Jim Crow propaganda in the dankest precincts of Dixie. Oftentimes that propaganda was spread, by propaganda, I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense, I just mean literature. That literature was spread through Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Worker porters who were traveling, say, from New Orleans to Houston, or from Houston to Dallas. This union drive is really one of the unsung heroes of the whole progressive movement in this country.

PAUL JAY: With much of the New Deal legislation, the jobs I mentioned, jobs went to white workers first. There was a lower, separate pay scale. We’re talking jobs in the federal jobs program, where the federal government hired millions of people. There were other programs that discriminated against Blacks. There were some exceptions. Apparently Harold Ickes, who was in the cabinet, put a lot of money into Black schools in the south, but generally speaking, Roosevelt did not want to take on the Dixiecrats, the white racist members of the Democratic Party that controlled much of the legislatures in the south and also represented much of the representation in Congress. Apparently, there was even an anti-lynching law that Roosevelt didn’t want to support. The politics of the period, and Roosevelt gets a lot of critique for this that he didn’t take them on because they would have blocked his New Deal legislation was his fear. What do you make of the critique? I guess part of what I’m asking is, given the real politics of the day, did he have a choice or not?

GERALD HORNE: It’s complicated. Look at the party configuration coming out of the US Civil War, that is to say post-1865. You have the Republican Party, the party of abolition, the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party that the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass says is the ship and all else is the sea, and the Republican Party is basically comprised of Black male voters in Dixie and white middle-class and white elite forces in the north. Then you have the Democratic Party, which is basically comprised of white workers in the south and white workers in the north.

Obviously, that’s a screwy political configuration. Beginning in 1932, you began to see a mass defection of Black voters to the Democratic Party, driven by the Great Depression and the inertia of the Herbert Hoover administration that preceded the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Black workers started flooding into the Democratic Party in 1932 and 1936, they did not necessarily receive a warm greeting from their fellow white workers. In fact, one of the reasons why the New Deal programs were so stingy with regard to coverage of Black interests and coverage of Black workers was precisely because of this antipathy from the Dixiecrats.

The question is, could Franklin Delano Roosevelt have done more? I think that’s a fair question but I think that objectively speaking, like political leaders before and since, he was faced with a rock-solid granite wall of white supremacy within the ranks of his own party and that is a force that is very difficult to overcome.

PAUL JAY: So, he’s left with the choice that if he wants this New Deal, social democratic legislation, he can’t take on the south, the Dixiecrats and has to essentially concede to a certain amount of discriminatory practices.

GERALD HORNE: I’m sure you recall the discourse in this country in the last eight to nine years, when it was often cited, this remark that was made by FDR, President Roosevelt, where he challenges unions and progressive forces to make him move in a progressive direction. That was cited, of course, when we were confronting President Barack Obama. I think that if you understand that particular conversation, you’ll understand that despite the fact that the left was rising in the United States in the 1930s, the Communist Party was at its zenith. It had a membership of about 80,000 in 1938. The Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO, as already noted, was also ascending. It had organized the auto workers, and the steel workers, and the rubber workers in Akron, Ohio. Having said all of that, they were still not powerful enough to overcome the rock-solid Jim Crow that is part of the mother’s milk of the politics of the United States of America.

PAUL JAY: In this series we’ve been doing with historian Peter Kuznick and now Gerald, and we may introduce some other historians, the theme is you have this New Deal, Roosevelt’s New Deal, which has mostly to do with the capitalist crisis. It’s an alternative to the European response, which was fascism. It’s also a way to try to prevent a strengthening of the socialist and communist movement in the United States and save the capitalist system, to mitigate the worst of the crisis on American workers. That social safety net that gets created starts to get eroded, Peter Kuznick says, as early as ’39-’40. Even Roosevelt seems to lose some of his commitment to it. There’s a proposal for universal healthcare which Roosevelt does not support. Then with the overthrow of Wallace, his vice president, he does not become the next president. You have Truman.

The next big beats in terms of the New Deal, am I right to say, the next big beat is in the 1960s, where Johnson’s War on Poverty then actually builds on the New Deal and extends it within, you could say, the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and a massive mass movement demanding reform and civil rights for African Americans? Talk a bit about that and then we can talk about what happened to all of this legislation.

GERALD HORNE: Certainly the 1960s was a turning point in terms of trying to construct a social safety net in this country. It was not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which helped to erode some of the more egregious aspects of Jim Crow. Perhaps more important was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which not only granted the right to vote to many Blacks in Dixie, but also granted the right to vote to so-called language minorities. That is to say that ballots could now be printed in Spanish, ballots could now be printed in Chinese languages, and this helped to open the door to more ethnic and racial minorities getting the right to vote. In turn, they were able to elect more progressive representatives, who in turn were able to enact programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, or PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, and more aid to education, for example, and also more legislation with regard to fighting housing bias and housing discrimination.

As we know, there was a counter-revolution beginning in 1980, that is to say in August 1980 when Ronald Wilson Reagan kicks off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the place where three civil rights workers were slain tragically in 1964. This sends a signal to Dixie that the bad old days, from our point of view are back. That leads to a counter-revolution, a counter-reaction from 1980 to 1988.

PAUL JAY: Gerald, before we get into Reagan, just a little more on some of the legislation from the ’60s. If I’m correct, food stamps comes out of the legislation of the 1960s. I think there’s a strengthening or expansion of Social Security.

GERALD HORNE: Medicare, Medicaid.

PAUL JAY: Yeah, go on.

GERALD HORNE: Yes. As noted, food stamps come out of the 1960s. I have to say, like many starving graduate students, I utilized food stamps when I was attending graduate school. Also, Medicare and Medicaid come out of the 1960s. Medicare is part of the step-by-step expansion of health security, Medicare basically applying to those who are considered to be senior citizens and then Medicaid, which applies to those who would be below a certain poverty line. This was a tremendous step forward and as we know in 2018, they’re going to be on the chopping block.

PAUL JAY: Is it fair to say what I said in the introduction, that these reforms in the 1960s were more equitable to Black Americans than the New Deal of the ’30s?

GERALD HORNE: Yes. I think it’s only because of the different era. That is to say that the 1960s witnessed a tremendous erosion of the walls of Jim Crow and bigotry. The walls of Jim Crow and bigotry, as already noted, helped to prevent the expansion of New Deal programs in the 1930s but with the erosion of the 1960s, it was possible to have a more equitable distribution, if you like, with regard to food stamps, for example. Certainly the 1960s were a great leap forward in terms of the fight against racism and bigotry.

PAUL JAY: Reagan kicks off a real energized campaign to undo the New Deal, undo the reforms of the ’60s. We’re going to trace this forward to Clinton and beyond, but why do you think this takes place?

GERALD HORNE: Sorry, I missed that.

PAUL JAY: I said, why do you think Reagan comes to power and is able to start undoing New Deal and 1960s legislation?

GERALD HORNE: First of all, contrary to popular opinion, there was no unanimity with regard to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There were many in Dixie who felt that by uplifting Black workers these white workers were being faced with stiffer competition and that was the grist for the mill of the counter-revolution ignited by Ronald Wilson Reagan. As well, Ronald Reagan was buoyed by the international gusts then prevailing. That is to say, there was still a lot of anger and resentment over the US defeat suffered in Indochina in April 1975, with the defeat in the Vietnam War. There was significant support in this country not only for the Cold War but for the underlying premises of the Cold War, which was supposedly the idea that government was taking too strong a role in the economy, as represented by the most diabolical view of socialism. That helped to propel a counterattack against government-sponsored programs, against the social safety net.

Keep in mind as well that for many in Dixie it was the federal government in Washington, D.C. that pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As President Johnson acknowledged at the time, this would cause many white voters in Dixie to defect from the Democratic Party, which they promptly did-

PAUL JAY: These are the Reagan Democrats.

GERALD HORNE: Not only that, but many of them switched en masse from the Democratic Party to voting for the GOP. Then, of course, you have this major third-party movement led by Governor George Wallace of Alabama, which got double digits with regard to a race for the presidency in 1968. I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the depth and persistence of mass opposition to anti-Jim Crow measures.

PAUL JAY: This creates the conditions for Reagan. Let me add one thing to that. It’s also the time of the real expansion of globalization and the ability of companies to offshore production and really undermine the strength of American workers.

GERALD HORNE: Clearly. This is the era, for example, when US relations with apartheid South Africa are tightening. Keep in mind that apartheid South Africa had plants from General Motors and from Ford in Port Elizabeth, South Africa on the Indian Ocean coast. This is also the era, that is to say in 1971, when President Richard M. Nixon brokers this entente with China, which leads to runaway plants from the United States to low-wage havens in China, which of course has now backfired and created this juggernaut with consequences that are rather now still difficult to estimate. Certainly, US workers were whipsawed during the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, not only by these runaway shops that I’ve already made reference to, but for a certain class of white workers in Dixie, they felt that they were being subjected to unfair competition from Black workers who were being backed by the federal government in terms of their own struggle against Jim Crow measures.

PAUL JAY: Okay. In part two of this series with Gerald, I think it’s part five in terms of the overall series, the next one will be six, I guess. I’m getting mixed up on the parts, but I think this one’s five and the next one’s six of Undoing the New Deal. We’re going to continue discussion of what happens with Reagan but we’re going to relatively quickly get to Bill Clinton’s role in undoing the New Deal. So, please join us for the continuation of this series on The Real News Network.

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